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Dr.Tom Wilson's Story - Engine Failure Before A Fatal Plane Crash

Updated on September 23, 2013

Tom Wilson

Tom Wilson
Tom Wilson | Source

Tom Wilson was a physician who flew his own plane across the U.S. to work in various hospitals. While on the tarmac with him before takeoff one evening, he asked, “Simone, did you have a chance to read the story that I emailed to you earlier this month about my recent engine failure?” I looked at him with a frown and sarcastically told him that I didn’t feel this was the appropriate time to discuss his engine failure. At times, Tom could have a total lack of proper “bedside manner”.

That particular plane trip that evening with Tom was rough and at one point while in the air, the lights would not come on. I sat there quietly, allowing him to work through the issue without adding to his stress level. We landed and had dinner together. Tom worked almost every day of the month in order to pay for real estate investments that he had made prior to the crash of the economy. We hardly spent much time together that weekend and I told him when I departed that I did not wish for him to ever call me again. Months went by and I did not hear from him. Surprised that he had taken me that seriously after a year of our friendship, I gave him a call and was told that I had a wrong number. After a quick internet search, I found that Tom had died in a plane crash shortly after I left. I then sat down and then read his story, a story that made me realize what his last moments were actually like.

The Engine Failure

Hi Simone, Here is a blurb about my "Engine Failure" or more accurately, one of my engine failures. What do you think? I would like a non-pilots opinion.

Trying to get away before nightfall I swept through a few last minute E Mails and signed a few new hospital applications at the Lake Norman Airport office in North Carolina where my plane and life are kept. I don’t know why I like to depart in the daylight. When 90% of the trip is destined to be in the dark anyway what is the advantage of a slightly earlier start? The answer of course is that aside from the psychological advantage, there is none. I suppose it could be argued that a take off and climb to cruising altitude in the natural light of day offers a safety margin. In reality, the chance of a mechanical malfunction is pretty darn slim or so I thought. Nonetheless, I took off at dusk, was cleared and climbed to 10,500 feet through Charlotte’s airspace which I had to just nick on my route to Lafayette Louisiana for a week of ER shifts in nearby hospitals. The weather was destined to deteriorate the further southeast that I flew. I radioed Flight Watch on 122.0 to receive the latest conditions. I would be able to get into Lafayette under visual conditions but would probably need to descend below the predicted cloud layer as I got closer.

For the first 2 1/2 hours all was rather uneventful. On autopilot I had a chance to clean up the cockpit a little, recheck weather a few times and think about the boiled crawfish waiting for me in Cajun Country.

By the time I reached Alabama the under cast went from scattered to broken then progressively more solid till I reasoned that getting into LFT would involve either an instrument approach or getting below the clouds and a “scud run’ to perhaps land under marginal VFR or Visual Flight Rules conditions. I settled in at 10,500ft for the duration and decided that I would make my choice of approaches as I got closer and could sample the conditions first hand. By the time Meridian Mississippi passed off to my right, the routine of level flight was 2 hours old with the only eventful prospect being a mildly challenging approach to Lafayette in the dark. Or so I thought.

About 10 miles past Meridian I saw, felt and heard a very disturbing set of sensations. The cowling ahead of my windshield suddenly lit up with fireworks. Great waves of sparks were spewing back from the engine compartment. They were coming from something not good. In the ER when a patient has a dire yet undiagnosed condition I’ve quipped to my colleagues that they must have a case of SBI……. Something Bad Inside. Well, my Mooney power plant had SBI and in reality, was no longer a power plant. The sound and shudder that permeated the cockpit, could be likened to the death rattle of a Kraken. I had yet to smell or taste the acrid air of an in flight fire. Stopping at 3 out of 5 senses was fine by me.

I reached for the power control and pulled back all the way to stop any further auto-grinding of the engine. Next, I feathered the prop, which is how you turn the propeller blades into the wind to cut air resistance and lengthen possible glide. I sincerely hoped that I would not be needing too terribly much glide. Running out of altitude and crashing in the dark crossed my mind briefly but I had way too much at hand to occupy me. Crash landings would have to wait. As the sparks waned, the shudder and banging abruptly terminated. I was now officially a glider. A call to Memphis approach notified them of my plight and intention to dead stick to the nearest appropriate facility. Dead stick is what you do to land an airplane without a functioning engine. I had done a few dead sticks in the past, even two at night. As long as Key Field in Meridian Mississippi, or a reasonable substitute, was not too far away, I had some confidence that all would end well.

