Emergency Landing

08/22/08

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 April 22, 2005
Jacksonville, Florida
                            

We left Sun N Fun on Tuesday April 19. Because so many people had been touching the machine at Sun n Fun I did a very thorough pre-flight spending an hour going over the machine meticulously.  My 100  hour service was just about due and I intended to change the drive belt then. The current belt has over 200 hours on it. 
 
I inspected every single tooth looking for small cracks which I had been told was the indicator for when to change them.  The belt felt more brittle than the spare I carry with me but there were no cracks.  I flew about 3 hours that day and all was fine as I landed at Jacksonville. 
 
We spent two nights in Jacksonville during which time I heard about two different Subaru crankshaft failures. One of the failures was from a friend of mine in Australia and I posted a note on the US gyro forum with details so others might be more aware of the problem. 
 
With these failures in mind I did another extra careful preflight- paying particular attention to turning the prop through and listening for any bearing noise or crankshaft noise and examining the belt in detail again. 
 
My engine seems the more oil I add, the more it burns so I usually leave it a bit low but in light of the two engine problems I had just heard about I added about 1/3 qt. of oil to bring it to the full mark.
 
Dee was with me for a short scenic flight this morning.  We started up and had a long warm-up as we waited for ground control to put up a new ATIS before clearing us to taxi.  We taxied ,then waited for 2 departures and 1 landing.  The engine was fully into the green on temp and oil was fine before we took the runway.
 
On my machine I idle at about 1200rpm, usually turn 1900-2200 to start moving on the ramp then taxi at 1400 or so.  That's what I had done so far that morning.   For take-off I had my normal 5,150 rpm available and at about 200 feet I reduced power to 4,800 as is normal.  Even as I reduced power I noticed I was not climbing as well as usual and rechecked all the engine indications and airspeed- all normal. 

At first I told myself it was because Dee was with me and most of the time I am used to being solo but within another 10 seconds I knew something was wrong and a vibration had developed that Dee mentioned first.  We had crossed over a treed area on a crosswind towards our course and we're now heading away from the airport so I called the tower and informed them we were returning  to the airport.  I did not declare an emergency and the tower asked if I could enter directly to base from where I was. 

As I started to reply power dropped off significantly and we began to descend rapidly I abandoned the return to the airport over the trees and turned instead to the very busy 6 lane street below me.  I doubt we were over 350' at this point.  I informed the tower we were going to land on the road. 

It was 10 AM and the street was packed with fast moving traffic in both directions. The median was grassy but not very wide and was a ditch so if I landed there a rollover was likely.  The shoulders of the road were full of signs and also had huge overhanging lamp posts to avoid so I quickly picked the best spot that was free of approach wires and did a sort of S turn to fit behind some traffic in the direction I wanted to land.  There was only a few seconds to try to avoid the overhanging light posts and everything else but I managed to do that as the power continued to fall off.  At this point we were only about 40 seconds after take-off and these decisions were made faster than it takes to read them.

 

I had previously given much thought to landing on a road with traffic and I had a plan which I pretty much executed.  My biggest concern was landing safely then getting hit by a truck going 60 mph.   

My plan was to have lots of excess airspeed and level off at 20-30 feet where cars were sure to see you and slam on their brakes.  As they stopped I could drop down and re-flare at touchdown.
 
As all this was happening my power continued to drop.  Based upon my descent angle I would guess I had equivalent thrust to what I would have at 2500-2800 rpm which is near my normal landing setting.  
 
As I was about 20 feet over the road and had made an initial leveling flare the engine suddenly screamed and we dropped down like an elevator.  (In hindsight I realized that the main drive belt was stripping its teeth and a that moment it had just stripped the few remaining teeth that were turning the propeller).  I chopped the throttle and believe I saw the tach at 8000 at this moment.  Chopping the throttle was an instinct caused by hearing the screaming engine and a millisecond later my brain said no you need power but I also realized that the throttle was not giving me power and the screaming engine noise was a "bad thing." 
 
Unfortunately this last second distraction coupled with the drop caused by the sudden final loss of power did not give me much time to react.  A better pilot would have gotten  the nose down and concentrated on flaring at 1 foot with whatever energy was left.  I was still thinking as much about the cars behind me as the landing and lost too much airspeed.  As our airspeed dropped off towards zero I flared with everything that was left and I ended up dropping nearly vertically to the road from about  five feet.   
 
I immediately leveled the blades which was part of my pre-thought out plan so if pedestrians or cars did pass hopefully they would not contact the blades.  All 6 lanes of cars got stopped and pedestrians were at our sides in seconds.  We were both fine and I called the tower to tell them we were down safely and I'd call them back later.  I shut off the engine and tried to get the blades stopped and keep the pedestrians from getting injured. 
 
The entire time from lift-off to touchdown was about 60 seconds and I doubt we ever climbed over 400'.  We landed about 3/4 of a mile from where we took off. 
 
Upon exiting the aircraft I noticed 3 things.  There was lots of oil on the tail, the belt had no teeth left and the two main gear legs with the rubber donuts were each bent in a gentle 30 degree arc.  If you did not know the gear legs were supposed to be straight, it looked normal. 
 
