Desert Center Emergency Landing - Part 1

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Effect #1:

BANGDeanie said "Oh my god - what was that?"  "I'm not sure".  I brought the throttle back, noticed that the aircraft vibration had almost completely disappeared, and that we had started descending and slowing.  I pushed the throttle back in and heard the engine speed up (and saw the RPM's increase), but there was no change in vibration and there was no thrust from the prop. "I think we lost the prop".  Deanie asked "What does that mean?".  I said that "I think the propeller came off the engine".  "Oh my god - what are we going to do?".  I said "we're going to land".

I slowed us down to Best Glide speed (about 100 mph) and punched the "Nearest" button on the GPS.  It told me that Desert Center (L64) was 17 NM almost directly ahead of us.  We were at 9500 ft., it was at ~500 ft., and there were no hills/mountains between us and it.  We also had about a 15 kt. tailwind.  Although Chiriaco Summit was only a mile or two further, and Twentynine Palms (KTNP) was about 22 NM behind us, they were higher, had headwinds or crosswinds, and had mountains between us and them.  I did the quick calculation of glide range and determined that Desert Center was where we were going - we should get there with at least 1000 ft. to spare over the pattern altitude of 1500 ft.  At some point in there I must have turned off the autopilot to follow the GPS to L64, but I don't remember doing it.  All this took about 15 - 30 seconds.

Deanie was asking if I was going to call ATC - we had been kicked off of Flight following about 10 minutes earlier, and although I had tried to raise LA Center on 128.15, they hadn't responded, so we weren't in contact with anyone.  I said I'd talk to them when I got a chance. Aviate, navigate, communicate.

I spent the next 30 seconds playing with the throttle and the controls to try to understand what had happened and how the plane was doing. Everything seemed to be working - the engine was running, the #'s on the gauges were good, and the plane was flying fine.  We were at 100 mph, descending at about 600 fpm.  No thrust, though - although I couldn't see the prop arc (or lack of it), I was pretty convinced that the prop was gone.

Deanie was very upset, but she was holding herself together and letting me do what I had to do.  I spent a few seconds every minute or so telling her that everything was OK - the plane was flying, and we were going to land at an airport.  Although I could see that I wasn't having a lot of effect, 98% of my energy had to go into concentrating on the plane and the plan.

After a minute or two, I felt stable enough to radio in.  I tuned in 121.5 and said "Mayday, Mayday, COZY N83MZ is 15 miles northwest of Desert Center at 8500 ft. with engine trouble.  We're going to land at Desert Center".  An aircraft replied (commercial jet, I believe) and relayed our call to LA Center, who then responded to us.  They got all our info and had us squawk 7700.  Although radar coverage in that area isn't great, they were able to pick us up.  They asked for Souls on Board and our intentions, and I told them that I believed that we could make it to L64 and land there.  Although I had asked Deanie to look at the chart and give me the field elevation, runway length, and CTAF for L64 (more to give her something to do than anything else), ATC read me the info too.  I dug out a pen and Deanie wrote down LA Center's phone number - they asked me to call them when we were on the ground to let them know we had arrived safely.  At some point they had us change from 121.5 to 128.15, so our comm with ATC was interspersed with the normal communications with other aircraft.

We were getting closer to L64 (and lower, obviously), and although I could see Interstate 10 to the south, I was having a little trouble finding Desert CenterDeanie was still very nervous and shaking, and I kept telling her that everything was fine, we were just going to make a normal landing.  I found the strip, picked a landing direction, and we arrived over the field at about 3500 ft. - 2000 ft. to spare. Since we were high and had the field made, I put the nose gear down so I wouldn't have to think about it anymore.  I usually put the fuel pump on before landing, too(usually before putting the gear down), but that seemed unnecessary and particularly futile at this juncture.

Deanie was already nervous enough, so I told her that I was going to come in high and I might have to slip to get down, so if we get a bit sideways, it's on purpose and OK.  She knows what a slip is.  I did a standard left pattern for runway 23, albeit high, so I kept it a little wide.  As I turned base I thought I was still high, so I put the landing brake down, but after about 10 seconds and turning final, I brought it back up.  There was a touch of crosswind, but other than that it was a completely nominal approach and landing.  We touched down about 1000 ft. down the 4200 ft. runway and I rolled to the end and off onto the single taxiway.

We were on the ground and safe.  From the time of the "BANG!" to rolling to a stop, we had been in the air for approximately 12-13 minutes.  Things happened slowly - there was time to think, time to evaluate, time to react, and time to decide.

We unbuckled and hugged for a couple of minutes - I told Deanie that everything was OK - we were safe, unhurt and on the ground (albeit pretty much dead center in the middle of nowhere).  That was all that mattered.

Amazingly, there was EXCELLENT cell phone coverage there - probably because we were only about 3 miles from I-10.  I got out of the plane and called ATC to tell them we were on the ground and safe, and to thank them for their help.

To be continued in Part 2.


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Copyright 2006, All Rights Reserved, Marc J. Zeitlin

Last updated: February 17, 2007