A relaxing Saturday becomes a mayday

So, what did you do on Saturday?

Like the rest of you, I can’t remember how many times I’ve heard that question. Well, Saturday, March 5, 2005, was one that I’ll remember for a long time.

Robin 2160
The Robin is a fun airplane… when the engine runs.

I own and operate a flying school at Jandakot Airport (Perth’s GA airport) in Western Australia. Normally I take Saturdays off. This particular Saturday I went in to work to do a Test Flight on our aerobatic Robin 2160. As I was going out the door my wife said, “Let someone else do the flight and stay home.”

Well, faced with mowing the lawn and a multitude of “honey do’s,” the decision was made, of course, in favour of the test flight. Plus, an old squadron skipper once beat into me, “Don’t ask your people to do flights that you don’t want to do.”

Besides, it gave me an excuse to go flying and that’s always fun in my book.

Down at the tarmac, preparation was a bit more detailed than usual since the wings and tail had recently been replaced after removal for periodic checking and a new engine had just been installed. But after crawling over and under the little Robin, checking everything twice, I jumped in, started the engine and headed off for 2+30 hours of no telephones, no stress and no worries – right?

Not so fast Chuck!

The day was perfect. High clouds, cool with unlimited visibility. Everything was going to plan. The controls were spot on; the engine did not miss a beat. A perfect flight. Maybe I shouldn’t have had that extra cup of coffee I’d had just before the flight! Should I land? Nahh! Only another 30 minutes or so to go.

Descended to 1500 feet, headed through the Shipyard, an initial entry point.

“Jandakot Tower, OXY Shipyards 1500 feet with ATIS.”

So far, this had been a great flight and I was thinking that I might even take the wife out to lunch!

All landing checks were done, so I started checking for traffic in the pattern. I spotted one aircraft but it wasn’t a problem. I was at Adventure World, the last entry point before entering the pattern.

“Jandakot Tower, OXY Adventure World.”

Should I request a low fly-by to get the tower boys excited? Nahh! That last cup of coffee…

Jandakot airport
Jandakot has a nice, big runway, but will the airplane make it?

From the Tower: “OXY, enter downwind 06, your traffic is a Cessna turning final.”

How great is this? Up here with the birds, not mowing the lawn below.

“Oscar, X-ray, Yankee, acknowledge.”

I started my descent from 1500 feet to 1000 feet. Everything checked good. Wait a minute, why is the prop slowing down? Fuel gauge says there is fuel. Electric fuel pump is on. RPM is at the bottom of the green arc and falling.

Got big problems!

“Tower, OXY has problems! Am proceeding direct to the field. I’ll take any runway I can make!”

My mind raced: set glide speed 75 kts. Might not make the field! How far is the Freeway? High tension powerlines! Pull up! Pull up! Full Power! Full Power! Nothing!

Don’t stall!

Clear of powerlines! Where now? Nothing but houses! Pick a street with no one on it! Got it!

“MAYDAY! MAYDAY! MAYDAY!”

I tried to stay lined up on the street, but I was too fast so I got rid of some speed. Then the stall warning started to sound. Time to land hard and stand on the brakes. The street was still clear, thank God!

So much for that lunch.

What the…? I was somersaulting and upside down.

Impact!

Damn that was hard! I released the harness, and tried to catch myself so I didn’t land on my head.

Robin crash scene
No major injuries, amazingly.

I wish I would have listened to the wife. I tried to go left, but was blocked. I noticed a guy outside the aircraft, yelling.

So I went right, through the canopy plastic. Finally, I was clear! What is that guy saying – something about sitting down? Blood! Damn! Poor ol’ OXY is really busted up. Time to sit down now!

So now when someone asks me what I did on one particular Saturday, I can offer the following:

  1. I did my 501st arrested landing. Unfortunately, there was no aircraft carrier available.
  1. I did a wheels-up landing in a fixed-gear aircraft. Luckily, I’m hard-headed.
  1. Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing.
  1. I made my aircraft an un-reusable container.

