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Where's that smoke coming from?

Adrian Beney was flying home from Dublin when his Piper Turbo Arrow started to misfire, then catch fire. It was decision time. Shut down the engine completely? Or soldier on? Tough call…

My grandfather Walter Bowles was a ‘throttle bender’ – one of a small group of pilots who were regular competitors in the air races of the 1950s and who pushed their machines, including the throttle lever itself, to the limit. Hence the name ‘throttle bender’.

During one of those races, the crankshaft of his Miles Messenger gave way and the propeller departed to a destination unknown. He landed in a field (the Messenger has a stall speed of around 28mph) and a few days later, after the Miles factory had replaced the engine, he flew it out of the same field.

Some months later the prop was found in a wood, and the local police returned it. Years later, and inspired at least in part by his flying exploits, I too learned to fly.

With around 550 hours under my belt, I set off from Gloucestershire Airport early one morning in August 2019 for a business trip to Dublin. I was flying our group Piper Turbo Arrow III. The day was perfect, and a fairly direct route over mid Wales and south of the Llŷn Peninsula took me to Weston Airfield, west of Dublin, in just an hour and a half.
Over the sea at 10,000ft, l was aware of how far it was to land, and which way I would go ‘if the engine stopped’. But it didn’t, and the rather exciting approach over central Dublin up the River Liffey had me safely at Weston.

Later that day I set off for home, planning to fly down the Irish east coast towards Rosslare and across to Pembrokeshire. Conditions were VFR all the way, and I climbed into Irish Class C for the sea crossing at 10,000ft. The flight was uneventful until around midway across the sea. I thought I noticed the original Piper CHT gauge flicker. But it was reading ‘zero’.

I tried to remember whether it usually had a reading, but because I tend to use the JPI engine monitor, which gives a reading for each of the cylinders, I assumed it was disconnected.

A little later I saw it flicker up to the middle of the green range, so clearly it would normally work, but then it reverted to zero. I checked the JPI readings which were normal, and I put it down to an electrical fault (which in a way it was) and continued.

Landfall came 10 minutes later and I remember thinking RAF Brawdy would make a good emergency landing field if one were needed. But the engine sounded fine, and instruments were all ‘in the green’… except the cylinder head gauge. Ten minutes later I smelled smoke. Looking around for a moorland fire I could see nothing. Engine instruments OK. Must have been some smoke from a fire I couldn’t see. I didn’t make the connection. Another five or 10 minutes passed.

Then it happened. The engine went from lovely smooth warmed-up 6-cylinder Continental to sounding only a little less rough than starting it on a cold morning. Clearly it was misfiring. I checked fuel flow, magnetos, mixture and anything else I and the checklist could think of. Nothing obvious, but it was clearly not happy. I pulled the throttle back from 32in to 25in to reduce load on the engine and made a Pan call to Western Radar.

Could I have a QDM to the nearest airfield please? Shobdon was 20 miles north-east. It was nearer than Cardiff and I didn’t want to try to nurse it all the way back to Gloucester. It was only about 10 minutes flying time. They’d be closed, but who cares? It’s a hard runway that’s easy to find. Western gave me a heading to steer.

I can’t remember whether I decided to descend, or whether with a light throttle and a malfunctioning engine I couldn’t maintain height. Either way, I began descending. Then I smelled smoke again and thought I saw some in the cockpit.

The landing site and tracks across the grass

This was no moorland fire – it was me. In retrospect I realised I’d never given any thought to how I’d work out what kind of fire my aeroplane was suffering from. All I knew was that there was a material risk I was on fire and I needed to be on the ground as soon as I could.

I turned the fuel off and set up best glide speed. I saw some radio dishes ahead and (since these are often at disused airfields) had a look at the chart and, lo and behold, they are on Madley disused. (There’s now a HIRTA around it, but there wasn’t then.)

I could glide there and there may be a runway. Decision made. I called Western and told them I may be on fire and I’m going to shut down the electrics and hence the radios. They ask me if this is a Mayday – and I say ‘Affirm’. I go through the words and select 7700 (seven-seven, going to heaven) on the transponder.

Then Western say they’ve talked to Cardiff who had found me a farm strip. I remember reading Shelley Sullenberger writing about making a decision and sticking to it, and this being the key to his success landing his Airbus in the Hudson.

And I know farm strips can be hard to find on the best of days. So I told Western, “Thank you, but no thank you, I’m shutting off and going to Madley.”

The forced landing site at Madley, a disused airfield and now an auction site

Then I turned off the fuel and electrics, having first made the mistake of putting the gear down. (I shouldn’t have, but it seemed a job to get done and although I knew the emergency gear extension was easy to use and would work, I thought I’d do it the ‘normal way’ and didn’t think about the drag.)

The next few seconds were rather odd. Many people say when they had a car crash it happened in slow motion. Well, I had eight minutes of slow motion. After the radio went silent I remember thinking, “This is strange, this is an emergency, and I have to land the aeroplane. I don’t really want to do that. Can we make it all go back to normal please?”

Of course it didn’t, and I regained the attention of all of my brain and concentrated on Madley. Oh. The runway was covered in agricultural machinery. Pity. But the grass immediately to the south of it looks good, and longer than the other fields in the area. That’s what I’d do. I was around 3,500ft at this point.

