Here’s how trained pilots can land a plane even after cutting engines

Just because engines die, it doesn't mean you have to.
Christopher McFadden

Back in July 2021, footage circulated the internet showing a terrifying moment when a student pilot's plane ran out of fuel. Rather than panicking and crashing, the student managed to perform a near-perfect emergency landing

In a moment that clearly justifies the diligence of the student pilot to his training, and of course his instructor, the footage goes to show that losing an engine isn't necessarily a death sentence

The event occurred on the 22nd of May 2021 after the pilot, Brian Parsley departed Concord in North Carolina in a 1969 Cessna 150J. This flight was to be his first "solo long cross-country-flight" and it started out pretty eventless. However things took a more sinister path when at about 2,200 feet above sea level, and nine miles from his home airport’s runway, the engine of the Cessna gave out. 

With less than 1,500 feet of altitude left to him, there was little chance the trainee pilot could return to the airport. He was forced, therefore, to attempt an emergency landing in the next available safest location. 

A task he managed to perform flawlessly. 

But, you may ask, "why was an un-qualified pilot alone on a flight in the first place?"

Well, solo long cross-country flights are an essential part of their final training in order to acquire their pilot's license. It involves a point-to-point flight from a starting airport to a second airport in a flight that covers more than 170 miles. The flight must be performed alone, and it is one of the biggest challenges for a student pilot. 

Following the incident, it was ascertained that the Cessna's engine was running "rough" for a few miles before finally giving out. The reason for this was the possibility that the engine's carburetor had iced up. 

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This is not necessarily a freak occurrence, as the main purpose of the carburetor is to not only cause a drop in pressure to draw in fuel to the engine but also cool it. This can cause ice to form. 

Pilots are trained to recognize this possible event, and expected to pull a lever in the cockpit that changes the airflow over the carburetor from fresh outside air to air blown from the hot exhaust manifold. This he did, and it worked for a while, but the engine cut out anyway. 

It seems he'd run out of fuel.

Reacting fast, Parsley quickly trimmed his aircraft to maximize glide range and then searched for a place to save his aircraft (and his life). He also had the wherewithal to start recording the event to show his flight instructor later (and people on the internet of course). 

Once he'd identified a suitable spot, he attempted to get the engine running again all the while radioing out for help. 

“The first 10 seconds was panic mode. It's almost like this disbelief, ‘is this really happening?’” Parsley recalled in an interview. “I could hear my confident calm tone begin to shift and change, but after about 10 seconds I knew I was faced with absolute incredible task saturation.”

After requesting permission to land at a nearby airfield, he realized he wouldn't be able to make it.

“I had to make a choice and once I kind of said okay ‘this is where I’m going’ it was almost like an out-of-body experience,” he said. “Although I was consciously there and muscle memory kicked in.”

In this case, his chosen location was a crop field. This adds further problems to the landing as the pilot needs to align the aircraft parallel to the rows of crops. Landing perpendicularly could result in the plane's landing gear bouncing on the ruts. 

Thankfully for Parsley, he had been trained precisely for this kind of event, and pilot trainers do everything they can to help students prepare for the unexpected. 

For Parsley, this paid off considerably enabling him to save the aircraft and his life. While the landing wasn't perfect, understandably, the plane and himself were not unduly damaged.  

Not having extra fuel onboard was a huge lesson for Parsley. “That mistake could've cost a life,” he admits. “This was more than just a ‘near-death experience. It was an incredible learning opportunity for others as well,” he added.

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