Wednesday 19 June 2013 08:18 UTC
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'Aviate, navigate, communicate', how many times have we all heard it?. Heaven knows I'd drummed it into my own students enough over the years with the added point that if you don't do the first the second and third won't matter anyway. Another phrase still ringing in my ears courtesy of my CFI, a retired RAAF fighter instructor/examiner for whom there was no such thing as any leeway, is "Maintain the *%#!ing airspeed!!". To be fair to him I was two whole knots fast at the time.
The day in question was the last of the season where I'd spent two summers of my days off conducting pleasure flights in the Dragon Rapide. I loved the Rapide not least because ten years before I'd spent my weekends selling tickets to the passengers and now I was flying them. All those struts, wires and fixed landing gear equalled lots of drag so it went everywhere at pretty much the same (slow) speed with the throttles merely varying the noise level. It was also said half-jokingly that in the event of an engine failing the only place the second was going to take you was to the scene of the accident. I do know that even in training with only half tanks, pilot and instructor/examiner on board and knowing which engine would be 'failed' (only one seat in the cockpit so you had the advantage of knowing not only when a throttle would come back but exactly which one because you were doing it yourself) it would often struggle to maintain altitude let alone climb.
The aircraft had been prepared by ground crew so all I had to do was the pre-flight and paperwork. It had flown well the day before and with the same fine weather I was looking forward to a repeat. The first group of passengers, all reggie spotters complete with scanners and half-a-dozen biros in their top pockets, were practically climbing the fence in their eagerness to board so I gestured to our ground crew who began escorting them across the grass. In the brief conversations I was able to have with them as they hopped up onto the wing and ducked through the door it became clear that they knew the entire history of this, and probably every other Rapide, far better than I did. Enthusiasts and anyone with more than a passing interest in the aircraft always seemed to enjoy the flights far more and I'd always give them extra time when I could.
A call to the tower and we were cleared to start. Another and cleared to taxi. Run-ups and before take-off checks complete and my "Ready for departure" was rewarded with "Cleared for take-off". One last look round (what I think of as my 'happy check') including a glance over my shoulder into the cabin then the windsock and I brought the levers up and yoke forward. The variable noise changed to 'loud' and we started our bumpy roll along the grass runway, 06. As the speed built and the tail come up I gradually relaxed the forward pressure until the tail was flying. A few seconds more and I applied the lightest of back pressure. The aircraft slowly became airborne and we accelerated in ground effect. I gradually raised the nose to the climb attitude, noted the point where there was insufficient remaining runway to land and......the right engine stopped.
It didn't just cut off and go quiet but made loud popping, banging, backfiring noises which somewhat covered the fact that it was turning over quite slowly, windmilling, too slowly to produce any thrust as the yaw and immediately reducing airspeed proved. These days I'm not sure which came first but many things vied for my attention. I began to trade speed for height trimming slowly to maintain blue line and while doing so considered how to return and land. I knew that whatever happened I was not going to fall for the old '180 degree turn followed by a stall and spin'. If we were going down I wanted at least some say in exactly where. I prefer not to turn into the dead engine but a left turn, into the live one, would take me behind the crowd line. Granted, not across it but even so I'd rather not. Ahead of me were some houses, industrial buildings, fields full of standing crops plus a sewage treatment plant and I'm sure you can work out my reasons for not wanting to go near each of those. With the aircraft trimmed I checked the cockpit. Throttles, both hard forward. Fuel, fully rich and taps 'on'. Air, carb heat was off and conditions were wrong for icing. Ignition, I cycled the mags but noticed no difference in the percussion from the right wing. Fuel contamination? Oh, great. How long before the other one starts to act up? Back to the instrument panel and in the few seconds I'd been away my speed had reduced to three knots below blue line speed and the CFI's words rang out loud and clear in my head "Maintain the *%#!ing airspeed!!". Yessir. Right away sir. Won'thappenagainsir. Boy, was I pleased to have him there.
