Friday, 16 November 2012

Being Cursed

Life can be cruel.

This is just a short story but for me! it will never go away.

First let me explain a bit about Aviation Engines in particular.
As Pilots when we get into an aircraft, we have to have a little faith that the pilot before us, treated the engine with respect (As per the manufacturers Guidelines" which basically means No! hot starts! No! over boosting! or running hot! all things that would point to a possible engine failure, important considerations when you're expected to depart on a 1500 mile ferry over wild terrain and water. ( get my point?)

Now to my story:

I had just returned to South Africa for the fire bombing season and was sent south to pick up a second hand Thrush turbine,
which was to be used by me for the season.

The Thrush was a relatively new aircraft on the Agricultural scene and many of the pilots had only read a book and started flying them! even the operators seemed to have not picked up on the maintenance schedule, set out by the manufactures.

The difference is alarming an engine that is monitored correctly during its life, may go as much as 9000 hours before being changed! unmonitored engines may be changed at 2 to 3000 hours. when you consider the cost of an engine $ 100,000. It's a no contest decision.
I'm sure if the operators had realised this! they would have sent their pilots off to the factories for training.
Now I don't have a problem with this, but most of these guys didn't seem to know! To them all aircraft fly the same. crazy?
But they didn't seen to realise the turbine was so different! they just treated it like a piston engine with more power.

Back to my story:

Boss Terry had asked me "to give the aircraft a good inspection before taking delivery and if I found any thing that looked like a problem, not to take delivery, without talking to him first".
so as I walked into the company office, of the company we were buying it from, I introduced myself.
After a few pleasantries,  I asked "to see the aircraft" it was parked on the front with a couple of other Thrushes, so I walked out to give it an inspection, after spending a good 2 hours checking over every part of the aircraft I could get at.
I decided that the airframe and all the attachments were in excellent condition.
On turning on the master switch, I noticed the battery was below start up power, this could indicate that the battery required replacing, or the alternator was faulty.
I went into their hanger and asked to borrow a meter to check out the starter motor and alternator as it  functioned as one unit.
As I returned to the aircraft, one of their pilots, who must have been watching me, came over and asked "was there a problem"
I mentioned "the battery seemed flat" He said "that's not a problem
It's been flat for a couple of weeks and they have been Hot starting it, when they used it"!
I was amazed and visible taken back that a pilot would admit such a thing, he looked at me and asked me "did I know what a hot start was?"
"As he had done them a few times on this aircraft and he was willing to show me how its done"!

 I declined his offer and  said
"yes I have heard of hot starts" and I am also aware that there is a good chance that the engine could explode during this type of crazy cycle and another thing! you may have voided the manufacturers warranties in regard to this engine.
They could declare this engine as scrape!"

"You obviously have no idea of how to operate a turbine so please go away" he walked away, I could tell he felt he had said to much.
I found the fuse on the alternator side of the starter blown. so I returned to the hanger.
I asked for a battery jump start and they said "they would start it by a " Hot Start" again."
I was amazed I asked "who advised them to do "Hot Starts"? they just looked at me, I said "I want a fully charged battery trolley to start the turbine" OK? which I got. So I started the turbine and it was all in the green, I pushed in the alternator fuse and immediately the charge started to flow to the battery.

I taxied over to the aircraft run up area and carried out power and propeller test, which were fine by the way.
I returned the aircraft to the parking bay and shut her down and had another quick inspection of the engine for oil leaks and  burning smells.
I removed the key to stop anybody from starting it again.
I walked over and entered their office again, the company owner and chief engineer were awaiting me, I said "I would have to call my employer and give him my report and he will talk with you direct".

"But I must warn you! I'm tempted to report this to the Civil Aviation Authority, they started to protest and I said " you guys are flying Turbines around the sky, with a load of untrained Pawnee Pilots"! "Really it's unbelievable."
"Now I will return to my Motel and speak with Boss Terry and he will Phone you."

