LA VETA- The afternoon sun was shining on January 21 when pilot Patrick Ellis checked his single engine Piper Cherokee for a flight from Las Vegas, New Mexico to his home in Colorado Springs. Ellis had no idea how his piloting skills would be challenged. Ellis loaded up the airplane with fuel, his good friend Ted Koch, and a little baggage. Weather was what pilots describe as "Severe clear and sunglasses." He taxied to the runway in use and with a push of the throttle, executed a smooth takeoff and climbed to an altitude of 11,500 feet above sea level. Once at cruise, he and his passenger settled back for a pleasnt flight home.
According to a Federal Aviation Administration spokesperson, as the Cherokee approached the higher terrain around the Wahatollas, Ellis climbed to 13,500 feet. Once over La Veta, Ellis reported the engine beginning to run rough and vibrate. He checked for the usual causes such as carburetor ice and fuel mixture settings. By now, darkness had cloaked the mountains and the vibrating engine reminded Ellis of one of the pilots main nightmares, losing the one and only engine over the mountains at night. No sooner did he think of this, than the engine seized and the propeller stopped abruptly. Now, he was committed.
One of the classic aviation jokes is that the purpose of the propeller is not to power the airplane, but to cool the pilot. If you don′t believe this, let this engine stop and watch the pilot sweat. Ellis has logged over 5,000 hours of flight time and over 500 in his Cherokee. He went throught the emergency checklists and secured the fuel and other items to prepare for ditching in the mountains. He checked his navigational Global Positioning System (GPS) and it showed he was over La Veta and close to the La Veta airport. He contacted Denver Radar Control and declared an emergency. Denver Radar confirmed to him that he was over the La Veta airport. It should be a simple matter to circle down to the airport and make a dead stick (engine out) landing on the airport. At night, the La Veta runway lights are turned on by pilots keying their radio microphone a certain number of times on a specified frequency. When Ellis tried to turn on the runway lights, they would not activate. Now, he was beginning to sweat.
Ellis noted it was very quiet in the cockpit as they used the GPS positioning to stay over what he hoped was the runway. The Cherokee missed the runway by about 200 yards to the north, landing in the rolling terrain, but staying on all three wheels. The aircraft rolled to rest in a small depression about 500 yards to the north of the La Veta terminal. Ellis and his passenger exited the plane and were glad to see that there was no damage to the airplane and no injuries to the occupants. They had beaten the odds.
La Veta EMS and Fire Rescue arrived immediately and evaluated the occupants, giving them a clean bill of health. Ellis and Koch heavily praised the La Veta personnel, not just for their timely arrival and professionalism, but for their hospitality and taking care of them until a ride from Colorado Springs could pick them up. Ellis said the hospitality of La Veta was something seldom seen in today′s environment.
The FAA Inspector assigned to the case released the aircraft, stating that because of the lack of damage or injury, the matter would be classified as an incident and not an accident. He also praised Ellis for his cool handling of the situation after determining the runway lights would not come on. La Veta town crews checked the lighting immediately and found out the remote activation mechanism had failed. When this occurs a special notice to the FAA is required, but in this case, the lighting failure was not known. It was noted that there is little traffic into the airport at night, especially this time of year.
A licensed airplane mechanic inspected the engine and speculated a possible crankshaft failure. Meanwhile, pilot Ellis is remembering the old pilot saying, "Any landing you can walk away from is a good one."