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Lessons Learned: Shutting Down an Engine in Flight

Eight engines provide a level of comfort for the B-52.

Eight engines provide a level of comfort for the B-52.

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.

Seeing a propeller stopped in flight can be a little uncomfortable.  Fortunately we have three to spare.

Seeing a propeller stopped in flight can be a little uncomfortable. Fortunately we have three to spare.

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.

December 13, 2014 I Written By

I'm Dave and I am a proud Avgeek. It goes way beyond liking airplanes. It is a passion that cannot be subdued.

Crew Resource Management: A Crew Save is a Good Save

Flying is a part of my life is most everything that I do.  At the very least I think about flying during just about anything else that I am doing.

Growing up I always thought of flying as a solitary exercise.  Even if I had become an airline pilot with a plane full of people it just seemed like most of the work would be done alone.  Even as I went through training I thought I wanted to be on a plane with just me and the pilot.  I could not have been more wrong.

The C-130H generally flies with a crew of two pilots, a navigator, engineer, and two loadmasters.

The C-130H generally flies with a crew of two pilots, a navigator, engineer, and two loadmasters.

I ended up on the mighty C-130 Hercules with a crew makeup of up to 6 people on most missions, and honestly, that is one of the things I like most about my job.  I love the chance that I have to work with other people to accomplish things that could not be done otherwise.

Sure, technology is great, and it can do a lot, but there is really no replacement for a group of people working together to get things done.  I have already seen this numerous times in my short career.  There have been times where a crew member simply came up with a better idea, or easier way to do something, and other times they have literally saved my life.

When we go in for a check-ride one of the common phrases that the evaluator often uses is, “a crew save is a good save.”  What they mean is that even if the person being evaluated misses something they won’t be penalized if someone else on the crew catches it before there are any adverse affects.

I’ve always loved the message that sends.  The message that you are all there as a crew and that the actions of the crew as a whole are what will bring the final results.  While it is true that any individual can do things that lead to an unsafe result, there is almost always a chance that someone else on the crew can save them before any damage is done.

I am so grateful for the hundreds of different people I have flown with in my career already.  They have each provided me with insights and knowledge that could not have been developed in any other way.

Our crew with a special guest visitor.  Best crew I've ever flown with.

Our crew with a special guest visitor. Best crew I’ve ever flown with.

In particular I am grateful for the crew I flew with while in Afghanistan.  I learned more in the two months I had with that crew than in the rest of my flying time combined.  Our most experienced crew member was a loadmaster who taught all of us every chance he got, and I will forever be indebted to him for the lessons he taught me.

That is the other message that I want to share today.  Whether you just started flying, or have been flying for 50 years, you have worthwhile knowledge that should be shared with others.  As aviators we can never stop learning if we want to remain safe.  We must constantly be broadening our understanding of the wonder that is flight, and it is the duty of all who have gained experience to share it with others so that we all may stay safer.

Even if you are the only licensed pilot in a 172 with friends, educate them on the basics so that they are an active participant.  You never know when their eyes may spot something that saves everyone’s lives.

Never forget, “A crew save is a good save.”

February 27, 2014 I Written By

I'm Dave and I am a proud Avgeek. It goes way beyond liking airplanes. It is a passion that cannot be subdued.