The Chief Engineer gave me a run down to the Motel, on the way he made up a few excuses, saying his "boss had put him under pressure to keep the aircraft airborne and working".
I said "now look, you were quite willing to allow me to fly away in that aircraft, knowing hot starts had been used on it, I could have been killed, So please shut up".

At the Motel I spoke with Boss Terry and filled him in on the situation, he was desperately disappointed as he had work for the aircraft, "is there anything we can do"? "Well" I said "I could, if it starts well tomorrow and all goes well.
Fly her back "at reduced power" along the main road to base, with the understanding I will not fly it Fire-bombing, until such time as she passes a hot box inspection by the local approved turbine engineer, after that I have no problems."
The next morning the chief engineer picked me up and ran me up to the airport, before departure I had a cup of tea and biscuits with the owner and chief Engineer.  I found it difficult to get into a conversation with them, as I always do, with people I don't respect.

I decided I couldn't leave without giving  them a briefing on the Turbine.
What they might run up against, if its found out they have not got a licensed turbine Engineer, without that! they are operating illegally, which means no insurance and possible charges of manslaughter if there is an incident.

I then went on to inform them of the dangers of hot starts and what they are, as they didn't seem to really know?

The turbine engine is not designed or strong enough to use the fuel to speed up the engine to reach start up revolution, by turning the fuel on/off as the engine rotated, the increase in pressure created far exceeds the strength of the hot box and that controls all power to the turbine, even if you only momentarily red line the temp gauge the engine needs to be inspected.

It is designed to burn fuel at a constant even rate and if you do this, the engine will run for thousands of hours without harm, far exceeding the life of a petrol engine. the hot start creates a pressure wave within the hot box, the heat and pressure changes, causing cracking and failure, and it could be months after the hot start. "so for Christ sake get your act together before you lose one!" and "get your staff trained."

I departed, every thing went well and I found myself landing at my first and only stop on my way back to base.
I had briefed the tower to get permission to keep the engine running as I took on Avtur, they replied " that is approved, but be advised there are people awaiting passenger at the arrivals gate" "I have the passenger visual".

I parked  and the fuel tanker moved in behind me  I checked my brakes and secured them and climbed from the aircraft.
I was placing the chocks against my wheels, when  a young child broke from the crowd and ran through my propeller, nobody seemed to see him only me and I was on the down side of the propeller.
The poor wee thing was struck across the shoulders totally smashing his body and removing his head.

I was stunned! body parts rain down on me, I was covered in blood.
I climbed into the aircraft and shut the fuel off, stopping the engine, I was bathed in blood it was unbelievable.
I sat on the wheel of the aircraft in a stunned state, the crowd gathered around, I must have looked terrible, I just couldn't move or respond to question, that were being aimed at me.

I wanted to shout out why! why! hadn't the gates been closed , why had the child got away from his parents.
All these things that make you want to blame somebody for the death of a  child.
Eventually the police turned up, and an ambulance and the fire brigade, plus the Civil Aviation guys from the tower.
I was taken away to wash and I found myself in the Police station  they requested a statement of what happened, which I gave them.
I saw people from the crowd at the police station, giving statements and pointing in my direction.

I was taken to the local Hotel for the night and advised by the police they will want to see me tomorrow. I must have sat for a hour before phoning Boss Terry he said he would come down straight away and bring a solicitor by the sounds of it.

The next day the Civil Aviation Accident branch turned up and I had to give them a statement, we spent hours going over the incident and then the police came and took me back to the station, I was interviewed by a very aggressive detective, he said "that the Coroners Court is being convened tomorrow and after the verdict,
he was going to charge me with manslaughter and serious neglect and they will be asking for the maximum sentence for me, for killing that young child.
I would be going to jail for 5 years and that would give those parents some closure!"
He was so angry; he made me feel sick.
I decided the best thing I could do was stop talking, they kept me in the station until the early hours I was shattered.