Lessons learned:

  1. I should have listened to my wife.
  2. It can happen to you and, when it does, you won’t be ready. Don’t panic. Rely on your training.
  3. Fly the aircraft! But be ready to change your plan.
  4. Time will pass very fast!
  5. Don’t worry about what will happen after the flight.
Tags from the story

14 Comments

  • True enough. Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing. Same words spoken to me from MY father many years ago. AND, another reason why I always check my fuel levels during my preflight before each flight. Dad and Mom ran the FBO at Montgomery County airport near Conroe, Texas for many years and they saw more than one incident involving fuel starvation. Alternate landing picks are virtually never that good and are definitely NOT designed for acomodating a landing aircraft. Glad this pilot walked away.

  • What a crock, to say the least, An ex Navy pilot huh, well I can’t say to much about that. I personally would of held that information to my self. It was a clear case of running out of, ” fuel ” and unexcusable . A newly o/hauled engine had absolutely nothing to do with pilot stupidity and a flight school owner to boot, what a shame. Maybe after you put out some cash to the owner for crashing a perfectly good airplane you will learn a real lesson about flying !!! By the way it takes more than 2 1/2 hours to break in a newly o/hauled engine.

  • Thank you for your all your comments.

    OK some of you have lost the objective of the story. It was to give a running story about what happens during a forced landing. And to do it with some humour so people might remember it. While flying requires making good decisions to prevent problems what is more important is how does one recover from bad decisions.

    Now to address some comments.

    Everyone has an opinion like they have an a$$h@le. The trick is to make sure you have all the facts before you publish your opinion. Keep you mouth shut and have people think you are a fool or open it and prove yourself a fool.

    ATSB’s findings were based only on telephone call in which I took responsibility for the accident. After all I was the only one in the aircraft. They never once came to see the aircraft, me, my engineer or anyone else. They did not have any of the operating manuals on the aircraft, or its operating specifics.

    Flying for the Navy has nothing to do with nothing.

    Why did the engine stop? It could have been a number of causes. Actually fuel starvation was the problem. But why? Well the new carburator was not properly assembled and QAed and therefore it burned more fuel than advertised. In other words a fuel leak through the engine as per my Engine Shop, Hawker Pacific, diagnosis. By the way that was also the Insurance Assessors opinion after disassembling the carburator. The aircraft held 120 ltrs of fuel and was full. Further, I had done this exact flight on this exact aircraft 3 times before and each time landed with 45 minutes reserves.

    As to Overhauled engines, the first flight is always the most likely flight that something will go wrong. Engine run ins are not required in GA. And the Lycoming Flyer outlines how an initial engine run in should be done to seat the rings for Lycoming engines and it was followed and it is 2.5 hours. It is followed by running the engine at higher RPMs for the first 25 – 50 hours or until oil usage stabilzes. Perhaps people should read the Lycoming Flyer before they wax eloquent about initial engine run ins. But why try to be factual when expressing your opinion?

    As to putting out money to the owner, that is me. I own all my aircraft and I know how much it costs. I also do all the initial run ins before I let any one else (customers or staff) fly them.

    Now to stupidity, a wonderful word designed to encourage meaningful dialogue. I shall ignore its use. Perhaps learning to ask questions rather than insulting people might enlighten you better and might even allow you to learn something. I have learned something from this exchange of thoughts. You truly have an opinion and an a$$h@le. Unfortunately, in your case your opinion seem to be the latter.

    My name is Chuck McElwee. I wrote the article, flew the aircraft, owned the aircraft, owned the flying school and had been in aviation for only 36 years at the time of the crash (now 47 years). I have never said I was a great pilot or know everything about flying. I am only a lucky pilot.

    And the only purpose of the article was to talk people though an event I hope never happens to them.

  • Wow Chuck, glad you made it. looks like a very defensive reply to some. Maybe a little- or should I say big—ego in the cockpit—based on the years flying comment. Time for some self reflection in my opinion—it may help prevent bigger things from happening .

  • Great story. Thanks for sharing that. Don’t worry about Joe. He doesn’t make mistakes. Oh wait… He can’t even spell “too” right.

  • A fellow pilot shares an experience hoping to enlighten and educate and all some a–h—s can do is criticize and condemn. They should keep their opinions to themselves. They are the arrogant risk takers who think they are God’s gift to aviation who feel they know it all.
    I have recently returned to flying and enjoy reading these kinds of stories, especially from the person who lived it instead of third person because the pilot became a statistic. If you haven’t got something good to say keep your a–, I mean your mouth shut.
    Thanks Chuck, I appreciate you sharing.

