Plane loses all power at 3,000 feet

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By Carol A. Clark

Survival instincts ramped up fast for two local pilots when the single engine on their plane sputtered and died.

The duo magneto, which generates spark plug power in their 1976 Cessna Cardinal 177, failed Nov. 9 leaving Randy Foster and Stephen Becker gliding 3,000 feet in the air.

“We were northwest of Cochiti Lake - just a few minutes from home,” Foster said. “We checked the terrain beneath us and it was mesquite and slopes - too rough for landing.”

Their decision to turn the aircraft south began a series of miracles that lead Becker to credit God for guiding them safely to the ground.

“A number of incredible circumstances allowed us to find the right spot to land,” he said.

Experience in their day jobs helped the men stay focused and reject panic. Foster is a captain with the Los Alamos Police Department and Becker works in X-Division at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

They recalled taking off around 9 a.m. from Los Alamos Airport on a sight seeing proficiency flight that day. Foster was the pilot in command of the flight and said he and Becker traded off control at times.

The weather was beautiful. The landscape was scenic and rich in lava fields. They flew over Grants and did a touch and go at its airport before heading east toward Acoma.

“We had been in the air nearly three hours and were about 20 miles from home when the engine started going rough,” Becker said.

They went through their emergency checklist and discovered the left magneto completely dead. They switched to the right magneto. It sputtered. Thirty seconds later the motor died.

“It's one of those things that works until it fails,” Becker said. “We were at 440 hours and the magneto is something that's inspected every 500 hours.”

Foster declared their emergency to Santa Fe Airport and were directed to contact Albuquerque Center.

Becker recalled that half his mind questioned whether what was happening was actually happening and the other half went into robot mode and began doing what needed to be done.

They glided about eight miles through the air to the boundary of Zia and Santa Ana Pueblos, scanning below for a clearing.

“When we saw the road it was a God send,” Becker said. “We were going 65 knots (70 mph), we pointed the nose down, pulled up a little and put out full flaps.”

Foster read off GPS coordinates to Albuquerque Center until about 10 seconds before landing. He popped open his door about two feet from the ground to prohibit it from crushing inward on impact.

From the time they lost power until their wheels touched ground totaled less than four minutes.

The road was curved and about the size of American Springs Road, Foster said. The plane's left wheel rode in the ditch, helping them make the curve. Traffic was non-existent and the section of road they landed on had just been paved. Road conditions just ahead and behind their landing were like washboards and would likely have caused injury to the plane and pilots.

“God was our co-pilot,” Becker said.

The men got out of the plane and said they both began to shake. They checked over the plane, realized it hadn't received a scratch and turned on the emergency locater beacon.

Nearly three hours later, Zia Pueblo Gov. Ivan Pino happened on the scene. Foster and Becker praised the governor who took them to his Pueblo where they were given food and water before Los Alamos friends picked them up.

The plane was unable to take off from its location so the insurance company hired a man from Phoenix to retrieve it on a flatbed truck. He dismantled the wings from the body and hauled the pieces to Albuquerque's Double Eagle Airport.

The plane is reassembled and undergoing it's annual inspection before Foster, Becker or both fly it home. Becker has not flown since the incident and Foster rode in a plane for the first time just a few days ago. He admitted feeling slightly uneasy.

Foster and Becker have co-owned the four-seater since 2006. They both have pilot licenses and instrument ratings. Foster has been flying for four years and has logged more than 300 hours. In Becker's 30 years of flying, he has logged 1,600 hours.

Foster explained that plane mishaps are classified as occurrences, incidents and accidents.

Landing without a scratch is an occurrence.

Had they hit and cracked just one reflector along the roadside it would have escalated to an incident. An accident involves damage to the plane.

This is the first real emergency for Becker. He has experienced occurrences, he said, but never lost power and was always able to land at an airport for repairs.

Foster lived through a similar emergency two years ago to the day. He was training in Tucson for his instrument rating when the motor went out on the training plane.

He was close to the airport and able to glide down safely. “I won't be flying this Nov. 9th,” he said laughing.

Contact Carol A. Clark at lanews@lamonitor.com, 662-4185 ext. 25 or visit her blog at www.newsextras.wordpress.com.