By Chad Mackay, El Gaucho Hospitality President and COO
I’ve always loved to fly. I grew up in a family of pilots – my dad was a bush pilot in Alaska and his brother, my uncle Don, retired as a 747 pilot. They built kit planes growing up, and I inherited that same fascination with flying. It was on September 11, 2001 that I decided to go for a pilot’s license myself. After reading a Puget Sound Business Journal article on the devastating impact that 9/11 had on the small plane industry, I determined it was as good of a time as any. With my wife’s blessing, of course, I started training, and have been flying ever since, logging nearly 500 hours around the Pacific Northwest in my single engine, Cherokee Piper. I have flown my family as far south as Napa, north to Vancouver Island, east to Sun Valley, Idaho as well as to Nehalem Bay, Oregon.
On September 2nd, I took off from Boeing Field with a friend from our neighborhood. We were flying to Orcas Island to collect our boys from Camp Orkila. It was a partly sunny day and the conditions kept getting better as we approached the San Juans – sunny, blue skies.
We landed at Orcas to greet our boys, pack them up, and just 20 minutes later we departed for our return back to Seattle.
We climbed to 3800 feet based on our altitude assignment, and were steadily cruising when an engine noise and vibration caught my attention.
I pulled off my right headset to listen and the engine began to shutter. The right windshield began to collect a small amount of oil spray. I pulled back on throttle to idle the engine. I declared an emergency with Whidbey Air Traffic Control.
When an emergency is declared in an airspace, it sets off a set of protocols, most of which means that the pilot has complete command and authorization in that airspace to do whatever is necessary to land safely, which includes the assets of air traffic control, the air space, and in this case, the military.
I saw the Coupeville Remote Navy airstrip was just to my right and in safe gliding distance. I cut the engine and prepared for an emergency landing, turning off the fuel pump to reduce oil and other potentially flammable fluids from leaking further. Let me point out that landing at a military air base is a felony offense, unless an emergency is declared.
We spent the next four minutes gliding to the airstrip. It was eerily quiet since there was no engine and the plane was now acting as a glider. You might imagine how long those four minutes actually felt! After about a minute in, I turned to my passengers and let them know that there was no issue getting to the airport, that we would land and be safe, and then joked, “Well this has never happened before!” to try to bring some levity to the situation and let them know we were going to be fine.
During my preflight briefings, especially with new passengers, we always cover safety procedures, and go over what’s in the cockpit as far as instruments, gauges, etc. I also tell them that in the case of an emergency, I need them to do two things: don’t touch me or anything else, and be quiet. If I need them to do something, I will direct them.
My crew performed this perfectly. Up to this point, none of my passengers had said anything.
As if all of this wasn’t enough to handle, Whidbey Traffic Control informed me that there could be training equipment on the airstrip and to be aware. I scanned the field and, luckily, did not see anything that was in my way or appeared to be a danger to us.
In order to lose enough altitude to land, I took maneuvering turns to set up for a landing, as I had been taught in training. Once airstrip landing was assured, I turned off all power to reduce the chance of a fire. The propeller stopped spinning when we hit 60 knots.
Fortunately, we landed without incident. We pulled to the side of the runway, deplaned and, after ensuring there was no fire, promptly unloaded baggage and disconnected the battery.
After calling Whidbey Traffic Control to report that we were safe, they let me know that civilian and military fire and rescue were on their way. I could already hear the sirens.
The next call was to my wife, Jenny, to let her know that we were safe but wouldn’t be home on time.
The civilian crew arrived first and checked to make sure we were safe, with the military crew arriving shortly behind.
After answering security questions and giving my reason for landing at the military airstrip, we decided to pull off the engine cowling to inspect. The picture gives a clear reason why the engine failed: there was a 3” hole in the engine case. It appeared that the engine threw a rod, which means the metal arm holding the piston sheared and poked a hole through the cast aluminum engine case. Imagine the force it took to create a hole that size in the engine! There was no other damage that we could tell – just thoroughly covered in oil.
We pulled the plane off the runway to a place where it could sit for a month or so until the engine could be replaced.
The Navy and civilian forces were incredibly helpful and professional. It took a couple of hours to clear security, get the base commander’s approval to leave the plane, and for our release.
A young Navy Seaman drove us to the Clinton ferry terminal and we walked right on. My passenger’s wife/mom picked us up, and I don’t think any of us have ever been happier to be home.
I credit our safe landing and emergency handling to the excellent flight training, the additional training that is required every two years, and the stories and videos that the AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association) publishes in their magazine and on their website.
That kind of training and reinforcement is what keeps our pilot community professional. I know of two families who are grateful for the extensive training required to become, and continue to be, a pilot.