Accident Study: Engine Failure at Night

Some accidents end well, even an engine failure at night can turn out ok. In this case, the pilot kept his cool and managed to land on a freeway without harming anyone.

He made the best of a difficult situation. Let’s look at what went wrong, what went right, and what could have been done better.

The Beechcraft Bonanaza B33 departed VFR from Van Nuys KVNY at 5:21PM PST on Sunday January 28th 2018.

He flew to San Diego at about 5000 feet and stayed there for about an hour. He departed San Diego in the opposite direction, presumably heading back to Van Nuys but experienced a sudden engine failure on the return trip.

What went wrong?

I couldn’t find information about the cause of the failure so we will have to wait for the NTSB. Fuel starvation is a common cause, but there isn’t enough information to be sure. They traveled 176NM in a plane with a range of over 700NM so to run out of fuel would mean that the pilot had departed with less than 25% fuel capacity and/or forgot to switch his fuel tanks.


No matter how it happened this pilot found himself over the ocean around 5000 feet with a failed engine at night. Not a great spot to end up in!

He was already in a descent when the failure occurred and he correctly went immediately to best glide speed. Then he began a turn towards land and identified 2 options, the beach, or John Wayne airport KSNA. After deciding to try to make it to John Wayne airport and gliding in that direction, he found that he was coming up short.

An alternate option to John Wayne presented itself as he saw a gap in the traffic on route 55 below him. There are not too many options at night so freeways are often considered an alternate. However, freeways are a terribly difficult place to land.

Take a look at this picture from Google Streetview of the shoulder where the plane stopped after landing.

The picture above faces northbound. Now, look at the picture below, facing south, and see what the pilot dealt with on landing. I added a red marking to show where the plane stopped after landing.

Notice the overpass! There is actually another overpass beyond that one and then 2 more a little farther down. It is not clear if he landed before or after that but it just shows how little room he had. In addition to overpasses, there might have been power lines, and cars can present an even bigger challenge.

One positive to this landing area is that the northbound side (where he landed) was 4 lanes with generous shoulders so the width was manageable (especially if he made a habit of staying on centerline).

What could have been done better?

Nobody was hurt on the ground, the plane was fine, and the passenger was fine. You can’t second guess a chain of decisions that led to this kind of outcome.

However, it is worth it to look at this and see if we can find a way out of this situation in the first place. A look at the Los Angeles TAC shows a number of special VFR transition routes to cross through the Bravo airspace at KLAX. He was likely descending to remain clear of the Bravo and set up for the Mini route at 2500 feet or the Coastal route at 5500 to 6500 feet.

At night I always recommend an extra layer of caution, usually in the form of altitude. With few places to land, it is nice to always keep an airport within glide range. Had he selected the Coliseum route or Hollywood Park route he would have been at about 9000 feet and would have been able to glide right to John Wayne airport easily.

Why did he not choose this? Probably because it is less efficient. If you use these two routes you end up very high above Van Nuys when you come out of the bravo airspace and it will take additional time to lose all the altitude. But given the choice, I will always take the higher altitude at night.

Flying is all about these small decisions. Most of the time nothing goes wrong so it is VERY easy to get complacent. It helps to think about the accident as a chain. You don’t know which decisions are part of an accident chain but every time you make a decision to do something a little bit safer than needed, you break one of the links. With this in mind, you need to think about breaking as many links in the chain as you can.

Flying at night is already a link in the chain, and being over the ocean is one more. Flying at 5000 feet when 9000 feet would have worked is another link. If this particular link had been broken (and the pilot had chosen 9000 feet) then he would have been able to land at John Wayne.

I am glad this engine failure at night ended so well and I am impressed by this pilot’s skill and decision making in handling this emergency.

IMPORTANT: Please read my disclaimer below about accident studies

This study and all accident studies are not meant to judge anyone, their actions, or their skills as a pilot. I do not claim to know what the pilot did or what he/she was thinking. The purpose of these accident studies is to better understand what causes accidents and how to avoid them. Comments and other points of view are always welcome as long as they are respectful towards everyone involved.