Engine failures well above the ground are handled differently than those occurring at lower speeds and altitudes. Cruise airspeed allows better airplane control and altitude, which may permit time for a possible diagnosis and remedy of the failure. Maintaining airplane control, however, is still paramount. Airplanes have been lost at altitude due to apparent fixation on the engine problem to the detriment of flying the airplane.
Not all engine failures or malfunctions are catastrophic in nature (catastrophic meaning a major mechanical failure that damages the engine and precludes further engine operation). Many cases of power loss are related to fuel starvation, where restoration of power may be made with the selection of another tank. An orderly inventory of gauges and switches may reveal the problem. Carburetor heat or alternate air can be selected. The affected engine may run smoothly on just one magneto or at a lower power setting. Altering the mixture may help. If fuel vapor formation is suspected, fuel boost pump operation may be used to eliminate flow and pressure fluctuations.
Although it is a natural desire among pilots to save an ailing engine with a precautionary shutdown, the engine should be left running if there is any doubt as to needing it for further safe flight. Catastrophic failure accompanied by heavy vibration, smoke, blistering paint, or large trails of oil, on the other hand, indicate a critical situation. The affected engine should be feathered and the Securing Failed Engine checklist completed. The pilot should divert to the nearest suitable airport and declare an emergency with ATC for priority handling.
Fuel crossfeed is a method of getting fuel from a tank on one side of the airplane to an operating engine on the other. Crossfeed is used for extended single-engine operation. If a suitable airport is close at hand, there is no need to consider crossfeed. If prolonged flight on a single-engine is inevitable due to airport non-availability, then crossfeed allows use of fuel that would otherwise be unavailable to the operating engine. It also permits the pilot to balance the fuel consumption to avoid an out-of-balance wing heaviness.
The AFM/POH procedures for crossfeed vary widely. Thorough fuel system knowledge is essential if crossfeed is to be conducted. Fuel selector positions and fuel boost pump usage for crossfeed differ greatly among multiengine airplanes. Prior to landing, crossfeed should be terminated and the operating engine returned to its main tank fuel supply.
If the airplane is above its single-engine absolute ceiling at the time of engine failure, it slowly loses altitude. The pilot should maintain VYSE to minimize the rate of altitude loss. This “drift down” rate is greatest immediately following the failure and decreases as the single-engine ceiling is approached. Due to performance variations caused by engine and propeller wear, turbulence, and pilot technique, the airplane may not maintain altitude even at its published single-engine ceiling. Any further rate of sink, however, would likely be modest.
An engine failure in a descent or other low power setting can be deceiving. The dramatic yaw and performance loss is absent. At very low power settings, the pilot may not even be aware of a failure. If a failure is suspected, the pilot should advance both engine mixtures, propellers, and throttles significantly, to the takeoff settings if necessary, to correctly identify the failed engine. The power on the operative engine can always be reduced later.