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Engine Out!

My wife Janet, my instructor Paul, and I were walking the ramp at Castle airport, a former Air Force base in California's central valley. I was a student pilot in airplanes and we'd just completed the first leg of my first cross-country flight. It had been a great experience, with lots of pilotage and dead reckoning practice. Castle made for a convenient rest stop.

"Ready for the next leg?" Paul asked.

"Let's go," I answered. I started the engine and taxied to the active runway, a 12,000-feet long, 200 feet wide runway that was built for fully loaded B-52s. The airport now has an operating control tower, but on the day of our flight, that was still years in the future. We had the entire enormous airport to ourselves.

"Castle traffic, Skyhawk 737ZD is taking runway 31 for a straight-out departure Castle," I announced on the radio. Just as Paul had taught me, I visually scanned the traffic pattern and, seeing and hearing no one, I taxied onto the runway, throttled up, and started our takeoff roll. We were airborne about 50 feet off the deck when, without a word, Paul quickly reached over and pulled the throttle to idle.

My glider-pilot training kicked in and I shoved the yoke forward. The airplane lurched forward and we momentarily felt light in our seats. The ground came up quite quickly, so I did my best to stabilize our speed between 60 and 70 knots and started a no-flap flare for landing. We touched down gracelessly but safely a bit to the left of the centerline. Paul gave me the throttle back and I exited at the nearest taxiway.

"Good job!" he said. "Engine failure on takeoff is one of the most dangerous events in flying. You did just what you needed to do—get the nose down and maintain airspeed!"

"That wasn't so bad," said Janet from the back seat. I looked over at Paul.

"While you were in the bathroom I warned her I was going to do that and swore her to secrecy!" Paul explained.

I laughed. "I can't leave you two alone for a minute!"

Paul smiled, almost apologetically. "That exercise is really only effective when you don't know it's coming," he said.

He was right. By setting up a realistic engine-out simulation on takeoff, with an instructor in the right seat and nearly two miles of concrete ahead of us, Paul gave me the opportunity to experience one of aviation's great hazards in a safe and controlled way. By giving me a concrete reason to trust my training, the experience legitimately contributed to my confidence.

As we climbed away from Castle on our way to our next stop at Oakdale, I asked Paul, "Are you going to do that again any time soon?"

"You never know for sure what's going to happen," Paul said with a sly smile. "That's why you're training!"

He was right again, of course. If I had certainty, I wouldn't need confidence!

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