NBAA Convention News

NBAA Honors Successes of DEF Flameout Safe Landing

 - October 7, 2020, 4:27 PM
NBAA honored Air Trek pilots Gerald Downs (l) and Bruce Monnier (r) with the first NBAA Above and Beyond Airmanship Award for their roles in what has been characterized as business aviation’s version of “Miracle on the Hudson.”

NBAA marked its first-ever Virtual Safety Week with a Safety Town Hall on Wednesday that went into the details and lessons of the airmanship, attentiveness in the flight deck, and crew resource management from the successful dead-stick landing of a Cessna Citation II in Savannah, Georgia, following a diesel exhaust fluid (DEF)-induced dual engine flameout.

NBAA also took the occasion of the virtual Safety Town Hall to announce its inaugural NBAA Above and Beyond Airmanship Award that was presented to the pilots involved, Bruce Monnier and Gerald Downs, for their roles in what the webinar’s moderator, aerospace and science journalist Miles O’Brien, termed as business aviation’s version of “Miracle on the Hudson.”

The Citation, N744AT, was one of two operated by air-ambulance operator Air Trek that lost engine power on May 9, 2019, from DEF contamination after receiving fuel from the FBO at Punta Gorda Airport (PGD) in Florida. The second Citation lost power in one engine, while N744AT lost power from both engines, and briefly, its electrical power.

The incidents—among 15 DEF contamination events that had occurred in the past three years, according to Town Hall participant and AOPA Air Safety Foundation senior v-p Richard McSpadden—helped spur a concerted government/industry effort to raise awareness about the dangers of DEF contamination and the need for proper training, storing, marketing, and handling. In fact, McSpadden said industry groups are pushing to get DEF off airports altogether because the risks are too grave. “This stuff is dangerous,” McSpadden emphasized.

But Wednesday’s town hall also focused on the successes of the May 9, 2019 event and how two pilots who rarely flew together worked calmly in concert, drawing upon the experiences in training and knowledge of glider flying, to land an aircraft at an alternate airport after issues first surfaced while flying at 35,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean.

“NBAA is honored to present Bruce Monnier and Gerald Downs with the first NBAA Above and Beyond Airmanship Award in recognition of their professionalism and bravery,” said NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen. “Their story is inspirational to everyone in the business aviation industry, and a reminder of the importance in always keeping safety in the forefront.”

Monnier, the flying pilot of the flight that day, is an airline transport pilot, flight instructor, and captain with more than 4,000 flight hours. Perhaps serendipitously, at a previous flight training session in a simulator, Monnier had asked his flight instructor if he could practice a dual engine-flameout with spare simulator time.

As it turned out, that training became important because the airplane behaved exactly as it had in the simulator after it had lost both engines. Monnier said that during simulator training, he was skeptical, thinking the scenario was a bit optimistic in the way it was handling. “Then, here we are in the real world and it happens,” he said, adding his reaction was, “This isn’t bad at all. This is just like the simulator.”

Flight training expert Martha King, who also participated in the town hall, said, “Having that experience under your belt is really incredibly valuable.” She added that simulator training is really faithful to how an airplane actually flies in those situations. “You really can count on that kind of performance.”

Also helping the scenario was copilot Downs, who, while a part-time pilot for Air Trek, is an airline transport pilot with more than 10,000 flight hours, instructor pilot, and holds ratings in fixed-wing, helicopter, glider, and gyroplane aircraft over a 48-year aviation career. In describing the event, Downs noted that with gliders it is about energy management and that is what this scenario involved.

“When you're flying a glider, you've got so much energy and you know, how it's going to fly,” he said. While he had not seen this in a Citation, when Monnier said he was going to put flaps down in preparation for landing, Downs told Monnier to wait for a moment while he looked at the glide angle in comparison with the horizon and then said that it’s okay for flaps.

Another factor in the scenario was the crew pairing. Both are highly experienced pilots, but Monnier had more experience with the Citation II. Downs flies every couple of months for Air Trek, Monnier said. “Not very often. He’s definitely a reserve. But he’s been doing it for years with Air Trek. When I came aboard and was trained, I was trained the same way that he had been doing it,” he said. “So, when we get up, there is definitely standardization with every new copilot that I fly with. It's the same thing, exact same things for when we swap crews. It's a nonissue.”

