Anyone who’s taken more than a couple of flying lessons has been exposed to simulated failure of a single-engine airplane’s powerplant. For ab initio students, the first engine-out drill often is a demonstration that the airplane won’t fall out of the sky and that the situation can be managed to successfully get on the ground and walk away, even if you can’t use that particular airplane again anytime soon. As pilots gain more experience, certificates and ratings, the engine-out drill takes on much greater significance, and can even make or break a checkride or flight review. Pardon the pun, but that goes double for multi-engine airplanes.
Unfortunately, pilots often don’t take the drill seriously—I know I’ve been guilty of that—which ends up diluting its value as a training exercise in several ways. In fact, the engine-out drill has greater significance than many pilots acknowledge: It’s an important test of muscle memory, of recalling so-called bold-faced checklist items, of judgment and of airplane control. And depending on how and when your instructor initiates the drill, it may be completely worthless. That’s important, since the purpose of an engine-out drill is to practice what’s necessary to restart it and find a place to land if you can’t.
The first time my primary instructor pulled off the power and announced the engine had just failed, he walked me through the various steps I needed to take without using the checklist. As we descended at the Cessna 150’s best glide speed, he casually indicated a nearby field and told me to aim for it. He demonstrated the need to fly at the correct airspeed by slowing and accelerating while pointing out the vertical speed changes, and explained why we were clearing the engine to ensure it could make power if we ended up needing it.
About the time I was ready to add power and go around, he took the controls, added flaps, did a flow check confirming we were ready to land and put the airplane down on a grassy field. As we rolled out, I noticed a windsock off to one side—we had landed on a private turf runway my instructor had permission to use. That was my first revelation about engine-out drills—that there’s often a runway close enough to reach if you look for it.
Years later, I was checking out in a rental Cessna 172N Skyhawk. At that time, I probably had 100 hours or so in 172s, a fresh instrument rating and something of an attitude. I don’t remember all the details of what that instructor asked of me on the flight, but at one point the engine lost power and he announced an engine-out drill. I went through (most of) the memory items—mag switch on “Both,” throttle full, mixture rich, carb heat on. I didn’t bother to check the fuel selector, because who’d be crazy enough to shut off the fuel at 2500 feet over the Chesapeake Bay at night? The engine did not regain power. “Okay,” I said to the instructor in the right seat, “what did you do?” He reached down to the fuel selector and turned it from the “Off” position back to “Both.” The engine came back to life and I readjusted the power settings.
The lesson he wanted me to learn was to include the fuel selector in the immediate action items when the engine fails to produce power. I got the message, but I resolved not to fly with that instructor again, and haven’t.
That episode highlighted for me one of the problems of the engine-out drill. For one, real-world engine failures rarely involve the powerplant suddenly stopping for no reason. If it does, it’s usually a result of something the pilot did or didn’t do, like forgetting to switch tanks, or switching to one filled with air. Instead, real-world engine failures often are more gradual, providing lots of warning to the pilot. Even more common are partial failures, where it’s obvious something’s wrong, but the engine is still producing some power. The engine-out drill is, however, an important skill, so there are certain rules involving training for it and demonstrating it to your examiner. The sidebar above has some highlights.
Another problem with the engine-out drill is that it rarely results in an actual off-airport landing, for obvious reasons. My first such drill, related above, is the exception to the rule, though enterprising instructors often contrive ways for the student to actually perform a power-off landing, usually back at home plate after pulling off power in the pattern. That’s more valuable than the typical descent to 200 feet or so followed by a go-around, but still isn’t the same as a for-real off-airport landing.
A third problem with the engine-out drill is that it can lead to an actual engine failure and/or reportable accident. Pilots generally accept that most training operations involve greater risk than straight-and-level cruising, but don’t always acknowledge the risk of combining reduced power settings and airspeeds with maneuvering close to the ground. In fact, a quick and dirty search of the NTSB’s aviation accident database for events involving single-engine airplanes and the string “simulated engine failure” occurring between January 1, 2016, and July 1, 2020, returned 21 accidents, two of them fatal. All sorts of mishaps befell the pilots involved, from hard landings to actual engine failure, perhaps from carburetor ice. Airplanes involved ranged from an Aeronca 7AC Champ to a Cirrus SR22 (one of the fatals).
RUN A CHECKLIST?
One of the reasons we practice engine-out drills is because when we’re trying to restart the engine is not the best time to pull out a checklist and try to read it. Instead, we use the drill to develop enough understanding of the remedial actions that we automagically perform them when called upon. These memory items can include checking the magnetos, power settings, carb heat, fuel selector, fuel pump and other controls that may get the engine running again.
If nothing works to restore power, you’ve already identified and are maneuvering toward a landing area, and there’s enough altitude/time, then you can pull out the emergency checklist. It should be readily available in the cockpit and you should already be familiar with which page you want, and how to find it.
Start at the top and perform each checklist item in the order presented, even if you “know” you’ve already accomplished that step. Have a passenger read it to you if one is available. If all that fails, then turn to the power-off, emergency or off-airport landing checklist and start running through those items.
Flying the power-off approach to a confined area is a gold-standard airmanship test, and the only way to perfect it is with practice. The good news is you can practice power-off approaches, and their variations, with a perfectly good airplane, all by yourself.
There are three basic variations. One is to close the throttle at the key position abeam the runway numbers and fly a tighter standard pattern. The spiraling approach allows shedding excess altitude over the key position until you can fly the tight pattern. The third is a straight-in from some distance and altitude away. All of these variations have their own gotchas, which demand practice and honest assessments of the outcomes.
The engine-out drill can be challenging but it can also be a lot of fun. Once you’re committed to making an off-airport landing, you use the remaining energy (altitude) and drag devices (flaps, spoilers and/or landing gear) to put the airplane on a predetermined spot at touchdown speed. What could be a more gratifying test of your airmanship than that?