An airline pilot gets reacquainted with piston engines—and engine failures

After learning to fly with the Royal Air Force I hardly touched a light aeroplane, or flew solo, for the next 40 years. Four engines and three or four crew were the norm, and with a demanding occupation, busy family, and limited cashflow—it’s a myth that the hump on the Boeing 747 was for the captain to sit on his wallet—meant that recreational flying was a rare event. So when the CFI of one of the local clubs became too incapacitated to fly, and suggested that I buy his single seat, VW-powered Druine Turbulent Microlight, it was a whole new ball game.

No longer would I have a flight engineer to complete the pre-flight exterior inspection, start the engines, manage the fuel, monitor the temps and pressures, and pass my coffee from the stewardess, amongst other things; nor a co-pilot to read the checklist, talk to ATC, load the navigation waypoints, copy the weather, listen to the ATIS and keep me amused. I would be on my own. Scary!

I arranged to collect ZK-CQC from a nearby grass airfield where I planned to re-acquaint myself with a tail-wheel—that really was a 40-year gap—and get to grips with this tiger that I had grabbed by the tail. But no sooner had I handed over my final cheque to complete the purchase, then the sky darkened, rain clouds threatened, and I decided to run before the storm and go back to home base.

Turbulent microlight
An airplane is an airplane, right?

Brakes on, switches on—contact! The delivery pilot swung the prop then dashed back to his accompanying aircraft and flew off before the rain set in. So there I was thrown in at the deep end, so gingerly taxied onto the runway, remembering to weave left and right to see ahead.

Checks complete—what checks? Well, I guess it was wise to ensure that the fuel was still turned on, no trim, no mixture, but the choke was pushed in, altimeter reading field height, oil pressure and temp and cylinder head temp were in the middle of their respective ranges, so were presumably within limits, no flaps, harness secure, RPM increased with throttle, and the engine didn’t stop when I turned each mag off, compass was indicating runway heading, and control surfaces waggled obligingly. Deep breath, full throttle, stick neutral, bit of rudder, tail came up, bit more rudder, experiment with a bit of back pressure on the stick—and we’re off! I was committed now; the thing had to be landed somewhere, so why not go home and beat the rain?

On arrival the wind was right across the long runway, so not wishing to test my 40-year old tailwheel skills and a crosswind at the same time, I landed on the short grass runway. After only one small bounce I was trundling along quite happily with the stick held firmly back, but the hedge was getting close so it was time to experiment with the brakes. Big mistake. The Turbulent brake pedals stand out of the floor between the rudder pedals, but there is only space for one foot at a time, which is supposed to apply both brakes, but of course they never grip evenly, so a turn is induced and it is essential to correct this quickly. That means one has the option of twisting the sole of the foot to create a different pressure on the pedals, or apply the opposite rudder.

Murphy’s Law dictates that the rudder to be applied is the one with the foot that is being used for the brakes, so it is off with that foot, on with the other foot, dab of rudder, overcorrect, change feet, opposite rudder, overcorrect, change feet. The corkscrew result of these ballet steps were observed by the flying school CFI, which doubtless has a bearing on the present opinion of GA instructors that microlight pilots are cowboys—proficient in square dancing.

I finally got everything under control, put the aircraft in the club hangar. And had a beer.

I had to wait a few days for the weather to improve, but finally got to play with my new toy. I perfected the technique of completing two touch and gos from each approach—with 1500m available and less than 300m needed each time, and no flaps or trim to reset, this is hardly a challenge. Three-point landings, wheel landings, side-slipping to final, calm summer evening takeoff on 17, land on 31, circle to 35, circle to 13, circle to 17. Hey! This is almost as good as taking a 747 into Hong Kong. Kids—don’t try this at home.

After about three weeks, a club member asked me to fly his wife in the club Cessna 152 with a camera, to photograph their own aircraft air-to-air. On landing there was film to spare and they offered to reciprocate with photographs of me and CQC, so off we went—formation flying now—another memory from the past.

They landed back ahead of me, and when downwind for the short grass runway (but being used to 3,000m of sealed, international runways), the 460m available looked awfully short, and I considered myself too close and too high, so flew most of the circuit with the throttle fully closed. (Yes, I did remember carburetor heat.) The runway is guarded by a stand of tall tees, over which there is a permanent downdraft, almost like a standing wave.  Being correctly positioned on short final, the downdraft required a touch of throttle—at which point the engine stopped. S#^t!

Check fuel on, switches on, keep airspeed, fly the aeroplane—don’t stretch a glide. To the right of the threshold was a fairly long paddock, but unfortunately a pair of trees were in the way. I was convinced that I couldn’t squeeze through and would take the wings off, so it was down to ground level and low speed, but in fact I got through with room to spare. Following the best landing of my life, I hit a rut and dinged the prop. I got out cursing heartily, set some chocks, swung the prop, and the engine started immediately. Shutting down, I then walked over to the flying club where my friends were expecting me to taxy in behind them instead of slouching dejectedly across the field, dangling my headset . We all went back, the farmer obligingly removed some of his wire strand fence posts, and we pushed CQC back to the hangar. And had another beer.

Glider in field
Glider pilots land out all the time, so what’s the big deal?

“Carb icing,” said the bar room pundits, sagely, but I didn’t really believe that. I know one can never say it isn’t that sort of day, but it wasn’t that sort day—I didn’t think. Over the next few weeks I had the prop repaired, the engine, carb, magnetos, fuel pump, and fuel lines checked over and via the Internet contacted the UK Tiger Club, who run a fleet of Tiger Moths and Turbulents. ” Yes,” they said, “It’s happened to us too, we recommend a small trickle of power be held right into the flare.” I now have a large red line painted on my RPM gauge, beyond which I never reduce—ever—until over the hedge.

After a few confidence-reassuring flights, I decided to see how high I could get—over, or near to, the airfield of course. Achieving 10,000 ft. I was cold and bored—it took a long time—so decided to go home. I pulled the power off and the CHT dropped back to the stop. Can’t do that. I restored some power and dropped the nose with similar result. Hum? Eventually it took me nearly as long to slowly descend with some power on, as to climb.

Starting CQC is always a challenge; those who have owned VW cars will recall having to keep the starter turning and pump the throttle until the thing sprang into life, but with no electric starter, not even an impulse magneto, swinging the prop will only give you one compression at a time, at a time, at a time etc.  The engine has to be started with half choke selected, and if successful one should then close the choke and open the throttle, the engine stops. Not warm enough.

In retrospect I think I let the engine get too cold and had I grabbed a handful of choke it might have sprung back into life—maybe. I’m not inclined to try and prove the theory and anyway I was too busy flying the aeroplane—always the first priority.

What have I learned (re-learned)? Always assume that the engine is going to stop at the worst possible moment and have a cunning plan ready. It isn’t the first engine failure I’ve experienced, but previously I had a few spares to rely on!

Fly the aeroplane—they actually glide quite well. And remember, glider pilots always have a forced landing and they survive. Usually.

3 Comments

  • Entertaining article; thank you! Glad to hear you were able to get on the ground with minimal issues during your engine-out experiences.

  • Great read! We (glider pilots) do land in fields/paddocks frequently – just watch out for the powerlines, fences … and rocks!

  • Way too much drama. Mr. Gravity is….Mr. Gravity. He cares not if you’re ascending or descending…………………………….the human “concept” is to keep “Mr. Gravity” at bay however humans are able to…………….. since we’re so adept at accepting “Mr. Gravity” at his face value. It is artistic to be commenting on a landing that gravity was supposed to be in charge……………… and deciding your life or death.

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