A Tale of Two Emergencies

In recent years there have been two cases of Engine Failure After Take Off at Henstridge Airfield on the Dorset and Somerset border. One ended in serious injury to the pilot and the other in survival unscathed for the pilot and three passengers.
This article considers how the different reactions of the pilots led to different outcomes.

On 19 November 2011 Adrian Goodwin arrived at Henstridge airfield in Somerset with a view to flying his beautiful Emeraude two seater with elliptical wings and a Continental C90 engine. The weather was overcast with a strong crosswind across the only runway 25/07 which offers 750 m of hard paving. He had not flown for some time because of inclement weather but realised when he got to the hangar that there would be too much crosswind to fly on that day. He spent some time in the hangar and was in his car driving back across the airfield when he noticed that the wind was moderating, so he returned to the hangar, pulled out the Emeraude, did a pre- flight and taxied to the intersection with a taxiway roughly at the halfway point of the runway.

At the intersection, in accordance with the general practice at Hentsridge he held and completed his pre take off checks including a power check, noting a drop in revs when he applied carb heat. It took him a further minute to taxi to the runway and backtrack to the threshold. He did his final full and free checks, lined up, made his radio call and took off.

About one hundred feet into the climb the revs dropped and then the engine stopped. His initial reaction was astonishment and dismay. He lowered the nose to the normal glide position, made a MAYDAY call and looked ahead to decide where to put the aircraft down. Spectators saw the wings wobble a bit and then the port wing dropped through about 90 deg and the aircraft fell, striking the ground wing tip first. The relatively low level of the stall and spin and the fact that the port wing absorbed much of the impact led to an outcome a good deal better than most Loss of Control in flight (LOC-I) accidents. Adrian vividly remembers the grass rushing towards him and then he lost consciousness. Paramedics from the Air Ambulance stationed on the field found him beneath the panel soaked in Avgas.

                                         The taxi route taken by the Emeraude.  (Photograph courtesy of Google Earth)

They cut his harness, hauled him out and administered first aid. In the event he had no broken bones but cuts, bruises and skin damage from the Avgas. The Emeraude was in four pieces. He is that rare person: a pilot who has suffered a low level LOC-I and survived to give a detailed account of what had happened.

Loss of power - full or partial - on climb out generates a startle effect whose intensity and length of time depends largely on what expectation the pilot had of such an event. For most of us it is a total surprise and it leads to a pause of three to five seconds before the pilot does anything. What he or she does next can vary between an instinctive pulling back on the control column/yoke possibly to keep airborne or possibly as part of common human reaction at times of very extreme stress to adopt the foetal position. Adrian was also a glider pilot and possibly his glider training in the matter of cable breaks caused him to push forward and assume the gliding attitude. The fundamental problem occurred in the few seconds left when he failed to determine to keep the aeroplane flying at all costs. He says that he never looked at the airspeed indicator but got out a MAYDAY and looked for the best place to put down.

Hindsight is a marvellous thing and we can all sit in our armchairs and imagine that in those same circumstances we would have done things differently but we need to remind ourselves that the person complacently sitting in that chair is an entirely different creature from the person suddenly stressed to beyond the limit with only split seconds to react instinctively. The statistics tell us that many of us, maybe most of us, are so taken aback that we forget to do the only thing that is going to save us. Which is to keep the ‘plane flying above all else. Instead we search for some ideal landing spot, probably not within actual 
gliding distance and possibly involving some extreme manoeuvre. We seize upon making radio calls, tightening our straps, turning off electrics and fuel: all desirable actions but worthless if we fail to fly the ‘plane all the way to the ground.

Our best defence against these sorts of consequences is to make an invariable practice just before take off of a self brief around what we are going to do if there is loss of power on climb out. Whatever you may decide to do in detail is far less important than the essential importance of preparing your mind for the possibility of power loss. When it happens that will reduce the startle effect and make you far more likely to recognise your essential priority: keep it flying!