McSpadden called that standardization, as well as their training and background, key, noting how quickly it happened. “They really didn't have the time to reference the checklist. For example, when all their electrics died, they just knew to work the battery and reset the battery and whatever the steps are,” he said. “We all go through this training to learn the steps so that, if you can use a checklist, great, but there's going to be times when you're going to have to rely on that base of knowledge that you built.”

While based and fueled in Punta Gorda, Monnier and Downs had flown to Naples Municipal Airport (APF) without incident to pick up a patient and two other passengers —including the patient’s daughter, who Monnier mentioned was a nervous flyer—and two medical crew. Before the flight, Monnier had promised a smooth flight to their destination of Niagara Falls.

While overwater at about 35,000 feet msl, Monnier said he “was kind of fidgeting with the fan speed on the number one engine,” when Downs noticed this was going on for some time and queried about it. They both noticed it did not want to “settle down,” Monnier said.

The engine then started to lose power, but at this point, it was still a “non-event,” he said. Monnier pulled back the engine a little and then tried to roll it back up to see how it reacted, but it continued to lose power. “That’s when we knew we had a problem with the number one engine,” he said.

They did not declare an emergency at this juncture—“single-engine is really a nonissue in the twin-turbine world," Monnier said—but they did decide to divert. They weighed options of closest airport and were both familiar with Savannah, which was 40 miles out. They chose that option and began to bring down the airplane.

The pilots let the medics know that they were diverting so they could brief the passengers and that it was not going to be a big deal. “We would just land, get another plane and run them up to New York as planned,” he said.

Passing through 8,000 feet, the same thing happened with the second engine. “That gets your attention for sure. Now we have an emergency,” Monnier said. But by that point, they had already gone through all the checklists and procedures and rolled them over to the extent possible to the evolving situation.

“At that point, all the electric was still working,” Downs said. “We knew exactly how far we were. We're 13 miles. We're at 8,000 feet descending a thousand feet a minute. When you do the math, we had about 21 miles of energy in reserve. So, it was going to be easy if we don't mess it up.”

However, he added, then “things got a little more interesting. We had an undercast and just about the time we were going through the undercast, about 1,500 feet of it, we lost all our electric, which was not a comforting thing.”

Now, they are using their “peanut attitude indicator. We're saying, okay, this is not good,” Downs said. Monnier, who knows the airplane well, was able to reset the battery and the electric returned. But for that moment air traffic control was not able to see the airplane. However, when they cleared the undercast they saw the airport, right where they had anticipated.

It was a moment they had prepared for, Monnier said. “When we turned towards the field at 8,000 feet, we discussed, what systems do we expect that [we] have a problem with, what systems won't work? What will work? We discussed the electric flaps and we'd discussed when to put down the gear.”

The gear is hydraulically driven, so they anticipated a problem there. “We familiarized and talked about, again, the procedure for pneumatically blowing down the gear—we expected to have to pneumatically blow it down. And we discussed whether we'd have brakes.”

Dropping the gear was a bit of an adventure, taking about 15 to 16 seconds for all three green lights, almost three times as long as normal. “We were not happy campers until we saw all the green lights,” Downs said.

But the gear did come down and they came to a complete stop on the runway. Of course, without an engine, there was no taxiing, which led to the passenger who was already a nervous flyer to inquire why. That’s when the passengers were informed that the second engine had quit as well.

With the calm demeanor and constant communication of the pilots between themselves, the passengers had no idea of the full extent of the troubles the aircraft had encountered. After the aircraft was towed in, the patient was put in a room where he could receive necessary medical assistance until a backup aircraft arrived.

Once it did, they loaded back up and flew on to Niagara Falls. However, the delays allowed poor weather to set in and now instead of a smooth flight, it was one that occurred through storms and required a low approach.

At the end, Downs said, the nervous passenger informed him she still did not like flying on small aircraft, but if she did, she wanted the same crew and gave him a big hug. “That made it all worth it.”

They had dinner with the medics, hopped back in the airplane, and returned to Florida, calling it “all in a day’s work.”

McSpadden praised their performance. “They were very attentive to the engine, which is instructive for all of us. They weren't just sort of lumbering it out…And then as soon as they had the problem, they immediately began the divert. If you backtrack on the mileage, if they hadn't taken it seriously from the very start and begun those actions, they wouldn't have made it. They wouldn't have had enough distance to make it,” he said, calling the events a “remarkable example.”