“There I was, upside-down, over the sea, not very high, when the engine stopped!” Becoming an aviation anecdote come true — and not enjoying it one little bit.
Words and images Bob Grimstead
I have been flying for 47 years. I’ve effected several precautionary landings due to deteriorating weather and suffered several partial engine failures. I am no stranger to farm field operations, because I have flown my own aeroplanes out of small fields and airstrips for the past quarter-century. Nevertheless, to date I had never experienced a real, true, proper, complete engine failure ? but now I have.
I had been away from our Perth winter home for eight months, flying displays around Britain as RedHawk Two. Before departure I carefully winterised my Australian aeroplane, the Blue Angel, by filling its Volkswagen engine full of oil and taping up the exhausts, air intake, breather, fuel cap vent, pitot and static ports.
On return, after allowing myself a week to get over the jet-lag, I charged the Fournier’s battery, stripped off all the blanking tape, drained the excess engine oil, and siphoned out the remaining ten litres or so of stale fuel, re-filling the tank with twenty litres of fresh avgas. Following my usual routine, I dropped and visually checked the fuel filter (it was spotless) unscrewed the float bowl’s little drain plug and re-wired it, started the engine to blow out the residual oil as blue smoke, and then drove home.
Next day I went flying. The air was warm and the sky was cerulean, so I looked forward to treating myself to some refreshing open-cockpit aerobatics. Popping off the standard canopy, I replaced it with my ‘cabrio conversion’ and, as an afterthought, quickly drilled a hole in its front to bolt my new GoPro video camera in place. Concerned that my vertical rolls were wobbling off-axis, I aimed it rearwards over my head.
Following my buddy Rick’s similarly open-cockpit Fly Baby into the warm easterly breeze and climbing overhead the airfield, I waved and smiled to him from a distance as we enjoyed surprisingly calm conditions considering the thirty-degree temperature.
In loose company at 3,000 feet, Rick and I cruised ten miles southwards over the Indian Ocean to the resort town of Mandurah, admiring the squintingly-bright beaches, the jigsaw of turquoise shallows immediately beneath us, and the dark and forbidding depths further seawards before turning north again. When we got to prominent Becher Point, due west of our base, Rick set off back to the airfield. I told him I would stay for some aerobatics.
Best to practise over the sea I habitually fly my first return sortie here, just in case I’ve lost my touch and break the aeroplane, or termites have invaded it in my absence. Neither scenario is really likely. It just seems prudent to make my first manoeuvres out over the sea where falling debris can harm no-one.
Gently diving for speed, I throw a loop, a barrel roll both ways, a full cloverleaf, a stall turn and a ballistic roll in each direction. They go well, so I fly the routine again, this time recording it with the GoPro. Now for some more advanced stuff; again I’ll make sure I can actually complete the manoeuvres successfully before filming them. What’s my height? 2,500 feet ? that’s fine. A quarter upward vertical roll first, that’s okay, so I humpty-bump over the top and throw a downward one too. Nope, I wasn’t wings-level in the humpty, so I’ll repeat that. That’s better. Now an avalanche. This is such a brilliant manoeuvre, especially with the open cockpit; the technicolour world rotating rapidly right there in my face in the flick-roll at the top. But I over-rotate a bit, so I fly another. That’s better, now for a half-Cuban; what’s my top-out height? Just over 1,500 feet. I had better break off and climb after this.
As I loop inverted and momentarily check forward, the engine stops (as it always does under negative G, it’s only a Volkswagen after all). The propeller usually keeps turning, and we’re accelerating now, so when I roll erect it will burst into life again. That’s odd! There’s plenty of airflow noise and buffeting around my head, but I can’t feel any thrust. I’ll dive to get the propeller windmilling. That’s even more weird! It’s still turning ? so fast it’s a blur. Whoa! What’s going on here? Raise the nose, peg 55 knots, re-trim, turn for home. What’s our height? Thirteen hundred feet? This is not good. Where am I? Not far out to sea, but much too distant from base to glide home. Aim for the beach. That’s always been my plan. Pump the throttle. The engine splutters for a moment, but immediately goes silent again. Bugger, bugger, bugger! I don’t have time for this! Dismantling a Fournier takes days, and Christmas is coming.
Get a grip! That beach was always my intended bolt-hole. It’s been in the back of my mind for years, despite being curved and actually at right-angles to today’s south-easterly wind. But what’s this? A new jetty has been built right in the middle of the best bit since I was last here and the tide’s in, leaving only a very narrow strip of firm wet sand between that nasty, rough sea and the fine, soft, dry sand that will flip me inverted. The Point itself is a big area of wilderness, but it’s all covered in ten-foot bush. I could survive a forced-landing in that, but this irreplaceable aeroplane would not. Those wide, level salt lakes are too far away, with dense housing between me and there.
