“Do you understand the implications of what happened to you on Thursday?” I was asked again by one of the engineers, almost a week after it happened. “Yes, yes I do” I replied. “The incident has been running through my mind as much as it has yours…”
To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I should mention anything about this (for a couple reasons). Initially I didn’t think it was the biggest event. When shit happens, you just deal with it and move on. I also didn’t want to create the wrong impression of helicopter training and deter interest, but mostly I wanted to allow the incident to run through my mind until it was tired, and out of breath. I was going to keep chasing it until I was at peace with how I managed the situation, I needed to scroll through the “what could I have done differently to avoid this?” questions, and in truth, there’s a part of my ego that wanted to have a career clean slate of not having had an “incident” or occurrence. Nobody wants to be the “unlucky one” even though this was completely out of my control…or was it?
Intuition. From the get go I was uncomfortable in that machine, in fact, there were a few of us that were. There was an immediate distrust (please excuse me as I begin to personify this helicopter) She was a “foreigner” to us, understandably, when you don’t know the aircrafts history you are a little suspicious at first until you learn her ways and eventually welcome her to the fleet. This one, not. Every flight prior to this I’d find, mention and attempt to amend a snag. The pre-flights were always more thorough, intensive, and attentive. The flight path and method always defensive. A little extra height than usual, and I a little less forgiving when the student deviated from the ideal flight path to the GFA, (outside of what I felt would be a manageable glide distance to a safe LZ) There was just something. Something she was about to tell us…
On the day she found her voice, prior to the scheduled training flight I mentioned to the student that we were just going to take the machine for a test flight to make sure all is in order after we had the engineers tend to the snags we made the day before. So, we flew two circuits. The clutch light flicker issue seemed to have been solved, and for additional peace of mind, I decided to do two autorotation entries to make sure she handled it, and that the RRPM was set within the prescribed limits.
“If the engine does quit on me, I at least want to have something to work with” I thought. As if I knew…
So anyway, I felt better about the RRPM and so the student and I signed ourselves out and proceeded to carry on with our scheduled lesson. Exercise 9, lift off and touch down. Which, every lesson before this one I had taught at the GFA, about a 15-20min ferry distance from base. This day however, I said, let’s go to Virginia (an airport 5mins away) and practice on the grass, west of the runway. It’s near by and it will be easier to get assistance if we need it (as opposed to the rural located, uncontrolled GFA) I thought.
So we went to Virginia and practiced lift off and touch down. He was a lot tenser on the controls than usual, and he was struggling more than he had the day before, visibly and vocally frustrated. Not himself. As if he knew…
So we spent a little bit longer than usual on the exercise until he got it right, and felt more confident in his performance and ability. He kept on asking if we can stay a little longer, and I obliged, once, twice until finally (after checking the stop watch I kept running on my phone…) I said “lets call it a day and head back, you’ve done well” After approximately one hour and six minutes, we were cleared for lift from Virginia to head back to base. One hour and seven minutes, transitioned to forward flight. One hour and eight minutes on the climb. One hour and nine minutes, right hand turn, climbing to 800ft. One hour and ten minutes left downwind for Greystones. One hour and eleven minutes, I took the controls to demonstrate the transition from forward flight to the hover (an exercise to follow) one hour and 12 minutes on final approach. One hour and thirteen minutes. The engine failed.
To me, it felt like we were about 5 ft, The engineers that witnessed it said it was about 8ft. Either way, it doesn’t matter. What matters is, we were just about in the hover when it happened, which means the rate of descent had practically settled, and when I asked her for that final bit of power to keep her steady, she decided to quit.
There’s a quote I’ve been meaning to use, that incidentally I heard at an instructors course I had attended a couple months earlier “When under pressure, you don’t rise to the occasion, you fall to the level of your training” and in this case, I’m grateful that I’ve had good training and that the fall was gentle. Lower collective. Right pedal. Raise collective just before ground contact to cushion the landing. (Engine failure in hover)
I’m also grateful that I’ve had the privilege to log a good couple of hours teaching emergencies, to enhance the instincts, and expose myself to the “what if”. This is why I wholeheartedly endorse an instructors rating. You’re just far more current on the procedures, and the reactions tend to be a little more fiber optic than copper wire.
