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A DEAD DONKEY AT 200 FEET – A MAY DAY SPECIAL

I met up with my friend Greg in the Cafe in the flying club. It was 0830 on a slightly overcast summer morning.

Sitting down with mugs of tea, and an egg and bacon sandwich each, we reviewed my proposed route. 

We would be flying from my home base of Redhill Aerodrome in Surrey (about 4.0 nautical miles NNE of London’s Gatwick Airport (EGKK), and about 20nm SE of Heathrow Airport EGLL) to Newquay Airport (EGHQ) to meet up with Neil, a fellow pilot and an Air Traffic Control Officer.

Dodging the Class A airspace between Gatwick and Heathrow

We finished our breakfast and pulled out the charts and the NOTAMs (Notices to Airmen) and a meteorological forecast. There was nothing in the NOTAMs to affect our flight, but a check of the Met showed scattered rain showers along our route, blowing in from the south west.

Knowing that Greg had far more hours than me, I asked his opinion, and he remarked that he would go, and see what it was like enroute, and if it looked to be deteriorating, then we could return – adding that as I was the aircraft commander (and the owner!) it was my decision.

I decided that we would go, making the Surrey city of Guildford my Go/No-Go waypoint. If it was poor weather by the time I got to Guildford, some twenty miles west of the field, I would make turn back.

We wandered out to Betty Boo, and did a quick yet thorough pre-flight inspection. 

Betty Boo in her home environment

I swiftly started the engine, called the tower for a radio check and traffic information, and was given permission to taxi for runway 26 Right. the shorter of the two grass runways. 

Copyright AFE Flight Equipment – Not to be used for Flight Planning or Navigation.

It was a quick taxy. There was nothing to hold us up – a midweek morning, and all the school aircraft were already either thrashing round the circuit, or had disappeared into the local area. I weaved my way across the grass, and joined Taxiway A to hold short at A2. 

Swinging the Super Cub into the wind, I conducted the vital actions checks, and completed a run up. Waggling the flight controls reassured me that everything was correctly attached, and after conducting a pre-departure briefing, I called the tower “Betty Boo ready for departure” Very unofficial RT procedures, but, hey, it was very quiet and the controller said it first!

“Betty Boo, cleared for take off Runway 26 Right, surface wind 250 at 5 kts”

I made the acknowledgment, and said to Greg “Ready to go mate?”

“Go for it” came back through my headset.

I eased the throttle open, and gently taxied onto the threshold, marked out on the grass with white paint.

“Betty Boo Rolling” I called, and received a terse “Roger” from the tower.

I held the stick forward, applied the power smoothly, correcting the swing with rudder. The tail came up quickly, and within a few seconds we were making the magical transition from ugly duckling to elegant swan, the engine purring smoothly as we climbed away.

Clearing the Aerodrome, I was directed to depart via west Reigate, and the Buckland Visual Reporting Point.

As we climbed to 1500 feet, and looked west, I must admit, that it didn’t look too promising; hazy with a light grey gauze draped across my intended route.

I had a plan, and I was going to stick to it, so we continued westwards, to pass to the south of Guildford. 

The weather goblins had other ideas. 

East of Guildford, I got the first lashings of rain, the water droplets hitting the windscreen, and then being bullied by the slipstream to rush in rivulets round the sides of the canopy. 

The Surrey City of Guildford – on a better weather day

I applied carburettor heat, and immediately made a 180 degree turn, saying to Greg “This is a fabric winged aircraft, I am recovering back to Redhill”

“Sound decision” came his nonchalant response.

I called Redhill, and explained that we were returning, to be told that a heavy shower was passing through, overhead the field, and that I should aim to re-join for runway 26 Left via the motorway junction.

Junction 7, The M25/M23 Interchange – VRP for the rejoin to Redhill Aerodrome.

Winding the airfield pressure into the altimeter, I ran through the descent checks, and suggested to Greg that we do a few circuits as it would be good practice.

He thought that was a good idea as well, so I called the tower and requested that we do a missed approach, followed by a touch and go, and then maybe some non-standard landings.

The tower quickly approved this, saying that there were no other aircraft currently in the circuit, and to call on final approach.

I brought the power back, and trimmed us for a nice steady 60 mph, planning to reduce to 50 mph on short final. I pegged the altimeter on 1300 feet as I didn’t want to run the risk of infringing class A airspace as I was flying in.

It all seemed to be working out. I was flying through clear air, but although the rain had stopped, looking west, it was still coming in. I calculated that I had about half an hour in the circuit – maybe three turns round the field.

The motorway junction was on the nose, and as I crossed it, I rolled South, roughly paralleling the M23 London to Brighton motorway.

A few minutes later, I banked right, bringing Betty Boo into line with the runway, calling on the radio that I was on final approach for a missed approach. 

Redhill Aerodrome, with the M23 in the foreground

Having received my clearance, I continued to descend, and at 200 feet, turned off the carburettor heat, and applied full power, climbing away back into the circuit. I progressively cleaned the airframe up, moving the flap lever in easy stages, and retrimming for straight and level. 

The downwind leg was uneventful, and I called the tower, requesting a touch and go.

“Call Finals” was the response from ATC, and so I started descending, putting on carburettor heat, and taking the flaps as before. At 200 feet, carburettor heat cold, ready for the go around.

I had nailed the airspeed at 55 mph, and came across the threshold at the correct height. 

