When the Engine Stops

The in-flight emergency most feared by pilots of single-engine planes is engine failure. Statistically, the number of times that airplanes lose power and have to make a forced landing is extremely low. And most of those cases end relatively happily, with a rough landing on a golf course or on a state highway, perhaps.

Airplane engines can fail for a number of reasons. Most of the time it’s because the pilot failed to make sure she had enough fuel on board to complete the flight. T rue, airplanes have fuel gauges that display how much fuel remains in each tank, but as hard as it is to believe, some careless pilots manage to run the tanks dry, leaving no alternative but a forced landing. (Emergency landings go by many names, including “off-airport landing” and “unscheduled landing,” but no matter how much pilots try to soften the tone, forced landings are emergencies.)

I should mention that, though it has happened on rare occasions, airliners rarely run low on gas, let alone completely out of it. Airlines and the FAA have strict rules that are meant to guarantee there’s enough fuel to finish a flight with plenty of fuel to spare.

Airplane engines sometimes catch fire, and one of the prime culprits is the fuel system. If an engine catches fire, a pilot will shut it down and begin to plan for an emergency landing. Also, fuel systems are prone to all sorts of blockages caused by debris in the fuel or failure of the mechanical pumps that push fuel into the engine. In cases like these, if backup equipment such as a second fuel pump or a valve to switch to another fuel tank can’t solve the problem, the airplane will lose power and probably won’t be able to continue all the way to its destination.

When the Engine Stops

On Course

I In planes with two or more j engines, one engine can fail in I cruise flight without causing a disaster. Twin-engine prop-drrven airplanes might be able to con­tinue with only a slight decrease in airspeed and altitude, though the pilot has to pay a lot more attention to how she controls the plane.

What’s important to remember, though, is that pilots are heavily drilled in the procedures and techniques for making emergency landings. Very few emergency landings result in a crash.

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