Engine Failure and Forced Landing

The last flight of Sonex 604 occurred on June 24, 2009. I had taken a trip from Fort Leonard Wood to San Antonio, TX for work. I'd made this trip several times before, but always via commercial airlines. This was my first long cross country work trip, and I was pretty excited to be finally using my plane for travel. All went well in San Antonio, and I departed for home that morning. I planned to make the flight in 3 legs, taking on fuel approximately every two-three hours. I had completed the first leg of the trip without incident, refueled, and was about an hour and a half into the second leg when I decided to land in Mena, AR, to refuel and stretch.

I was cruising at 8,500 ft MSL and had the airport in sight approximately 30 miles out. At about 10 miles out, I reduced power from cruise power to a descent power setting, and began my gradual descent into MEZ. After 2 or 3 minutes of descending, at about 5,000 ft, the engine suddenly lost power. It continued to run, but was not producing any significant power. I attempted to restore power by adjusting the throttle, mixture, and mag switches, but after 30 seconds or so, the engine died completely. I was able to restart it once, but it barely ran, and died for good after 10 seconds or so.

At this point, I was over mountainous terrain with no suitable forced landing sites. I was able to glide the aircraft out of the mountains, just clearing the last ridge line, and land the aircraft in a field between two rows of houses. The aircraft landed under control, but I was unable to stop before running into trees at the far end of the field. Impact with trees and a stop sign severely damaged the aircraft, but I was uninjured. Minor damage was done to a barbed wire fence that I flew through just before landing, and a small decorative tree that I ran over on rollout. I estimate that I had been flying for about 1.8 hours prior to the engine failure, and had approximately 7 gallons of fuel onboard, equaling about an hour's worth of fuel.

The cause of the engine failure was never determined. I had fuel in the tank, line, gascolator, and it flowed freely to the carb. No plug wires were dislodged or damaged. The engine turned over by hand and had compression. There were no outward signs of damage on the engine itself. It simply quit, and wouldn't run. The FAA chose not to tear the engine down as part of its investigation, and the insurance company totaled the airplane and retained the salvage. I don't think I'll even know what really happened.

Looking back on the incident, I'm filled with mixed emotions. I have a great sense of loss, having lost the entire airplane. The plane may have been repairable, but closer inspection showed that nearly every major section of the plane had been damaged. Repairing the plane would really have entailed building a new airplane with a handful of old parts in it. By the time you drilled out the thousands of rivets to remove the damaged parts, you'd re-kit the plane anyway.

I'm grateful the outcome for me was perfect. I escaped without any injuries at all. Considering the extremely rugged, steep mountain ridges I was gliding over just 20 seconds before touchdown, this is truly amazing!

I can't help but replay the entire incident over again in my mind. Could I have done better? Part of me says yes, maybe. I certainly could have done worse, though. I've been in the military for 10 years, and deployed twice to Iraq. I've seen roadside bombs, angry mobs, sniper fire, and more mortar and rocket rounds than I could count. Until then, I'd never felt like I was staring death in the face. To say it left an impression on my is an understatement. When I close my eyes, I can still see and feel clearing that last ridge, making that last turn into the field, and crashing into the trees. I guess that will be with me forever.

There are lessons to be learned about basic piloting skills, and decision making, and what not. The last 10 seconds of the crash had me low to the ground, maneuvering aggressively to avoid obstructions (like someone's house), and trying to get it down safely. Making that last turn away from the house nearly cost me everything. The airplane was about to quit flying, I could feel it. A voice in my head screamed at me, "Don't spin it in!" I always told myself I'd fly into the side of a building before I let myself stall and spin, but when you're actually holding the stick, it's an easy trap to get into. I almost did.

So what now, everyone asks? I'm not really sure. I'm not giving up flying, or homebuilding else. Maybe I'll build another Sonex, or RV, or something. I never intended the Sonex to be my last airplane I built, and I guess that much hasn't really changed. Who knows, maybe the right project will come along to whet my appetite and I'll jump back in. I might even document another Sonex on this website. But, for the time being, I'm taking some time off, and closing the book on this chapter.

