By Karen Di Piazza
Capt. Chuck Nealy has logged more than 22,000 hours of incident and accident free flights in military and airline transport aircraft. Flying military aircraft, he became trained in how to perform simulated flameout approaches for emergency landing patterns. That training instinctually came into play on June 5, when he was forced to declare an emergency landing at Chicago Midway International Airport (MDW) in Illinois.
On that day, while flying an Eclipse very light jet, Nealy noticed that both engines were unresponsive to his throttle commands. He landed at MDW, but the engines were stuck on maximum power. While the aircraft rapidly increased airspeed, running out of runway, Nealy was forced to abort the landing and get the plane airborne.
Several minutes later, Nealy realized that the aircraft’s engines were still on max power, with the dual-throttles remaining unresponsive to his commands. He was forced to shut down one engine, and then the other engine rolled back to idle position. Nealy was able to make a successful emergency landing, resulting in no injuries to himself or the three other people on board: his “unofficial” King Air copilot, who was sitting in the right seat getting some jet time; Don Bourn, who owns the VLJ, registration N612KB with Kevin Kiernan (hence the last two letters of the tail number); and an unidentified business associate.
Nealy, who became type rated in the Eclipse VLJ as pilot-in-command in September 2007, said he only flies the aircraft under FAR Part 91 corporate rules for Coronado, Calif.-based Kiernan Companies LLC, listed as the registered owner. The aircraft is managed by nearby San Diego-based Jimsair Aviation Services Inc., dba as Jimsair Charter and Management, which employs both Nealy and the unidentified copilot.
On June 12, the National Transportation Safety Board addressed a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration. The letter stated that just as the airplane was landing at MDW, the Eclipse experienced a failure that resulted in an uncontrollable increase in thrust from the two Pratt & Whitney Canada PW610F turbofan engines to maximum power. The NTSB noted that the Eclipse 500’s crew alerting system display showed both left and right engine control failure messages.
The letter also said that while the plane was climbing out from the balked landing, the pilots stated that they retracted the flaps to the take-off position and retracted the landing gear. Because the jet’s airspeed continued to increase through 190 knots, the flying pilot lowered the landing gear again, in an effort to “increase drag and slow the airplane.” According to the NTSB, Nealy said even with the landing gear down and the flaps in the take-off position, the airplane continued to accelerate. The safety board said “to remain below 200 knots, which is the maximum operating speed for the flaps and landing gear, the pilots had to maintain a shallow climb,” taking off from MDW.
The NTSB noted that although the Eclipse 500’s airplane flight manual and Eclipse’s quick reference handbook provided an emergency procedure for a single-engine control failure, no procedure was available for dual-engine control failures.
“Had it not been for the resourcefulness of the pilots, the visual meteorological conditions that prevailed at the time and the airplane’s proximity to the airport, the successful completion of this flight would’ve been unlikely,” the NTSB concluded.
The VLJ was operating on an instrument flight rules flight, flying from Cleveland Hopkins International Airport (CLE) in Ohio to MDW, 266 nautical miles for the planned one-way flight. Nealy said upon his initial landing at MDW, after referencing Eclipse’s QRH and finding no procedure for dual-engine control failure messages, he aborted the landing. The NTSB’s letter said that the pilot flying the plane reported that as the airplane was crossing the runway threshold for the initial landing attempt, it encountered a 10- to 15-knot wind shear and developed a high sink rate, which the pilot arrested by applying power.
According to the NTSB, Nealy stated that on the initial landing at MDW, the plane landed at about 83 knots, and then he retarded the throttles to idle. About three seconds later, he lightly touched the brakes to slow the airplane down. Although the throttles were at idle, the VLJ was accelerating rapidly through 100 knots.
The NTSB also noted that the dual-channel failure of both throttle levers occurred after the airplane had accumulated only 238 hours and 192 cycles since new. The throttle levers are part of the throttle quadrant assembly. The safety agency said it’s concerned about the reliability of an assembly that fails in such a short time. The board also found that when the “failed throttle quadrant assembly was replaced, pushing the throttle levers on the replacement unit against the maximum power stops, [it] caused a right engine control fail message” to appear on the CAS display.
“The immediate failure of the replacement part suggests that there may be a design or quality problem in the Eclipse 500’s throttle quadrant assembly,” the NTSB stated.
The NTSB advised the FAA to require an immediate inspection of all Eclipse 500 airplane throttle quadrants “to ensure that pushing the throttle levers against the maximum power stops will not result in an engine control failure.” The NTSB further advised that it should be required “that any units that fail the inspection be replaced and that the replacement parts be similarly inspected (A-08-46 urgent).”
