A Smoky but Safe End to a Pilot's 'Check Ride'

Piloting a plane for a “check ride” has plenty of pressure under normal circumstances. Add engine trouble at takeoff to the scenario and it really gets tense, but that’s precisely the situation 18-year-old Daniel Luna faced last fall.

Fortunately he had attentive air traffic controllers watching his back and a seasoned FAA safety inspector at his side in the Cessna 172RG. Although Luna had to redo his check ride later, he landed his smoking aircraft that early September day without incident.

“I always find a way to make the pieces fit together perfectly,” controller Marc Gough told the Dallas Morning News in recounting his role in the incident. “That’s the thing that I guess turns that stress into a positive thing for me ... separating all these aircraft and getting everybody where they want to be in a safe and expeditious fashion.”

Luna was only about 200 feet in the air and still over the 7,203-foot runway at Addison Airport north of Dallas when supervisor Josh Kovar spotted smoke coming from the plane. He alerted Gough, who had turned his attention to three arriving aircraft from the opposite direction and a nearby helicopter after Luna’s departure.

Gough quickly assessed the situation and warned Luna: “You’re smoking. You’re smoking a lot. You may want to just land again.”
Holes in the oil pan of the Cessna 172RG caused the engine to smoke. (Photo: FAA)

Neither Luna nor safety inspector Cristobal Diaz could immediately see smoke or sense engine trouble. No problems had been apparent minutes earlier during the pre-flight engine check, either. But by the time Gough repeated the smoke warning to Luna more emphatically about 20 seconds later, Luna had decided to land before he ran out of runway room.

That course of action proved to be a wise one for the student pilot. As the Morning News noted, Addison is one of the busiest single-runway airports in the country, and air traffic was heavy that day. The airport is just a few miles from downtown Dallas, so Luna would have had few options to guide a plane with no engine to a safe landing had he left the airport vicinity.

Over the next two minutes, Gough cleared other traffic out of Luna’s path so he could get back to the airport, all the while contemplating what emergency services he might need.

After Luna had landed safely about four-fifths down the length of the runway, Gough twice reassured him that his aircraft was still the priority. “Whatever you need to do, we’re just moving aircraft for you, sir.”

Luna exited the runway but ultimately decided to shut down the Cessna because of the smoke rather than trying to taxi back to the hangar of American Flyers, the flight school that owns it.

He initially thought he needed just a tow truck for the plane and not a fire truck, but Gough made a different call based on what he saw from the control tower.

“I’m going to call you a truck anyway just in case,” he said. “... It’s not going to be on you; it’ll be on us.”

Gough praised Kovar for spotting the unfolding situation while Gough was focused on other traffic. He noted that the mechanic who examined the engine, which had holes in the oil pan from a mechanical problem, said the pilot probably only had about 30 seconds before total engine failure. “Without Mr. Kovar’s second set of eyes and awareness of my attention focused to the south, this situation would have had a different outcome,” Gough said.

Air Traffic Manager Marty Skinner, meanwhile, lauded both members of his team. “I am extremely proud of how this situation was handled and how Mr. Gough and Mr. Kovar demonstrated the essential component of teamwork so critical to the safety of everyday air traffic operations,” he said.

And Matthew Green, a front line manager at the North Texas Flight Standards District Office, praised Diaz’s in-flight reaction to the emergency. He said Diaz is “an inquisitive and level-headed inspector whose dedication to aviation safety, coupled with the skills he possesses, served him well. ... His performance that day reflects well on the FAA, the FSDO and himself.”

Eight days later, Luna took to the air again and completed his check ride in another plane, without any mechanical obstacles that time. He is now an instructor at American Flyers.

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