Pilot Calls Mayday

Thursday morning a CT4 lost all oil pressure on upwind and called mayday. Luckily the conditions were such that the pilot was able to make a tear drop turn back to the runway and land safely. If the runway was occupied or another aircraft was becoming airborne it could have been messy.

We also often get strong winds at the aerodrome well in excess of 20 knots. Thursday the wind was straight across the runway and a light 5 knots so there was no downwind for the turn back. If it had been like it was a couple of weeks ago, 25 knots straight down the runway he may not have made it.

There are a few plenty of other options though, just in this case the simplest option was the turn back to the runway. As an Air Traffic Controller this is the perfect example of making a decision in a split second, and it's a life and death situation.

It wasn't me controlling, I was rostered off. So let's breakdown what went through my colleagues mind in that half a second or so.

In this case the pilot advised he was making a turn back to the runway. This can have positive and/or negative effects depending on the circumstances. In this case it was all positive.

  • The controller knew exactly what the pilots intentions were. A mayday can often cause confusion for a controller. Because the pilot may fear for his/her life (and this is fair enough), he/she may make a decision to deal with the situation that is in total disregard for what is happening in the airspace around them. Communication with the pilot is also limited at this point in time so you can be left guessing what they are going to do and move everyone else out of the way.
  • There was no confliction with other traffic.
  • There was no excessive downwind component on the opposite runway.
  • It was probably the best option.
So by the pilot making the decision to conduct the tear drop turn it took a lot of the load off the controller. All he had to do was:
  • Assess that no collision risk existed with other aircraft
  • Assess the downwind component on the runway.
In light traffic this is quite simple, in heavy traffic it could prove to be a nightmare. And this is where we lead into the negative impact of the pilot making his decision. The circuit area at the aerodrome is usually a busy place with 8-9 aircraft not uncommon. If this had been the case and the pilot conducted this manoeuvre it would almost be a guarantee that two aircraft would end up nose to nose and the controller would be earning his money to solve the problem!

So what were the various options? My knee jerk reaction would have been a left turn for a landing on the crosswind runway. It solves any confliction with other aircraft becoming airborne and negates any downwind component that may have been present on the opposite runway. Another option would have been a base leg for the parallel runway, the third option the one that took place.

Anyway, the whole fleet was grounded on Friday so I had a nice relaxing day at work!

Any pilots reading this feel free to add your comments to this post. It's always interesting to know what goes on through your head when your engine is about to seize. In my training we were always taught that a pilot flies the plane first. This is true for the above situation and TCAS alerts are another good example.

I worked with a controller at my last posting who was also a pilot. He once told me a story that I found quite funny.

You often hear stories of engine failures and pilots positioning the aircraft so that no one on the ground was in danger for a forced landing. This guy had an engine failure once in a C172 and there just happened to be a football oval nearby for his landing. The only problem was it was full of football players! Fearing for his life he totally ignored the fact that there were people everywhere and steered straight for the football field!

Some people may call it cowardly, I call it self preservation!