With the mental note to increase my scan rate I again surveyed the landscape which was getting closer, the remaining engine simply wasn't capable of maintaining altitude with a full passenger load and fuel. As I looked at the fields with a view to choosing the best of a bad bunch the right engine suddenly sprang to life and at full power too! I held the airspeed as we climbed through 500' agl and......the engine quit again. Another 'Fuel-Air-Spark' check and nothing had changed from the last time although I did now have a wider choice of crash sites. As the engine coughed and banged slowly across Cambridgeshire I watched the altitude bleed away and chose two likely looking fields. Passing 400' agl and without warning the engine fired up again. With my left foot welded to the rudder and my full attention on heading and airspeed we slowly crawled to 600' at which point yup you guessed it, the engine stopped. Decision time. I knew the ground below the downwind leg and there were no crops in those. It also occurred to me that the nearer we put down to the airfield the better although liquid sewage probably had excellent extinguishing properties. Then again methane, so perhaps not.
I started a half bank turn to the right during which maintaining speed cost 150'. Rolling out on an extended downwind I again checked the fields which looked better if not exactly inviting. A quick mental calculation and I reasoned that with a downwind leg at 450' agl minus the 150' I might lose in the base turn would see me roll out on final at 300'. While that would be fine from a close base leg If the fuel were contaminated and the left engine failed before then I still had other places to go. As I turned to brief the passengers the engine began to run smoothly again so I took the opportunity to climb 150' before it went back to its pop-bang-bang routine. As expected it did (I was beginning to see a pattern but didn't have time to confirm it) I glanced at the altimeter and saw 600' agl, a little further downwind and I'd be in a position to make a glide approach to the runway even if I did lose the left engine. The situation was looking better. I called the tower and simply reported "G-XXXX, long downwind for 06, request priority to land". Their reply "Yes, we know. Cleared to land" made me frown a little but I just acknowledged the clearance. I found out afterward that the backfiring engine could be heard for miles and they'd known I had a problem from the start. It was a credit to their professionalism that they left me to deal with it and didn't try to speak to me until I was ready to speak to them.
Looking over my shoulder I got the attention of the passenger in the front, right hand seat. No time for niceties, I didn't want to lose airspeed again, I simply said "We're returning to land, make sure everyone is still strapped in". He looked back at me, camera in hand with a huge smile on his face and said "It's fantastic! You can see the ground and everything!". He was so happy to be there I held back the response 'Yeah, that's sort of the problem' and smiled before facing forward again. Bless.
Resisting the urge to turn base too soon (and it was a strong urge too let me tell you, throughout the whole thing I never felt more compelled to just turn and point an aeroplane back at a runway) I completed my downwind checks. A quick scan confirmed no other aircraft in the vicinity courtesy of my new best friends in the tower and the rest of the approach and landing was normal apart perhaps from the flock of water fairies in their fire engines chasing me down the runway. In all seriousness that's one group I don't mind paying for but actually never seeing work.
The engine behaved impeccably for the taxi back to the loading point and the passengers were swiftly transferred to the second Rapide. The engine's noisy display meant I didn't have to have one of those 'but it's not doing it now' conversations and the aircraft was taxied away to the hangar where the cause was found to be fuel starvation. The fuel controls in the cockpit are connected by cables in a pull/pull arrangement which was known to sometimes not always operate the taps fully open or closed. For this reason it was SOP to never turn the fuel off from the cockpit, unfortunately it seems somebody had before returning the control in the cockpit to the fully open position. During the start, taxi out, run-ups the fuel flow was sufficient. For take-off at full power though the fuel in the line lasted about 45 seconds before starvation. Having a fixed pitch propellor meant that the windmilling engine drove its fuel pump and filled the fuel line again. When the fuel reached the engine it would run until starvation occurred. The engine would windmil...fuel pump...engine runs etc, etc. You get the idea.
Ever since that day I've wondered, why do they always put sewage farms next to airfields?
'Cos nobody wants to live next door to either, so they make good neighbours?
There's a 400m buffer zone around a sewage works in which you can't build houses but there's no rule against airfields.
Cool story - and glad to hear everyone came down in one piece (or without even knowing there was a problem!).
Gertie - so it sounds like there is potential for lots of sewage works/airfield combinations then! 400m is a nice length for a strip ...
Last edited by pb6797 on Mon Mar 26, 2012 9:48 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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