I can tell you that for one lap prior, the plane never ran so well. I was waiting in the queue for the Thunder Mustang Rapid Travel to qualify so that I could take the course at the Reno Air Races in Relentless, my Nemesis NTX kit-built race plane. I completed my level lap and had it honkin’ pretty good. My goal was clearly to beat Jon Sharp’s record of 412 mph, and when I saw my groundspeed reach around 360 knots (414 mph), I called for the clock. I remember looking at the instruments over Pylon 8, and everything was in the green.
Just as I started to roll slightly to the left to set my nose on just the right angle to start my qualifying lap, I heard the most unbelievable squeal and then POP! I knew right away that the prop had left the party, but the big question was: What was going to happen next?
Normally I would have pulled and rolled hard into the center of the racecourse for a Mayday but I hate right-turn dead-sticks to runway 14, and although the aircraft was flying okay, I didn’t want to do anything to motivate the engine from joining the prop on the ground before I got there!
Usually, a pull-up at over 400 mph would give plenty of altitude to land at any runway, but the drag on the hole where the prop used to be slowed me down like a chute. When I was downwind for runway 14 and pushing hard to keep 140 knots, I remember thinking to myself that it was looking more like a 180 autorotation in my helicopter!
I made a smooth but fast touchdown and rolled out. As the plane slowed to a stop, the smoke started coming out of the cowl really fast. I knew by the smell that the resin was burning. I jumped out with my little extinguisher to put out the fire that was now coming out of the cowling intakes like a furious dragon, but the firemen got there first, and it only took about three seconds of their water cannon to calm even me down. —September 15, 2010
Racing aircraft to me is so much more than the speed. It’s about pushing myself, learning, going to the edge and sharing the experience with others. This would have been my 10th year racing, and I was prepared to make it count. When I heard that my nemesis Jon Sharp wasn’t going to race (in his Nemesis NXT), I was really disappointed. I’m drawn to the sport because of the aviators like Sharp, Greenamyer and others who push themselves and their machines. To put my wits and skills up against the best is what it’s all about to me.
Unfortunately, when you go to the edge, sometimes it doesn’t always work out so great. To walk away from blowing up my engine and losing the prop was huge, but to keep my cool and land the plane without damaging it further is what I would like to share. Many have asked what it was like and how I stayed calm. I don’t know how calm I was for the 20 or so seconds that it took to land, but I hope that sharing my experience will help other pilots improve their situation when they’re faced with an unexpected emergency.
Over the years, I’ve read many experiences of others dealing with Maydays, and I’ve always been keen on the details of their actions during such emergencies. Good and bad, I listen and then think about how I might have acted or will act. Early on in racing, certain pilots who have mentored me made it clear that if you keep racing, the question won’t be whether you’ll have to deal with an emergency, but when! I’ve had my share, some small and some major, but every time something happens, my knowledge and understanding increase.
I’ve spent many hours visualizing the racecourse and thinking about what I would do at each pylon if faced with a problem. I can describe in detail a dead-stick landing from every pylon, assuming the plane keeps flying. When my prop blew off, I had already visualized leaving Pylon 8 and, rather than pulling hard to the center of the course, just rolling into downwind for runway 14. I developed this technique learning to fly aerobatics for contests. I don’t just think about each pylon, but I close my eyes and “fly” the entire track from pylon to ground. This takes some time, because you have to do it in several different conditions and emergencies.
Take the Thunder Mustang that crashed during a Mayday at the races on Sunday. I don’t want to second-guess anyone, but when you think about the conditions and high winds during that race, there was really only one possible runway to land, and unfortunately it wasn’t the best one. The wind was 190 at 25-35 knots, so before racing those conditions, you need to really think about leaving each pylon and making a beeline for the end of runway 18.
Or perhaps you’ll decide that the best option might just be a gear-up landing into the wind rather than risk a bad crosswind landing.
Through my training flying corporate jets, I’ve learned that the next move you make might be the one that kills you, so it’s critical to think first. It’s called an “error chain,” and in my mind, the first mistake you make in dealing with an emergency will only make the situation worse. The second mistake will get someone hurt, and the third will probably kill you.
At Reno, my prop departed, and the engine went silent in one second. The first thing I remember thinking was, “What could happen next?” I waited a moment to see if the plane would keep flying—this may sound funny, but this is really the thought I had. I knew I needed to roll left and get altitude, but I did it as smoothly as possible while evaluating the controllability of the aircraft. Was I going for altitude to jump out, or was the aircraft stable enough as it slowed to try a landing? Once I slowed to about 150 and had as much altitude as I thought I could get, I gave the elevator a good pull to see if anything else wanted to leave the formation.
When the control seemed good and I knew I had runway 14 made, I put the gear down. At this point, I remember how quiet and smooth it was, and how steep the approach was to keep the airspeed at 140 knots. Once I was over the numbers, I just tried my best not to screw up a perfectly good landing opportunity.
Learn from others. Prepare for the worst. Think before you act. Don’t let an emergency that you survive deter you from flying again. The knowledge learned makes you smarter, and sharing it with others is priceless.
Kevin Eldredge is an investor, business developer and transition manager. He’s an avid commercial pilot, air racer and aviator dedicated to the preservation of aviation in the U.S.
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