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Aircraft Engine Seizure (True Story)

Jet Engine Aircraft

The year was 1988. My flight instructor said, “Tonight’s Navigation Flying Test was satisfactory. I am clearing you to go, Low-Level Navigation Solo Sortie. Get your flying logbook for endorsing the clearance.”

I said, “Thank You Sir.”

That is when the Chief Flying Instructor came that way and told my instructor, “Is he going on a solo mission. Please postpone it for tomorrow. The weather is bad.”

Thus my Solo sortie was rescheduled for tonight. I was to fly the Low-Level Navigation sortie at 9:00 pm, on this single-engine jet aircraft. I was already cleared for night flying and this was a low-level flight at 3000 feet above ground level the previous night. I was fully prepared for the sortie, memorized my route on the map, and had also taken the mandatory rest in the afternoon.

The briefing was over at 7:00 pm. I had tea and a sandwich. I went over my night flying procedures over and over again. At 8:30 pm, I walked towards the aircraft dispersal after signing the aircraft and flight documents. In fact, there were so many flying trainees walking towards their allotted aircraft out of the 60 aircraft parked in a line all along the edge of the dispersal.

As I walked towards the aircraft, I thought, what if something goes wrong or I get lost. But, then I said, nothing will happen because I had flown the same route yesterday with my instructor. I know how to recognize the two turning points by the natural lights of those towns (electric lights). I knew how much time it takes to fly this route.

I walked confidently towards my aircraft. The sky was totally overcast with high clouds like yesterday and I could see no stars. I did my external checks on my aircraft and climbed into the cockpit. The airman helped me to strap up on my ejection seat.

 The Ejection Seat

The airman is required as I had to connect my leg-restrainers, which will pull both my legs close to the seat in case of an ejection in an emergency, a personal survival pack (PSP) on which I have to sit, which is a folded raft that will help me float on water in case of an ejection over water, and then there is a parachute also, which is connected to my back, which will aid me to fall through the air after an ejection from the aircraft, in case of a fire or an engine failure.

All this is because the pilot has to sit on a Martin-Baker H4HA ejection seat. Ejecting from this aircraft is very simple. Just keep your elbows close to yourself and then either pull down the loop above the head or pull up the loop in between the thighs to fire the ejection seat.

Everything happens automatically thereafter. The ejection seat fires and starts moving up on a 3-meter-long telescopic extender. The pointed top of the seat will break the canopy first and then the seat gets detached from the aircraft. The pilotless aircraft will now go and crash somewhere or break up in the air.

The seat will be tumbling in the air with the pilot on it. After a second, a small 3 feet parachute comes out automatically and deploys. This parachute instantly stabilizes the tumbling ejection seat. After a couple of seconds, the primary 27 feet parachute will deploy, detach the heavy ejection seat from the pilot, and brings the pilot safely to the ground or maybe water. At night the pilot cannot see anything in the darkness.

Just before hitting the ground or water, the pilot has to release the hard PSP or the personal survival pack at about 10 feet short of hitting the ground. Otherwise, the PSP will damage the pilot's knees. Immediately after touching the ground or water, the pilot should detach the parachute. If winds are there, then the parachute will drag the pilot over land and cause injuries.

On the water, the pilot should try and swim away after detaching the parachute. Otherwise, the parachute will fall on top of the pilot and the parachute cords will get entangled making it difficult to swim out. Ejecting from the aircraft is so easy, but surviving after touching down is difficult.

The Gooseneck Takeoff

Gooseneck Lamp

I did my cockpit internal checks. Everything was OK. Then I started the engine. This being a single-engine jet aircraft, it is straightforward. I did my after startup checks and took permission to taxy out of dispersal. In a few minutes, I was on the runway which was beautifully lit up with goosenecks on both sides, in that pitch dark night when nothing else was visible.

The gooseneck is an old robust way of lighting up the runway at night to help the pilot see the runway during take-off and also to spot the runway from far away even when the city lights are glaring. Gooseneck lights are nothing but kerosene lamps used to mark the edges and the end of a runway for the pilot to make a safe takeoff and landing. Even today where power failure is a huge issue, gooseneck lamps are still used in some old remote airports.

I lined up at the beginning of the runway and carried out my vital checks on the engine. Then I called the Air Traffic Control (ATC) on the radio using my call sign 131, “Tower 131, ready for take-off”.

The ATC replied, “131, Clear for Take-Off. After takeoff, turn right at 1000 feet, set course, and report.”

I said, “Roger 131, Cleared for takeoff, at 1000 feet turn right.”

I opened full throttle keeping both the wheel brake pedals pressed with my feet. The engine surged to full power at 103% rpm and the aircraft's nose went down slightly under the force.

Everything looked well and I let go of the brakes. The powerful engine accelerated my aircraft forward and at a speed of 105 knots (190 kmph), I was airborne and still accelerating. I retracted my landing gears and flaps. I turned right at 1000 feet and turned towards my first navigation point.

In a minute’s time, I was at 3000 feet and leveled off. I told the ATC on radio, “131 at 3000 feet, set course to point A”.

The ATC replied, “Roger, call when setting course for point B.”

I reached my first point of navigation on time within 10 minutes at 40 nautical miles or 72 km away from the airfield and started turning toward my second point of navigation. I settled on my new heading.

The Air Emergency

I radioed the ATC, “Tower 131, Over Point A, setting course for Point B.”

