Flight Safety In A Europa
The Europa is a superbly designed plane, with great structural strength and in my experience unsurpassed flying characteristics. Yet few Europa owners will not be aware of accidents occurring to fellow Europa pilots and it is with this in mind that I offer articles on what is the biggest threat to GA pilots – Loss of Control or Stall Spin accidents and what is often perceived as a major risk – Ditching. I do not for a moment suggest that the Europa is more likely to be involved in Stall/spin accidents or ditching than other types of aircraft, but feel that it fits the supportive culture of the Europa community to offer anything which might prevent more unpleasant accidents. The views expressed here are my own but have been posted here with the approval of the Europa Club Committee. Much of what appears in the ditching and stall Spin articles has been published previously in various aviation magazines. We would happily contemplate adding further safety orientated articles if you have any to offer. David Joyce, Updated March 2016
Stall/spin – Could you be the next statistic?
Over the last 30 years slightly more than 7 people have died on average annually in UK register small plane stall spin accidents, and other countries suffer similar losses. To put that in perspective ditching in the UK accounts for only one death roughly every 3 years, and if you exclude those who did not have the wit to wear a lifejacket and to fly the plane down to a controlled water landing it is only one death in something like 20 years. Yet in my experience most people see the risk of ditching as more serious than that of a stall spin accident. This may relate to the fact that most of my flying acquaintances and probably most readers consider themselves to be pretty good pilots, and with this I suspect there comes a sort of feeling of invulnerability:
Accidents are things that happen to other people, particularly basic mistakes like stall spin accidents!
Sadly this is just not true. A number of expert studies have revealed the following sobering facts:
- Experience is no protection – Stall/Spin deaths are significantly more common in PPLs and CPLs (who face roughly comparable risks) than in solo student pilots and ATPLs.
- Having an instructor on board is no protection – 22% of Stall/Spin deaths occurred with an instructor on board and student pilots were more likely to suffer this fate with an instructor than flying solo.
- Most GA planes take more than 1000ft to recover from a spin even in the most expert hands, so a spin in the circuit is almost inevitably fatal.
The fatal stall spin accident in a Lancair following an engine failure after take off, described in the August 2014 Light Aviation magazine by Mike Barnard nicely illustrates the point. The pilot was 45, had 4500 odd hours, plenty on type and thoroughly current, was an instructor and examiner in multiple aircraft types and a graduate of the US Navy Test Pilot School. No one better to send your child flying with, you might well think, but he spun to his death with his passenger following an EFATO.
The first essential move in avoiding becoming a statistic is to accept that it could happen to you.
Before you come to the conclusion that the only sensible course is to give up flying, let me say that I believe there is now quite sufficient information about why and how even experienced pilots can be victims of unrecoverable stall/spin accidents to allow us to plan effective measures to eliminate or at least dramatically reduce our own risk. The following appear to be well established:
- Psychological studies have shown that the brain (even a woman’s!) is a single channel processor for conscious thought. You can only analyse one problem at a time. This is different from saying you can only do one thing at a time. Thoroughly rehearsed/trained actions like keeping a plane on an even keel or keeping a car in its lane can be carried out by the subconscious part of the brain using what might be termed muscle memory.
- In stressed situations, the brain will tend to focus extremely narrowly on a single area which is deemed to be crucial to resolving the crisis. This narrow focus will be to the exclusion of all other things (like instrument scans) which need conscious input and analysis.
- Although every conventional plane will spin, some are more prone than others. Planes with light elevator control surfaces are more prone to spin. For instance the stall spin accident rate of the Cessna 150 is many times higher than that of the 152, correlating with the higher and more progressive elevator control forces of the latter. Also wing design matters. The PA 28 with tapered wing has a stall/spin accident rate dramatically lower than its constant chord wing predecessor. Lightweight, low inertia planes are also at greater risk. The Europa has ideally graduated longitudinal stick forces, as one might expect in a plane whose aerodynamics were designed by Don Dykin, so is resistant to unintentional stalling, but there is relatively little natural warning of an impending stall and once stalled and out of balance a spin develops rapidly.
- It is my own experience observing my own and other people’s driving behaviour, that when they are heavily distracted they will maintain good road position but tend to slow down markedly.
- This all fits with the conclusion that in highly stressed situations pilots will tend to slow the plane because of a subconscious desire to slow things down whilst resolving the immediate problem of ‘Where the Hell can I land?’. This is likely to be aggravated by increased muscular tension, which inevitably accompanies severe stress, tending to increase back pressure on the controls, and also probably by the plane still being trimmed to a nose up attitude.
- The UK gliding movement has managed to virtually eliminate stall spin deaths by insisting that all pilots, however experienced, do practice stalls, spins and cable breaks (effectively an EFATO) with an instructor every year. The average glider pilot has probably done more than 50 practice cable brakes and experienced several real ones in his gliding career – the equivalent of switching off the engine and throwing the key out of the window. Naturally they (the survivors!) get to be quite good at it!
The large majority of stall spin accidents happen in the vicinity of an airfield and at or below circuit height, from which there is no escape. A few happen as the result of unwise low level beat up manoeuvres or aerobatics gone wrong, but the large majority relate to an engine or propeller problem or some other major distraction. Some happen away from airfields, perhaps stretching a glide to get back, or in mountain flying or in relation to a water crossing – indeed half of the last 22 year’s UK ditching deaths could be classed as stall spin accidents. My working model for how the bulk of these events occur is as follows:
Major distraction >>> Major Stress >>> Narrow focus on landing possibilities >>> Neglected speed control + subconscious desire to slow down events + tension in arm muscles >>> Speed decay >>> Stall >>> use of rudder or out of trim >>> Spin
Despite every pilot knowing that with an EFATO one should always land ahead, if you read the AAIB reports it is apparent that in many instances it is clear that the pilot has attempted to turn and very probably has used an undue amount of rudder, thus initiating a spin rather than a straight stall. That is to say that in real life engine failure situations pilots will sometimes feel it is too dangerous to land ahead, even though they know full well that their instructors told them they should.
My thesis is that there are three main ways in which you can equip yourself to avoid following this fatal sequence:
- Fit your plane with a really effective low speed warning system which you simply cannot ignore.
- Know precisely how your plane performs in an emergency.
- Do meaningful practice of dealing with all forms of emergency situations.
