The plan was to fly to Northwest Arkansas Saturday morning to attend a Taekwondo tournament, have dinner with our friend Tasha that evening, and then head back to Little Rock on Sunday.
On the trip over, Steve talked about different scenarios if we had an emergency. He discussed how long he could glide without an engine, and as we traveled across the wooded mountains he would point out roads or forest trails that he would aim for if we lost power. If you know Steve, you know that he can get very focused on a particular topic and if he thinks it’s important, he is going to impart that information into your head if you like it or not. The subject of airplane safety is very near and dear to his heart, so I’d heard all of this before. To tell the truth, I really didn’t listen to him very closely. I just nodded my head and said “uh huh” a lot. My eyes were probably slightly glazed over. I did however, look down several times and think about how very isolated much of Arkansas is. We flew for miles without seeing a single road or house, just acres and acres of heavily wooded rugged terrain.
Steve has been a pilot for over thirty years, and is very safety conscious. He is meticulous about keeping his plane serviced, and is just as meticulous about keeping his skills honed. I’ve been with him when he has practiced stalls and emergency landings; he has talked me through the process many times. But this subject was one of those things that I filed in my head under It Will Never Happen.
Everything was fine on the trip over. Everything was fine on the trip back. Everything was fine until about ten minutes from home.
We were coming into the Little Rock area where we had to talk to Traffic Control to vector into our home airport at North Little Rock. Steve had radioed, they told him to keep flying at a certain level. We got to a point where Steve decided to radio again, because he thought they had forgotten about us and we were going to miss our opportunity to land at North Little Rock and would have to go around.
Traffic Control told us to go ahead and start our descent. We turned towards N. Little Rock and Steve started doing his thing. I had our digital video camera and had been playing with it at the tournament. I’d filmed our take off from NW Arkansas and was going to film our return to N. Little Rock. So I started filming.
The N. Little Rock airstrip was in sight. We were in a steeper than normal descent when I heard a noise. I’d flown with Steve enough to know that that was not a normal noise. Then the noise got louder. A lot louder. I’d been lectured enough about the need for quiet during the landing procedure that I was hesitant to say anything. I just looked at Steve. He stayed focused on the controls but said “Michelle that is not a good noise.”
I didn’t say anything. My stomach dropped.
Here are the thoughts that went racing through my head:
“We might die”
“If I’m going to die, I’m glad I’ll be with Steve”.
“I don’t want to die, I want to see Keely grow up”
“I’m glad all the important people in my life know that I love them”
“I’m going to record all of this in case we crash. Maybe the recording can be like a black box”
“Should I turn the camera on myself and tell my family that I love them?”
“Steve knows what he is doing. If there is anyone in the world I would want to be with right now in this situation, it is Steve”
“Steve doesn’t want to die either”
That’s pretty much what my though process was. I was actually pretty calm. I filmed the cockpit instruments and what Steve was doing. He was very focused . All I could do to help was be quiet and not distract him. By now the engine was really making a racket and we were coming up to the runway.
We made a perfect landing. Steve immediately shut the engine off and said “I think we just lost our engine”. He called for a taxi, and they pulled the plane to the hanger.
We later found out that we had experienced a catastrophic engine failure. When the engine was rebuilt several years before, the company (which took bankruptcy) evidently rebuilt part of the engine with used parts. Those small parts inside the engine failed, and the engine literally came apart while we were coming in to land.
If the engine had come apart an hour earlier, we would have been in heavily wooded mountains with no roads or clearings.
There are a lot of scary “if’s”. But we were lucky, the engine failure happened right as we were coming in to land. Steve knew what to do and did it very well. We landed with no damage to the plane, and we both walked away.
Steve’s explanation of what happened:
We were flying into North Little Rock (KORK) from North West Arkansas. The flight had taken us over the Ozark Mountains, which are heavily wooded with steep terrain. North Little Rock (KORK) is located 6 nautical miles north of Adams Field (LIT) the main commercial airport in Little Rock. North Little Rock is a smaller general aviation (GA) field located inside the LIT Class D airspace and is adjacent to a restricted area to the north and Little Rock Air force base (KLRF) to the north. KLRF is a C130 training base and sees heavy military traffic at times and that combined with LITs normal commercial airline traffic means that the approach from the west is usually done by contacting LIT approach and expecting vectors for traffic.
Air traffic control can be busy handling the departing airlines and the military traffic plus any helicopter and other traffic maneuvering over the restricted area to the north. For non-pilots this means that with a typical piston General Aviation plane like my Cessna Cardinal RG you don’t just point the front end toward the ground and go down at whatever speeds you desire. There are restrictions on max speeds (never exceed), flap extension speeds, and gear extensions speeds. The plane will descend at different rates depending on your configuration but 500 feet per minute is typical with no flaps in the Cardinal. You want to enter the pattern to land at a reasonable speed because you are busy looking for local traffic and it’s not unusual in the area to see GA traffic all around plus a mix of jet and military traffic.
Kind of busy so I prefer a sterile cockpit and Michelle has her head on a swivel checking for traffic. On this particular day we did get vectors to the southeast for jet traffic departing LIT and were held at our cruise altitude of 5500 feet mean sea level (MSL) or in that area about 5000 above ground level (AGL). Pattern altitude at KORK is 1500 MSL so I needed to be at 1500 MSL about 3 miles from the airport to slow down, extend the flaps and gear and then today enter the pattern using right traffic for 17. That means I would be flying the approach on the west side of the runway, make a right turn to the east on the base leg and then another right turn to the south on final. Bottom line we needed to lose 3500 feet and at 500 fpm and a ground speed of 140 knots you can plan on 2 to 3 minutes per 1000 feet of altitude or for us say 10 minutes out we needed to set up a 500 feet descent and that equates to 20 miles out.
The nice thing about modern GPS units for planes is that a lot of these calculations are done for you but most pilots are going to think it through in the case the GPS fails in busy airspace and you end up navigating looking at a chart and the ground. Flying along and waiting for LIT to clear us back on course and to descend it became apparent that they were busy and had lost track of our intended destination. So a polite “approach we’d take another vector if a descent is possible” got a thoughtful moment of silence and then “Cardinal niner one hotel cleared direct North Little Rock descent at your discretion.”
I am way too high so throttle back and wait for the flap extension speed lower flaps, wait for gear extension speed and lower the gear. This sets me up for a 700 feet descend rate with the speed at 120 mph. That gets us down quick. About 3 miles from the airport I push the throttle back to pattern setting and then I hear a hell of a lot of noise and the front end started shaking so bad it felt like the engine was going to separate from the plane . I thought “oh shit we just lost the engine.” Out of the corner of my eye I noticed Michelle looking at me. I said “that is not a good noise”. I powered back the engine, it was still running at idle but very rough. I thought I could maybe get a burst of power if needed. I was going through the emergency checklist mentally, checking the runway “yep should make it if I keep it very tight”. Flew a normal engine out emergency landing approach and rolled off the runway. No oil pressure, no engine. Nice smooth landing so all that needed to be repaired was the engine.
So that was our near death experience. The engine was repaired and brought to Colorado. I’m just as comfortable as I ever was flying with Steve. Maybe more comfortable, because I know how calm and focused he is if something goes wrong. Catastrophic engine failure is fairly rare, so I figure we have only smooth flying ahead of us now.