Additionally, the board recommended that Eclipse Aviation Corp., manufacturer of the Eclipse 500, be required to immediately develop an emergency procedure for a dual-engine control failure for the VLJ and to incorporate the procedure into the airplane flight manual and QRH, via an airworthiness directive (A-08-47 urgent).
Later that evening, on June 12, the FAA issued an “emergency airworthiness directive” directing pilots, rather than maintenance experts, to evaluate the E500’s throttles, to determine if they needed repair or replacement as necessary, prior to flight. By 6 a.m. EDT, charter operators DayJet Services LLC and North American Jet Charter Group reported that its aircraft used in commercial, FAR Part 135 air charter were cleared for flight.
In a June 13 email, Vicky Harris, DayJet spokesperson, said, “The maintenance and flight operations teams were prepared and responded efficiently, completing the required fleet inspections before the start of our revenue operations at 6 a.m. The safety of our flight operations wasn’t compromised, and not a single customer was disrupted.”
On June 24, Eclipse Aviation announced in a press release that it would make design improvements to its aircraft’s software, to increase the range limit of the plane’s throttle quadrant assembly, to prevent the fault condition. Pending the FAA’s approval, software updates will be disbursed to all Eclipse 500 owners and operators.
Nealy fills in Eclipse’s CPC gaps
On June 9, four days following the jet’s dual-engine failure, the plane maker issued a “customer pilot communication” for “informational purposes only.” However, when interviewed from his cell phone while at a construction site on June 11, Nealy said he hadn’t received Eclipse’s CPC until that morning.
“First thing this morning, we flew the aircraft from San Diego to Telluride,” he said at the time. “Eclipse’s CPC leads you to believe that I sustained a force on the throttles in excess of 30 pounds. That’s not what occurred.”
He said during the initial landing, the aircraft was “less than 100 feet above the ground.”
“We encountered a wind shear,” he said. “I lost between 10 and 15 knots of speed, as the aircraft descended rapidly. The typical recovery procedure for wind shears is to add power.”
He said the wind shear at landing made being less than 100 feet above the ground an unsafe condition, so he increased power, to avoid hitting too firmly or possibly causing damage to the airplane.
“Using the recovery procedure—adding power—is how this situation developed,” he explained. “I added a small amount of power, but it seemed insufficient to overcome the sink rate and speed loss, so I pushed the power up firmly. I don’t remember hitting the mechanical stop—the end of the thrust lever. I just pushed it up and immediately brought it back to the three-quarter-power position. That stopped my speed loss, reduced the sink rate and allowed me to make a normal touchdown at MDW.”
Nealy said that after touchdown, he reduced the power to idle—the normal position of flight on the ground.
“This all happened very fast; I was viewing outside at that moment,” he recalled. “Typically, you check your brakes to see that they’re working. I applied a very light touch to ensure they were fine; if you do a very hard brake at a very high speed, then you’ll blow the tires. You’ll skid them, and they’ll skid through a hole and deflate.”
The Eclipse VLJ doesn’t have anti-lock/anti-skid brakes. Nealy’s opinion was that if the aircraft had this braking system, it might’ve helped.
“You can operate without the anti-skid, but inexperienced pilots can blow tires even without having the conditions that I did, because they may be overanxious to get on the brakes,” he said.
He said the landing gear tires didn’t blow when he initially landed at MDW, as some reports have suggested.
“When I first applied the brakes, I realized that I wasn’t slowing down,” he said. “There was no appreciable sensation of speed reduction. In fact, I felt no speed reduction. I reached over and raised the flaps from the landing to the take-off position, in an effort to reduce lift and decrease speed, or increase weight on the wheels. I then gently reapplied the brakes, but we weren’t slowing down.”
Meanwhile, as the plane was going faster and faster, Nealy was careful to stay on the runway, looking diligently outside and checking his cockpit instruments.
“I looked at my airspeed, and instead of what I had anticipated—a decrease—it was rapidly increasing to 90 to 100 knots,” he said. “I determined that the engines were at maximum operating thrust.”
At first, Nealy thought he had brake failure. Since the engine/software fault mode was caused by invalid position signals, the system logic held the engine thrust settings at the last known throttle position, which was at maximum.
“The system was talking to itself, and it determined that there was a logic that was set up for this particular malfunction,” he said. “It worked, but the system didn’t anticipate something like this occurring (dual-engine failure). At that moment, there was nothing I could do to slow the plane. I had airspeed; I was running out of runway, so we took off.”