Bleeding off the power, I gently pitched back into a three-point attitude, and she sank onto the grass. 

A couple of rumbles and some gentle bumping, holding her straight with rudder, I smoothly applied full power, and pitched back up into a best rate of climb attitude as required by the airfield regulations.

I had reached about 150 feet when the engine stuttered, popping and juddering, and the RPM was dropping rapidly backwards round the gauge!

I instantly shoved the nose forwards, my hands making the checks unbidden – Magnetos, Mixture, Fuel, Primer, Carb Heat.  Everything was correctly configured and where it should be.

The engine was now winding back, giving virtually no power, but I managed to ease another 100 feet out of her. 

“Mayday Mayday Mayday!” I yelled, “Betty Boo, Engine failure, Immediate landing required”

I slammed away the landing flap, and gently rolled right, hearing the controllers calm voice saying:

“Betty Boo, the field is yours, land wherever, Cessna Golf Charlie Whiskey hold in your current position, I’ll call you back”

My throat was dry, and I concentrated on not stalling, descending in a gentle right-hand turn. Airspeed…. must keep airspeed…  I couldn’t risk looking at the Air Speed Indicator – I was doing this by feel and sound.  Thank god for all the sailplane experience.

The runway was under the nose, so I rolled wings level, and deadsticked about halfway down the grass, leaving me another 400 metres if I had needed it.

I allowed the speed to wash off, not touching the brakes, and vacated off the runway so that it could still be used.

“Good landing mate”

I jumped. I had almost forgotten that Greg was sitting there in the back cockpit.

“Thanks” I responded. “Not quite how I saw today playing out, but I’m glad we are in one piece.”

We exited the cockpit, and waited for the Ops car to arrive.

The airfield manager duly arrived, and having reassured himself that we were safe, and that the aeroplane and airfield were undamaged, he asked us to push the aircraft further from the runway and secure it and park it and he would arrange for it to be towed to the hangar when the airfield closed.

He kindly gave us both a lift to the hangar.

The aftermath of this, is that I submitted a full report, with my conclusion – that I had been the victim of carburettor icing.

I subsequently discussed this with a very experienced Cub instructor pilot, and he suggested that the Continental engines fitted to this type were highly susceptible to icing. When he heard that a rain shower had passed through about half an hour prior to my touch and go, he was convinced that the short ground roll had ingested enough water to cause icing in the carburettor leading to loss of power and subsequent engine failure.

Now, I learned a BIG lesson from this.

When I was taught to fly, all of my instructors emphasised that carburettor heat should be selected during the approach to land, and should be switched to cold as part of the after landing checks. 

They also said that if a landing was baulked – a touch and go, the carburettor heat should be selected COLD, so as to ensure full power availability for the climb out.

Betty Boo’s sidewall. Note the Carb Heat, Cabin Heat and Magnetos all in a single panel…. What could possibly go wrong!

This is what I had done in the Super Cub. As soon as I had touched down, I selected COLD, and as a result, there was no warm air running through they system to protect me from the ice caused by the water ingestion.

As this happened a while ago, I decided to review my various checklists. They all state that the Carburettor Heat is selected HOT for the approach, and moved to cold for a baulked landing.

So – my first ever MAYDAY. A sphincter-clenching moment, but one that made me do a lot of introspection. Did I do the right thing?  

Looking back, maybe I made the wrong decision to risk a long-distance flight in a fabric-covered aircraft when rain and maybe marginal VFR was forecast?  Had I decided not to fly, then I would have never placed myself and my aeroplane into a risk situation – albeit a risk that I had not foreseen or even fully understood.

My aircraft handling skills were not wanting, and the drills that I had practiced so many times were virtually automatic. 

The aeroplane was undamaged. The crew were safe and uninjured. A successful outcome.

The following day I discovered that the engineers wanted to be absolutely sure there were no technical issues that could have caused the engine failure. They therefore stripped down the entire fuel system. They only found some minor contamination, so the verdict was that I had encountered engine icing.

What did I learn?

I learnt that an engine can ingest sufficient water from wet grass in a landing roll of 180 metres to fail the engine less than a minute later.

It’s a funny old world, this flying lark.

Go Well…

By The Flying Wordsmith

A highly qualified aviation professional who is able to write cogent and professional articles on a wide variety of subjects. Also interested in general articles covering travel, politics, social commentary and prose. Poetry and Lyrics also an interest.

5 replies on “A DEAD DONKEY AT 200 FEET – A MAY DAY SPECIAL”

Thank you – Yes, it was an “experience” for sure! Yes, Betty Boo was a really nice aeroplane – gentle and forgiving but would bite if mishandled. However, I got bitten by Microlighting. I decided that it was becoming too costly here in the UK to operate a standard aeroplane, and as I live ten minutes from an idyllic farm strip I invested in a Rans Coyote. Does everything at 70 mph, and drinks 3 gallons per hour (Imperial not US) rather than 8.8 gallons per hour. As AVGAS costs £8.75 (10.88 USD) per gallon, and at my local airport, Shoreham charges a landing fee of £28.80 (36 USD) a charge of £12.00 (15 USD) for a touch and go, and £28.74 (35.92 USD) for an instrument approach, you can see the attraction of my Rotax powered microlight. No landing fees, and uses MOGAS from my local filling station. Thanks for your comment…. Have a nice Day, Mark

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