First, a little joke before I talk about a very serious subject.
A military pilot called for a priority landing because his single-engine jet fighter was running “a bit peaked.”
Air Traffic Control told the fighter pilot that he was number two, behind a B-52 that had one engine shut down.
“Ah,” the fighter pilot remarked, “The dreaded seven-engine approach.
While this joke is pretty amusing, it also makes a very important point about the seriousness of shutting an engine down. The vast majority of people will never be on a plane with an engine shut down. I don’t think I have ever talked to a person that was on a commercial flight where they had to shut one down, though I am sure it does happen on occasion.
Even in the military it is very much a hit and miss thing where some people never experience it, and others have done it repeatedly. In this particular instance, it was the first time I had ever been in the seat when we shut one down after almost three years of active flying, whereas one of our loadmasters, who has only been flying for about 8 months had experienced four engine shutdowns. Luck of the draw I guess.
So what happened?
As is usually the case in most stories like this the day started off out of sorts. The mission commander was unprepared and we didn’t receive any of our products until an hour after we should have. That left us with about 45 minutes to prepare our personal products, do a formation briefing, and a crew study so that we could get out to the plane with enough time to get started and take off on time.
Whatever, we are rock stars so we got it done.
Even before the delayed products, we also learned that the pilots on our plane would be receiving no notice checkrides from AMC (Air Mobility Command) which meant that they were all just a little more on edge.
As we were departing on our first route in the number two position, lead started having issues with the copilot’s instruments so they had to break out and we took over. No big deal, it happens pretty regularly.
We continued on the route until about half way through our engineer noticed that one of the engines was fluctuating a little bit. Nothing catastrophic, but pushing the limits a little more than it should. We continued on the route while monitoring that engine and performing a few trouble shooting measures.
As we neared the run-in for the drop, we decided, as a crew, that the most conservative response was to return to base and follow the procedure to the letter. So we notified ATC and initiated our return.
The important discussion that was had at this point was whether we should shut down the engine or not. The reason that there was even any discussion was because the engine was not consistently out of limits but was fluctuating out of limits on occasion. None of us felt that we were in any real danger and that it was likely just a gauge issue more than an actual propeller problem.
What ultimately led to the decision to shut the engine down was the engineer reading through the procedures that we had followed to that point which, when all other steps had not resolved the issue, clearly stated that you “WILL” shut the bad engine down.
So we followed the procedure to shut the engine down and made a safe landing back at the base where we turned the plane back over to maintenance so that they could fix whatever they found to be wrong.
As you can imagine there is a lot to be learned from this situation.
The first lesson for me as a mission commander in training is to show up prepared. When you are just a normal crew member and you show up unprepared you just make life hard on yourself, but when you are the mission commander you make life hard on everyone. They are all forced to rush and that is when mistakes happen. Fortunately, nothing bad happened today, but it could have so why make things harder than they have to be.
The second lesson is one that bears repeating over and over again. Good crew resource management is essential to flying safely. When the engineer noticed something was not quite right he didn’t play, “I have a secret,” he notified the rest of the crew so that we could work together to come up with the best course of action so that we could all return home safely.
The last lesson is how important it is to know your procedures, and when in doubt to look them up. It would have been easy to decide that it was just a gauge problem and leave the engine running. Odds are it would have worked just fine for the ten minutes it took us to get back to base and we would have been fine.
However, what if we were hours from the nearest airport and we had misdiagnosed an actual problem that led to a catastrophic failure of that engine and a much more serious issue. By following the procedure precisely every single time we can help to ensure that we are flying as safely as possible.
There are regularly times when we are asked to make important decisions as aviators. That may even include deciding how best to execute a given procedure, but it makes the decision that much simpler when you understand the procedure and how you are supposed to execute it.
Shutting down one of our four engines on the C-130 when we are close to home really isn’t that traumatic of an experience, similar to the “dreaded seven-engine approach.” It is obviously a much bigger deal in a single-engine fighter, or even a single-engine Cessna. With that being said, it is never a decision to be taken lightly.
As good aviators we have an incredible amount of trust placed in us by those that we fly around, with, and above. They are counting on us to make the right decisions at the right times, and we will only be able to make those decisions if we are properly prepared with the proper procedures.