An aftercast from Yeovilton nearby revealed that this was a day of Carb Ice at any time. The Continental engine is particularly prone to carb ice and the relatively short taxy from the hold to the threshold, estimated by Adrian to be about one minute, was sufficient to create ice. He could have taxied with Carb Heat ON or he could have done another run up before take off with carb heat but he was not aware of the high risk of carb ice on that apparently unexceptional day. Perhaps the best approach is always to assume a significant risk of carb ice unless current conditions are obviously not prone. Remember that carb ice can be prevalent on a warm day just as much as cold one: the essential factor is the humidity.

Looking back, Adrian warns that the nose down attitude that is right for a practice forced landing with the engine ticking over is not necessarily sufficient for best glide speed with the engine stopped and the propeller generating significant drag. Only checking the airspeed frequently will tell you if you if the speed is where it needs to be if you are to survive. He regrets that his Emeraude did not have a stall warner. He now recommends that your initial response to EFATO should be to put the control column/yoke well forward and beyond the normal gliding position. He also warns that the mindset that it can never happen to you is a serious mistake. Cabin crew may start their brief with, In the unlikely event of an accident ... but pilots would do much better to regard a power loss on take off as being distinctly likely - and prepare themselves accordingly.

Here is a more recent tale from Henstridge.

On a day of light winds and gentle weather, 20 of August 2016 to be precise, at Henstridge once again Annabelle Burroughs took two children and their father on an air experience flight in a Socata TB10 with Mother looking on from  the  club house. Annabelle  is an instructor at Henstridge and a display pilot in her own Stampe vintage aerobatic biplane. She also forms part of a Tiger Moth formation display team and has built an RV7.

She did a comprehensive passenger brief and got them safely seated with Father in the right hand seat and the two children in the back. The aircraft had nearly full tanks and with four up it weighed towards the top of the permissible weight range. At the pre take off power check all was as it should be and she took off. The take off run seemed slightly longer than usual, which she thought might be the consequence of the light headwind and the all up weight. Having rotated, the climb rate proved to be  rather less than usual. Somewhere around 300 ft she noticed a strange smell and told her passengers in as light a tone of voice as possible that she thought that they might just fly a small circuit and land back again. No sooner had she said that but a plume of white smoke from the engine appeared streaking down the side of the fuselage.

It was obvious to her that fire had broken out in the engine and she closed the throttle, adopted best glide speed, told the children that they would be having a little adventure by landing in a field. She put out a MAYDAY, and just as she has always told her students, concentrated on maintaining flying speed. looked for somewhere to land within 30 deg either side of her current heading, saw a nice field a little on her left but realised from her experience of frequent glide approaches that it was beyond gliding range and settled for a less attractive field of light plough that was nearer. She flew the aircraft all the way to the ground, touched down at a low speed and quickly ran to a stop in the soft ground. She had already warned Father to get himself and the child behind him out of the still burning aircraft as quickly as possible, which he did as soon as they had stopped and she got the child behind her out. She then extracted the aircraft fire extinguisher pointed it into the hole that the fire had burned in the cowling and extinguished the fire. By the time that the rescuers arrived the entire crew were arranged in a group upwind of the aircraft which, leaving aside the fire damage which had been caused by an exhaust pipe falling off and the GRP cowling catching fire, had suffered no damage apart from a cracked nosewheel spat.

Annabelle teaches her students: Don’t worry about making it to the best landing spot: fly your aircraft and the field will take care of you. How right she was.

In any circumstances a fire at 300 ft on climb out would be an exceedingly alarming emergency but with a father and his two small kids as innocent passengers and anxious mother looking on, the stakes were a good deal higher. Instructors spend a lot of time teaching and reminding us about pre take off briefs and how to handle an Engine Failure After Take Off (EFATO). Consequently they are likely to be better prepared for power loss. However, even these gods of the sky would do well to recall that the GASCo Stall and Spin report of 2010 revealed that of the 110 fatal accidents considered there was an instructor on board in 22% of the cases. Experience alone is no defence and only mental preparation before take off is likely to reduce the risk of the alarmed and over stressed human reaction overcoming any amount of previous training.

So, hearty congratulations to Annabelle for a copy book handling of a serious emergency and sincere commiserations to Adrian. He almost got it right but in the considerable stress of the moment he forgot to give absolute priority to keeping the ‘plane flying. At least he did not have to pay the penalty that most pilots and their passengers incur when control is lost at low level.

Will you always do a pre take off brief from now on?

Nigel Everett