Engine Out At 6,500 Feet

Grumman Yankee – Wikipedia Commons

There’s an old adage among pilots: the propeller isn’t really there to make the plane fly, it’s just a fan to keep the pilot cool.  Because if it stops spinning, you’ll really watch him sweat.

I can say from first hand experience there’s some truth to that.

I must have been bored in the late ’80’s.  Folks who’ve been following this blog know I took up SCUBA diving in 1988, but the year before I’d taken up flying too. I let nothing stop me from pursuing the heights and depths of life.

Learning to fly was a bucket list item I can blame on my Uncle Bud back in Minnesota. I don’t know where he got the bug, but by the time I hit age 12 he owned or co-owned three planes: a Cessna 195 on pontoons, a Piper Super Cub, and a bi-winged Steerman. The Cessna was mostly for fun, but the other two were used for crop dusting.

All pilots are a little crazy, but crop dusters must have an extra dose.  I remember one afternoon when I was 16, working on a farm with my brother when Bud came buzzing by and demonstrated those flying skills. First he made a low and slow pass, checking out the ground conditions.  Then, at the end of the field run he pulled a steep turn; set the plane on its ear, spun it around 180 degrees, and leveled out, all about 15 yards above the ground. Just to land and say howdy.

So, when we went to visit the cousins and Bud was around, we’d always bug him for rides. Usually when we succeeded we went up in the Cessna, taking off from a river he had it moored in.  Those experiences gave me the flying bug too; it was just a question of time.

I learned to fly in Oregon; it’s a picturesque place to fly.  The Willamette Valley sits between two mountain ranges: the Cascades running down the center of the state and the coastals running parallel to the Pacific. From here we can fly up or down the valley, over to the coast to fly along the beach, up the Columbia Gorge, or over to Mt. St. Helens to check out the volcanic dome, or Mt. Hood, or Mt. Jefferson, or the dry country east of the Cascades, or wherever the urge takes us. Unlike cars, we’re not limited to roads, you get a feeling of freedom to just tooling along. You want to climb, or dive, or cut a turn?  Go for it (with precautions and controlled airspace considered, of course).

One fine day I opted to make a run to the coast. I rented a Grumman Yankee (pictured above), as it’s a sporty little plane, and the canopy gives it a good view and a Top Gun coolness factor.

All planes store their fuel in their wings. On the Grumman, there was a selector lever that allowed you to pick which tank the fuel was being fed from.  After flying about 30 minutes or so it felt like the balance of the plane was getting a little off, so I decided to switch tanks.

My experience with tank selection levers was limited. The majority of my flight time had been in Cessna 150’s.  They don’t have a tank selection switch, it always drains from both tanks.   I’d also flown Cessna 172’s, the 150’s four seat bigger brother.  The 172 does have a fuel selector, with the option of picking the left tank, right tank, or by setting the selection lever to the mid point, both tanks.  Going on my 172 experience, I set the Grumman’s fuel selector to the mid point.

Thumpa thumpa thumpa silence.  The engine died.  Nothing but wind noise to keep me company. The prop, no longer a noisy blur, did a bit of gentle windmilling.

Suddenly that canopy that looked so cool was more like a greenhouse. Without my friendly fan up front whizzing away I, like the proverbial pilot, broke into a sweat.  At least it was a cold sweat.

Pilots are trained to look for emergency landing places when the engine dies – farmers fields, highways, whatever will serve. By this time my headway had already taken me over the coastal mountain range.  All trees.  No level spots. No highways in sight. The Grumman has short, stubby wings, and although that lets it turn on a dime, it also has the glide ratio of a brick. Oh shit.

The next thing was to figure out what went wrong, and the fuel selection position was a prime candidate. I switched it to the left tank.

Sputter sputter brrroooom!! The engine started up again, the fan did it’s thing, and the pilot stopped sweating.


