It is a well-known adage that before every flight, a pilot should ask, "how will this airplane try to kill me today?" and be ready for all possibilities.
An instructor on a training mission must ask, in addition to the airplane trying to kill him, "how will my student try to kill me today?"
After 30 years of flying and instructing, I had to make my first dead-stick landing at a relatively busy field, in the opposite direction of traffic.
It began with me checking a new member out in a Piper Cherokee that belongs to our flying club located in Southern Arizona. The student has just about 90 hours, having received his private certificate a month ago. Before going out to the airplane, I did a POH review with the student. He was familiar with the POH, speeds, and checklists. He said all his experience was in a Piper Warrior. “This would be an easy checkout,” I thought to myself.
The student followed the preflight checklist – something that always makes me happy, since checklist usage is a skill most pilots tend to lose after their check ride. It was a beautiful, sunny day in Southern Arizona, and we departed to the practice area near our airport. Even though our airport is non-towered, we have Class C and Class D airports nearby. It was a good opportunity to quiz him about airspace as well.
After doing power on and off stalls, slow flight, steep turns, and private pilot maneuvers, it was time to test his pattern work skills. We decided to approach a nearby non-towered airport that has a long runway since it is a major maintenance base for large commercial aircraft. It is also the home of an army helicopter training unit.
When we were at 45 degrees to enter downwind, he took out the pre-landing checklist and changed fuel tanks. The engine suddenly sputtered and quit. "Change it back," I asked him. He did, but the engine did not come back. “My airplane,” I said rather curtly, taking control of the airplane with a stopped propeller up front. It is an eerie feeling. The plane goes extremely quiet when the engine quits. I have done many simulated power-off landings. But you always have a spinning propeller up front, and you know that you can always add power and abort the maneuver if something does not seem right. This time, it was for real, and we were running out of options quickly. There was no way I could have made runway 12.
Never have I wished I were flying my Cirrus, instead of the Cherokee, more than at that moment. I almost reached out for the CAPS handle. Alas, there was no CAPS handle to pull.
At that moment, we were about 1,500 ft AGL and about two miles from the landing runway 12. Winds were 10 knots down the runway. I did not have enough altitude to remain in the pattern, given that the Hershey bar Cherokee is basically a brick with wings. So, I declared Mayday and decided to land with tail wind in the opposite direction of traffic on runway 30. I pointed the nose at the numbers and turned final at about 300 feet AGL. Fortunately, not only was I able to make a decent landing, I had enough energy left to pull the plane onto the nearest taxiway. Other traffic in the pattern were an Air Force paratrooper carrier and Army Apache helicopters. They were very cooperative and stayed away.
I got out of the airplane and checked fuel levels. Both tanks were above tabs. The fuel pump worked, so I was still scratching my head as to what happened. Then I saw that the student had pushed the fuel selector valve past the detent. He had done it both times and shut off the fuel flow to the engine inadvertently. The fuel selector is not visible from the right seat, as it is mounted on the left side of pilot’s legs. I did not know that older Cherokees do not have any true stop on the fuel selector. There is a detent that any experienced pilot knows. But since this student had only trained in newer Pipers that had a modified fuel selector which could not be pushed past the detent. The FAA had issued an Airworthiness Directive to replace the old fuel selectors that could be pushed past the detent and thus shut off fuel. Our club had not gotten around to replacing the fuel selector.
I taxied back to runway 12 and made a normal short trip back to my home airport, in a decidedly less harrowing flight.
It was a good lesson for me, and I hope for the student as well. I reflected on the countless power-off landings I had made and taught my students under simulated conditions. But you always know that you can go around if things do not work out. That option vanishes when the propeller stops turning. One change I have made to my standard operating procedure is to complete the pre-landing checklist at or above 3,000 AGL. No fuel tank change below this altitude ensures that one will not run into such a situation again. For Cirrus pilots, an engine out at 1,500 feet AGL is a no-brainer. Pull CAPS. Save lives.