Entanglement: (n., C.) a situation in which you are involved and that is difficult to escape from.
Hello dear readers,
It is a real pleasure to continue inviting myself into your computers every Sunday for this a little piece of aviation “history”.
This week, I will tell you a story that happened to a good friend of mine, or at least somebody whom I had no idea I knew and whom I met in my private life completely unexpectedly after this story happened.
So, as often, I was spending a fair weekend at work, and with the weather being so fine, I was busy handling training, leisure and commercial flights as usual, keeping a sharp eye on all the small grass strips around our control zone. It wasn’t unusual to see one of the ultralights flying there requesting to cross our airspace to fly to another airfield, or simply on a sightseeing flight.
Now, as a controlled and relatively busy aerodrome, our airport authority had elected years ago to prohibit the landings and departures of ultralights to increase our capacity for commercial traffic, but after some (sometimes heated) debating amongst the team, we came to the agreement that crossing controlled airspace had no reason to be denied to ultralights, as there was absolutely noting in the regulations dictating us to do so. As long as you have a radio, the skills and paperwork to use it, you are of course welcome to request crossing clearances.
And on that day, the case did present itself. An ultralight that I had seen approaching from the southwest called me to request crossing clearance to the northeast, where they wanted to rejoin their home base. Little did I know that because of what was happening inside the aircraft, another unusual occurrence was coming my way.
Indeed, in the middle of the flight, the pilot started smelling something very suspect. The aircraft was a high-wing ultralight, with the fuel tanks located in the wings, as it usually is the case for this configuration. And a strong, unmistakable smell of gasoline was invading the cabin, creating a sheer sense of panic for the occupants. But then, it was only a smell. Or was it?
Where there’s smoke there’s fire. Granted, it is a little bit unfortunate when linked to a fuel leak, but you probably see the connection here. If it smells of gasoline in the cabin, it means there must be gasoline in the cabin.
So, the pilot, in an attempt to shorten the flight as much as possible, plotted the most direct route back home and, considering it was crossing controlled airspace, called ATC to ask for crossing clearance.
As usual, since I had no reason to refuse the crossing (I had at this point no idea of the predicament the occupants of the aircraft were in), I happily cleared the pilot to enter, and, as was usual to do in this case, instructed him to fly straight on course to our aerodrome. We usually did it that way to acquire visual contact with the aircraft and let them cross the runway axis just overhead the airport. It was very efficient, quick and easy to provide a visual separation with the rest of the users.
In the meantime, the pilot had located the place in the ceiling where droplets of fuel were amassing and then falling to the floor. The flow was not huge, but regular, and did not show any signs of stopping. Even worse, the rate at which the droplets of fuel were appearing on the ceiling was increasing, and the situation was becoming more and more worrying. The speed at which the leak seemed to worsen quickly brought the pilot to the one sensible decision:
<ACFT>: Mayday mayday mayday, Tower, OO-789, we have a fuel leak in the cockpit, request emergency landing at your aerodrome.
There. It was now laid out in the open. It was like ripping off a band aid. It’s never easy to do, but at least, now we know what to do.
Air traffic controllers are obviously trained, even over-trained to respond to such situations. As are our airport firefighters, whom I scrambled immediately when the call from the aircraft came in. Within a matter of seconds, the fire trucks were hurling down the apron, heading for the runway exits where the ultralight was most likely to land close to.
By the time I got back to the pilot to ask the usual questions, i.e. number of persons on board and fuel remaining (ahem…), the gentleman flying told me that he was alone, and that he thought he had about 100 liters of fuel, but most of it was dripping now on him, at the rate of a good cup every minute.
Once on final, when we saw where the aircraft would land, I let the emergency services enter the runway to intervene, and fortunately, no harm came to the pilot. He landed safely, and was extracted from the aircraft, put to safety, while another crew was securing the ultralight, stranded on our runway.
After thanking us and the firemen the pilot went back home for a fresh change of clothes and then on to his flying club. As I came to learn (much) later, the gentleman’s decision to divert to our airport was quite criticized by his fellow club members, thinking that it would lead them into trouble for landing at an airport where ultralights were forbidden, but in fact nothing happened and once repaired, their aircraft was allowed to make its way back home without further ado.
As I was telling you a few weeks ago, once you have to face an emergency or distress situation like this one, the primary concern of air traffic control is to get you back to the ground safely. And what better is there to land an airplane leaking fuel on its occupants than a long and wide paved runway, and, more importantly an impressive crew of professional firefighters specifically trained to respond to aviation situations? I don’t know about you, folks, but I think the pilot made the best call possible. He chose the most sensible place to put his aircraft down: where he knew he would be helped immediately.
Don’t read in my words that other, unspecialized firemen would not do a proper job, I do not think so at all. But still, coming with an aircraft emergency to aviation pros seems like the logical choice to make, doesn’t it? Administrative regulations do not matter in a situation like this. Saving lives is what matters.
Now, as epilogue, as I said earlier, I happened to meet the pilot quite a few years later, in a completely unexpected situation. I was at the vet with my cat, patiently waiting for my turn, and the doctor came out of the examination room, asking me if I could help translating, because the lady just before me only spoke English. I happily obliged, naturally, and when it came to my turn, we were making small talk while Mr. Fitzwilliam (my cat) was being treated. The vet asked me how come I spoke English, so I told him I was working at the airport, and spoke English at work every day. He dug a little deeper, and asked what exactly I did there. “ATC”, I said. He continued, saying that his son was a hobby pilot not far from the airport where I worked, and called the son in question, who also happened to be a vet in the practice.
The son came to greet me, and told me something along the lines of “Oh, you know, I owe my life to ATC, I once had a fuel leak inside my aircraft, and I had to land in an airport where I normally couldn’t, but fortunately, I was saved”
“Ah, yes, I remember you”, I said. I was on the frequency when that happened. The pilot/vet couldn’t believe what he was hearing, and said that indeed, he was recognizing my voice… it’s a small world after all.