Low speed warning system
Like most GA pilots I have a stall warner, in fact the Europa standard one, which squeaks in the head rest behind me. There are a number of problems with this:
- It doesn’t make much noise and is rather non specific, and whilst I have been growing somewhat deafer with age, my head sets have become more sophisticated and much more efficient at shutting out external noise!
- It sounds for a significant portion of the take off and landing runs, so I am used to ignoring it.
- I do not have the figures but it is a reasonable assumption that the majority of the GA fatalities also had a stall warner which they ignored.
The major studies of stall/spin accidents have found that ATPLs have much lower risks than PPLs or CPLs, (equalled only by solo students). It is not reasonable to ascribe this to their superior piloting skills as they have very little hands on flying compared with CPLs. It seems much more likely that it is the built in low speed/high AOA warning systems such as stick shakers and loud spoken warnings through their headsets, (aided perhaps by the superior skills of George), that keeps ATPLs safe – the Air France Airbus being a very rare exception.
I am entirely persuaded that a system giving clear, escalating oral warnings of decaying speed is capable of preventing the majority of stall/spin accidents. Ideally such a system is Angle of Attack based or alternatively has built in g sensors to combine with airspeed to give a true prediction of the stall approach phase. Recently in the States Bendix King has introduced such a system for certified aircraft, and effective instruments have existed for several years for Permit aircraft. The only system that I am personally familiar with is the SmartASS. This is a beautifully simple and inexpensive (under £200) bit of kit made in the UK by Smart Avionics, which the average LAA pilot or anyone who ever owned a Meccano set, would find very simple to fit, just plugging it into the pitot system, plus a few wire connections. I know that it has saved at least two lives (one an experienced ex instructor in an EFATO out of Lydd). The SmartASS is an audible air speed speaker, with two modes, the first which I rarely use, simply telling you your speed at intervals. The more important mode is used on approach or take off. When initially setting it up and steady at your normal approach speed (at 60 kts for me) you press a button for 3 seconds and a nice female voice (Barbara) says “Chosen speed 60 kts” and then “Speed Good” in a calm voice at intervals as long as you stick within a few percent of that chosen speed. Barbara has three different messages as you get slower (and the equivalent if you overspeed): “ Speed Slow”, “Speed Very Slow” and “Speed Very Slow” preceded by a loud gong! As you stray further, Barbara’s nice calm ‘speed good’ tone gets progressively more aggravated, you could almost say ratty, and it is no more possible to ignore her than it would be to ignore your wife with the wind in her sails, fresh from having caught you in some grievous sin of omission!
This ‘box of tricks’ measuring about 4.5 ins and weighing 60 g or so, can be put anywhere. There is a single knob combining On/Off/Volume and mode functions to be mounted anywhere close to your throttle hand.
Built in accelerometers mean that if you pull significant g whilst keeping speed the same she compensates and will tell you that speed is slow, effectively keeping the same margin over the stall that you started with. That is to say that the instrument gives the same true indication of ‘Lift Reserve’ as an AOA system. When flying away from the circuit a touch of the button has her saying, “Goodbye” and being quiet until automatically waking up as your speed gets to within a few percent of your previously chosen approach speed. You can readily set the chosen approach speed to a new one if circumstances demand it. The SmartASS incidentally has an ‘undercarriage not down’ warning system built in.
Bendix King have recently introduced their KLR 10 system. It relies on Angle of Attack measured by a sensor attached to a panel under the wing. The indicator is designed to sit on top of the instrument panel right in front of the pilot’s nose. In normal use just one coloured bar will be illuminated at a time with green corresponding to normal cruise attitude, yellow to lower circuit speeds, blue to a normal approach, and the red bits corresponding to differing grades of ‘too slow/too great an AoA’. As with the SmartASS there are three graded audible warnings: “AOA!”, “Caution too slow!” & “Pitch Down!” Without having flown with this system I cannot make a valid comparison, although I think I am more likely to snap to attention for Barbara than for the KLR 10 male voice. Videos of both systems in flight can be found on line. The KLR10 has two distinct disadvantages – it costs around $1600 and it has relatively complex installation and set up requirements needing to be done by a professional.
I see one of these systems or an equivalent as very much being a powerful ‘Guardian Angel’ who would have prevented the majority of the stall spin deaths that I have any personal knowledge of. Can you think of a better way of investing £200?
How does your plane behave in an emergency?
You may wonder how this is relevant, but I promise you it is. In my experience very few pilots (including a number of instructors) know what is the most efficient way of turning round with the minimum loss of height, and few have a precise idea of their glide angle with the engine idling or stopped, and cannot confidently work out whether they can glide back to their airfield from any given height and distance. Very few again have a clear idea of at what height they could sensibly consider turning back after an EFATO. Not knowing these things in an emergency inevitably leads to indecision, increased stress and very probably to making the wrong decision. Let us take two examples: Firstly imagine you have just taken off from one of the South Coast airfields to do a direct crossing straight out to France. At 6 miles out and 3000ft the engine goes quiet. Hopefully you will have the presence of mind to do a U turn, whilst sorting out your options and before.
Your speed decays too much and whilst checking restart procedures! I know(because I have measured it accurately) that my Europa glides at 70 kts at a 1 in 12 angle, so from 3000 ft I have a range of 36,000 ft which is as near as makes no difference 6 nm. In nil wind the best I can hope to do is touch down on the shoreline, and even with a brisk tail wind the best I can hope to achieve is to cross the coast at a few hundred feet. Either scenario is a recipe for disaster. There is an overwhelming temptation to ease the nose up to stretch the glide, and any attempt to turn (because the airfield isn’t quite where you thought it was or the straight ahead patch is all built up) will supply that final nail. Much, much safer to make your SOS, tell them precisely where you are and do a nice well controlled ditching – mortality risk possibly 1% whereas crossing the coastline at 200ft could carry a mortality of 50% or more. So the message here is:
Be certain of your best glide angle and convert this into an easy formula – for instance 1 in 12 is the equivalent of 2 miles per thousand feet.
You can very rapidly work out how much height you will have by the time you get to where you want to go and if this doesn’t leave you a good margin for manoeuvring, then land somewhere else, even if that is in the water. If you don’t know your glide angle, then do some accurate tests next time you go flying on a quiet day. And in passing, the concept of ‘Within gliding distance of shore’is a potentially dangerous one. Next time you are flying along a shore think what sort of shape you would be in if you passed over the shoreline at say 200ft. Along the Channel coast of the UK around half is built up and large swathes have high cliffs or woods. The concept would be better phrased as:
‘Within gliding distance of crossing the shoreline at a minimum of 1000ft.’
