On rare occasions the simulated engine out becomes real; it happened to me some 27 years ago. I was a navigator in the US Air Force and assigned to Ramey AFB Puerto Rico. Ramey was located on the northwest corner of the island and out of the way of just about everything. We had our amusements, though; one was the Air Force Aero Club. Since there wasn’t a lot to do on off duty time – if you didn’t golf – quite a number of the base population were members of the aero club. If was a large, well equipped club, with several Piper 140s and 180s. In addition, for a fee, military folks who owned their own aircraft could hangar them in the aero club hangar. Although I was a navigator and flew as a crew member the KC-135A Strato-Tanker regularly, I wanted to obtain a private pilot’s license, and the Ramey Aero Club was the way to do it.
I had done everything I needed to do to get my private pilot’s ticket except pass an FAA flight check. I was coming up on that, so my instructor suggested we go through a simulated flight check so I would be all pooped up for the real thing. My instructor, by the way, was a copilot in the squadron I was assigned to. He was a competent pilot and a good instructor – and he loved to fly. We started out on a gloriously sunny Saturday afternoon in a late tropical winter. The plan was take the Piper 140 out to the practice area south of Ramey AFB to get me ready for my flight check.
You have to appreciate the topography of the island of Puerto Rico. The island is roughly rectangular, some 90 miles by 30 miles in size, and it has a mountainous backbone. The backbone is rugged limestone karst. The rather famous Arecibo Radio Telescope is located in a depression in the karst, just a few miles east of Ramey. The land flattens out as it comes down to the sea, but there are fingers of rugged country that also reach down toward the sea. It was the case that we had to fly over one of those rugged fingers – a ridge – to get down to our practice area. The practice area itself was a flat alluvial plain that was mostly sugar cane fields. Smack in the middle of one of the sugar cane fields was a postage stamp sized landing strip. All of the instructors repeatedly reminded us that if we had a problem and had to make an emergency landing, that was the emergency strip of choice. The little emergency strip was not without its drawbacks, though. For most of the year it was surrounded by sugar cane – which grows to be ten or more feet high; and when I say that it was surrounded by sugar cane I mean that there was this tiny slash in a green expanse of tall sugar cane and nothing more. The little strip had another problem too: after the sugar cane had been harvested, it became very difficult to see. On this Saturday, however, the sugar cane was high and green and the little strip stood out clearly.
We hadn’t quite gotten to the practice area when he did it; in fact, we were just short of crossing the rugged finger of the Puerto Rican backbone that separated Ramey from the practice area. My instructor pulled the Piper’s throttle and told me to simulate an engine out procedure. I had completely forgotten about the little emergency strip, just over the ridge ahead of us, so I tried to pick out enough flat land in the rugged terrain below in order to do a passable emergency approach. After a couple of spirals downward and a botched attempt at setting up an approach, I told the instructor I had messed the whole thing up and wanted to try again. I push up the throttle to resume my climb and cruise to our practice area. I went to full throttle, but the engine barely responded. I pulled the throttle to idle and again went to full power; again, the engine barely responded to my throttle inputs. We definitely weren’t climbing – in fact, we were in a shallow descent – but we had enough altitude to clear the ridge and proceed toward the flatter terrain south of the ridge. I didn’t have to tell the instructor what was happening, but I did anyway. I also did a check of the cockpit panel configuration to see if something was incorrectly set. After two or three checks, I convinced myself – and the instructor – that a miss-set panel was not our problem.
As we cleared the ridge and the terrain dropped away, I saw the green expanse of the sugar cane fields, and right below us, a road that paralleled the bottom of the ridge. The road looked inviting as a potential emergency landing strip; an emergency landing looked imminent. The instructor had taken over control of the aircraft, and he was no more successful than I had been in restoring full power. We slowly sank toward the tree-lined road. Then the instructor declared that we were going to use the little cane field emergency strip to our south. I was still oblivious of the fact that it was so close by, but when the instructor pointed it out, it clearly looked better than the “land on a tree-lined road” option.