The years flew by, but I didn’t; I stopped flying in 2001. It’s a very expensive hobby, and I wasn’t flying often enough to even justify what I was paying for insurance. But it wasn’t for lack of interest.  Even now, on a clear summer day when local pilots fly their little two seaters overhead, I always look up and follow them by, wistfully wishing I was up there, and remembering what it felt like to be on top of the world.


30 thoughts on “Engine Out At 6,500 Feet

  1. “There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.” Your switch selection reminds me of what I did on my Honda motorcycle a couple of summers ago. (If you haven’t read it already, go look in The Peripatetic Traveler for “The Tale of the Draggin'” in July, 2014. I think you’ll relate. 🙂 )

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I grew up in Puerto Rico and we used to take sea planes to St. Thomas. One time we were flying along in the mad noise of a small prop plane and suddenly SILENCE. It lasted a very long moment as the pilot switched his gas tanks and then NOISE.

    My mom spent the better part of our shopping trip trying to talk my father into taking the ferry home. I was young but that silence is still so clear in my memory. Seared in by fear and then relief.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, that was one of my favorite runs. First east to Mt. Hood, then north to the gorge, then west down the gorge. The view was spectacular. The gorge can be a pretty good wind tunnel though, I remember some interesting bumps.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. A couple years after I got my license and went back to Minnesota to visit the folks, I thought it’d be cool to give some rides to friends and family. So, I went to get checked out at the local airport (imagine having to take a drivers test every time you rent a car in a new location). During the checkride, the instructor had me do steep turns, and noticed I was using the artificial horizon on the attitude indicator rather than lining up the actual horizon line with a spot on the cowling. I told him I was more precise on instruments because where I flew, the horizon wasn’t a nice straight line like in was in Minnesota, it tended to zig-zag.

      Maybe cars should have attitude indicators too, so if you can tell if they’re feeling up or down.


  3. Even if you don’t fly now, I imagine it’s the kind of skill you never really forget. I must say, as hobbies go, learning being able to fly is definitely at the cooler end of the scale. I used to have a rock collection. 🙂

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  4. Good story! I have a love-hate, exhilaration-fear relationship with flying. I love traveling, so flying is something I’ve done a lot of. I have a fascination with planes and aerodynamics and just soaring over the earth, but I also have fears about planes. A few years ago, I flew in and out of what’s billed as the world’s most dangerous airport (Lukla, in Nepal – I posted about it once!), and the pilot had to deliberately kill the engine as we landed in order to get the plane stopped on the short, uphill runway. I thought my heart would stop along with that engine!

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  5. I have a love/hate relationship with flying, and that’s strictly as a passenger! I love the views and the feeling of freedom, but I’m also always a bit scared, especially when we hit turbulence or I think the engine is making a funny sound. You are much braver than I am to pilot a plane!

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    1. It actually helps a bit with the fear if you’re pilot in command, as you have more of a sense of control over the situation, and more awareness of what to expect. But sometimes turbulence makes me nervous too.

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  6. Pop was a pilot through the 60s and 70s. We shared ownership of a long succession of Cessna’s, Mooneys, etc. with other professors at the university, splitting expenses and repairs. Dad flew it to departmental conventions all over and once a year we all piled in and tried to survive sitting in a cramped Cessna Skyhawk from Iowa to Florida to see the grandparents.

    The heavy smell of formaldehyde in that damned airline upholstery made me violently sick the whole way but I loved the flying part later when I actually got to control the yoke. These days, I stop whatever I’m doing and get a fix on the F15s blasting over my house in Portland. You’ve heard ’em. They’re awesome.

    If you haven’t read the book Cockpit Confidential, go get it immediately. It’s both informative and hilarious. http://www.amazon.com/Cockpit-Confidential-Everything-Questions-Reflections/dp/1402280912

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yep. Saw/heard a couple fighter jets taking off just this morning – they get up there in a hurry. Cool you got to grow up with small airplanes, it’s a whole different experience than the airlines. That book looks interesting, I just put a hold on it at the library.


  7. Pingback: Capsized! – Plying Through Life

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