Takeoff and landing is the most critical and intense time of any flight, and an engine failure at either of these stages is guaranteed to get your attention. They don’t happen often so it’s virtually unheard of to have two such occurrences on the same flight.

Bringing the Baron back into the hangar after a day of flying. (Pic- Julian Smith)

“THE EGT (exhaust gas temperature) on the starboard engine is climbing.” My co-pilot was looking a bit anxious as I looked at the instrument panel to confirm. He was staring at the dual-needle gauge for both engines. The right needle was indicating much hotter than the left one.

“Damn,” I said aloud and richened the mixture for the right engine. “Extra fuel should cool it down a bit.” To help, I also opened the cowl flaps of both engines and the temperatures duly dropped. A while later we landed at home without further incident and I booked the Baron into our local Aircraft Maintenance Organization (AMO) to get checked over. A week passed and they couldn’t find the fault but, hoping that it was a merely a faulty gauge or sensor unit, they cleaned the injectors and serviced the entire fuel system anyway.

A month later a colleague requested the aircraft for a family holiday to Cape Town. I briefed him about the EGT readings, and off they flew for a memorable holiday.

Memorable for a different reason though. About 20 minutes out of Cape Town the right engine failed and he limped the Baron into Cape Town International. Landing with fire engines riding alongside you, their lights and sirens at full tilt, was a holiday highlight for the younger family members.

Back on terra-firma he started the engine, and it ran sweetly with no sign of its previous issues. I can confirm this, because he was on the phone to me at the time, and I could hear the engine roaring in the background.

Again the aircraft was booked into the AMO in Cape Town, and again nothing significant turned up. The injectors and fuel diaphragm were replaced, new plugs were installed and a few other bits and pieces of maintenance wizardry were performed, for which we were another R60,000 poorer. But the real cause was still unknown.

Two weeks later we ferried the Baron home to Port Elizabeth, and everything appeared to be perfect; the EGT was still slightly up, but not by much, and it appeared stable. I flew it for a few short flights, and everything was hunky-dory with the right engine.

But not for long.

A Baron’s cockpit is a very busy place, more so after an engine failure. (Pic- Julan Smith)

I was back in Cape Town attending a business conference, when our CEO called to ask if I would fly him to Cape Town in the Baron the following day. I reminded him that I was already in Cape Town, but would organise my friend Mark to fly him. I would then extend my stay by a day and fly back with them on the Saturday.

On Saturday we met at the airport for the flight home. The CEO wanted to be dropped in George, so Mark took the first stint as pilot in command (PIC) and I planned to do the leg from George to Port Elizabeth. The leg to George was fine, but we couldn’t keep the engines synchronized. Occasionally the synch would ‘drift’ with that irritating ‘thrumming beat’.

After the CEO had hopped out, I took over as PIC, and taxied out behind a familiar green Boeing 737 and a white Dash 8 turboprop. This was apparently George airport’s ‘rush hour’. Interestingly, the Dash did a downwind takeoff towards us on its way to Cape Town, but the B737 took off normally to what I presumed would be its Johannesburg destination. Eventually it was our turn for takeoff.

Left rudder on take-off?

I lined the Baron on the centreline of the runway and because we’d been idling for a while, I advanced the throttles slowly to avoid flooding the warm engines, released the brakes and accelerated. Normally a little right rudder would be needed to keep the Baron straight as we gained speed, but not this time, it needed a touch of left rudder. “Maybe a crosswind?” I thought, but more left rudder made me revise that to; “Maybe it’s turbulence from the two departing aircraft?”

“Are you alright?” asked Mark – he’d also noticed the unusual setup.

“Something is weird here Mark,” I replied, “I’m nearly at full left rudder.” An instrument scan told me nothing, the manifold, RPM, temperatures and pressures seemed right, even the EGT was behaving, but something unknown was wrong. Mark looked at the right engine, and announced, “We’re losing the right engine, fuel pump on low.”

“Right fuel pump switch on low,” I replied, the Baron was beginning to lift. “There’s enough runway, I’m aborting.”

“No, fly the aeroplane, fly the aeroplane.”  He replied.

Mark is also an instructor, so he should know the drill. The right engine recovered, I breathed a sigh of relief, raised the nose, and immediately put the landing gear away to clean up the aircraft.

“Looks like a mechanical fuel pump failure. What do you want to do?” he asked as we climbed away over Wilderness. We discussed our options and decided to fix the aircraft at home. We appeared to have the engine under control, and there were alternative airports between us and home. To confirm a fault with the mechanical fuel pump, I’d switched off the electric pump, and immediately the right engine began to die, so we flew with the right engine electric pump set on ‘low’.

Pan Pan Pan

Just past Jeffrey’s Bay we called Port Elizabeth. “Approach. Beech Baron Alpha Bravo Charlie. Pan, Pan, Pan.” This recognised alert gave us priority over other traffic movements and PE cleared us for a straight in approach to Runway 08. I slowed the Baron by dumping the gear and shortly thereafter selected one notch of flaps. On short final I confirmed three greens, and selected the second notch of flap – Barons only have two. Pitch fully fine and the engines responded with that ‘goose-bump’ lovely hum.

Crossing the rubbish dumps before the airport perimeter at about 250 feet, I turned to Mark, and asked “Shall I put the fuel pump on HIGH for added safety?” You will see later why this was such a dumb question.

“Yes,” he answered. I don’t know if he’d heard me correctly, but I heard him say “yes” and so flicked the electric pump for the right engine from LOW to HIGH. I was focused on the landing, keeping the speed above the 120 knot blue line to ensure that should we have engine failure, we would have enough speed to keep the aircraft under control.

Then with no warning, the right engine died.

The runway threshold passed below. With no time to feather, which wouldn’t matter anyway as I was throttling both engines back for the touchdown, I ignored the dead engine and flared normally. With a little squeak from the wheels, we were home safe.

“Engine failure on takeoff and on landing. Wow. What a day” I thought.

Back at the AMO I instructed them to find the fault ASAP. “Look inside the bloody fuel tank.” I suggested, “It is the only damn place we haven’t checked.”

The following day in the hangar I was handed a long red-handled philips screwdriver. “We found this inside the fuel tank” they told me.

I was speechless.

WHAT I LEARNT

I learned a lot from that unforgettable day, but these are the main points:

  • The screwdriver we found had been rolling around inside the tank from the time we bought the aircraft. The old tank had leaked and so had been replaced by the agents. At times the screwdriver would block the fuel flow and the EGT would rise. This is what it did on take-off on that day. The application of the electric pump on ‘Low’ had temporarily solved the problem by pulling enough fuel past the obstructing screw driver. Always make sure that your AMO includes an in-tank inspection with your MPI.
  • Barons and Bonanzas do not need the electric fuel pump on when landing and taking off. The pump is used to prime the engine, purge hot fuel lines, and as in our case, in the event of a partial line blockage. But it is only to be used on a LOW pressure setting. On Continental engines, the fuel pump on HIGH will flood the engine, and the engine will die.

(To highlight this, a fatal accident in Kimberly a few years back with an A36 Bonanza was traced to the pilot using the fuel pump on HIGH pressure during take-off. The engine flooded and the aircraft burnt out after crashing against the airport boundary fence.)

  • Know your speeds and stick to them. If we didn’t stick to the blue line speed, I might have lost control if I had to go to full asymmetric power for a go-around. Engine failure can happen anytime to anyone. Having two engines doesn’t make you immune, it simply doubles the chance of a failure.
  • Know your Pilot’s Operating Handbook (POH), and have it handy and nearby to USE. We did have ours handy in the centre pedestal below the trim wheels, but we never referenced it – we should have.

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