Incidentally US studies have shown over 90% survival for those landing in trees – likely much better than in a housing estate.
In my second example imagine your engine fails after take off at 800 ft. Ahead are the suburbs of some city with no clear landing areas. What do you do? Is 800 ft enough to turn around from? Your instructor said always land ahead within a narrow angle, but you can’t remember any height stipulation and you never practiced an EFATO at 800 ft and certainly not in such an.
unpromising place as this. After some time frantically mulling over the options (and losing speed and height) you decide that landing ahead will probably kill you and therefore you will turn around.
If you are lucky you haven’t let your speed decay already to the point where the plane is just waiting for the merest twitch of the rudder or even the increased g of a gentle, coordinated turn before falling out of the sky. How best to turn? Nearly everyone I have asked says ‘fly at best glide speed at a bank angle of either 30 or possibly 20 degrees’. If this is what you do you will not get back to the airfield. Extensive expert mathematical studies have shown that the best way of turning with minimal height loss is at 45 degrees bank with speed as near to stall as you can manage.
Table 1 shows the diameter of turns for any plane at typical Europa speeds and banks:
|Speed||Bank Angle||20 deg||30 deg||45 deg|
|50 kts||1260 ft||790 ft||445 ft|
|60 kts||1800 ft||1120 ft||640 ft|
|70 kts||2450 ft||1530 ft||870 ft|
There is a nearly four fold difference between the 50kts/45 degrees figure and the commonly assumed optimum of 70kts/30degrees, let alone 70/20. The 70/30 turn takes you over a quarter mile from the centreline and the 70/20 option nearer half a mile. With the 50/45 choice there is a likelihood that you will drift much or all of the 445 ft back to the centreline, always assuming that you were awake enough to turn into any crosswind. It is tempting to calculate height loss from these dimensions on the assumption of a 1-12 glide angle, but it doesn’t work that way. As soon as one turns the glide angle deteriorates and the only way of knowing how much height you would lose in completing a turn is to go and measure it in your plane. It is easy to measure height loss whilst completing a 360 degree turn. This is very close or identical to the height loss in the sort of ‘P’ turn needed to get back to your original runway centreline, in the absence of favourable side wind drift. For my monowheel Europa (which is aerodynamically more efficient than most small planes) the measured figures are shown in table 2.
Table 2 Measured height loss to complete a 360 degree turn with engine idling (in a Europa XS Mono)
|Speed/Angle of Bank||70 kts/30 deg||50 kts/45 deg|
|Height Loss||1070 ft||440 ft|
So on the face of it I could hope to get back to the airfield reasonably comfortably from 800 ft at 50kts and 45 degrees, but if you followed your instincts and tried the faster, less banked option, you would have no hope at all, and might find yourself doing the fatal thing of easing up the nose in the hope of going a bit further. These figures are incidentally also highly relevant if you find yourself forced to turn in a valley. Some of my more sporting friends have suggested they might do a stall turn or a wingover to turn around after an EFATO or in a valley, but such aerobatic manoeuvres need appreciable starting speeds, typically over 100kts. If as is likely your speed is already low, forget it. Simply to speed up from 70 to 100kts needs a dive of 230 ft, without taking air resistance/drag into account, so probably at least 300ft. and likely to need more nerve and presence of mind than most will have available in such a crunch situation!
This of course glosses over the question of whether you can hope to safely do a slow, well banked turn with the engine out, and I certainly wouldn’t suggest that you wait for your next EFATO to find out.
It would be madness to contemplate this without having practiced it repeatedly!
You clearly need to experiment at a safe height and work out what does it for you. My Europa stalls at about 38kts level and at about 45 kts at 45 degrees, but I find it surprisingly comfortable turning at 50kts/45deg (with flaps down). So I know now that if my engine fails at 500ft or more and the view out the front looks awful, I can turn with every prospect of safely heading back towards the airfield. Whether you have the range to reach the airfield is another matter depending on its length and your climb rate before the engine failure. There is also the possibility of course of there being a perfect golf course or playing field off at say 90 degrees. The key thing is that you know how to turn efficiently and have practiced doing it. Incidentally the figures above were achieved with the engine idling, which is widely accepted as adding more drag than a stopped propeller. For my 914 engine with Woodcomp high twist W blades, the prop still windmills at 50 kts engine off, so it is academic for me, but for those whose engine will stop rotating a stopped engine should be more favourable than an engine idling practice scenario. The process of doing the 50/45 turn is so unusual and involves having the stick further back than normal, that it readily grabs your attention, and as you are effectively no longer frantically looking for a landing site it seems much less likely to lead to unintentional speed decay.
Should the engine go quiet at a lower height or should there be reasonable landing options ahead, what speed do you adopt? Again many I have spoken to have said best glide speed, but you are in effect on short final, so I would suggest that adopting your normal approach speed or even a short field approach speed with the gear down is what you should aim for immediately after correcting your nose up attitude. Hitting a tree or a wall at 50kts is a whole lot less damaging than at 70kts.
The energy of impact is virtually double at 70kts compared with 50kts, (98% greater to be precise)
One final bit of emergency performance to mention is side slipping.
Sadly it is not taught in the PPL syllabus and I get the impression that relatively few GA pilots ever get on top of it. The Europa along with the large majority of Permit aircraft are capable of safe, effective side slipping. I suggest to you that it is an important tool in any emergency landing. How often with a power on landing do you find yourself suddenly sinking faster as you approach the fence, and have to put in a good dollop of power to touch down where you originally intended? The same risk of course is there for power off approaches (wind shear or some other aspect of Sod’s Law!). You may possibly have the luxury of being able to aim a third of the way along an 800 yard field, but it is much more likely that you will be sweating to get it into barely 300yds, knowing that you have to aim short if you are not going to end up a real mess in the far hedge or wall. If you are comfortable side slipping, you can routinely go in a bit high and burn off any extra by side slipping once you are confident of not undershooting. Alternatively if it becomes apparent that you cannot make your chosen field it is a useful, potentially life saving tool in getting it down in some sort of shape in the previous field, rather than hitting the hedge/ditch/wall at full flying speed.
