Monday, April 28, 2008

How we escaped an in-flight engine failure by just two weeks

OK, what happened may not be as dramatic as the title of this post would like you to believe. I'll let you be the judge of that. Hey, after all, that's what comments are for :-) The story is as follows.

My better half and myself finally made it to Keswick Island during the Easter week-end. This was a follow-up holiday from last year's Christmas holidays which had been cut short due to exceptionally bad weather.

We flew up to Mackay in a Qantas Dash-8, then flew over to Keswick Island in a single-engine Piper Cherokee 6 chartered through Australasian Jet. This is a short 15-minute flight, with beautiful views of the Mackay coast and nearby islands. The approach to the landing strip is rather interesting, right in-between Keswick and St Bees Island.

We spent three beautiful days at the Keswick Island Guest House thanks to the excellent hospitaly, genuine friendliness, cooking and singing skills of our hosts Bryan and Lynn. In the course of that long week-end we got to meet each and every one of the nine inhabitants of the island. We even appeared on the Keswick Island Kapers blog edited by Eva. You will have to search the page for my first name to find us.

On the way back we took another Cherokee to Mackay, then a JetStar A320 back to Brisbane.

A couple of weeks later I picked up the Courier Mail (Brisbane's main newspaper) in the office and found an article titled Female pilot, 21, in 'textbook ditching' which started with

A 21-year-old female pilot on her first day on the job has performed a "textbook ditching" to save the lives of her four passengers in the sea off Mackay. All five on board survived when the Cherokee Piper 6 crashed into the sea 200m off Squeaky Beach on Carlisle Island just after 2pm today.

Mackay? Cherokee? This sounded familiar. How many Cherokees doing charter flights can there be in Mackay? We had flown on two of them, VH-ZMP and VH-VSN . I looked up the ATSB database, and there it was:

AO-2008-22: Piper Aircraft Corp PA-32-300, VH-ZMP, Brampton Island Qld. It was reported that the aircraft ditched after takeoff from Brampton Island aerodrome. The investigation is continuing.

Oops... that was the Cherokee we flew in two weeks before on our way to Keswick Island... The pilot seems to have done an awesome job ditching the plane safely and getting the passengers out without anyone getting seriously injured or worse. She can even be seen sporting a smile in a picture taken in the rescue helicopter, despite the multiple bruises on her face. That's picture 9 in this gallery.

To the best of my knowledge, that's the closest I've come so far to an in-flight engine failure in a single-engine aircraft. Two weeks between our flight and the final flight of VH-ZMP may sound like a big enough time interval. But if you think about it in terms of engine time, it's probably only a dozen hours we're talking about. A bit too close for comfort.

Which brings up the eternal question, what would I have done in the same situation? I can't honestly answer, but one's thing for sure: it's all about training and keeping a cool head. I should take a 172 out to Bribie Island one of those days to practice forced landings. It's been a while since I last did that, and I clearly remember that my last forced landing drills left a lot to be desired. Going through the checks, briefing passengers and making the mayday call was all OK, it's picking a field and planning a glide approach to it that could do with more practice. Of course, this is precisely the part of the forced landing you do not want to screw up. Training, training, training. Vingt fois sur le m├ętier remettez votre ouvrage.


Todd - said...

Wow, what a first day on the job to have to perform a ditching of the plane. I just came across your blog by way of PlasticPilot. Nice work on the blog. I have added your to my blogroll at Safe flying!

Neil Almond said...

Kate was amazing. So calm under pressure; a text book landing. I believe she she saved our lives that day.