NOTE:  photos link to full size image

This is a screen shot from Google that roughly shows my flight path and landing site. You can see just how rugged the terrain really is in this part of the country.
There were absolutely no suitable landing areas in the ridges. Even looking at this photo doesn't accurately convey the ruggedness of the area. You can see that I managed to clear the ridges by flying through a small gap. I was well below the tops of the ridge when I came through this gap, and I estimate I had only 50 ft or so to spare about the trees before getting into the valley on the other side, and it was all the plane could do to reach the first flat spot of ground.
From the time I cleared the ridge, my GPS showed only 17 seconds until touchdown. As I dropped lower and lower, my view of the valley beyond the ridgeline was reduced. As I flew through the gap, it felt like I was being blasted out of a cannon and erupted into the clear over the valley. My options were very limited. You can see a couple of fields here that look pretty good, but in reality were not nearly so. This is an old photo. Since it was taken, there are more houses, more trees, and a hundred head of cattle grazing it the fields. I had to make a quick S-Turn to bleed off the last bit of altitude, clear the barbed wire fence, avoid the first house, and get lined up between the rest. On the ground, the distance between the fence and trees was only about 500 ft.
This is looking back in the direction I came from. That is the ridge I cleared, and just to the left of that little peak in the middle of the photo is where I came through.
This homeowner was sitting on his back deck when I went by. He immediately called 9-1-1 and told the dispatcher that a plane had flow by him BELOW the level of his deck. His call had emergency vehicles on the scene within 20 minutes or so.
I just barely made it over/through the barbed wire fence. My landing gear got hung up on the top two strands, but luckily broke through. The ensuing hard landing bent the gear. You can see the tire tracks where I touched down, then crossed the gravel driveway to the house.
This was the house I maneuvered to avoid. I missed it by 50 ft or so, and took out the little tree in the front yard.
I tried to get stopped before hitting the stop sign and trees and the far end of the field. I was trying to follow the road through the gap, but didn't quite make it. Across the intersection is a ditch and hedgerow. I don't think that would have helped me any.
I was on the brakes right up to the end. My landing gear were bent, the tailwheel as well, and I'm not sure how effective my braking was on the dusty ground. The tires appear to be skidding somewhat.
Here you can see the damage dome coming through the barbed wire fence. The fairings deflected the strands below the wheel pants, and I didn't get hung up.
These took a beating. I think this gear leg may have deflected up into the bottom of the wing.
The fiberglass pant had been split along the top seam, and the wing showed damage on the bottom leading edge.
Despite the damage, this fairing remained attached. It looks like this side broke the barbed wire strands.
The left wing hit the stop sign, causing damage to the leading edge, main spar, rear spar, flap and ailerons, and wingtip. The wing eventually snagged on the sign and tore it out of the ground.
The stop sign sliced into the leading edge until it hit the main spar, permanently bending the wing spar rearward.
The sign must have snagged along the wingtip and ripped the aileron right off. The hinge pin is still in place while the hinge loops have been ripped off the pin. As the aileron ripped off, it damaged the flap.
The right wing hit a cluster of trees, and crushed it rearward.
The leading edge folded up like an accordion, absorbing energy in the process.
The leading edge skin failed along the line of rivets, but left the rib and other side with surprisingly little damage.
The rearward deformation caused the flap to pinch and cut through the side skin. It's hard to see here, but the entire side panel is deformed, and the bottom longerons and splice plates are bent.
From inside the baggage compartment, some of the damage to the rear spar carry-through, seat structure, and side panels is visible.
The other side was also damaged, but somewhat less severely so.
Although it may not look mortally wounded, it was. The insurance company declared it a total loss based on the extent of the damage. This would be the last time I saw my plane, and it was a good time to pat it on the cowl, thank it for a job well done, and say goodbye.


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Updated: 15 Oct 09