On Monday, September 9, 2013, I experienced a total loss of power when flying my Cessna 172. I had just executed a touch and go on Long Beach (KLGB) runway 25L and was climbing out, when the engine sputtered and went quiet. At the time, I was near the departure end of the runway around 100′ – 200′ AGL. To give you the most important part of the story, I came out unscathed, but my airplane did not.
I departed late that morning from El Monte (EMT) for a bit of airport hopping, landing at Agua Dulce (L70), Whiteman (WHP), Burbank (BUR), Van Nuys (VNY), Santa Monica (SMO), Compton (CPM), Hawthorne (HHR), Torrance (TOA), and Long Beach (LGB). I had intended to continue on to John Wayne (SNA) and then back to EMT. There had been nothing in the preflight or nearly 2 hours of flying prior to the power loss at LGB that, even in hindsight, led me to believe there might be a problem with my engine.
Runway 25L at Long Beach has a usable landing distance of a little under 4000′. My landing, acceleration, and initial climb were normal on my touch and go. I remember looking to the right and seeing the C-17 (that’s where they are built), so that gives me a basic idea of where I was just before the engine quit. The engine made a short sputter (~1 second) and went very quiet.
I’ve read many accounts of pilots that the first reaction is of disbelief… “this really can’t be happening”. I can confirm that was true in my case, but training took over to immediately lower the nose. I’ve also heard that the desire to get back to the runway is powerful – that “if I land on a runway, I and my plane will be ok”. That’s the truly dangerous goal. It took a second to confirm what I already knew – the only option was in front of me. I confirmed the standard checklist of fuel, mixture, carb heat and magnetos to no avail while aiming slightly to the left to avoid some parked equipment and larger piles of dirt and/or rocks. I transmitted a hasty “engine out” to tower a few seconds before touch down.
The time from loss of power, until I was on the ground was about 15 seconds. My first touchdown was nose high in an area of rocks, dirt and scrub just before a shallow ravine. It became obvious that an attempt at a normal roll out would have me going over an embankment that leads to the 405. I was successful in getting stopped prior to the 405 embankment, but in doing so the nose gear and right main gear were sheared off the airplane and the right wing tip and one prop tip impacted the ground.
In the final impact, the ELT was set off, my glasses and headset came off, and much of the contents of the plane ended up well forward of where they had previously been. I did a quick inventory to see that I was unhurt, transmitted on tower that I was ok, noted that I smelled no fuel, found my glasses on the floor, exited the airplane and turned off the master switch and mags. Emergency personnel were on scene within about 2 minutes. It’s a testament to the strength of strutted Cessnas like the 172 that I came out of the incident completely unscathed and that the door opened normally after I came to a stop.
After the incident
Something like this really gets the adrenalin pumping and my memory of all the events afterwards is a bit hazy. While I was physically unhurt, I was clearly not operating at peak efficiency after the incident. First on scene were the firefighters/emergency personnel in large yellow trucks and their silver suits. As I was walking around and seeming normal, I guess they accepted I was unhurt (in hindsight, I’m a little surprised they didn’t put me through some of the normal checks anyway). The firemen helped confirm the scene was safe and I turned off the fuel selector and pulled the mixture lean with one of the firemen watching. Since it was safe, I pulled a few more personal items out of the aircraft (flight bag, camera, headset, cell phone). I sent a short message to my wife and posted a picture on Facebook, saying I was ok. I know that news can travel fast and was worried that friends and family might get a news report of an airplane “crash” and see my tail number and didn’t want them to worry needlessly.
Soon thereafter several police officers (I think the LGB airport police) and airport operations personnel showed up. One of the police officers asked for my photo ID, pilot’s certificate and medical. I retrieved them and handed them over to the officer who requested them. At this point things were starting to get chaotic and I don’t completely trust my memory of the sequence of events. I remember seeing my medical go flying off the hood of the police cruiser (I retrieved and secured it under something heavy). Everyone seemed to want my account of what happened, though with no coordination or clear idea of who was in charge.
I was vaguely aware during this time that there were not airplanes going directly overhead. In reviewing the LiveATC archive, I learned that there were two aircraft on approach to 25L after me. Tower called a go around for the first and vectored both to different runways. I don’t know exactly how long the runway was closed, but they did resume normal operations during the chaos.
Sometime after, two LGB FAA FSDO personnel showed up. One stuck his head in the airplane and flipped on the power, noting that the right fuel gauge showed empty. His first words were “you ran out of fuel”. I replied that I had not and told him to dip the tanks if he doubted me – upon removing fuel caps, he could already visually confirm there was fuel [good to be vindicated that I had not done “stupid pilot trick #1”].
Another group of police officers (city police not from the airport?) showed up during the chaos and I remember one of the new group of police officers asking for my documents and being miffed that “someone else” had them. I remember that not long after that the FAA personnel had my documents and at this point one of them asked me for my pilot certificate… in my state, I had handed the police my instructor certificate, not my pilot’s certificate. I’m not surprised that the police wouldn’t know the difference – they look nearly identical. The FAA knew the difference and I produced the right certificate.
During this time, I tried to call AOPA insurance to get the claims process going. Between the noise, their phone tree, being put on hold, and constant barrage of questions, it took several attempts to finally get through and give information on the incident. The operations personnel at this point were pushing to get my airplane moved from its current position. A local shop was consulted to see if they could help, but that didn’t pan out. Eventually, a large crane was ordered (after I confirmed that insurance would cover it) and I was finally allowed to leave the scene and be taken to a nearby FBO where I could sit out of the sun, use the restroom and try to make a few calls in relative quiet, while we waited for the crane to arrive. I arranged for my wife to come pick me up at that FBO.
The crane did arrive. I had hoped/expected that this was a process where someone else knew what they were doing. While everyone had opinions, there was no clear procedure in place. We eventually positioned the crane, got a couple of large straps under the fuselage, lifted the airplane and rolled slowly to a nearby paved area while a couple of us stabilized the airplane by rope and hand. While the airplane was suspended, the FAA personnel retrieved fuel samples from both wing tanks and the fuel drain – all looked normal and blue. A few pallets were found to put under the nose of the airplane and a concrete block to stabilize under the right strut. My wife arrived on the 405 about the time the airplane was being lifted and was visible from the 405, making quite a spectacle (and some traffic). She came back out to the plane with me and we retrieved a few more personal items before leaving the airport. It was approximately 4 hours after my incident.
This has been a hard post to write. I still don’t know the cause of the loss of power and I’m mindful that pilots have died in similar circumstances. I’ve owned 2EP for over 9 years and had many great trips. The incident feels a bit like an old friend turning on you, but also possibly losing that friend. As I write this, I don’t know whether insurance will total the plane or pay to have her repaired, though totaling is looking most likely.
I took one day off from flying, but went back out to Long Beach two days after the incident. I’ve now resumed my normal flight training schedule.
I will spend more time in later posts on what to take away from all of this and how to prepare, but let me end with a couple of items. I’ve heard before that if you arrive on the ground under control in a small aircraft, you have a good chance of survival. I did that – I didn’t stall and I didn’t dive at the ground. I aimed for and made a relatively safe area that didn’t endanger anyone else. I hadn’t made the most common mistakes that cause engine stoppage – fuel starvation or contamination. Those basics will keep you in good stead.
After several months of delays (mostly the NTSB backlog compounded by the Federal sequestration), the NTSB did examine my airplane. Even prior to that, insurance had decided it was totaled, but insurance wouldn’t pay until the NTSB released the airplane. I was not allowed to be at the examination of my airplane. Months afterwards, the NTSB did release a probably cause. You can read the NTSB narrative.