The next day I attended the Coroners Court and everybody was giving statements, which seemed to be against me.
I was the only one  apart from the accident branch, that gave in a written statement, the Coroner asked me "was there anything more I would like to add? I said "I would like to apologise to the parents for my part in their tragedy, the crowd jeered at me. Not a good feeling.
The Coroner Closed the hearing asking all interested parties to attend tomorrow at  midday, when he would give his ruling.
My aggressive policeman tried to get the Coroner to to give him permission to hold me over night!
The Coroner said " your trying to pre-judge the ruling with no legal grounds", turning to me he said  "Mr Donnelly your free to go until tomorrow, when I look forward to seeing you OK" I said "good afternoon" and left.

The next day in the court the coroner read out his verdict I was really surprised, he started by saying "no one person can be blamed for the death of this child it was an accumulation of errors".
"Firstly, in their order of  the responsible parties! the Parents failed to keep a watchful eye on their child, Secondly, the Civil Aviation airport crew failed to ensure the the gate was close, they also gave the pilot permission to leave his engine running after the pilot expressed the wish not to restart the engine, and thirdly, the Pilot for not shutting down his engine, even though he had a clearance to keep it running from the controller, had he stopped the engine the child would be alive, but under the circumstances he was not to know the gate wasn't locked." "therefore I part only minimal blame in his direction,"
It is my ruling that the child died by misadventure  after running into a moving propeller.

This Court is closed, he thanked everybody for giving statements and assisting the Court to come to a decision.
There was a fair bit of bad feeling running over in the court, fist waving and shouting, the Coroner looked up and addressed the crowd he said "I see there is a fair bit of ill feeling, which I believe has been contributed to by a local police officer, talking out of turn. It's my intention to take this matter up with the Chief Constable.
I respectfully request that you all go home. or I will call the Police and have you cleared, with that they all filed out.
I walked out of the court and most of the crowd were gone, accept for the parents who came up to me, the Mother spate on me and cursed me, she said "I curse you May you die alone!" and they walked away.
My base was only 2 hours flying time away so I decided to fly back as soon as I could get a battery start, reason being, first I wanted to get away and there was a slight chance the aircraft could suffer grief led vandalism
The flight back was uneventful  and we put the aircraft in the hanger for the night.

That night Boss Terry came to and asked me, "what had I decided to do", I said "I will phone a mate of mine a turbine man to cover for me and I must leave as soon a possible. I'm no use to the company now.
South Africa and I are finished! you know as well as me, I will be the Soutie who killed an Afrikaans boy, they only remember the last deed you did." I said to him holding his hand.
"Terry I love this country and I will miss it terrible, as I will miss you "old man" and your family, thank you for having me I will phone you" and that was it, I spent the next day contacting my replacement and organising the flight out.
I flew back to Melbourne and spent a week on the 90 mile beach licking my wounds, I wasn't particularly concerned about the curse
I just felt that if they believed it and it helped them to face their grief, then it was OK with me.
But the lose of access to South Africa was a bitter pill to swallow.
I had been considering staying there and working full time with Boss Terry, but that isn't going to happen now.
I must move on. I went up to Melbourne and was contacted by a company who were looking for experienced Pilots to fly a variety of aircraft in south east Asia with a military backgrounds.

I was Interviewed in one of the biggest hotels in Melbourne, a real wine and dine job, my first thought was drug cartel.
But they looked like the FBI guys you see on the movies! anyway I decided to sleep on it, as I was leaving one of the guy's approached me and said " Job pays $10,000 a month in advance "if your interested? let us know" and he gave me his card. I phoned him the next day and said "I was in? when do I start?" and that was the start of a new adventure with the yanks in Vietnam.

As for the curse? well it still follows me, lurking in the background of my mind, but doing no real harm.

When I think about this incident it's still like a dream, unfortunately time does not cure all wounds.



  1. How sad is an understatement. What a terrible, terrible thing.

  2. I've thought hard and long about this accident and I have a strong feeling! that when that Pilot said "he had hot started that engine" It was the start of the "Butterfly effect" leading me to this tragedy, you could call my destiny. be well Agman.


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