Having lectured air cadets on the conventional wisdom about what to do should the engine fail on takeoff, a pilot experiences it for real — which leads to some further thoughts on the subject
During my PPL training it was drummed into me never to attempt to turn back to the field after an engine failure on takeoff. I was told of the numerous pilots who had tried it and died in the ensuing stall/spin. ‘Make gentle turns avoiding obstacles and aim for the best open space within line of vision ahead of the aircraft’ is the advice given in Flight Briefing For Pilots Volume 1. In later years I had lectured air cadets on the very subject, so I suppose It was well imprinted upon my brain.
In 1983 I flew a Cherokee to Dublin International from Liverpool with a couple of friends. After a nice meal in the city and some shopping we loaded up, donned life jackets, checked the dinghy and taxied out to the southerly runway. Run-up checks were normal and suggested nothing of what was to come.
We took off heading south towards Dublin City, I got to 400 feet when there was sudden violent vibration from the engine. I levelled the nose as the aircraft would not climb any more, called ‘Mayday’, did my checks and could find nothing wrong. I was sure the engine was about to stop or disintegrate, so I looked for a suitable field. We were still over open country, but getting closer to a large housing estate. The fields near to me were just paddocks with hedges and some trees around them — nowhere near large enough to get a Cherokee down in. I realised that on full power I was able to maintain 300 feet and I started turning right, looking for a bigger field, away from habitation (‘hero pilot misses city’). The vibration was severe and I expected something more drastic to happen soon. I had now done a 180º turn and could see a twin doing a go-around, which left the runway clear for me to land back on, albeit downwind, (thank you whoever you were).
ATC cleared me to land back on. I thought that I may make it to the grass just inside the airfield boundary fence. Still with full throttle, I kept the height on and made it back to the runway for a good downwind landing.
Would I have been able to complete a full circuit before the piston broke up and came out of the side of the nose? I don’t know. The fast thinking by the twin pilot gave me the option of making it back onto the airfield.
I taxied clear of the runway and was surrounded by the airport fire service, who appeared a bit disappointed that I was not on fire. I had said my problem was a severe misfire. They insisted on having a look under the bonnet and then departed. The aircraft was recovered to the flying club and the engineers examined the cylinders. They found that an exhaust valve had sheared off, which meant that we were flying on three cylinders only.
A passenger asked me if the problem had occurred half way across the Irish Sea whether we would have made it to land? A very good question. I had flown that route many times, (52 miles from Angelsea to Lambay Island). I have always thought that I would fly a sick engine as long as possible towards land in order to: 1) Get off a good Mayday and position report; and 2) Allow the rescue helicopter to make some distance towards me.
If you are on fire of course there is only one option. I do remember a ditching which caused the loss of two lives. The engine, when examined, had blown an exhaust manifold gasket. Would it have been possible to carry on towards land with such a fault rather than ditch? There would have been power loss and a lot of noise, but who knows, it may have lasted another fifteen minutes to dry land.
There is no doubt that if there had been a suitable field I would have landed in it. The lack of one enabled me to consider other options.
On the subject of suitable fields, when I was doing my PPL training, I had an instructor who gave me a power failure over open country. I selected a nice firm grass field. Next to it was a larger one which had been ploughed. The instructor told me I should have selected the larger ploughed field. Having been born on a farm I am pretty good on fields! I asked the CFI what he thought. He agreed that firm grass beats soft earth any day. It may be the difference between a decent landing and walking away, or ending upside down with petrol running down your neck.
Next time you fly, have a closer look at fields. There is a difference between grass and newly sown corn. Try to see if you can spot it. corn is sown in neat rows by a machine. You may be better colliding with a sheep or a cow grazing in a field than landing on soft ground.
I learned that day that there is engine failure, and there is partial engine failure. If you have some power left and you need it, then use it to get to a better landing site.
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