I suspect there are few of us who don’t sometimes just go flying for the pleasure of getting off the ground, and we just wander round the locality admiring the view before landing. I suggest that these sorts of flights shouldn’t just serve to boost that feel good factor but should be used regularly to practice key skills. In addition, if you don’t already know the answers, you should take the opportunity to explore your plane’s performance in emergency simulations. Do accurate measurements in still air of your descent rate (time how long it takes to descend 1000 ft) at different speeds with engine idling (or off if you have the welly!) so as to be able to compute glide angle. And I strongly recommend practicing minimal height loss turns by doing 360 degree turns at a safe height and over some readily seen linear feature, measuring height loss at various speeds and bank angles. This will let you know what is the most efficient way to turn your plane, in case you find you have to. If you are not confident side slipping then practice it at a safe height. Then that surge of ‘Feelgoodness’ that we all get from being in the air can be augmented by a bit of ‘Feelsmartness’ knowing that you have sharpened your survival skills!
To summarise – Being absolutely clear how your plane performs in emergencies significantly reduces the risk of you making the wrong decision or suffering from indecision long enough to seriously aggravate the situation. Installing a SmartASS or equivalent ‘Guardian Angel’, provides you with a powerful means of preventing lethal speed decay and on its own probably removes 75% of your risk. Practicing key manoeuvres and skills regularly makes it much more likely that you will make the right decision and carry it out successfully, thus removing most of what risk remains. You may have correctly got the impression that I am a bit evangelical about stall/spin accidents. This largely came about from having been uncomfortably close to the appalling Europa accident at Kemble (my then home airfield) a few years back, where a father and daughter spun in after take off from around 500ft. The details, as the BBC is wont to say, are too unpleasant to recount here. I should also add that I have absolutely no financial interest in Smart Avionics, nor alas in any other avionics firm!
Happy Landings, David Joyce
Flying a Europa Over Water - Ditching
Well, the good news is that the established British experts in the field have been talking nonsense about the risks of ditching! Even the otherwise excellent CAA SafetySense Leaflet 21c on Ditching says on its opening page:
“Available data from both the UK and the USA indicates that 88% of controlled ditchings are carried out with few injuries to pilots or passengers…. However despite most ditchings being survivable, approximately 50% of survivors die before help arrives.”
This which infers an overall death rate of 56% and numerous similar statements have no basis in fact and are way too pessimistic. As someone who has flown my Europa over the Channel more than 100 times as well as over longer stretches of the Atlantic, North Sea, Irish Sea and Mediterranean, I have done my best to find hard data on this topic and to attempt to minimize my own risks. Until recently the only good source I have found for reliable information on ditching hazards has been the excellent article ‘Ditching Myths Torpedoed’ by Paul Bertorelli, available on line at www.equippedtosurvive.com/ditchingmyths.htm He reviewed 8 yrs of official US (NTSB) data involving 179 ditchings around the US. Of these 12% resulted in fatalities and 88% survived the whole experience. The proportion for those surviving the landing and subsequently dying was just 4.3%, strikingly different from the postulated 50%. When Gasco published an article on Ditching in 2010 restating the ‘50% Die before rescue’ dictum, I was moved to write asking whether the author had any evidence at all for this assertion. The answer was in effect, “We are experts and this is what we believe!” with no evidence presented. This unsatisfactory correspondence led me to ask the CAA for details of small UK register aircraft ditchings, and to my surprise and delight, they came up with full summaries of all the UK Reportable Accidents of aircraft under 2730kg involving ditching between 1990 and 2011. I have made a detailed analysis of these data which was published by Gasco in summer 2012, (to their credit). What I propose to do is share the broad results of this study and Bertorelli’s US study with you and give you my thoughts on how I feel this bears on the question of flying a Europa over a substantial body of water. Although I could be said to be temporarily the world’s expert on the risk of ditching a UK registered aircraft (simply because it seems that no-one else has bothered to look at the data!!), I hasten to add that I am no expert on the intricacies of ditching – I haven’t ditched one and do not intend to if I can avoid it! On the other hand I have spent a long time studying all the UK ditchings in detail, and have a long ‘wet’ history of falling out of high performance dinghies and wind surfers and also reasonable experience in Open Water Scuba Diving, so I hope you will find my conclusions helpful.
My study looked at all 49 UK aircraft that ditched in the 22 years (1990 – 2011). Six of these were UK aircraft ditching in various other parts of the world (mostly hostile) and the remaining 43 were in UK waters. There were 80 occupants in all, of whom 8 died, that is 10.0%, marginally better than in the Bertorelli series. Only 3 people died of the 75 who exited their plane alive. This is 4.0% – again much the same as the US figure and dramatically better than the mythical 50%. The ditchings involved 35 planes, 4 microlights and 10 helicopters, and the differences in mortality rate by type were not statistically significant, but for what it is worth were: planes 11%, microlights 25% and helicopters 4.8%. Mortality rate between October and March at 13.3% was somewhat higher than in the warmer months (8.%), but again this was not statistically significant.
Detailed analysis of the deaths (for which I refer you to the Gasco article), showed that nearly all were potentially avoidable by following sensible basic flying principles. Thus 3 of the 8 were not wearing lifejackets when this would almost certainly have saved them. Another was not found for 13 hours in spite of a Mayday and rapidly scrambled helicopter because the pilot lacked a working PLB or a GPS or other means of giving an accurate position fix. Three others died almost certainly because they lost control in flight and effectively crashed, producing incapacitating injuries. You might wonder whether this was because they were possibly trying to retrieve lifejackets or other safety equipment from the back, rather than concentrating on flying the plane. That just leaves a 78 year old pilot who ditched his PA 28 near a boat in the Channel Islands, pushed his wife out, followed by the dinghy, but then tragically sank with the plane before managing to get himself out. It is entirely reasonable to conclude from this that the risk of death from ditching is of the order of one or two per cent if one wears a life jacket, has a working modern PLB, and manages to fly the plane all the way down to a controlled water landing. In terms of the overall risks of flying, ditching deaths only account for about one percent of deaths from all causes, before one begins to discount those that wouldn’t have happened had they been wearing lifejackets, etc.
So, how does all this relate to the Europa?
