‘We’ve lost our engine’

Murray Lundberg’s recounting of his ill-fated July 30, 1987 flight north of Vancouver is riveting from its end to its beginning. Here’s a bit:

Finally we were passing the lights of Vancouver. All that remained were 12 minutes over the cold waters of the Gulf of Georgia, on this night an inky, threatening void. Half-way across, the tension started to ease. I switched the radio to Boundary Bay Airport frequency as the beacon guided us to safety. For the first time that night, I noticed how incredibly bright the stars were.

Disbelief was the first feeling. “I’ve gone deaf!” Then there was an overpowering, sickening feeling as the nose of the plane dipped slowly, silently, toward the blackness below.

Reminiscing now, I still don’t really understand what happened next, but I thank the patron saint of fools and pilots that it did. After a flash of terror, I became totally calm, totally focussed. This was merely another practice forced-landing, with an instructor beside me and a farmer’s field below. Fuel switches, primer, magnetos, electrical; the emergency checklist was quickly run through, but showed no reason for the engine to quit without warning. Best rate-of-glide speed, 80 mph. Check. Time to call the cavalry. “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. This is Cessna 172 Charlie Golf India Papa Papa, 10 miles west, descending through 5,000. We’ve lost our engine!”

The reaction from the control tower at Boundary Bay was the same as my first reaction; “India Papa Papa, please say again?” A restatement of my problem brought the controller’s calm night to an abrupt end. “Roger, India Papa Papa. Understood. Hang on, I’ll be away from the radio while I call Vancouver SAR (Search and Rescue Unit).”

David and his buddies had responded perfectly to my initial answer to their questions: “I don’t know what’s wrong yet! Shut up and leave me alone for a minute!” Now I gave them what little information I could, all the while flipping switches, adjusting speed and descent rates, resetting anything that might have any vague chance of helping our desperate situation. “Can you get it restarted?” “No.” “Are we going to make it to the airport?” “No.” “Will we make it to the shore?” “I don’t know yet. Maybe.” “Shall we start throwing out the luggage?” “That only works in the movies. Don’t bother.” West Coast fishermen are a hardy breed, and their calm over the next few minutes would help save their lives. “How long can we stay up?” “About 4 minutes now.”

I wonder if electric planes will reduce the risk of engine failure.

Subscribe for free to receive most posts by email. Consider subscribing as a Patron for members-only posts.