The controller gave me the compass heading and distance to Meridian, 020 degrees and 10 nautical miles. Cruising on a 240 degree heading when the fun began, I turned 140 degrees to my right to aim for the very generous 10,003 foot long and 150 foot wide runway at MEI.

I did not declare an emergency since nothing had really happened yet. I also did not think at the time there was anything anyone other than me could do to help anyway. Besides, pilots always hear about the dreaded “paperwork” following a declared emergency. With over 10,000 feet of altitude and a mere 10 mile ride to safety, my prospects looked pretty good. My current situation, with 5 feet of horizontal distance to be covered for every foot of altitude available would require what is called a 5 to 1 glide ratio. That is, my plane would need to drop only a foot for every 5 feet it glided across the ground (or water God forbid) . The Mooney Rocket is fitted with a McCauley fully feathering three bladed prop which places the three sharp blade edges straight into the relative wind for minimal drag. A fixed prop, whose blades are unable to be feathered or adjusted, creates a huge surface to the wind. It is said that the wind milling propeller creates as much drag as a round piece of plywood the same diameter as the prop itself. My Mooney was gliding like a champ and at times did not seem to be sinking at all.

The Mooney Rocket is a high performance modification of a 200 HP Mooney 231 or 252. Both are fine airplanes all by themselves but hang a 305 horsepower Continental TSIO 520 engine and the fabled McCauley propeller on one and you now have a super aircraft. The Rocket is capable of taking off at sea level, ascending at its maximum rate of climb for 60 miles and should the engine fail, be able to turn around and glide back to the airport you took off from SIXTY MILES AWAY! That is pretty cool and was just what I needed that night in the dark skies over Mississippi. A whopping 14 to 1 glide ratio!

By the time I reached the field I still had a mile and a half of altitude, 7500 feet. It was almost embarrassing as I had to spiral down for another 10 minutes while everyone waited on the ground. Though I had not declared an emergency, Mr. Tom Williams the airport manager did. He had been called in from home and had time to get there as my Mooney lollygagged to the ground for the past 15 minutes. I did my last few miles with the landing gear and flaps down. This serves two purposes. First, this is the configuration in which I always land. With gear and flaps down my approach angle and rate of descent are familiar and intuitive, much easier to hit the landing field that way. The second reason is that if on final approach I am too low, I can still dump the flaps or retract the gear to buy more distance and extend my glide. It happily turned out that I did not have to do either. The “dirtier” an airplane is with stuff hanging and dangling, the slower it flies and the faster it will drop. Conversely the cleaner it is, i.e. gear and flaps up, the longer it will stay in the air. I touch down a couple hundred yards past the runway numbers and coast to a halt amongst a bevy of crash trucks, emergency vehicles and gyrating lights.

A brief flashlight inspection under the cowling proved some major pieces of the engine block to be missing. Two substantial chunks of aluminum were still somehow sitting on top of the engine. In the tight engine compartment, they had nowhere to go. Mechanics curse the Rocket’s tight working space where the big engine and its accessories have been made to fit in a space designed for a much smaller power plant. 10 pounds of manure in a 5 pound bag as one mechanic termed it.

In the aftermath it struck me that the weather at Meridian was mostly clear. I had no need to navigate in any instrument conditions on the way down. If the engine had waited to fail an hour later and 200 miles ahead while I was cruising below the clouds into Lafayette, there might not have been enough altitude to make the field. I was in a euphoric state for the next few hours. I was alive, had made a good landing and adrenaline was still squirting through my bloodstream. Mr. Williams had the Hertz lady come in after hours from home to rent me a car. I felt very grateful for his vigilance and hospitality. He runs a first class facility.

My plane was a couple of months in the shop. A young mechanic by the name of Brent replaced the engine, Tom from Aero Engines of Winchester Virginia repaired it and aside from an unplanned 6 hour drive to work, I was no worse for the wear.

T. Wilson


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