Enemy Of The Good

In an engine-out situation, we should be looking for the nearest adequate landing area, not the best one.


Whenever were in a single, and sometimes with twins, where wed land in event of engine failure should be a conscious thought. The usual answer is the nearest airport, something facilitated in personal aircraft several years ago by Loran navigators, and carried forward with their GPS-based successors.

Having been there, done that, I know theres a wide range of emotions, thoughts and priorities going through a pilots mind when power production stops and theres an urgent need to land somewhere-anywhere!-right now.

Too often, the goal of saving the airplane rises to the top of that long list, when our real first priority should be ensuring the airplane is allowed to decelerate and come to a safe stop with its cabin intact, thereby protecting the occupants. Our preferred location is an airport, to be sure, but-as has been proven time and time again-a cow pasture, golf course, mall parking lot, drainage ditch or two-lane blacktop affords us substantial opportunity to stroll away from whats left of the airplane and, perhaps, even use it again some day. Meanwhile, trying to stretch a power-off glide or bypassing a perfectly good airport while trying to make a “better” one is fraught with uncertainty.

For one thing, theres a single airspeed producing the greatest distance over time or altitude. Flying at any speed higher or lower than best glide reduces our power-off range. In fact, once we get too slow in a glide and close to a stall, recovering eats up lots of the energy we have available.

But the bottom line is we sometimes place too much emphasis on saving the airplane, to the detriment of what, again, should be Job One: landing somewhere safely. Finding a good landing area should be our priority, not finding the best one. Too often, we forget an old saying: The better is the enemy of the good.


On October 16, 2008, at about 1030 Pacific time, a Piper PA-28R-201T Turbo Arrow III collided with trees during a forced landing near Markleeville, Calif. The solo private pilot/owner was killed; the airplane sustained substantial damage to the fuselage, empennage and wings. The cross-country business flight departed Minden, Nev., about 1010, with a planned destination of Camarillo, Calif. Daytime visual conditions prevailed.

The pilot was receiving VFR flight following services. At 1025:16, the pilot informed ATC he had an engine problem, and was heading back to Minden. He said the engine was running, but “missing badly.” The controller pointed out the Alpine County Airport at 11 oclock for 10 miles, if the pilot needed it. At 1026:23, the pilot asked for the Alpine airport information again, reporting he had just lost power completely. Mode C altitude was reported as 14,200 feet.

The controller responded that Alpine was at his 11 oclock for five miles, noting its elevation was 5867 feet. At 1028:30, the pilot stated his altitude was 11,800 feet and he had “pretty much completely lost” the engine. The controller pointed out Alpine at 12 oclock and two-to-three miles, but the pilot said he was still looking for it. Shortly afterward, radio and radar contact were lost.


The aircraft came to rest inverted about 208 feet from the first identified point of contact, 313 degrees and 1.9 miles from the Alpine County Airport. Wreckage was distributed along a magnetic heading of 180 degrees.

Records established the airplane was fueled with 55 gallons of 100LL after the pilots last logged flight, which was from Camarillo to Minden. The fuel selector valve was in the left-tank position; the landing gear was down and locked. Flaps were in the retracted position. One propeller blade was bent about 10 degrees aft at its midpoint, and then bent forward about 20 degrees. The electric fuel boost pump switch, which had three positions, was in the low position.

Once the wreckage was retrieved, engine manufacturer personnel removed damaged parts and substituted a primer line, the fuel pump, a spark plug and the ignition harness. They then installed the engine in a test cell, and it started easily. They ran the engine at mid and full throttle positions. It ran smoothly at all settings including rapid throttle accelerations and decelerations.

The airplane was equipped with a J.P. Instruments engine monitor recording fuel flow as well as EGT and CHT. According to the recorded data, fuel flow began fluctuating at about 1023:00, as well as all six EGT and CHT indications. About a minute later, the fuel flow increased to 20 gph, and smoothed out for 30 seconds. At about 1025:30, it increased to 22 gph while EGTs decreased rapidly to less than 500 deg. F. The EGTs remained at this value for the duration of the data. At 1026:11, fuel flow decreased to 14 gph; it remained there until 1028. It fluctuated down, then up, and then gradually decreased and stabilized at six gph until the data ended at 1031:40.

Adjacent to the first identified point of contacts north border were a -mile-wide treeless pasture and a straight, paved country road. The straight section of the road and pasture were both over 1500 feet long.

Probable Cause

The National Transportation Safety Board determined the probable cause(s) of this accident to include: “A loss of engine power for undetermined reasons. Contributing to the accident was the pilots failure to choose a suitable landing area.” Theres not much to add to that finding.

From the record, its clear the pilot had trouble locating the Alpine County Airport. Its not unusual for us to have trouble distinguishing an unfamiliar airport from surrounding terrain. Its also not unusual for us to be unable to spot something ATC says is a couple of miles directly in front of us but under the nose. Witnesses reported seeing the airplane in a turn before the crash.

Its also clear the pilot had plenty of altitude/energy. Even though field elevations were relatively high- Alpine County Airport is at 5867 feet, while Minden is at 4722 feet-the airplane was about 8500 feet above Alpine when the engine failed completely, with “only” 10 miles to glide. An Arrow should easily do that. In fact, once the field was spotted, too much altitude may have been the problem.

Early on, the pilot displayed a desire to find the best possible landing area. Then he had difficulty finding Alpine, finally spotting it. In the end, he declined using two other reasonable options, only to crash into trees. In his quest to find a better landing area, he ended up at the worst.


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