Buoyancy: Three of the UK deaths occurred when PA 28 aircraft sank before the occupants got out, but this was not a problem noted with any other type of plane. One survivor in a PA 28 actually timed himself sitting on the wing for 2 minutes before it sank, and another was timed as sinking just 3 mins after touch down. The Europa Classic has nearly a cubic metre of foam in its flying surfaces and this would give it buoyancy close to 1000kg, well above its Max AUW, so on the face of it a Classic would float indefinitely with the passengers in or on it. The XS has probably only a tenth of this amount of foam and even adding the buoyancy of a near empty fuel tank and a tyre or three, it is possible that it would fill up with water and sink eventually. One Europa XS has ditched off the coast of Chile and floated long enough for the pilot to be rescued and the plane to be towed ashore, where it was hauled out to find that there had been no discernible structural damage.. The air in the wings above the level of the aileron control openings is effectively trapped there, as long as there are no extra openings – and this suggests that anyone putting in Nav lights would do well to ensure that ‘air tightness’ is maintained at the wing tips.
The Landing: There is lots of good practical advice on how to do a ditching in the CAA SafetySense leaflet. The key point is that you want to land on as flat a bit of water as possible at as slow a speed as possible. Water is effectively solid if you hit it at speed. The microlight pilot who crashed in the Channel in 2011 at the start of a planned trip to Australia had injuries which were said to have been typical of a 300g crash! Going straight into the face of a steep wave is not good news! So choose to land directly into wind only if the water is pretty much flat, otherwise you should land along the crest of the swell, crabbing as you would in a strong cross wind. Seasoned sailors may be able to detect wind direction from the surface appearance and as this may well be different from swell travel direction, this could determine optimum approach direction along swell. The wave form of the swell is visible from quite a height, whereas winds of moderate or strong force will make visible lines across the water, looking a bit like the lines produced by coarse sand paper. However it is certainly not worth worrying about that unless you have the background which makes the answer obvious!
For the Europa I don’t think there is any doubt that you should use full flap. With a mono there is the option of having full flap and wheel down, without the lever being locked, so that the wheel would probably retract itself and the flap with it on first contact with the surface, perhaps limiting the nosing in tendency and giving a gentler arrival, (but I think this is probably an unnecessary diversion from the main business of making as near a perfect held off landing as possible). Many pilots of fixed undercarriage aircraft worry that the plane will invert on impact and that they will then have difficulty opening the canopy. For what it is worth there was only one instance recorded in Bertorelli’s US data and one in the UK data, where the plane was said to invert. The ‘mode of arrival’ is not always recorded but where it is, it seems to be much more common for the plane to splash a bit and then simply nose in, often with the windscreen breaking at the time of impact, but for the plane then to settle in a normal or slightly nose down attitude before eventually sinking. In any case it is fair to say that there were no UK deaths in 22 years attributable to the plane inverting.
There is some debate about whether to undo the door lock before impact, to guard against the possibility of the door jamming. It is absolutely clear to me that it would be wrong to open a Europa door in flight. There is a good chance it would blow off, possibly causing violent aerodynamic forces and perhaps causing significant damage to the tail plane or fin and certainly causing the pilot major distraction. The design of the locks makes it difficult to imagine a way in which they might jam, but it would be perhaps worth contemplating opening just the passenger door lever to the 45 degree position, as long as prior experiment has shown that this position still keeps the doors reliably closed. The deceleration when the plane does nose in is abrupt enough that it is certainly better to have seat belts securely fixed. Europa seatbelts are not of a design that seems prone to jamming, but having one of those tools to hand which combine a belt cutter and a window hammer (or a knife) seems good practice.
The choice of where to land for me is fairly simple: If close to a ‘friendly’ section of land (i.e. not one with rocky cliffs) then aim to land close off shore. If away from land and there is a small or medium sized boat, aim to land ahead and to one side. If alone in the ocean, circle and land as close as possible to the last position given in your Mayday, unless you have significant height, in which case glide towards the likely direction of help.
Life jackets: It is critically important that you wear your life jacket when travelling over water – three of the eight UK deaths in the last 22 years were directly related to not wearing one. It is not good enough to have one somewhere and put it on if things go pear shaped. There will be so much else to think about that they might easily be forgotten, and the act of getting them out from behind the luggage may be just enough to cause loss of control. Much is made of the need for a crutch strap on a lifejacket, but I remain unconvinced. I have fallen out of and regained my dinghy or windsurfer upwards of 500 times in a jacket without such a strap and feel that as long as the jacket is adjusted to fit snugly it will do. It is important that the jacket has a self-inflating system activated by pulling a toggle, as well as a blow up tube. An automatic system that inflates on contact with water (as fitted to some nautical life jackets) is not suitable for planes – you absolutely do not want your life jacket to inflate before you have got out of the cockpit. In the unlikely event that the plane has sunk before the occupant gets out, the air in his lungs will have halved in volume by the time he is 30 feet under, and with it all his natural buoyancy has gone. Being able to activate the life jacket will get him rapidly to the surface, whereas simply swimming up (assuming he can work out which way is up) may take too long. I have found that getting into a dinghy is made easier if you deliberately push yourself down under the surface first so that you ‘bounce’ out of the water and then help this upward movement with pulling on the dinghy with your arms, ( a bit like penguins getting on to ice floes!)
Dinghy and/or Survival Suit: It has been said that survival suits double the survival time in cold water, although I would expect rather more benefit than that. The inexpensive (£85) and (fairly) comfortable to wear Fladen Survival Flotation Suit has been found to allow immersion in 5 C. water for 30 mins with less than 2 degrees loss of body temperature. US Coast Guard figures suggest survival of at least ½ hr, 1hr. and 2hrs in 5C, 10C and 15C water respectively, with no protective clothing.
A dinghy has clear advantages over a survival suit as long as it is possible to get it launched and get into it. Survival in a dinghy should be measured in days rather than hours, and it is significantly more visible from a searching helicopter than someone in the water in any sort of suit. The choice will be determined by circumstances and personal preference. I wouldn’t dream of crossing say from Norway to the Shetlands without a dinghy, but would happily cross the Channel with just life jackets. I would be reluctant to fly over water at 5C or less without a survival suit, but even in the depths of winter Channel temperatures do not fall this low. (I have recorded minimum Channel temperatures throughout one winter as: December = 10; Jan = 9; Feb = 8, March = 8, April = 9 and May = 10 degrees C.) So I have personally invested in a dinghy (which is well within the luggage carrying capacity of my Europa) and have avoided getting any sort of survival suit. This is the solution I would recommend to Europa and most small plane owners, but it would be different for those whose flying consisted of travelling in helicopters (which probably sink virtually instantaneously) over the North Sea.