BUT. This is not about that, it’s not even about why the engine failed (which I will get to…) this is about one hour and thirteen minutes…
One hour and thirteen minutes. Had we left fractionally later, we would have been in trouble. Big trouble. We would’ve had to deal with an engine failure over an unforgiving approach path or a built up area. Had we left earlier, fractionally, we wouldn’t have known about the problem, and the failure, which was imminent would have happened to the next unsuspecting student/instructor. (Something I struggle to think about…) At One hour and thirteen minutes I heard the voice of intuition say confidently “I told you so”
Now, let me be the first to tell you that you have many days where you don’t FEEL like flying. (I know right? How can you not?) But, sometimes you just not in the space for it, as simple as that. In the commercial world however, you have to push through not feeling like it because it’s what you do. (Although they’re fewer and far between than, dare I say, the “average” job) so, you learn to push through, to get in the chopper regardless of whether you feel like it or not and to just get things done. Intuition however is NOT a feeling, it is a knowing. This is different. This is not you psyching yourself out and refusing to get in the chopper based on what you fear might happen, (because if that were the case we’d probably never fly) This is you RESPONDING to what you know can happen. This is you trusting yourself. This is you taking heed of the hunches and adjusting your plan accordingly. This is you putting yourself in control by allowing yourself to be guided by your intuition. I think this is where the cessation of unrealistic fear happens. When you begin to trust yourself, and back your intuition by adjusting your plans or acting on the hunches you feel somewhat in control, guided and protected by…yourself? I think it’s important to understand that the onus is on you. This is not me saying let go of your fate, and leave it in <insert your belief here’s> hands and he’ll/she’ll take care of it. This is me saying, you need to listen to yourself so you can look out for yourself. I see so many people being detached from their inner voice because they don’t feel empowered enough to be for themselves. They delegate their life and the responsibility of it to someone or something else. They have this crippling fear of being wrong, or even worse, for looking stupid. So they stand in the corner and wait for someone or something to say something first. Fuck that. If you don’t feel right about something, you owe it to yourself to say something. More than once. Find your inner voice. And learn to listen to it, learn to speak up!
Everything happens for a reason. Everything happens at the precise moment that it was meant to happen, no matter how undesirable the “happening”, when it happens, you switch on and pay attention. Forget the “why me’s” and ask “why now”
Instead. In this example, it’s quite simple. If it didn’t happen “now” at one hour and thirteen minutes, we would never had known that the problem existed and a solution would never have been sought. This is life. This is exactly how life plays out. It plays out in seconds. A couple extra here or there and things could have been totally different. In this example, it’s so easy to appreciate the time line of events, and for that reason I’m grateful. In my “peripheral” life however, the “engine cut” timing is not always so beautifully, and obviously defined without the assistance of hindsight. But. There is a lesson in this, and that is to always be grateful when “shit happens”. As difficult as it is, be grateful for it, because had it not happened, you would never be given the opportunity to solve the problem. The real problem. Because it’s going to continue to happen, and you’ll keep snagging the “machine” and woefully drag it through the sky until the real problem is solved, or ignored consistently until you run out of opportunities, and succumb to the problem. You’ve just got to trust the timing of your life, and find peace in knowing that things happen for you, and not to you.
The mechanics. The fuel tanks in the Robinson R22’s are gravity fed, that means there is no fancy fuel pump ensuring that the fuel is fed at a constant pressure. It relies purely on gravity (Gravity, you know, that thing we rebel against on a daily basis?) Anyway, fuel tanks need to breathe. In order to breathe, they need to be vented out to the atmosphere or have some tangible means to access it. In the R22, the breather pipes run out the top of the tank, in the direction of the mast, concealed within the mast cowling. Allowing the tank to breath as fuel warms up (expands) and cools (contracts), compensating for the corresponding increase, and decrease of air pressure as the volume fluctuates. This pressure equalization allows gravity to do it’s thing. The main tank, wasn’t doing its thing. It’s breather was blocked. Meaning we were running off the remnants of the Auxiliary tank, (which coincidentally was lower than the gauge was indicating) and when the remnants ran dry, the vacuum created in the main tank (as a result of its inability to breathe) created a suck that out sucked the fuels worth in weight (Gravity), and starved the main fuel feed. I guess the lesson in this, outside of the literal, outside of the mechanical, the engineering, piloting, intuition, timing, “shit happen adapting” is that, like fuel tanks we need to breathe! We need some means of venting to compensate for the pressure fluctuations in life, and I guess, in some way writing this has been mine…