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Why Aircraft Engines Fail and What to Do

aviation and medical marijuanaAt the top of the list of a pilot’s worst nightmare is an engine failure in flight. While a full engine shutdown is fairly rare for turbine engines, they do happen at a higher rate in piston twin and experimental aircraft.

Engines can and do fail, but adequate preparation and a keen sense of awareneess should keep you from becoming a statistic.

Here’s what to know and do to help avoid and handle an engine failure, courtesy of FAASafetyBriefing.

Data on engine failures

In a study of general aviation accidents from 2001-2010, the FAA determined system component failure—powerplant (SCF-PP)—to be the third highest accident category after loss of control and controlled flight into terrain.

More recent data indicates a continuation of this trend, which got the attention of the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee (GAJSC) and spurred the creation of a SCF-PP working group in 2014.

They were charged with examining accidents related to powerplant failure and to develop educational outreach and mitigation strategies. Their study helped identify some of the more prevalent problems. Not surprisingly, human error—not mechanical gremlins—caused the majority of problems leading to engine failures.

Keep it maintained

Stay on top of maintenance needs and inspections. That includes annuals, applicable airworthiness directives, and time-in-service intervals for life-limited parts or systems. It’s also important to check engine performance after maintenance has been completed. Mechanics are human and can make mistakes, such as failing to tighten oil and fuel fittings and installing fuel selector valves backwards. In addition to verifying all fasteners are present and accounted for, do a thorough run-up and a few circuits in the pattern after any work has been performed.

Importance of preflight safety

Common oversights that pilots make that can lead to engine failure include loose fuel caps, unsumpted fuel tanks, and clogged fuel vents. All these mistakes could be easily identified before even starting the engine, so never underestimate the importance of a good preflight inspection and briefing. During flight, stay engaged with the health and status of your systems, regularly check oil pressure and temperature, and listen for abnormal engine sounds. Passengers can help with these monitoring tasks. Staying engaged also means monitoring fuel.

Focus on fuel management

Fuel management (or mismanagement, in some engine failure cases) is a predominant factor in engine failures. While fuel lines and filters can become clogged and cause a shutdown, fuel starvation is primarily an operator error. Failure to verify fuel levels in the tank(s), underestimating head winds, and forgetting to inspect fuel with your eyes and nose can all lead to you receiving an unexpected glider lesson. The same tips apply to inflight fuel management: keep tabs on fuel burn rate and the position of the fuel selector.

Sometimes, parts go bad

Although uncommon, parts and components do fail. Hidden problems could lurk in cylinders, pistons, valves, crankshaft, or fuel lines, for example. Be on the lookout for warning signs like irregular oil pressure and temperature fluctuations, excessive RPM drops during a magneto check, or an excessive cylinder head temperature. If something seems odd, have a mechanic look at it asap.

What to do if it happens to you

First and foremost, stay calm. Panic will only waste two of your most precious commodities: time and altitude. Fly the airplane and rely on your training and procedures. Start with memory items and if time permits, follow the engine failure checklist which should always be in reach, and may lead to a successful restart.

Your three top priorities at this moment are establishing best glide speed, finding a place to land, and declaring an emergency. According to Larry Bothe, DPE, Master Instructor and FAASTeam Rep in the Indianapolis area, one of the biggest mistakes pilots make is not checking fuel early enough in an emergency. “After an engine failure, switch tanks and flip on your boost pumps,” says Bothe. “Many times, that will get your engine purring again.” Be sure to check your Pilot’s Operating Handbook for any specific instructions on managing fuel after engine failure.

One helpful checklist you can use with an engine emergency is ABCDEFG.

  • Airspeed: establish the correct speed and maintain it.
  • Best field or landing option: pick it and head for it.
  • Cockpit Checks: do your flow checks; you might be a switch flick away from a non-emergency. If time permits, use the emergency checklist.
  • Declare Emergency: use current frequency or 121.5 and squawk 7700.
  • Exit Preparation: adjust your seats/seatbelts, brief your passengers, and prep for landing.
  • Fire Prevention: fuel off and turn off the 3 Ms: mags, mixture, and master.
  • Ground Plan: have an egress plan and make use of first aid equipment as needed.

Prepare and plan every flight

On every flight, use every opportunity to hone emergency skills. Plan what you would do if you lost an engine at regular intervals of a flight, from takeoff to landing. Rehearse flow checks and memory items so they become instinctive and methodical. In summary, don’t rely on luck; count on training and preparation to keep your motor running.

Make sure your aircraft is properly maintained and serviced. It's always important, but especially so during the upcoming cooler months. Service at Business Aircraft Center is provided onsite by Master Aviation, Inc., The Aerostar Center of the Northeast. Call them today to schedule a service appointment at 203-790-5226 or via email at masterav@att.net. We also work with Wright Aviation and they can be contacted at 203-556-3860 or via email at devon@wrightaviationmaintenance.com.

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