It is not necessarily a question of either a suit or a dinghy. In extreme circumstances both would be appropriate, and the single UK ditching that happened in the Antarctic allowed both occupants in survival suits to survive in a dinghy for 10 hrs before being rescued. There is a difference in buoyancy aids and lifejackets, inasmuch as the former give perhaps 15 to 20 lbs of buoyancy whereas the latter offer appreciably more and also have it concentrated on the front of the chest and round the neck. A lifejacket is designed to keep an unconscious person afloat in a ‘face clear of the water’ position, but can be a considerable hindrance in trying to get into a rubber dinghy. Dinghy sailors and canoeists always opt for buoyancy aids, as they allow easy flotation (of a conscious person) without getting in the way. A flotation suit like the Fladen is a buoyancy aid as well as a survival suit and has the buoyancy spread widely and thus has the advantage of not getting in the way when climbing into a dinghy. There is something to be said in my experience for not inflating your lifejacket before you (if the first to do so) get into the dinghy. Others can bob around in the water, safe with their lifejackets inflated, waiting for the first one in the dinghy to help them in.
For anyone contemplating buying or hiring a dinghy, it is advisable to ensure that it comes with a ladder to assist boarding and also a water trapping structure below the bottom, which helps to stop it blowing off rapidly downwind or flipping over in a strong wind when empty,( this is now a standard feature in modern dinghies).
Dealing with the cold: The 1-10-1 Rule. If going into cold water (say less than10 C.), there is the likelihood of cold shock complicating matters. This consists of an involuntary gasp reflex, followed by hyperventilation and rapid heart beat. These features settle after a minute or so, but it is of course critical that the initial gasp reflex doesn’t occur whilst the face is under water and from this point of view it would be a mistake to go into seriously cold water without your life jacket inflated, or to dive in head first, or if that is unavoidable then hold your nose and cover your mouth. It is also of consequence to know that the feeling of suffocation that accompanies the hyperventilation will settle reasonably quickly and to try to breathe as normally as can be. There is then a period of 10 mins or so when reasonable movement and dexterity are maintained. It is important to do anything that will help survival within this period ( such as activating a PLB or getting everyone into a dinghy or tying everyone together in a group in the water). Survival for an hour is likely, but in a state in which you are unable to help yourself. It helps to huddle together with others if in the water, and to keep as much of yourself as possible out of the water – in water cooling is significantly more than out of water even with high winds.
Communications: Keeping in radio communication when over water seems critical. Finding a body in the sea when there is only a vague idea where it might be can take days. On a short Channel crossing this presents no problem at any height, but with longer sea crossings there just might be a point where one is out of contact with a shore station. This could be a question of height, although from 3000ft one has straight line contact with a 500ft radio mast 88nm away. More probable is that you are out of effective range for your radio. All sizeable ships and commercial aircraft keep a listening watch on 121.5, so if you do not have contact with a standard ground station, go straight to 121.5. Don’t waste too much time reminding yourself what exactly goes into the ideal Mayday. Mayday x3, G-HELP, Engine Failure, Ditching at position XXXX are the critical components. I have made a routine of turning my Garmin GPS back one page when practicing PFLs so as to reveal the Lat & Long data, and including this position in a mock Mayday. If I were ditching I would keep repeating that position all the way down to the water, or better still, get my passenger to do it. Without a working GPS or some other accurate position fixing kit I would be appreciably more reluctant to go out of gliding range of the shore. The other form of communication in this context is of course a PLB. This is now a CAA requirement if going more than 10mins at normal cruise speed from land, but it is also just as obviously common sense as a life jacket. Modern PLBs with GPS and satellite links allow your precise position to be found within minutes. They are also now significantly cheaper than they were, with several models selling at around £200.
Reliabilty: None of the 49 UK ditched aircraft appear to have been powered by a Rotax 912/4 engine, which certainly suggests they are more reliable than other alternatives. Having said that, there was one Europa near miss with the pilot skillfully gliding into the Isle of Wight on a Cherbourg crossing, although in this instance the engine had already had serious problems flying up through France and one has to admire his skill more than his judgement in undertaking the long crossing in such circumstances! Finally it is perhaps worth emphasizing that the commonest reason for fixed wing planes ditching seems to be fuel starvation!
Conclusions: I am pretty confident that my conscientiously maintained (and fuelled) Europa is most unlikely to give up over the sea. I am also highly confident that if it did, my passenger and I would live to tell the tale. I would expect the plane to end up upright, for us to have no significant injuries and for there to be time for both to get out on to a wing, blow up our lifejackets and access the dinghy, and quite possibly access other safety gear, such as a portable radio in a waterproof container. I strongly recommend that anyone flying over water has mentally thoroughly rehearsed what they would do on the way down if things went quiet! This rehearsal should also highlight the things you then wish you had already done, like briefing your passenger, wearing your PLB attached to you and positioning the dinghy in a place (just behind the pilots seat back, for me) where a sudden impact will not lead it to knock your head off, but where it is easily accessible from the wing. Above all remember that whatever else is happening it is crucial to keep flying the plane – more than a third died because of losing control before touch down (and this is another situation where a SmartASS might well save your life!) For what it is worth this is what I would do:
- Check engine status and try spare tank, second fuel pump & restart procedures, whilst trimming for best glide speed (70 kts for me) and considering turning towards nearest coast.
- Mayday with position to shore station or 121.5 & get passenger to continue Mayday exchanges, with up-dates of position & situation. You could also squawk 7700, allowing radar fixes if in range, but probably no added benefit if you have given a good position fix.
- Have a good look around and decide whether the shore, a ship or an oil platform are in range and decide where to land.
- Look at the wave pattern to determine direction of swell and consider strength of wind. If swell looks substantial, choose to land along a crest. If time get passenger to remove shoes and spectacles, and retrieve any key items (like that emergency radio and possibly the belt cutter/hammer to put in a pocket).
- Flaps +/- gear down in good time to trim & get used to normal approach glide speed.
- Passenger to adopt crash position before impact, but pilot better keeping head up to ensure continuous control, flaring and holding off just above surface as long as possible – better to avoid a crash than be in a position to reduce its impact!