The descent continued and the field looked easily achievable. I wanted to land as short into the field as possible, and into wind, since I didn’t know how long it was. All set up for a left base onto final approach. Height looks good. Oh. What’s that at the beginning of the field? I hadn’t seen a hedge earlier. That’s because it’s not a hedge. It’s a 8ft high steel palisade fence. That’s a bit of a blow…

Adrian made his decision and stuck to it… Madley it was to be…

Less than four weeks’ earlier I’d done my annual renewal and Phil Mathews, the Cotswold Aero Club CFI, had got me to do a practice forced landing. If it had been for real I’d have undershot the field slightly. As we climbed away, we talked about what to have done, and his advice had been to push the nose forward a little, gaining speed and then at the last minute convert that speed into height. You’d land with a lower speed and have a better chance of getting over the obstacle.

So, having dismissed the stupid idea, which had popped into my head, of dumping a stage of flap, I followed Phil’s instructions, pushed the nose down (yes, down, this was not intuitive), gained that extra bit of speed, bunted over the fence and down to a very gentle landing in the field.

Now. How to preserve the nose gear? I’d had a nosewheel puncture recently and it was obvious I needed to hold the stick fully back to keep the weight off the nose wheel. Rudder still working to start with, we came to a gently curving halt about two thirds of the way along the field without using brakes at all.

Everything silent. Keys out, get out of the aeroplane. Quickly. I jumped down and around the starboard wing to see whether there was any evidence of fire. There wasn’t but there was an oily, petrolly mess all down the nose gear door and under the fuselage. That, dripping or pouring onto the manifold, was the cause of the smoke.

The oily, petrolly mess under the fuselage dripping onto the manifold was the cause of the smoke

Having established nothing was on fire, I tried our handheld radio to get Western Radar, to no avail. In the absence of a phone number, I called Cardiff Airport and asked for ATC. The person I spoke to was quite reluctant to put me through until I said I’d just declared a Mayday and was safely in a field. Cardiff ATC were lovely and said they’d stand down the coastguard helicopter which had been scrambled to come and find me (or my remains…).

It turned out the 8ft fence, and the agricultural machinery, were there because Madley is now an auction site. I’d landed inside its perimeter and our aircraft would benefit from 24 hour on-site security until we could remove it!

Slightly sadly, our insurers wouldn’t let us mend the engine in situ and then take off from such an unprepared surface – and it would not have been wise – so, I was unable to repeat my grandfather’s achievement of ‘in and out’ of the same field.

There was a degree of debate in our group and at our base airfield about what I’d done.

Had I heroically saved the engine and airframe, and possibly my life, from an uncontained fire? Or some other disruption caused by an increasingly failing engine? Or had I unnecessarily risked my own safety and that of the aeroplane by landing in an unknown field when really I could have got to Shobdon?

Cylinder number 1 looking pretty sorry for itself

Our engineer settled the argument. Number 1 cylinder head had failed and was already 66% detached. Had the head come off completely there would have been all kinds of disruption to the engine – I’d made the right decision. The first sign I’d had was the CHT gauge malfunctioning since that had come off when the head started to fail.

So what did I learn? Lots. There were lots of little lessons. Don’t put the gear down until you have to. Don’t lose height you’ve got until the field is assured – you can always slip in a bit.

Use all the diagnostic tools available (the JPI could have told me more.) Know what ‘normal’ looks like on all the gauges. But the biggest lesson was to discover I had never thought about how to make the decision to shut down a partially functioning engine. All my preparation had assumed sudden, complete, engine failure where there is no engine related decision to make. But in this case, I did have power still available to me but I’d (wisely) shut it down.

As far as I was concerned this had been a final decision. It didn’t occur to me to use power to get that extra bit of height I needed to get over the fence. I may not have had time, but even a ‘blip’ from a broken engine might have been useful.

Looking back I’d make the same decision again. The burning smell was what clinched it. But I’d hold the possibility of some, albeit rough, power if I needed it, and think about how I’d switch that back on despite the shutdown. And I’d feel much more confident to think about whether to carry on using power or not.

Recovering the aeroplane and repairing it took a while, and so it was three months before I flew again. Much of that flight was spent looking for suitable fields. I suspect my grandfather did the same…



  • Jeff Bridges says:

    Wow, great reading, glad it all worked out for you .

  • Paul Ruskin says:

    “If it had been for real I’d have undershot the field slightly. As we climbed away, we talked about what to have done, and his advice had been to push the nose forward a little, gaining speed and then at the last minute convert that speed into height. ”

    I’ve heard this suggested a couple of times. But if you’re already flying at best glide, pushing the nose forward will mean you undershoot even more, and you won’t make up for it with the extra speed.


  • davidwhite894 says:

    Excellent write-up, thanks. I take Paul’s point about best glide and would agree in a stabilised descent. But in the final stages of a landing, I think it’s more about dynamic energy management than a stabilised flightpath. You do what you have to do to make a safe landing area and avoid obstacles – which it seems is what you did, and it worked. Stuff that works beats simplified theory, I guess!

  • dde0apb says:

    @davidwhite894 that’s my understanding. Paul Ruskin my sense was that pushing the nose down and then “hopping” over the fence meant the round out was shorter and I landed more slowly. Having used the energy to prolong the glide in a way that pulling the nose up earlier would not have done. Anyway, it worked…. Of course it’s possible that maintaining best glide might have worked too. But with advice from a CFI with 14,000 hours ringing in my ears, I followed it 🙂

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