Aha, I remember! There’s a long, straight south-easterly road that’s almost into-wind. But those lamp-posts have sprung up since last time I was here. And those look like new concrete chicanes along the median strip. Boy the local shire has been busy in my absence! What about that horse-racing oval a couple of miles inland? Oh no; today it’s dotted with white things. Jumps? I don’t know. Whatever they are, it doesn’t look inviting, and I would have to glide all the way over there to confirm for sure that I can’t use it, leaving me very short of choices.
Eighteen chances of a good landing
But wait. What are those big blobs of bright green close by in this otherwise grey and khaki landscape? A golf course. That’s better, I’ll have eighteen chances of a good landing area there. Right, that’s decided.
Luckily Fourniers glide quite well, and I have determinedly stayed in practice at glide approaches over the years. (Later, counting back through my logbook, I discover I’ve flown no fewer than 179 gliding approaches and landings in my Fourniers and Champ during the past twelve months.) So the actual flying and touchdown judgement is merely instinctive. It’s the procedural stuff I’m very rusty on.
Quick, blurt out a Mayday before you’re too low to be heard. You can always cancel it later. What’s Perth Radar’s frequency? Ah yes, it’s here on Allen’s sticker; 135.25. I press ‘3525’ on the Icom’s keypad and nothing happens. Blast! I press Alt 7 to disable the keylock, but see the key-shaped icon appear. Bugger, but it’s dark under this cabrio top compared with the bright light all around, and I find it hard to see what I’m doing with these sunglasses. But I can’t take them off or I’ll be blinded looking outside. Still those buttons don’t work, so I punch Alt 7 again. How do I tune this bloody thing? It’s different from WGN’s Becker and my Champ’s earlier-model Icom, and I’ve forgotten how to tune it. Try turning the knob on top ? anticlockwise will be quickest from 119.1. Oh no, it’s going through the 117s for VORs and ILSs. I don’t have time for this either. Back to 119.1.
“Mayday, mayday, mayday. Rick will you call Perth Radar and tell them I’ve got engine failure and I’m landing on the golf course.” After a startled pause, I hear a muffled reply. That’s good?Rick’s a professional and I know the message will get through. By now I’m well under 1,000 feet, and as I get lower and start to examine the golf course in more detail, my heart sinks. Every single fairway is dog-legged, seriously undulating, and deliberately obstructed by scooped-out sand bunkers and big patches of ‘rough’. Bugger again! This really is not my day.
In the foreground, I spot the GoPro immediately ahead of me. Quick, turn it on. At least there will be a record of what happens. Then I realise the propeller is slowing down, and promptly lower the nose for enough airspeed to keep the thing windmilling.
Surely this bloody engine will go. It may be old, but it has always been thoroughly reliable. I switch the magneto off and on, pull off the fuel cock and push it back on forcefully. What else can I do? I open the throttle again, there’s a two-second surge of power and it splutters away. Well, that proves it’s a fuel problem, but there’s nothing I can do about it now. Like a dullard, I don’t think to turn upside-down again, nor even to shake the aeroplane around to dislodge any fuel system obstruction. They don’t teach you this sort of thing, I haven’t practised a full engine failure drill for years and now I’m far too busy looking for a safe landing place to nut-out original ideas.
Forget it. The Fournier’s floating down, and I have to land somewhere. Switch off everything and concentrate. Magneto, radio, master switch. That’s it. (I forget the headset’s ANR box but, more importantly, I completely omit to turn off the fuel cock. I could now lie and say I didn’t need to because I knew it was a fuel problem, but no, I just forgot the most important thing!) Tighten my straps. No, they’re already bar-tight: we were flying aeros.
Oh I wish I didn’t have this cabrio top. I haven’t used it for twenty months. It makes the outside picture look different, and it puts the instruments in deep shadow. And this horizontal hoop in front of my face will take out my teeth if I get things wrong. I always meant to replace that 4130 steel tube with a softer, more malleable aluminium one. Well, it’s too late now.
A clear area appears
Looking back up out of the cockpit, I spot an apparently clear, approximately rectangular area right in the middle of the golf course. I’ve no idea what it is, but it’s maybe 250 metres long and fifty wide ? nearly as long as our home airstrip in England, and much wider. That will do nicely. I can’t see any wind indicators, and bonfires are illegal here, so I assume the wind’s still easterly. Now I realise I’m actually a bit high, so I lower the wheel, pull out the spoilers and start S-turning to wash off some altitude without losing sight of my intended touchdown spot, one-third of the way into my ‘field’.