Once airborne, with power accelerating and both the left and right control engine fail messages displayed, Nealy and the copilot immediately checked the QRH, finding no procedure on how to handle this emergency. He said that in the event of uncontrollable power in aircraft, it could occur at maximum or minimum power, depending on where the fault occurs.
Preparing for flameout
Nealy’s vast piloting expertise saved the day. In the Air Force, he was captain of the four-engine Lockheed C-130 Hercules and the Lockheed C-140 (known as the JetStar.) He also flew the T-39 Sabreliner, T-29 Convair, T-37 and T-38. His lifelong flying career includes flying the Boeing 737, 727 and MD-80 airliners as captain.
That day at MDW, Nealy did some familiar maneuvers to keep airspeed under control. He also said having a pilot next to him allowed for the most advantageous outcome. While he was adjusting gears and flaps, the copilot read a caution in the Eclipse’s QRH: If you change your flight conditions, the engines could flameout.
“When I realized that was the case, I maneuvered the aircraft into a very familiar procedure,” he said. “It’s a simulated flameout approach—what the military calls ‘fly in circles.’ That’s an approved practice in the military with certain aircraft, which I’ve performed many times.”
With the plane uncontrollable and accelerating, Nealy did a visual maneuver, trying to come back around, with airspeed in excess of 190 knots. He knew he had to shut down an engine.
“I had to reduce thrust,” he said. “I had to reduce my power. My throttles weren’t effective; the only alternative method I had was to shut down an engine. The speed was between 190 and less than 200 knots when I turned the one engine off. Then I began my maneuver to try to get back to MDW for landing.”
As he was making his maneuver, the plane’s speed decreased rapidly.
“My airspeed was on order of 90 knots,” he said. “I had to bank the aircraft immediately. I lowered the nose and tried to gain airspeed; I kept looking at power, trying to add power on the operating engine—the left engine. But the left engine wouldn’t respond to the throttle movement; it had gone from max power to idle, where it remained unresponsive to my throttle movement.”
A stall warning confirmed that the situation was serious.
“It’s a feature designed in the aircraft that alerts the pilot that a stall is approaching,” he said.
Nealy said that with one engine on idle, he and the copilot remained calm.
“I had to make Midway, and there is a lot of population,” he said. “The only place for me to safely get on the ground was Midway. So, I traded out altitude for airspeed; the only way I could do that was to descend. I came down and reduced bank, because it was very important not to stall. If I stalled, I wouldn’t be having this conversation with you. I had no room to recover, so I did what I had to do to get the plane down safely.”
During the ordeal, Nealy was constantly manipulating airspeed, which he gained and then lost. Once the airspeed increased, he’d stop the descent by gradually pitching attitude.
“The plane would slow down slightly, but as soon as I got the stall warning notice, again, I pushed the nose down to get more airspeed,” he said. “I’m riding right on the verge of a stall warning, until I got to a point where I realized that I could make the runway.
“When this was occurring, I lowered the flaps to landing position.as it reduced my stall speed, and increased my drag. This procedure ensured I would touch down on the runway in control. I knew I was going to make the runway, so I pushed the nose forward to get as much speed as I could to use for flair. And a normal touchdown was made—not firm, not hard. The landing gear tires absolutely, positively didn’t blow with touchdown; I could tell they were flat when I landed. There’s a sensation that you receive from the tires not being inflated, and the tires were flat, in my opinion.”
There’s been controversy about when the Eclipse’s tires were blown. Nealy believes the tires did not deflate on the original touchdown, but deflated during the first landing at MDW, as he was rolling down the runway and the plane’s engines were stuck on max power.
“When you have a normal landing, which we did the first time, you expect power to decrease, not increase,” he said.
When asked what he thought might’ve been the outcome without a copilot that day, Nealy replied, “The aircraft is certified for single pilot; I can’t overemphasize that this was an unprecedented, unanticipated event. I’m not saying that the aircraft should be operated with two people. I’m telling you that Eclipse is, I believe, working diligently to address this issue and come up with a procedure that a single pilot can operate with.
“Had I known about this event prior to my experience and training, procedures would’ve been in place that a single pilot could probably easily take off and deal with the situation. I believe Eclipse, the FAA and NTSB are working on that right now.”
He also said he believed that Eclipse is in the process of making a change to tires.
Nealy added that having an extra set of eyes—another pilot next to him—definitely helped him to expedite decisive action.