If something can go wrong, it will – so prepare for it
It was – and is – a rare fault, but it was almost fatal.
I had been flying in Papua New Guinea (PNG) for 10 years and was checking a new pilot into some highland routes and airstrips. We were in our usual workhorse, a Cessna 206.
The last strip for the day was Dobu, a short grassed strip of 520 m at 3,200 feet altitude and almost level, a bit unusual for PNG highland strips! Rising ground at one end made it a one-way strip and a ring of mountains around the other end of the strip meant that immediately after take-off, an aircraft had to start circling to clear the terrain.
We had completed several circuits and landings, noting landmarks, terrain, suitable approach and climb out paths and other aspects of operating at Dobu. As the new pilot brought the aircraft downwind for our last landing, there was a slight change in the engine sound. I checked the instruments but everything was in the green and normal.
Our final approach was a glide – not my preferred approach to short highlands strips – but the new pilot made an almost perfect touchdown. As we taxied to the end of the runway for our final take-off, the change in the engine played on my mind. I’d had a runaway prop early in my flying days and several of our other pilots had had various other engine issues over the years.
One thing I had learnt in my 4000 hours of PNG flying was that it’s better to check things on the ground, than assume the best and find a problem in the air. So I told the new pilot to pull into the parking bay and we would check things out before taking off.
We checked the oil level, did a fuel drain, then removed the engine cowl and inspected the engine. Everything appeared normal. Almost as an afterthought, I checked each propellor blade, pushing the tip back and forth. All were good. Then, putting one hand on each side of a blade, I tried to twist it to check that the mounting was firm. The first 2 blades were solid but when I twisted the third blade, it flopped around loosely in my hands!
When I twisted the third blade, it flopped around loosely in my hands!
My blood ran cold. If we had needed power for the landing or if we had taken off without checking, it would probably have thrown a blade. Someone was looking after us! I knew of 2 other aircraft in PNG which had thrown a propellor blade. One happened when the pilot put on full power for take-off. The other – another Cessna 206 – threw a blade on short final to another bush strip. The imbalance tore the engine out of the fuselage and the plane crashed. It was close enough to the ground for the occupants to escape serious injury. We may have not been so fortunate.
In my early days of flying in PNG, I took an optimistic view of situations. However, various incidents and near misses taught me to change my attitude and adopt a pessimistic view.
Lessons learnt: If something can go wrong, it will – so prepare for it. Things such as: load the plane under the maximum weight for the conditions, extra fuel is never a waste, the weather will likely turn nasty, you can’t out-climb the clouds, the strip will be worse than it looks, expect a tailwind gust on short final, a sleeping bag on board reduces get-home-itis, darkness comes well before last light, fuel gauges lie, the GPS will fail en route and so on.
On that fateful day, this kind of caution saved the lives of 2 pilots.