Quickly, the instructor told me what the procedure would be: he would fly the plane over to the cane field emergency strip; I would be standing by to lower full flaps at his command; as soon as we were on the ground, I would raise the flaps and get on the brakes with him. As I said, the little cane field emergency strip was short, narrow, and surrounded by tall sugar cane. So, down we came, the engine throttle still at the full power position, and lined up on small clear patch ahead now ahead of us. It looked incredibly small, but we were now committed to a landing. We had more than enough altitude to make the strip, so this was going to have to be a short-field landing over an obstacle. As soon as we had the strip made, the instructor called for full flaps and pushed the Piper’s nose over; at the same time he pulled back the throttle since we weren’t sure what the engine would do next. Almost instantly, we had full flaps, and the extra drag slowed us down even as we dived toward the strip. It was like descending into a green tunnel as we touched down on the incredibly smooth little strip; a green wall of sugar cane rushed toward us. I raise the flaps and got on the brakes in one fluid motion; without the flaps providing lift, we were focusing more of the aircraft’s weight on the ground. With a few yards to spare, we came to a halt – unhurt and undamaged – in that little tunnel in the sugar cane. The instructor turned the aircraft around and made several more attempts to get power out of the engine. The engine just wouldn’t respond much. Finally, I shut the engine down and we got out to secure the aircraft.
We had just finished securing the Piper and were pondering how we were going to get back to Ramey when a car with two Puerto Rican men in it raced onto the far end to the strip. Obviously, there was a path between the road we had over flown on our descent and the strip we were standing on now. The Puerto Ricans had seen our descent and landing into the cane field. Fearing the worst, they had rushed to see what they could do. We thanked them for showing up and asked if we could get a ride back to Ramey AFB, which was several miles to the north. They agreed to take us to the base, and we were quickly on our way up the main four-lane coastal highway that lay just to the west of the cane fields. As we turned off the main highway and onto the road that lead to Ramey, we saw my crew commander, also turning onto the road toward Ramey; he had his family with him. We asked the two Puerto Rican men to flag him down, which they did with great gusto. When my boss stopped, we explained what had happened. We again thanked the two very helpful Puerto Rican men for their assistance, and rode the rest of the way back to the aero club hangar with my boss and his family.
Back at the aero club hangar, we contacted the aero club manager to tell him what had happened. Even though it was getting late in the day, he wanted to take a mechanic and go down to the aircraft and get it out of the cane field. He didn’t want to leave it there over night. So, back down the coastal highway we went, and finally, to the cane field strip where the Piper sat. The mechanic did a check of the engine compartment. Finding nothing out of place, he got in and started the engine. He ran the engine up and immediately got full power out of it. He ran the throttle up and down several more times; he got full power every time. The instructor and I assured him that we hadn’t imagined our experience an hour or so before, so the mechanic shut down the engine and gave the engine a more thorough inspection. He could find nothing unusual. Finally, the aero club manager flew the Piper out of the cane field and back to Ramey for the night.
The next day the Piper repeated its unresponsive engine performance, but this time in the traffic pattern at Ramey. With a couple of miles of two-hundred foot wide concrete runway available, it was no problem getting the aircraft safely back on the ground. This time the mechanics did a tear-down on the front end of the Piper. I was told they found a throttle linkage that was slipping.
In retrospect, we were lucky that Saturday afternoon. First, we had enough altitude to make it over the ridge, and ultimately, make it safely to the emergency strip. Second, the instructor was much more conditioned than I to the prospect of having an emergency condition and what to do about it. I had completely forgotten about the little emergency airstrip – even though I was less than two miles from it when our problems began. Third, if I had pressed trying to salvage that simulated emergency approach a little longer, we wouldn’t have had the altitude to make it over the ridge and an ultimate safe landing.
I was complacent, and complacency might have killed me, had I been by myself. I’ve made other mistakes in my flying career, both as a navigator and as a pilot, and I’ve been lucky enough to have lived and learned from them. May everyone have the same experience.
Gerald P Hanner