When the aero­plane tries to say some­thing’s wrong, it pays to lis­ten

Pilot - - CONTENTS - By Tony Dring

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?

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