My first real emergency

I’d not flown for about four months and was feeling very much out of practice. I called Paulo, an ex-commercial pilot friend who is also an instructor, and asked if he would mind accompanying me as my safety pilot, and he readily agreed.

I’d booked the aircraft, and, even though the weather was somewhat overcast, I set off for Larnaca airport. When I arrived I went out and did the pre-flight inspection and discovered that the fuel and oil levels were low. So I waited around for the fuel bowser, which did nothing to improve my self-confidence, which, I had to admit was at a somewhat low ebb.

Eventually the aircraft was fueled, engine oil added, and we were set to go. I climbed aboard and started the cabin checks, and then called “Clear prop!” and started the engine. Satisfied that everything appeared OK, I called Larnaca Ground: “Larnaca Ground, Five Bravo Charlie Lima Hotel, Diamond DA-40, two persons on board, request taxi clearance, Five Bravo Charlie Lima Hotel.”

Diamond DA-40
Getting reacquainted with an old friend.

“Five Lima Hotel, next time request engine start clearance first! You are cleared to taxi via Charlie to Delta for runway zero four.”

Ouch! A slap on the wrist even before we start! No one had told me that we now have to get engine start clearance, and I’ve being doing this for the last four years. I repeated the clearance, and then gently opened the throttle and started rolling to the taxiway, and then on to Delta.

When I arrived at Delta, I’m promptly handed over to the tower: “Larnaca Tower, Five Bravo Charlie Lima Hotel at Delta, request departure clearance for Marki-Klirou, Five Bravo Charlie Lima Hotel.”

“Five Lima Hotel, confirm you are aware of the currently active danger areas?”

“Negative, which ones are active today? Five Lima Hotel.”

“Five Lima Hotel, you should have been informed of this before departure.”

Not another slap on the wrist! I took a deep breath and apologised, but there had been no notices at the flight centre, nor was there any mention on the ATIS that I checked when filing my flight plan.

This was not turning out to be a good day at all. Finally, after copying the active danger areas, I was given takeoff clearance. Out on the runway, I made my last checks: engine oil pressure and temperature – check, fuel temperature – check, open the throttle, accelerating, airspeed alive, 40 – 50 – 60kts, gently rotate, and we climbed out.

I hadn’t flown Lima Hotel now for four months, but even so the climb did not seem to be quite as brisk. I put that down to a full load of fuel and two persons on board. Climbing over the end of the runway, I retracted the flaps and trimmed for 80kts, and then a nice gentle 20 degree banked left-hand turn to head out over the salt lake, and I was beginning to relax.

I took a deep breath, and then, just as I was climbing through 1,200 ft…

BONG! A major warning chime from the avionics. Startled, I look down at the display and see the message: ECU-A FAIL. Hardly had I digested that when…

BONG! and now: ECU-B FAIL

Although the engine was still running, it was clearly lacking power; the airspeed was falling off, and as I leveled off, I found I could not maintain level flight, so I pressed the PTT switch.

“Larnaca Tower, Five Lima Hotel, I’m declaring an emergency, major engine failure, ECU A and ECU B fail, request immediate landing clearance, Five Lima Hotel!”

There was a momentary pause, then, “Five Lima Hotel, you are cleared for an immediate landing, runway zero four, be aware of an aircraft just about to land.”

I looked over to my left, and saw the aircraft that was just about to touch down, “Cleared to land, zero four, I have visual on number one, Five Lima Hotel.”

At this point, Paulo (who had said nothing so far) quietly said, “Adrian, you fly the plane, leave the flaps until you’re on finals, I’ll monitor the airspeed, what d’you want, 70?”

“Yeah, 70 knots, thanks!”

I was descending at about 400 ft per minute and I quickly calculated that I had maybe three minutes at most. The runway was way over there to my left. No time or height for anything like a normal circuit, so I snapped the landing light on and banked the aircraft into a very gentle left-hand turn.

Larnaca airport
Can we make the runway?

Paulo was quietly telling me the height and airspeed, and at 800 ft ATC said, “Five Lima Hotel, I have you in sight, runway zero four, wind zero two zero at ten.”

I was a bit busy trying to line up on the centre line and I did not acknowledge, but it looks OK: my touch down point was just past the numbers, and it was stationary with a speck on the windshield, 70kts, extend first stage of flaps, and re-trim, then the second stage, and I was over the threshold. Ever so gently, I eased the stick back and closed the throttle, and just as the stall warning sounded the main wheels ever so gently kissed the runway without so much as bump. Wow! One of my best landings ever!

ATC asked if I needed a tow, but I found that I still had enough engine power to taxi, so after being cleared, I taxied back to the apron. When I looked out, I found that I had all the emergency vehicles with me, their lights flashing, as well as the ambulance. “Five Lima Hotel, are you OK?”

“Yes, many thanks, glad to be down safely, Five Lima Hotel.”

“Roger that, glad you’re OK.”

I climbed out and went over to the emergency crew and thanked them. They were grinning – I guess it’s not every day that they get to play with their toys.

Paulo climbed out, came over, patted me on the back, and congratulated me, saying it was “a textbook perfect landing.” Then it was inside to fill out all the paperwork for calling an emergency.

My Chief Flight Instructor also came over and shook my hand, and congratulated me. I may have had somewhat low self-confidence before this flight, but this had done wonders for me now that I know that I can handle this.

When we took the aircraft over to the ground engineer and he downloaded the engine fault log, it showed very low fuel line pressure, suggesting either a partially blocked filter or a pump problem – I thought the initial climb-out was a bit sluggish! A subsequent investigation revealed a choked fuel filter.

So, that was my first real emergency. Despite all the times I’ve practised these things, both in the aircraft and the simulator, you know at the back of your mind that it’s not real, and that if things do not work out as planned, you can always open the throttle and go around. Only when it’s the real thing do you know whether you can actually handle it or not. In retrospect, I was surprised how calm I was, and how focused, as well as how all my training just kicked in.

So, remember, FTDP – Fly The Damn Plane!

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  • Excellent example of how to handle an emergency! As an aside, this is also an excellent example of the freedoms we enjoy in the USA. Clearance to start engines?! If anyone here has any doubt that we need less government control, this should convince them.

    • Yeah, that ‘clearance to start engine’ sounds kinda ridiculous. I’m also not entirely sure what the ‘active danger areas’ are either. Probably similar to a TFR, but being that he’s in Cyprus I would imagine it has to do with military activity (considering the neighborhood).

      Still, if we ever get to a point where we need a clearance just to start the engine, then it’s probably a good indication that we’ve pretty much lost the country.

  • The plane you were flying is a DA40 D with Technify (formerly known as Thielert) engine. But the photo depicts a DA40 with Lycoming engine. Please put a picture of the real plane or at least a picture of a plane of the same type (DA40) and variant (D) as this may be misleading to some pilots.

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