There’s a clubhouse in the foreground, with a row of tall Norfolk Island Pines between me and it. Are there wires? Power and phone lines are low-level killers. Now my eyes widen in shock. There don’t seem to be any wires, but I’ve just realised that my intended landing ground is peppered with tall, stout posts, maybe ten feet high. Oh no, with forty-foot wings I really do not need this! I ease a bit southwards to align with what seems to be a fairly clear corridor in the inital touchdown area. I’ll just have to deal with the roll-out later.
I’m close above those tall pines and whistling in towards the clubhouse. Damn, I’m fast. I must have a tailwind after all. Okay, bring the touchdown point a bit closer with sideslip. Then I go cold. With no engine, my little aeroplane is silent. Nobody will know I’m coming. How to prevent somebody walking in front of me?
But I have the open cockpit, and for the first time I’m pleased about that. I shout, “Look out!” Wait, what’s the golfing term? At the top of my voice I yell, “Fore!” I see white faces upturning towards me. Good, they know I’m coming.
As I flash across the car park, I’m frantically reducing the airspeed and the propeller slows to a dead stop before me, but I don’t notice, I’m concentrating so hard. Now to get this bloody thing on the ground in one piece. By golly everything’s going past quickly. I carry sideslip into the flare and plant it firmly on the ground, left wing low, then jam my left thigh against the spoiler lever and grab for the handbrake.
I feel the wheels jump and judder across the grass as they scrabble for friction. Black-and-white posts flash past close on my left, but now there are more in front and on my right, and there’s a bloody pond dead ahead! I hit full left rudder, dig in that outrigger with aileron, and will my little monowheeled bobsleigh into turning, to avoid knocking off a wing (or two). I seem to have invented a new sport: the Fournier golf-course slalom. A couple of substantial bushes flash past the left wing tip as we bounce off a hummock left wing-low, skidding ballistically though the air at below stall speed, and smack down against the far hump. My back jars and my teeth clack together. We’re slowing now, with just fifty metres to go, but that last thump knocked most of the energy out of our careering progress and we slither to a halt twenty feet short of the dense scrub.
A golf buggy drives up as I undo my belts. “Are you okay?”“Fine thanks, sorry for spoiling your game.” And it’s all over bar the publicity.
I transmit that I’m safely on the ground, and cancel my Mayday.The whole event took little more than three minutes. How did I do and think all those things in that brief time? I have no idea, especially since it takes me a fortnight to riposte a simple quip; but I did.
An hour later I’m back in the clubhouse getting a welcome drink of cold water when Rick phones. “I’ve called your wife to put her mind at rest and I’m coming over. What can I bring?”
“Twenty litres of fresh fuel please, plus an empty Jerry can and a siphon tube, my phone, keys and stuff from my hangar table ? thanks.”
Back at the Fournier, we discover the cause. It turned out to be the remains of a small insect completely blocking the carburettor’s minuscule, 1.3 millimetre main jet. But how had it got there? There was nothing in the tank or the gascolator earlier, and I had just replaced the small amount of old fuel with fresh, new avgas, and even opened the float bowl’s little drain plug to let out some fuel. All checked clean and clear.
After closer examination, I realise that the main jet lives in a separate chamber under the float bowl (actually the carb’s lowest point, and below its drain plug) and the dead insect parts had settled into there. There was no other debris in the tank or the gascolator, so it can only have got into the carb by crawling in through the float-bowl vent. Just my luck! Why an insect should want to creep into that nasty, stinky environment, only that mad bug knows.
During the afternoon Karen brought our engineer Bernie to inspect our work and sign the maintenance release, thus making the Fournier legal again. We got the aeroplane out of the driving range by removing one of those tall posts and marking all the six-inch-deep holes containing sprinkler heads with encircling golf balls. Having dragged its tail into the bushes for the longest possible run, I nominated a hump, about half-way along my intended track, by which I must either be airborne or reduce power and stop promptly. I decided to open the engine up to full power on the brake for two whole minutes to ensure there were no further symptoms, after which I would immediately release the brake and go. Needless to say, with a good strong sea breeze and a level 230-metre run with the shortest grass I have ever seen, the departure was no problem with the enlarged 1400cc engine that I am allowed to operate in Australia.
The only lasting effects were a nasty touch of sunburn that soon passed, plus a surprising distrust of aeroplane engines that has yet to be dispelled.