The controller replied to me, but I was not able to understand anything because, at that very moment, the aircraft sound changed. I looked at the engine instruments and found everything normal. I was still under training and flying all alone in the night sky, outside the airfield. I thought I might have missed something.

I called the controller, “Tower 131, Unable to read you, request repeat”.

My call set off an alarm in the ATC. Whenever trainee pilots are flying, there is one flying instructor pilot always sitting in the ATC. Promptly the flight instructor was on the radio.

The Flying instructor said something on the radio. But, this time too, I could not decipher what was being said because of the high level of noise inside the cockpit which was now jarring my ears. I looked at the cabin air conditioning and it was OK. 

Aircraft Engine 

I was not aware that the Rolls Royce engine fitten on my aircraft was about to seize in flight.

I replied, “Tower this is 131, unable to read you. Heavy noise in the cockpit.”

My call was enough to set the entire AirStation into a frenzy. A trainee pilot was having an emergency on a pitch dark night and there was nothing the AirStation could do because the trainee pilot cannot hear them.

There were many calls made by me and the ATC. I could not understand a word that the ATC said. I too was getting a little worried. That is when I realized that I have lost 1000 feet and was at 2000 feet in height instead of 3000 feet. If the trainee pilot is not careful, he could go up or down by a few thousand feet height in a matter of seconds, because this jet aircraft cruises at about 200 knots (360 kmph) airspeed.

I quickly corrected my height. Had I not noticed that loss of 1000 feet in time, I would have hit the ground in another few seconds, even if there was no emergency. I was certainly not fully in my senses. After all, I was still learning to fly.

I asked the ATC on the radio, “Nothing heard. Heavy grinding noise in the cockpit. No smoke or fire. Engine parameters within limits.”

My call certainly would have certainly put the ATC team attending to me, slightly at ease. But the flight instructor in the ATC was not at peace. He knew what was the problem with my aircraft and was working in his mind fast.

The flight instructor figured out from the radar picture available in the ATC, that I was as stupid as a trainee could be and was still navigating towards my second Point and had not turned my aircraft towards the airfield.

I heard him speaking rather he was shouting on the radio, spacing out his word in time, “131, set course toward the base. Return Back to Base.”

I could make out that and turned the aircraft towards the base, abandoning my mission. All I did was turn the aircraft to the airfield by turning in the direction my Automatic Direction Finder (ADF) was pointing. At night, and flying very low, the airfield was not visual to me. A pilot is taught to believe the cockpit instruments more than his own feeling. And that is what I was doing.

The moment the instructor found my aircraft approaching the airfield on the ATC radar, they went silent. I gave my radio calls although, I did not understand the reply from the ATC. I decided to go for the same runway I had taken off from which was runway 10L, or the left parallel runway in the landing direction of 100 deg (easterly).

“Tower 131, on long finals for runway 10 Left”, I radioed when I was two nautical miles from the runway. I could see the runway.

“Tower 131, on short finals for runway 10 Left”, when I felt that I can land positively on the runway even if my engine fails.

I landed and closed my engine throttle. The moment the engine came to idle rpm, the grinding noise reduced a little. I head the ATC this time.

ATC, “131, Stop on the runway. Shut down the engine and quick exit.”

Amazingly, that was the first radio call I heard from the ATC after the heavy grinding noise had started in aircraft. I did as the flight instructor said on the radio. I switched off the engine the moment the aircraft stopped in the middle of the runway. I opened the canopy and jumped out without waiting for the ladder. The fall was about 7 feet to the hard runway surface.

The Engine Seizure

I took the whole episode of heavy grinding noise as just another day in flight. But, all that changed when it happened right in front of my eyes after half an hour.

The Chief Flying Instructor (CFI), the Air Engineers, my own flying instructor and the flying instructor who was talking to me on radio were there on the runway. They were discussing something. Mobile Flood Lights were fixed as the gooseneck light was not enough. A tractor towed in an aircraft starting battery trolley. Fire tenders were already there on the runway even before I had landed.

They started connecting up everything to the aircraft and I stood a few yards away watching all this. Then the Air Engineer jumped into the cockpit and closed the canopy. I knew they were going to do a ground run right there to find out what went wrong.

Everyone moved away. I heard the engine starting up and come to idle. I could not make out any difference in sound standing 50 yards away from the aircraft. Did they feel I made it up all? Did they feel that I was scared to fly at night? Will they throw me out of the flying academy for this? I stood there watching everything and kept wondering.

Within a few seconds, the engine sound started becoming shrill as the Air Engineer sitting in the pilot seat started accelerating the engine to full throttle. I have heard the sound of these jet engines at full throttle many times before. But, this time, the full throttle sound was way different from the sound I had heard before and it gave me an uncomfortable feeling.

And then, it happened. The engine sound suddenly vanished. The dark overcast night fell silent in under one second, as if there was no aircraft there. But, in the flood lights, I could see the aircraft still there on the runway where I had stopped it.

For the next few seconds no one spoke. Then the aircraft canopy opened and the Air Engineer came out shouting, “Sir, the engine has seized.”

By that time a yellow glow could be seen near the tail of the aircraft. There was a fuel fire breaking out in the engine. The airstation was in action again trying to douse the fire in the aircraft.

As I walked towards the dispersal all the way from the runway without anyone noticing me, I thanked God in my mind, for not making all this what I just saw happen, when I was flying in the dark night sky, sitting in the pilot seat.