- No point in bothering with switches off. The sea will sort any fire risk! Possibly half open passenger door handle, but avoid opening it completely.
- Once stopped get canopies open and both out onto the wing ASAP. The wing is likely to be very slippery, sloping and mobile, so one has to be prepared to cling tightly on to the fuselage edge. At this point passenger should inflate life jacket, (never while still in the plane).
- If plane doesn’t look like sinking imminently and the water temperature isn’t very low I would hold off inflating mine and instead get the dinghy out, and inflate it taking care to hold on to its painter (which also for mine is what inflates it following a firm jerk). If the plane is still showing no signs of sinking, I would be tempted to run the painter through a loop of seat belt and back to me, but definitely not tying it to the plane. Then climb into the dinghy off the wing. Getting the passenger from his wing into the dinghy behind your wing represents something of a challenge! I think the best way of doing this would be for him to clamber over the cowling while holding on to the front door frames. Then he might get in as well without even getting wet! This is possibly a tad optimistic and one or both of you may well be in the situation of having to climb into the dinghy from the water. In that case you will be particularly pleased that you didn’t let go of the painter, that you got the sort of dinghy with a ladder system and that it has one of those underwater structures to slow it down in its movements and in my personal view if you are a strong swimmer and the first to get in the dinghy, you will also be pleased that you haven’t already inflated your life jacket.
- There is no great rush to cast off if the plane is not sinking – a floating Europa is visible from a considerable distance, and a dinghy will probably drift downwind at a different speed, and separating yourself from an empty floating plane serves only to confuse the rescuers. When you do want to cast off it is simply a question of letting go of the free end of the painter and pulling on the dinghy end which should just slide free. This is of course one of the situations where Sod’s law might come into play, and I personally fly with a penknife in my pocket, which would allow me to cut a stuck painter, or indeed to deflate a dinghy which someone has managed to inflate in the plane (and this sad mistake accounted for two deaths in the Bertorelli study).
- Get the PLB working, and if not close by a ship, get the hood up and take any other measures that your kit allows you. Huddle to preserve warmth.
I hope that the overall message in this comes over as entirely optimistic, which it is meant to be. The latest statistics from the UK and the US give real cause for optimism about your chances of surviving a ditching, but for full effect optimism needs a bit of help from prior thought and preparation. As I see it, most such preparation entails firstly having suitable equipment and secondly having given a fair bit of time and thought ‘Armchair Flying,’ working through how you would cope with the event. I have not mentioned survival courses, but although I would not want to discourage anyone from getting any sort of training, it seems to me that few if any of the UK ditching deaths (with the probable exception of the helicopter death) in the last 22 years were attributable to factors that survival courses would have addressed, at least for those with the wit to wear a life jacket!
I am a bit sensitive about collision avoidance as I have experienced five near misses and am clear that in three of those I would not be here now had I not been looking out! I have found it extremely difficult to see another Europa more than a mile away, even knowing approximately where it is. In a head on situation you may have a closing speed of up to 300kts and that only takes 12 seconds per mile! So for me it is essential to adopt the same mind set you would have if driving down a busy motorway, or if in a glider sharing a thermal with 15 others, all within 200yds of you in one direction or another. That is – you should feel distinctly uncomfortable if you have your eyes in the cockpit for more than a second or two.
In order that you can spend 99.9% of your time looking out, there are a number of things you should consider:
- Have a modern Engine Monitoring System that looks after all engine parameters and flashes at you if anything is out of kilter. A row of dials which need looking at every 15 mins is a mistake, quite apart from weighing a lot.
- Have a GPS nav sytem and an EFIS and throw away that DI and FREDA with it!
- Do away with written check lists. The Europa is simple enough with modern instruments that you simply do not need them. My only in air checks are PUFF: Prop/Undercarriage/ Fuel/Flaps.
There are a few other points that I feel might be worth a mention:
- GPS lines between two Navigational features should be treated as ‘Linear Features’ – Fly to the right hand side of it, unless you want to meet up with someone else flying the precise line!
- If you are approaching an overhead join or any other join at a prescribed height where other traffic is in the offing, make sure you do not exceed that height. Err on the low side or converging traffic may be hiding under your wing.
- Before descending in a congested situation do sufficient turns to make sure no-one is immediately below you
Mono Europa Ground Handling
It is stretching the definition of flight safety somewhat to include ground handling in it, but as this is a matter that has caused a deal of aggravation to a number of mono pilots I felt it would be helpful to include some comments on it here. I plan to discuss three topics which are to a large degree inter-related: Ground steering, Ground loops, Take Offs and Landings. These are my own views based on analysis of my own, my co-pilot’s and my friends’ mishaps! I hope that they might offer sufficient insight for you to avoid repeating some of those mishaps! Let me also be clear that I strongly advise beginners to get proper type conversion with skilled instructor supervision, and not contemplate a DIY approach to converting to a mono! But these sorts of issues often come to bite you some way down the line and it may be that these offerings will give a sort of post graduate boost to your ability to avoid such problems.
We will be pleased to add any views that offer helpful further insights into these matters.
Ground Steering in the Mono.
There are two design features which make the Europa different in its handling characteristics from any other plane I have flown, namely the presence of the single main wheel in front of the C of G and the presence of a steerable tail wheel with springs in the lines linking the pedals to that wheel. Gliders of course have the same sort of arrangement of main wheel in front of C of G but their tail wheels are invariably fixed and usually on a long arm so offering considerable directional stability. Conventional tail draggers similarly have their main wheels in front of the C of G, but generally have good differential brakes offering fairly precise directional control, and on top of that the two main wheel arrangement offers its own sort of stability as a turn will throw the weight onto the outside wheel, making that the main pivoting point and negating the slingshot effect referred to below. The problem with having the C of G in front of a single main wheel is that as soon as a turn is started (in the absence of sufficient speed to make the tail fin offer directional stability) there is a tendency for that turn to increase. Like an old VW Beetle in a skid which notoriously tried to turn through 180 degrees, the centrifugal force on the C of G produced by the turn, makes it want to sling shot outwards, and any braking or just friction on the main wheel accentuates this tendency. The presence of springs in the rudder system aggravates this problem. If one is simply putting pressure on one pedal whilst removing pressure from the other, then the stretched spring will produce further movement of the tail wheel and rudder, turning the plane further than anticipated. Most mono pilots will know that with the right combination of speed and braking they can turn the mono almost full circle effectively pirouetting on the main wheel. Should this happen at middling speed whilst landing then you have a runway excursion or a ground loop to thoroughly spoil your day!
