Conflicting Priorities

Conflicting Priorities

The multiengine instructor radioed Air Traffic Control that an engine was on fire. The nighttime training flight was about four miles from Okmulgee Airport, near Tulsa, Oklahoma. The instructor requested a straight-in approach to Runway 1L at Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Riverside Airport, where the Beechcraft twin was based.
The controller asked the pilot to repeat the nature of his problem and the instructor restated that one of the airplane’s engines was on fire. The controller then asked the standard ATC questions in an emergency–how many people on board and how much fuel–and added another query of little import to controllers but potentially distracting to the pilot: “which engine is on fire?” The instructor quickly replied, “Two people, two hours of fuel, and the right engine.”
Riverside Tower controllers later said they saw the airplane coming in “fast” and that they saw smoke coming from its right engine. One controller “reported seeing flames coming from the right engine,” according to the NTSB report. Shortly afterward, the instructor reported he did “not have a green light” for landing gear down-and-locked indications. The flight instructor then stated he was “going to go around and land on Runway 19R,” the reciprocal of the runway he had first asked to use. Controllers witnessed the airplane initiate a climb, then begin to “roll over to the right and pitch nose down” The airplane impacted the ground and exploded on impact.
Numerous witnesses at various locations on the airport reported the airplane approached downwind to Runway 1L and was “very fast on the approach.” Several witnesses said they heard an application of engine power before the airplane nosed up into a climb and control was lost. Most described the loss of control as the airplane rolling right “until it was inverted,” then nosing vertically into the ground. Tower controllers and some of the other witnesses stated “the landing gear appeared to be extended” prior to the attempted go-around/circle-to-land maneuver.
The NTSB determined the Probable Cause to be the instructor pilot’s failure to maintain the airplane’s minimum controllable airspeed during a single-engine go-around, which resulted in his loss of control of the airplane. Contributory factors were the engine fire, the pilot’s failure to follow the emergency checklist and feather the propeller, and the partial failure of the landing gear indicating system, which resulted in the instructor’s diverted attention.
Prepared for stress
Being inside an airplane that’s burning in flight is one of the deepest-seated fears of most pilots. Certainly, coming in with a student at night with an active engine fire, the instructor commanding the flight had to have been under some of the worst stress of his life. Extreme stress tends to tap all our mental reserves. It makes us rely in large part on preprogrammed responses to the stressful conditions. It can blind us to another status our brain dismisses as unimportant; it can cause us to focus on items of much less import, perhaps because we feel we can deal with those lesser items when we cannot control the more-demanding event.
The nature of the scenario may have prevented electrical power from reaching the Beechcraft’s landing gear indicators (more on that in a moment). But, for whatever reason, the instructor felt it wiser to go around and presumably address the landing gear issue than to get the possibly still-burning airplane on the ground as quickly as possible.
More from the NTSB
The throttle, mixture, and propeller controls on each engine were found in the mid power range, mid mixture range, and high RPM setting respectively. The fuel selectors for the left and right engines were found in the on and off position, respectively. This confirms that the pilots began the Engine Fire in Flight procedure, which calls for shutting off the fuel to the burning right engine. They did not, however, complete the entire procedure and feather the offending engine’s propeller. That the fire continued suggests it may have entered the fuel system itself and was burning in or near the wing, and/or that the engine oil system was burning, the contents of the oil tank and the airplane’s oil-charged unfeathering accumulators. Still, performance and control would have been greatly diminished with a windmilling propeller.
The landing gear indication lights were examined under a microscope by the NTSB. All of the indication lights displayed filament stretch with the exception of the transit light and the right main landing gear indication light. The right main landing gear’s indication light filament was found separated. This at least suggests that the right main gear light was not illuminated and (had time existed for a check) the light would not have lamp-tested. Possibly the multiengine instructor, who had a little less than 1,000 total hours (although much of that was as a multiengine instructor), had been strictly schooled about the career impact of making a gear-up landing in a customer’s airplane and, in the very real heat of the situation, his attention focused on avoiding that potential, seemingly at all costs.
Conflicting priorities
Faced with this dire inflight emergency (the fire, not the landing gear anomaly), the instructor had the opportunity to demonstrate and use good cockpit management skills. This would have included using the student to help. We don’t know, for certain, who was flying the airplane, and if the MEI was working the radios as a Pilot Not Flying (PNF) and Pilot Monitoring (PM) to reduce workload for the student who would have been Pilot Flying (PF). We’ll never know if the two worked together, or if the instructor took command and control and the student was just along for the ride. Cooperation and communication between the two aboard this Beechcraft might have resulted in better assessment of the indications and airplane status, and prioritization of responses when the need to get down–the engine fire–was combined with the perceived need to go back up–the gear anomaly. Again, we’ll never know.
An inflight emergency of this severity can be met by processing through a series of checklist procedures. In this case, the order would have been:
Engine fire in flight
Engine shutdown/securing
Single-engine approach and landing
Ground evacuation
Extraneous indications, like the gear unsafe indication, must be recognized but then ignored when the great need is to get the aircraft on the ground. Even a “routine” engine shutdown (i.e., engine failure not involving fire, and a feathered propeller), generally means resisting any attempt at a single-engine go-around from less than traffic pattern altitude in most piston twins.
But, you’ll only be able to triage inflight emergencies; do what you need to do and ignore the rest, if you are extremely familiar with the checklists and have made some general-conduct decisions ahead of time, before you are under extreme stress. So, pull out your Pilot’s Operating Handbook and become very familiar with the Emergency checklists. Sit in the cockpit and run through them until your muscle memory matches your intellectual mastery of the procedures–you can safely do everything except move the landing gear handle up while you’re parked on the ramp or in the hangar, then use the Shutdown checklist to ensure everything is set correctly when you’re done.
Afterward, visualize some scenarios and make some decisions–such as, if an engine is on fire you’ll shut it completely down, and if you’re close to the ground on one engine you’re committed to land, even if you have an unsafe gear indication. Bounce ideas off of other pilots of the same airplane type, if you have the chance…the internet chat lines are great for this sort of brainstorming. Only if you’ve developed a high level of command of your aircraft ahead of time, making well-thought-out decisions when there is no adverse stress on you at all, will you be prepared to act on these decisions in the event you have conflicting priorities during the worst flight of your life.•T&T

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