Falling Out of the Sky
I found myself with a week clear in Southern Spain; free time spanning in front of me and not a single claim to my time. Add to that a Piper Saratoga parked in Málaga gathering dust and it was clear: it was time to go flying. After months of bad weather followed by hectic schedules leaving no time for private flying, I looked forward to getting back into the air. I picked up my PPL and log book and then I looked at the dates. How long since my last flight? A refresher might be in order!
Someone was working on my behalf in the karma stakes. I spoke to Lee, my ex-instructor, who agreed that a short break in Spain sounded like fun, even if it was going to involve spending a day flying with me.
And so we fly.
Lee still remembers my weak spots from training and has a good idea of what I’m probably out of date on. To my dismay, he informs me that we will do engine failures, my most unfavourite past-time. This involves the normally quite sympathetic man sitting next to me suddenly closing the throttle and saying “Your engine has failed, now what?”
Screaming, apparently, is not an option.
I bite my lip and try to remember the sequence of events. This should be second nature, I know that. In a real emergency, there’s no time to sit and think. I exhale sharply as I realize that I’ve instinctively started to deal with the issue: while I’m pondering, I’ve put the plane into a glide configuration, maximizing our time in the air. OK, I remember this now: the next step is to work out which way the wind is going. I scan the ground for smoke stacks, hoping to get a hint, but no one has thought to oblige me with a bonfire. The trees seem still, there’s no local train, I’m running out of things to look for. Meanwhile the plane is drifting along the way a heavy Piper Saratoga drifts, which is with a distinct downward motion.
“You are taking too long,” Lee says, sounding calm and patient despite the fact that I’ve clearly lost the plot.
I point the plane based on our runway direction, at least that’s generally in line with what the wind was when we took off. He smiles and waits. It seems to be falling into place now, my next move is obvious.
I start looking for some place I would be able to land without killing us. The Spanish landscape looks uninviting: dusty hills and rivers weaving their way to the coast, the occasional road twisting around the landscape. Orchards of olives, a favourite sight down on the ground, frustrate me now that I’m looking for something flat. The main crops of Andalucía: oranges, olives, almonds: none of these can help me now. My forehead prickles with perspiration. Finally I see a gap, a flat rectangle at about the right distance.
“That field, there.”
“The one with the tree in the middle?”
I wince, but there’s plenty of room either side. Yeah, that one.
It’s time to start looking at what is wrong with the engine and whether it’s recoverable. I put my hand on the throttle: that’ll fix it!
Lee knows me too well; he shakes his head. I leave the throttle where it is and pretend to check all the other things that might have gone wrong. Fuel, oil, magnetos, fuel pump. I try to take the checks seriously, but it’s difficult. I tap the things I would check and pretend to turn off the fuel.
“Right, I’m taking her down.”
I’ve failed to find the problem with the engine; we have run out of options. I mime making sure the plane is secured, feathering the prop, turning off the magnetos and then I say the words: “We’re landing in a field.” Now my stomach tightens, even though I know it’s not for real.
“Might want to tell someone?”
“Oh yeah…. Mayday mayday mayday November 666 Echo X-ray has an engine failure, somewhere south of Granada, putting her down in a field.”
I should be trying to give them a more exact location but at the moment I’m more concerned about lining up on my base leg; the fake radio call is the least of my worries. I turn the plane again and my eyes flit between the field and my altitude. What’s ground level here?
It strikes me that this is rather critical and I break protocol to ask.
“How high is the ground?”
“Coming up quick, Sylvia, come on. Wheels?”
Lee doesn’t give hints. Well, I guess he does, as landing gear is pretty critical. I put the wheels down and turn again, now I’m heading straight in for my field, on final. I’m proud of myself for remembering the next step.
“As we come down could you please open your door and adopt the brace position.”
He nods with a slight smile.
I’d feel good about this but we are still going down. I’m expecting him to break off the exercise and let me put the power back on, but he’s taking advantage of the fact that we are in the middle of nowhere. Low flying rules are a bind in southern England, less so “somewhere south of Granada” where it’s all fields and no populated areas to avoid. My knuckles turn white as I clench the control. We are now 3000 foot above sea level, I reckon the ground to be at least 1800′.
I put the flaps down and we continue to descend. The ground is scarily close. On the third level of flaps, with the tree now stealing my entire focus, he finally says the magic words,
“That’s fine, go around.”
I push the throttle in and climb away.
“You’d have made that,” he says.
The ultimate praise.