Low Level Engine Failure After Takeoff


Some Lessons Learnt from an EFATO in a Jabiru


By Manny Peralta CPL, AUF 010869


Having survived 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.


Although strapped 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 nose.


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 fire!

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!


Lessons Learnt

In conclusion, I have learnt the following lessons:

  •  The 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;
  •  Prior planning is a very effective way to help expect the unexpected;
  •  Turning back after an EFATO will almost certainly be fatal: two fellow pilots I know are dead because of it;
  •  Forget the rote checklists, the only priority is to fly and pick the best field;
  •  Practice engine failures at idle power, are generally poor representations of a real EFATO;
  •  With the reliability of modern aircraft aside, if you fly long enough, you will eventually experience some sort of emergency: no pilot is immune!
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