When things don’t quite go as planned when you’re up in the air, that’s when all your training and preparation come into play. Here’s the story of one pilot who successfully maneuvered a safe landing after his right engine started to release smoke mid-way through his journey. An epic tale of handling mid-air complications and what the pilot learned. Hint: proper pre-flight planning and situational awareness.

Flying from Melbourne to Uluru

The pilot was newly qualified on Multi‐Engine Aircraft and had embarked on cross‐country flight exercises, to accumulate the PIC (Pilot-in-Command) hours to gain his Multi‐Engine Instructor approval. As a part of this hour building, he had planned a long “fly away” from Melbourne to Uluru in outback Australia (a distance of about 2000km).

Smoke and oil in all the wrong places

The PIC was flying from Coober Pedy to Alice Springs at an altitude of 8500ft. This leg was over the desert; the temperature on the ground was 40 degrees Celsius. At approximately 130nm south of Alice Springs, the right engine began to produce smoke and then leaked oil from the right engine cowling. The pilot did initial troubleshooting checks and then notified Air Traffic Control (ATC).

After 20 minutes, the engine performance had deteriorated (1300 RPM) and was running very rough. A large amount of oil sprayed through the top of the engine cowl and over the wing flap. The right engine oil temperature had exceeded limits. The pilot realised that the engine would stop and an in‐flight shutdown was imminent.

After completing the required procedures and checklists, the engine was feathered and secured. The pilot continued for 90 nm (about 45min) with one engine inoperative to the closest suitable airport.

The live engine oil temperature began to rise above normal (green arc) operating range. The pilot opened the cowl flap on the live engine and descended to 5000ft. The aircraft single-engine performance was maintained, despite being a sweltering day. The pilot continued at this altitude to Alice Springs.

The pilot was outside ATC communication coverage, so he decided to relay his communications (Pan Call) via an en‐route high altitude Qantas Jet to ATC. He then tracked on the 180 radial into Alice Springs and was cleared a visual approach to join base runway 12. He landed safely with a 15-knot crosswind on runway 12 at Alice Springs.

After landing, fire crews opened the right engine cowl. Oil had sprayed over the fuselage. When inspected, there was a hole in the head of one of the four cylinders.

The root cause 

After engineering services had inspected the damaged/ failed engine, it was found that the right-hand engine no. 4 cylinder exhaust valve collets had failed. This allowed the exhaust valve to enter the combustion chamber. As a result, this forced the damaged valve through the upper spark plug insert and punched a hole in the top of the engine cylinder. The engine was then running on three cylinders and leaking oil.

handling mid air complications
Handling Mid-Air Complications

What can we learn?

This Mid-Air complications highlights how correct use of standard operating procedures and checklists assist pilots in handling any non‐normal events confidently and hence increase the overall safety of the flight and its passengers.

Aviation regulators mandate the carriage of emergency equipment for flight through remote areas. The equipment is onboard (resulting from careful flight planning on the part of the PIC) was crucial in maintaining confidence.

When flying over inhospitable terrain, even in a multi‐engine aircraft, it pays to have considered your options for diversion to alternate airfields before you get airborne. If there are no alternative aerodromes, you will have to have to know where your point of no‐return (PNR) and critical points/Equi‐Time Points (CP/ETP) are; while considering forecast winds and actual fuel consumption/fuel remaining. 

In this respect, the effectiveness of well-delivered competency-based training is of utmost importance. The pilot was prepared for this event thanks to this scenario being taught and assessed to required standards. Practical and validated flight training is a pilot’s primary tool in not only handling the incident but also in making effective PIC decisions in-flight while maintaining situational awareness.

At the time the incident occurred, the PIC utilised all possible resources; including the tasking of his passenger to assist him in maintaining situational awareness by monitoring the engine for fire on the RHS. Crew Resource Management is a vital tool, even when flying as a single‐pilot crew.

The PIC had also made the correct decision in the pre‐flight performance planning. He opted to reduce weight before departure in case of an emergency given the ambient air temperature and conditions. It proved crucial in the aircraft maintaining single-engine flight performance to a suitable aerodrome without further incident.