My Shortest Flight
Bill "Wingnut" Sherwood

I loved flying the Aerostar. It was fast, responsive, and took a lot of thinking ahead to get from A to B. It was also under powered and potentially dangerous if not flown accurately. The best way to explain to people as to what they fly like is that they've got the same size wing as the ubiquitous Cessna 172, but it carries three times the weight and it even thinner.

I'd flown it the previous day to keep in practice, and my friends at the aeroclub had told me that the landing gear doors were slow to retract after the landing gear was up. I didn't need any arm twisting to take it for a fly again so I thought a quick circuit or two wouldn't go astray. The control tower was happy to use their binoculars to watch the gear doors cycle, so it was all organised. A friend of mine, Andrew, invited himself along as he too was enamoured by the speed of the Aerostar; otherwise the plane was empty.

The Lycoming IO-540 six-cylinder twin-turbo engines in the Aerostar are very easy to start when cold, but a right bugger when hot as they suffer from heat soak from the two turbos very badly. The cowlings around the engines are very tight, so there's little space for all the plumbing and so on in there.

I didn't have a lot of hours in that type of plane yet, so steering the little twin engine plane out to the runway must've looked odd from outside, as the steering in them takes a lot of getting used to. It's just a little rocker switch in-between the two pilot's seats that you flick left or right to steer the plane around. Sounds simple, but in practice you start off with seemingly random jerks from side to side until either enough airspeed is gained on take-off or you just get used to it.

I reminded the control tower to watch the landing gear fold up into the fuselage - Something I've never done at any other time than that once - and pushed the power up slowly to maximum.

About 100 knots saw the nosewheel lift off, the main wheels following a few knots later. Fifty feet above the runway, I selected gear up and from inside the cockpit watched the gear lights cycle to show it fully retracted a couple of seconds later. I guess we went past the control tower just as the wheels had nearly finished their retraction cycle, and it's probably because the plane was so close to the tower that they could see what happened so clearly.

"Hotel Foxtrot Yankee, your right engine has just let out a big cloud of smoke!"

Time went into slow motion.
I turned my head to look out the window at the right engine cowling, and saw that it was almost completely covered in thick black oil. Not good.

My head then automatically turned to the oil pressure gauge on the right-hand side of the instrument panel, and instead of the needle sitting up in the ten o'clock position it was down in the eight o'clock spot, near where it would be with a hot engine idling slowly. Not good.

In a flash of reality, I realised that there was a very good chance that all the oil was pouring out all over at least one of the turbo's, which would be literally glowing bright red from the heat generated from take-off power. The fuel tanks also surround most of the engine, and so an engine fire would quickly burn through the wing spar. Not good.

Just after the far end of the runway, not even 200' above the ground I realised that I had to get the plane on the ground as quickly as possible. Very very quickly indeed. Against common aviation practice, I threw the plane into a hard right bank and started pulling G's. Andrew was quiet through the whole thing, but I told him to let me know when the oil pressure in the right engine got to zero - I couldn't shut it down just then as I needed it to help me get around the turn back to the runway. The tower asked us what we wanted to do, and I told them that I was turning back around to the runway we'd just taken off from, but in the reverse direction, then I flicked the plane the other way to finish the turn reversal. There was an East-West Airlines F-28 Fellowship making its way onto the far end runway that we'd just started our own take-off roll on, and I vaguely remember hearing them telling the tower that they were also doing a reversal turn, but for them it was to vacate the runway for me. Getting better.

Halfway through the turn the oil pressure needle was on the bottom red-line, so there was not much time left for that engine to continue running. It was better to give it a controlled shut-down rather than let it shred itself so I pulled the mixture control to shut off it's fuel, pulled the propeller lever all the way back to feather the prop, and then shut the throttle. Just like I'd trained for all those times, though this time was all too real. A morbid curiosity made me watch the right-hand prop quickly slow to a stop, with the blades lined up with the airflow to minimise drag. A short vibration signaled the end of the right-hand engine's efforts.

That engine was put to bed just as the Aerostar lined up with the runway again, though this time 180° the other way. That was also the time to start pulling the power back on the left engine, then there was little time to throw the wheels out again and select the flaps to 'down' and stabilise the plane before passing over the end of the runway again. Power off, nose up a touch, and the wheels kissed the runway again - Perhaps no more than thirty seconds after leaving it. My shortest flight ever, even to this day.

The plane taxied along just fine on one engine, and since the engine had to be fixed anyway I stopped it right in front of the maintenance hanger. A large crowd of people soon gathered around the plane after waiting a couple of minutes for the left engine to cool down before shutdown, which had then marked it's spot on the tarmac with a small puddle of oil under the right engine.

The engineers popped the cowling off the dead engine after a couple of minutes, and opened up the drain plug for the oil. Perhaps a cup of oil came out, so it had just been saved in time before running dry.

Later on, it was found that a couple of the oil lines that were under high pressure had some bad area of rubber in them, and the rubber had decomposed and so burst under the pressure. All were fixed in a day or so.

We still don't know how the engine managed to dump ten litres of oil all over red-hot turbos and not catch on fire.

Page & contents where applicable © Bill Sherwood