When the aeroplane tries to say something’s wrong, it pays to listen
As pilots, we treat our aeroplanes with a degree of respect. Before taking off we check the aircraft, the documents, fuel, weather, Notam, and all the other matters relating to the safety of the planned flight — don’t we?
I have been flying for a little over fifty years. During that time I have encountered a number of ‘in flight emergencies’ — three undercarriage problems, thankfully all resolved before landing, two engine failures, including one taking off at night but with enough room to stop, and five electrical failures. Having started my flying in aeroplanes made of wood and covered in fabric, before moving on the then new ‘spamcans’, much of our training fleet is now high hours and rather ancient. The reliability we once took almost for granted can’t always be relied upon. I got around to wondering if I could have prevented any of those situations.
I believe that I might have anticipated one or more of my emergencies if only I had listened to the aeroplane before we took to the air together. When you are the sole pilot of an aircraft, you get to know its strengths and weakness; however, if an aeroplane is regularly flown by a large number of people, reporting minor snags to the other pilots can be difficult. This is one of my emergency stories.
I was helping out at the local flying school, booking people in and out, taking bookings for lessons and, of course, making the coffee — gallons of it! One Sunday afternoon we were fairly quiet and I decided that I had time for a quick trip in our PA-28 Warrior II. The aircraft had landed about an hour before, so I conducted a quick preflight check and, having assured myself that the flappy bits flapped, the wiggly bits wiggled and the oily bits looked happy, I jumped in.
Master switch on, mags on, starter... and the thing just turned over. Not a sound of any willingness for the engine to burst into life. I persisted, and there were a few coughs and splutters before the engine fell silent. I was on the point of abandoning my intended local flight, but finally the engine caught and, after a lot of coughing and spluttering, it responded to the throttle and a smooth run at 1,200rpm was achieved. Thus reassured and with all the instruments pointing to where they should, I made my call for taxi to the Tower.
Then the low voltage light came on. A red glowing warning that something else was not happy. Increasing the revs as I moved off the stand the light went out, bar the occasional flicker.
On the short taxi to the hold for the duty runway, the engine coughed a few times as I increased and decreased the throttle setting. Oh b***er I thought, let’s see how it is when I do the preflight checks. At the hold: brakes on, mag checks. All seemed to be in order, although the low voltage light flickered at 1,200rpm and below, and on opening the throttle the engine just seemed a little hesitant — or was it my imagination? Calling ready for departure I was cleared for takeoff, and off I went.
Takeoff was normal but at about three hundred feet — just as I was about to retract the flaps — the low volts light came on, bright and constant. Previous experience with electrical faults had taught me that the possibility of random sparks or loose wires floating round the aeroplane was something not conducive to in-flight safety, so a quick call to the Tower to tell them that this would be one very tight circuit and a full stop landing. At 500ft I turned crosswind and downwind at about 700ft. Low voltage light still glowing at 2,400rpm, and as I passed abeam the Tower heading downwind I closed the throttle a little.
Silence, instant and total! I was confronted with the not-so-thrilling sight of a stationary propeller in front of me. Mags were on, mixture rich, fuel was on and indicating sufficient and the fuel pump was on.
I decided not to complicate my life any more than I needed to, and made a descending left turn to line myself up with the runway. Well within gliding distance of the tarmac, I lowered flap and rounded out before rolling to a safe stop near to one of the runway exits. Having told the Tower of my problem the crash wagon was by now steaming towards me. I tried to re-start the engine to taxi clear of the runway, but it just would not go. As the crash truck and crew arrived, I switched off and removed the keys before disembarking and helping to drag the aeroplane free of the runway.
This turned out to be not one, but two very different faults. I learned that the PA-28 had become increasingly difficult to start over the previous weeks, and gradually the low voltage light had become reluctant to extinguish. Not every flight, and not together, so we had grown to accept these niggles — and once the aeroplane was up and running it seemed OK. But on this particular flight the aeroplane had tried so very hard to tell me that it was not happy — and in my rush to take advantage of a glorious Sunday afternoon I had chosen not to listen.
In the event, the starting and running problem was down to the carburettor. Once it was replaced the aeroplane was back to normal health. And the low voltage light turned out to be the voltage regulator, gradually giving up the ghost. Again, a new unit and full electrical health was restored.
So, how had we allowed this to happen? It was summer; the aeroplane was being flown very regularly by a number of pilots of disparate ability; the flying school (long since defunct) did not have a suitable system for reporting aircraft faults, relying on the occasional mention of a snag to whomever might listen. This might be one of the instructors, whoever was running the desk or another pilot over a coffee.
At the end of the day it was my fault that I had not listened to what the aeroplane was trying to tell me. I ignored a couple of seemingly very minor issues, and in my hurry to get airborne had not thought what the consequences might be if one or both of these issues became worse. When the engine stopped, it was pure good fortune that I had decided to remain within gliding distance of the runway, and I was also lucky that the runway was not obstructed by landing or departing traffic.
Having foolishly chosen not to listen to the aeroplane trying to tell me that it was not happy, relying on the fact that no one had said to me “it’s a sod to start” or “the LV light stays on a bit” I had, despite my pre-flight check, decided to work on the basis that it was OK an hour ago — so what could possibly go wrong?