Low Level Engine Failure After Takeoff
Some Lessons Learnt from an EFATO in a Jabiru
By Manny Peralta CPL, AUF 010869
an EFATO, I have been asked by a fellow pilot, to write about the
experience. I propose to discuss human factors and aircraft performance
issues, which hopefully, will give a realistic feel for an EFATO.
The most important
lesson that I have learnt from this experience, is that a simple
and purposeful plan of action is absolutely necessary for survival.
Complicated plans that need perfect coordination and leave little
room for error, such as turning back after takeoff, are more than
likely fatal. I knew two pilots who died because they turned back
after an EFATO. Both were highly experienced commercial pilots
with thousands of hours in their respective logbooks. Letís
now look at the human factor issues.
The EFATO I experienced,
happened at approximately 300 feet AGL with the engine at full power,
and the IAS set a Vy (65 KIAS). Incidentally, the published
glide speed for this aircraft is also 65 KIAS. The engine finally
flamed out after hunting badly from full power to zero
power; three times in quick succession. The sound of the engine
hunting, reminded me of a flying instructor quickly pulling and
pushing back the mixture control of a Cessna 150, whilst trying
to simulate an engine failure.
Despite years of
flying experience, my mind froze for what appeared to be an eternity,
when the engine stopped. I kept on thinking: this canít be
happening to me. I suddenly felt sad, thinking that I might
not survive to see my baby son grow up.
I have read that
a typical light trainer takes 35-45 seconds to descend to the ground
after a low-altitude EFATO at gliding speed; time is indeed precious.
In hindsight, I have learnt that the inability of the brain
to accept the emergency is what kills. A brain in denial, means
that the pilot just sits there doing nothing; uncontrolled panic
becoming a great possibility.
With a low-altitude
EFATO, there is no time for anything else but to lower the nose
to a safe glide speed and to pick a field. There is no time for
looking inside the cockpit, nor time for using elaborate rote checklists.
By intuition and feel, I set the best attitude for the glide, picked
a field and closed the throttle to prevent a fire. After those
three actions, the aircraft basically touched down.
Panic and time
compression are critical issues that must be managed in an EFATO.
I survived, because I psychologically prepared myself by doing a
quick mental self-brief of what I would do in an emergency; great
emphasis being placed on simplicity. I donít use mindless written
checklists, but I do use a system where I commit critical emergency
actions to memory.
For me, the most
frightening thought just after an EFATO, is the overpowering urge
to turn back despite the high risk of a stall and spin. It seems
that fear and self-preservation, can overcome logical thinking and
training. I only just managed to fight off the urge to turn back,
by shouting to myself repeatedly over the intercom: ďdonít turn
back! For a split second, I also remembered a friend, who
died when he apparently tried to turn back after an EFATO, from
the same runway that I took off from that day. Being a young
family man, a fiery death for me was definitely not an option!
In summary, regardless
of flying experience, the human mindís natural response to an EFATO
is fear and self-preservation. This same fear can create denial;
panic may then occur, creating poor decision-making and inactivity.
The urge to turn back was by far, the most destructively powerful
thought that I ever experienced during the EFATO. Using a simple
mental plan like: lower the nose and pick a field,
before takeoff, helps the pilot to overcome this type of dangerous
and illogical thinking. Denial, fear and panic are the killers:
not the engine failure itself.
Letís move on to
what the aircraft felt like, when the engine stopped. I must qualify
this part of the article, by stating that I was flying a low-inertia
aircraft (430 kg MTOW), which may perform differently during an
EFATO, compared to heavier and faster Cessna, Piper or Beech aircraft.
As stated earlier,
the engine started to hunt from full power down to zero power three
times. It felt like a flying instructor trying to simulate an engine
failure, by pulling and pushing the mixture control. Everytime
the engine was at zero power, the control column and rudder pedals
felt spongy and limp; which I suspect came from the reduced slipstream
and dynamic pressure over the control surfaces.
The engine finally
stopped, with the control column and rudder pedals feeling permanently
limp and spongy even at the Vy of 65 KIAS. The Jabiru
felt like a Cessna or Piper trainer on the verge of an aerodynamic
stall. I remember thinking: why do pilots turn back, if the
controls feel this way?
When I lowered
the nose by feel, to the best glide speed, the aircraft still felt
like it was descending at a high rate; the drag of the fixed undercarriage
and windmilling fixed-pitch prop may have been the cause. In hindsight,
simulated engine failures, with the engine at idle power are, in
my experience, inaccurate representations of the real thing.
Instructors and student pilots beware!
I was able to flare
the aircraft to further reduce the apparent high rate of descent;
the aircraft responded normally. The field I picked was a flat
disused paddock with very short dry scrub. The touchdown felt normal,
but the ground run felt like a very fast car driving on a heavily
potholed road. My feet were being violently kicked off by the
rudder pedals, as the nose wheel ran through some rough terrain;
amazingly the nose gear remained attached to the aircraft.
in tightly, my body was thrown violently from side to side, as well
as up and down. The instrument panel was a blur, as the undercarriage
crashed through small mounds of earth. Luckily my head did not
contact the aircraft structure. Trouble lay ahead however, as
a rapidly approaching barbed wire fence, filled my view.
My old Tiger Moth
instructor once taught me how to groundloop, as a last
resort in avoiding obstacles. It must have worked, because I walked
away from the crash uninjured.
Just before hitting
the fence, I pushed in some right rudder, which started to give
me a right groundloop. The left metal wing strut crashed through
the wooden fence posts, sounding remarkably like a sledgehammer
smashing through a guitar; the barbed wire making a deep humming
sound as it stretched, with the left wing sliding along the wires!
Eventually, the left wing sheared off at the attachment point to
the fuselage, and the nose gear collapsed, as it dug into a mound
of soft earth. At that moment, the Perspex transparencies exploded
into large jagged shards, sounding like breaking bottles. The fuselage
was still making moaning and crunching noises, apparently twisting
itself, as it came to a sudden stop balanced precariously on its
The Jabiruís sudden
stop smashed my upper body hard against the already tight seatbelts,
causing air to explode from my lungs with a sickly grunt. I was
afraid that the aircraft would somersault upside down, as it teetered
on its nose for a split second. It suddenly fell back onto the
still-attached main undercarriage. I immediately thought
With hands and
legs quivering nervously, I flicked off the electrical and fuel
switches and crawled through the smashed windshield. The barbed
wire fence blocked my exit from the pilotís door. I found my small
Nav Bag outside the aircraft, about a metre from the nose.
Big lesson: ensure that potential missiles are secured properly
in the aircraft. I suspect that the Nav Bag helped cause the windshield
to smash completely, as it flew off the co-pilotís seat.
I agreed to an
ambulance ride to the local base hospital, for a check up. The
only injury I sustained was a smashing headache, from the bloody
neck brace, that an idiotic young GP; who fancied himself a bit
of a god-doctor, insisted I wear! Afterwards, it was a
packet of Panadol and a car ride home for me!
In conclusion, I have learnt the following lessons:
pilotís initial shock and denial after an EFATO, can easily overcome logical thinking;
extensive flying experience may not necessarily protect a pilot from this danger;
planning is a very effective way to help expect the unexpected;
back after an EFATO will almost certainly be fatal: two fellow pilots I know are dead because of it;
the rote checklists, the only priority is to fly and pick the best field;
engine failures at idle power, are generally poor representations of a real EFATO;
the reliability of modern aircraft aside, if you fly long enough, you will eventually experience some sort of emergency:
no pilot is immune!