The police arrived in minutes and one of them soon took me to round up a trailer while Dee waited with the gyroplane.  During the hour it took me to return with the trailer one or two news photographers took pictures of what appeared to be a perfectly intact gyro sitting on busy Atlantic Blvd. 
 
As we attempted to load the gyro on the trailer we had problems with 3 wheels and only 2 ramps.   This necessitated manually lifting the front wheel onto the trailer.  Several bystanders and the now arrived TV news crews helped us.  In the process I think someone lifted on the weakened curved up landing gear strut and it then began to fold up in slow motion.  As we finished pulling the gyro onto the trailer the gear collapsed leaning the gyro over to its side.  That bent the rudder horn and broke an exterior nav light.
 
Of course this is what all the TV news crews captured was the gyro over on its side on the trailer. 
 
I subsequently removed the blades for the short drive back to the airport. 
 
The FAA did what I believe is an occurrence report.  This is their lowest level below an incident or accident.  I gave them info; they wrote it up.  I did not sign anything and no further FAA or NTSB report was required. 
 

As of this writing 48 hours after the hard landing incident we believe the engine is intact and the problem was a total failure of the Gates GT2 drive belt.  It went from normal appearance to loosing all the teeth in 60 seconds.  We believe the oil on the tail was from the breathers as is common when its filled to the full mark.  Damage to the machine is two bent gear legs. Shearing of the rotor brake cable mount rivets, deformation of the rivets attaching the forward keel section to the main keel- this was caused by the force of the landing gear pushing up against the forward keel section.  and a minor crack in the fiberglass immediately around the hole where the forward gear leg exits the cabin.  The trailer damage is the navigation light and rudder horn.

We hope to have repairs made within a week and continue our travels to the remaining 39 states.

Rob & Dee

What I've learned
It may be too early for reflection but while things are fresh in my mind I'll post what I can. 

Though I frequently practice engine out landings the practice and this reality were certainly different.  In practice and in flight we imagine the engine suddenly quits while we are at 500 or 1,000 feet and once we pick a landing site everything from then until touchdown is just a smooth glide to the spot we picked.  In practice I am always aware of the massive amount of time from simulated engine failure to touch down.  In this case things seemed to happen very rapidly with distractions of cars and light posts and the landing spot being a moving hole in the traffic. 

 

What I did right:
1.  Had a plan for landing in traffic and practiced engine out landings.
2.  Abandoned trying to make the airport and landed on the road.  (Had I tried to make the airport we would have gone down in a stand of 60' tall pine tress with disastrous consequences).
3.  Made decisions quickly.
4.  Maintained control of the aircraft.
5.  Informed the tower of our plight.
6.  Landed without any injuries.
7.  Was flying a gyroplane which can land safely in small areas and without engine power.

What I did wrong.
1.  Did not maintain my aircraft properly as regards changing the belt earlier.
2.  Let my airspeed get too low while still 5 feet in the air.
3.  Got distracted by the engine noise and did not focus on a perfect landing at the last seconds.

After Landing and rolling the gyro to the left turn lane at the next intersection

Bent Landing Gear

Atlantic Avenue exactly where we landed

Traffic where we landed- trees in the median

Wires and posts a few hundred yards down the street from where we landed

The trees between us and the airport

Chuck- the good samaritain with a trailer

On the trailer after gear leg collapse

Ready to fly again- the crew from NorthEast Aviation

 

If the above passages seemed overly technical please forgive me.  This is intended not only for our casual readers but also as to provide information to those who fly similar machines.
                                                                                         Rob

 

Jacksonville Repairs

What a difference a day makes!  Often I have flown far out of my way to stay over roads where an emergency landing could be made, yet on my flight from Sun N Fun to Jacksonville I confidently flew over swamps and along the beach even commenting in my log here that I felt fine about doing so on Tuesday.  Then near disaster- only a few hours after writing that I took off to give Dee a scenic flight over the beach and we lost all power within 60 seconds of take-off.  Dee remained cool and calm during the emergency which allowed me to fully concentrate on the tasks at hand in getting down safely.  Once on the ground she fully pitched in to secure the gyro and begin effecting repairs. 

While Dee stayed with the gyro attended by police and a gathering crowd of reporters one officer retuned me to the airport to figure out how to recover the gyro.  There parked next to our motorhome was a man with a BIG trailer just looking for something to do.  When he heard of our plight our good Samaritan, Chuck immediately volunteered his help and he took charge in getting the gyro on his trailer and returning us to the airport where NorthEast aviation agreed to tackle the project.  Our luck was fast changing for the better!

Our repairs were completed quickly by an excellent crew of A&P's from NorthEast Florida Aviation Maintenance at Jacksonville's Craig airport.  Though they normally work on everything from small Cessna's to jets they all got excited by the tiny gyro.  At some moments 5 of the mechanics were all involved in my repairs despite having a hangar full of other aircraft needing attention.  Thanks to speedy delivery of parts from Groen Brothers aviation and the work by Mark and his crew from NorthEast we were ready to fly again exactly 1 week after our mishap.  After a few nervous touch n go's we were ready to continue on our way.  

 

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This site was last updated 10/13/05

Copyright Rob Dubin 2005