  • Thanks for sharing your story, Chuck.

    As a practical matter, your story and the explanation you provided in your comment in the thread here points up an interesting issue that is worth thinking about. Not as a matter of assessing blame, but of helping us pilots avoid the same outcome you suffered.

    In your case, you were doing a test flight to break in the new engine, following the recommendations of Lycoming to run it hard for about 2 and a half hours, which by your experience with this particular aircraft with its former engine should have left you a reasonably comfortable reserve in your tanks. Unfortunately the engine suffered fuel leakage that reduced its endurance, and the result was your fuel exhaustion incident.

    What this scenario suggests is that any time we do any intrusive maintenance on our aircraft, particularly our engines, we should do some serious measurement and, if necessary, recalibration of expected fuel consumption rather than assume all is as before. In the case of an overhaul and the required multi-hour break-in period, it makes good sense to run the engine hard for the first hour or so, while carefully monitoring the fuel gages and controlling the fuel tank selector, and then make a landing midway through the break-in run to verify, by dipping or topping off the tanks to verify the actual fuel consumption. Sure, that means interrupting the break-in run with some low RPM operation, but the net effect of just a few minutes operation at low power – which can be mitigated by configuring the aircraft “dirty” (max flaps, gear down) at relatively higher power levels than in a normal approach to landing – should not be a big problem.

    Anyway, even if we aren’t flying with a brand new or overhauled engine, but we have made some major engine changes (carburetor, fuel injectors, new jug(s), new magneto or plugs), it is a really good idea to limit the first operations to an hour or so and verify the fuel burn rate before launching on a mission that tests the “normal” endurance of the aircraft.

    For that reason, this is a very useful post … thanks again, Chuck.

  • Well Chuck, It seems like I hit a nerve, so be it. All in all you screwed up, From what I read it seems like you kept making excuses as to why the engine quit running, like newly o/hauled engine, a newly o/hauled carb. having to run the engine hard as per mfg. suggestions. Nothing was said to the fact that perhaps I didn’t do something right, like not taking everything for granted and conduct a test flight like as if everything was honky dory. I worked for an aircraft engine rebuilding company and have broken in quite a few engines myself, it usually takes around 10 plus hours of hard running to seat the rings etc. But I can assure you I never took an airplane with a newly o/hauled engine an did what you did and not even considering fuel burn or just taking everything for granted like it was an every day flight. Especially with a newly o/hauled engine, you take every precaution and no chances at all. First your first mistake was not staying close to the airport, like circling overheard in case you had a problem, case in point. I never left the airport area when breaking in a new or newly o/hauled engine. My intent was not to ridicule you but to state the facts as you made them in your article. sorry if I offended anyone, not my intent.

  • I concur with Joe G., above. According to the probable cause statement:

    “Personnel at the accident site inspected the aircraft’s fuel tank and observed that it did not contain any fuel.

    The aircraft was on its first flight following maintenance, which had included the installation of an overhauled engine. During the flight the pilot completed the procedure for break-in of an overhauled engine. At the time of the accident, the aircraft had been airborne for 2 hours 41 minutes.

    The circumstances of the engine failure were consistent with fuel exhaustion. Contributing to the fuel exhaustion were the higher than normal power settings, and therefore fuel consumption, associated with the conduct of the break-in flight. ”

    Exacerbating the problem is that a low fuel warning light was, according to the Factual report, “taped over” with black electrical tape. Fuel consumption, according to the manufacturer of the kit would have been 108 to 137 L during the flight, WITH NO RESERVE! Based on the accident report the pilot dipped the tanks and ESTIMATED he had 118 L of fuel.

    What we have isn’t an example of handling an emergency, it’s an admission of hubris that overcame good judgement. The first flight after heavy maintenance is a dangerous endeavor. Mike Busch, prolific aviation maintenance lecturer and writer, advises that “every flight after maintenance is a test flight…” and “ANY flight after invasive maintenance…” like an engine overhaul “is to be approached with a test pilot mentality”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *