By Mark W. Johnson, CFI
The morning was typical for a hot and humid July, with a few scattered clouds and a small line of rain showers to the south of the airport.
My student was about to embark on his third training flight towards earning his private pilot certificate.
Our aircraft, a Cessna 152, was a capable and well-used trainer I was still familiarizing my student with. After the preflight discussion and inspection, we loaded up and proceeded to start, taxi and complete the required run-up prior to takeoff.
My student was directed to takeoff, and proceed to the designated practice area north of the airport.
We climbed to 2,000 feet and I instructed him to turn to an easterly heading using the visual clues we discussed, while making coordinated climbing turns and watching for traffic.
After level off, the cruise power of 2300 RPM was selected and we flew east approximately six nautical miles from the departure airport.
Without warning there was a loud “bang” similar to a shotgun going off, then the ELT tone rang loud in our headphones.
The sudden noise and extreme vibration convinced me we’d experienced an in-flight collision.
I looked left and right to verify the wings were still attached and tried to make sense of the windmilling propeller.
The instrument panel was shaking so violently it was a tan and black blur as oil specks appeared on the windshield and side windows.
I instinctively took the controls and turned immediately toward the airport while increasing pitch to trade some energy for altitude. The tachometer couldn’t be read, but the needle was swinging wildly full scale left and right.
In 41 years of flying and 24,000 hours logged, I had never experienced an engine failure this violent. The broken internal parts were creating such an imbalance that I was certain the airplane would shake apart.
My previous three engine problems were much more subtle and easier to manage.
About 20 years before, an oil pump failure in a Navion necessitated a quick divert into a local airport.
A faulty carburetor float valve ended a C-172 takeoff on a test flight years later.
Flying a B-727, a loss of #2 engine oil pressure and high EGT required an engine shut-down, and a few checklist procedures. It was more of an inconvenience than an emergency, and the passengers never knew the difference.
“Oh damn, there goes number two! Oh well, when is lunch being served?” We were near our destination, which was the next suitable airport.
But this was different. Within a few minutes, the engine oil in the 152’s small Lycoming engine was depleted and the propeller seized.
Still on the airport advisory frequency, I called the FBO, advising of our problem and location, and that we were returning to the airport. If we weren’t there in five minutes they knew who to call.
The 152 was trimmed for 60 knots and, judging from our height above the ground, I was initially doubtful we could stretch the glide back to the airport.
A few somewhat suitable fields were in close proximity, but the area we were in posed several hazards, including high tension wires, structures, and a four-lane highway with morning rush hour traffic.
South of the highway were trees, buildings, an industrial park, and a softball field, which looked inviting. Upon closer examination I saw the adjacent parking lot full of poles with high tension lines. Forget about that spot!
The winds varied from the southeast and the earlier small rain shower three miles south of the airport was now producing lightning and angry-looking convective activity.
The decision to resume the course direct to the airport was made knowing that a suitable golf course fairway was available as an option in the event the airport couldn’t be made.
The Cessna was uncomfortably quiet as I glanced at my student and told him we’d be okay. He sat stoic in his seat with his hands in his lap. His face was as white as a sheet and he stared with disbelief at the frozen propeller blade with an expression like he was witnessing the transfiguration of Jesus!
As we glided toward the airport, the winds associated with the convective activity were producing light turbulence. I could see the Runway 28 numbers come into view just over the tree line on the east side of the field.
I instructed my student to tighten his seat belt and shoulder harness. We cracked both doors open and hoped for the best.
The tree tops started rising, blocking the runway numbers slightly. I glanced to the 10 o’clock position to assess the golf course fairway, which was free of golfers.
Electing to make the airport, I lowered the nose slightly toward the base of the trees to gain a little airspeed and momentum. When I increased pitch to skip over the treetops, I added some flaps to increase lift and we skipped over the trees and had about 150 feet of altitude and 400 feet to make the runway.
Visibility was obscured from oil, but I could see Runway 28 out my side window as I approached at about a 30° angle. I shut the fuel valve off, pulled the mixture control to idle cut-off, and turned the magnetos and master switch off.
Forward visibility was pretty poor with the oil film, but we rolled level, passing low over grass before touching down about 20 feet past the approach end of the runway. We had enough energy to make the first taxiway turn-off, then came to a slow rolling stop.
We sat silently for a minute, then my student glanced at me and stated he felt like he had just won the lottery!
Examination of the engine revealed the number two piston connecting rod failed. The lower engine case was cracked in two areas, resulting in oil loss and eventually the propeller seizing in flight. The engine was destroyed and had to be replaced.
I’ve made many self assessments regarding the emergency, and considered my decision to return to the airport rather than attempt a close field landing not knowing about hidden obstacles or hazards.
I believe I made the right series of decisions, but there will always remain a small element of doubt.
The engine was replaced and the airplane is still in use today. My student resumed his training and is well on his way to pilot certification.
As we stood in the pilot lounge minutes after the landing, I was enjoying a cup of coffee and receiving a few “high fives” when the FBO lineman pointed to my legs.
Unbeknownst to me, my knees were shaking!