So how can we control these VW Beetle tendencies? Firstly I feel it is always important to maintain significant pressure on both rudder pedals, rather than push one and take the foot off the other. This counter pressure means that the tail wheel doesn’t have complete freedom to do its own thing like a Tesco trolley and allow accelerated turning. The tail wheel becomes more nearly fixed in its position. Secondly I advocate thinking of use of the rudder more in terms of differential pressure than in terms of position of the rudder pedal. Steering inputs then are generally a question of modest changes in pressure rather than abrupt re-positioning of the feet, which are likely to produce directional PIOs and end up in tears. On top of this it is very important that the stick is held hard back whilst taxying (in fact in pretty much every situation when the plane is on the ground – you would need a gale force tail wind to overcome the effect of prop wash, itself typically 40kts), as this ensures maximum purchase of the tail wheel on the ground. I suggest it is well worthwhile any new mono pilot spending a fair bit of time taxying the plane at medium speeds and in particular going round corners accurately. He will find that once started going round a corner it is generally necessary to apply opposite rudder pressure whilst still going round the corner, to stop the plane tightening the turn. Only when the pilot is entirely comfortable and competent at taxying at medium speeds should he contemplate taking to the air.
A ground loop can be an expensive matter, almost bound to wreak you lovely new propeller and quite possibly damage your engine, quite apart from really spoiling your day/week if it happens in the middle of a foreign trip! The mono needs very little encouragement to convert a modest turn into a ground loop. Simply applying the brake will do it if you have a fair amount of speed and a modest swerve. Braking simply magnifies the sling shot tendency, increasing the turn and encouraging the plane to nose over onto the propeller and the outside wing tip. So the message is:
Never brake in a turn unless you are heading for a disaster otherwise!
If during landing a bit of cross wind sends you 10 or 20 degrees off track and you are looking like going off the edge of the hard runway, it is much better to let it run onto the grass than brake. Braking will certainly cause a ground loop. Going on the grass is what monos were designed for and unless you take a landing light with you it is unlikely to do any damage. In fact applying power is more likely to regain your heading and save the day, than braking (especially if you need a left turn to get back straight).
Take Offs and Landings
Directional control should not be a major issue on take off for anyone who is on top of the ground steering issues discussed above, but initial attempts are best done from a grass airfield as the extra friction on the tail wheel adds a bit to directional stability. As full power is applied the pilot must add a bit of right rudder (for Rotax powered planes) to counteract the prop wash tendency to turn left, but this in my experience rapidly becomes second nature. Slightly more of an issue is what to do with the elevator. The ground attitude of the mono is very close to the angle at which lift off or fully held off touch down occurs, so the plane can take off with the stick held fully back. That however is not a good idea as the plane will rapidly go nose up and threaten to stall. Equally it is a mistake to try to get the plane into a horizontal position riding on the main wheel before it takes off. For a significant part of the take off run you absolutely depend on having the tail wheel firmly on the ground. My preferred solution is to start with a moderate amount of back pressure on the stick, and to maintain this pressure. With increasing speed, and of course the plane being trimmed fairly well nose down, the pressure will increase if the stick remains fully back. But if you simply maintain the same amount of pressure this allows the stick to ease forwards in response to that gathering speed and a little bit of practice will reveal the pressure that is needed to allow the plane to lift off without a nose up lurch. The plane accelerates and climbs very poorly with gear and flap down so I like to hold the plane close to the horizontal until the speed is over 60kts and then raise the gear.
Landings are what really raise your pulse rate until you are well on top of them. Again it is highly advisable to do initial attempts on grass and without significant side wind, although a steady wind straight down the runway might actually be an advantage by limiting the landing run. There are issues in both directional and vertical control. The points I would make about directional control are exactly those I have already made above: good pressure on both pedals, control by moderate pressure changes, never brake unless travelling in a straight line. In terms of vertical control the landing technique is exactly that of any tail dragger. Do not try to put the main wheel on the ground, in fact do not try to do anything positive to land the plane! You round out at a modest height (how high depending on your skill level, but say a few feet) and hold off, and hold off, ………… and keep holding off until the plane runs out of flying speed and gently subsides onto the ground. This will mean it touches down on the main and tail wheel simultaneously or possibly on the tail first. In either case it has no tendency to bounce or take off again. You can increase this tendency to stick, by landing with a little power on and chopping it on touch down, but I do not feel this is necessary and it will of course lead to touch down at a slightly higher speed.
Should you touch down on the main first this inevitably causes the nose to bounce up and you are flying again! On the other hand since you are fairly slow, throttled back and pointing skywards you will not fly for very long and a stall/ broken prop, etc., may not be far away. If you are alert, a burst of power, getting the nose down and try again or go around may save the day, but so much better never, ever to touch down on the main! – Simply keep holding off until it lands itself!
Wheels Up Landings
Finally I feel this tale of mishaps would not be complete without mention of wheels up landings. I have been involved or close by a number of such events! It is said, “There are those who have and those who are going to!” You might quite reasonably feel that it is impossible to land a mono wheels up because the view out the front is so radically different if the flaps are not down – sadly not so! In the two cases in which I have had most involvement there were a number of main contributory factors: Firstly an unduly heavy workload with major distractions in a circuit/go around situation led to the gear only being retracted on the down wind leg, then when the pilot came to do his landing checks a short while afterwards, he told himself, “Gear – I have just done that.” Then in both instances the approach was way out of the ordinary: In the first instance being under a 500 ft cloud base from 3 miles out, the pilot knew things should look different because of the enforced shallow approach! In the other case it was a major international airport with the pilot being harassed by ATC to get on the ground to save several 737s having to orbit! So my suggestions for you not joining the club are:
- Be aware that in high work load situations mistakes are more likely and refuse to be rushed – take more rather than less care.
- Do not accept rapid mental checks – have a Down wind or Finals visual check which you follow religiously – Mine is PUFF = Propeller/Undercarriage/ Fuel/Flaps, and don’t just think, actually look at the gear lever to ensure it is locked down and actually look at the flaps.
- On top of that if my earlier efforts have encouraged you to get a SmartASS then wire up the undercarriage input to a little microswitch in the gear lever detent and even a massive workload and a 500ft cloud base may not get past you!