Real Aircraft Emergency Near Aruba

The following is a true story. Since I’m reproducing it from memory, the conversations in the following are not word-for-word perfect. All of the aircraft call signs, including those in the commentary at the end, are fictitious.

Beechcraft King Air 90 in trouble!

Last week I was flying an airline trip from Caracas, Venezuela to Atlanta, Georgia. We were over the ocean, approaching the Dutch Antilles islands—Aruba, Curacao, and Bonaire. Our flight had just switched from Maiquetia Control, (that’s the air traffic control center serving coastal Venezuela,) to Curacao Control. After I checked in on the radio with Curacao, I heard this, “November Charlie Tango Oscar Uniform Sierra, about half of my fuel is gone.” The pilot had a heavy, Portuguese accent.

“ November Charlie Tango Oscar Uniform Sierra, Curacao, say again.”

“ November Charlie Tango Oscar Uniform Sierra, has about half fuel. I think we have a fuel leak.”

“Curacao copies. November Oscar Uniform Sierra, say your intentions.”

“November Oscar Uniform Sierra would like vectors to Aruba,” said the pilot.

“November Oscar Uniform Sierra, for vectors to Reina Beatrix Airport, fly heading two eight zero. You are 65 miles from the airport.” said Curacao Control.

“Heading two eight zero. And I would like to begin a descent, November Oscar Uniform Sierra ”

“November Oscar Uniform Sierra, descend at your discretion to flight level four zero. Beatrix QNH 1012.”*

“November Oscar Uniform Sierra is leaving flight level two one zero, descending to four zero. And my left engine just stopped.”

“November Oscar Uniform Sierra, say again,” said the controller.

“November Oscar Uniform Sierra, my left engine is not running. No left engine,” the pilot said.

“Curacao copies.”

Whoa! Wait a minute there, Mr. Pilot. If you are trying to make it to land; and, your fuel is running out; and, one of your engines has already quit, do you really think it is a good idea to descend? You might need that altitude to glide, dead stick**, to the airport. I wanted to say this on the radio, but I kept my mouth shut. Who knows. Maybe the airplane he was flying could not maintain its present altitude on only one engine.

“November Oscar Uniform Sierra,” said Curacao Control, “say your aircraft type.”

Good question! I know the controller wants that information to pass along to the Search and Rescue team. I wanted to know it because some airplanes can stay at higher altitudes on one engine than other aircraft.

“November Oscar Uniform Sierra is a Beech 9L.” The Beechcraft 9L is a King Air, a powerful, corporate twin engine aircraft that should have no trouble maintaining altitude on one engine. (The designator BE-9L is the ICAO identifier for the King Air. The U.S. designation is BE-90.) Maybe this airplane was heavily loaded with cargo and passengers, so the pilot could not maintain his current altitude.

“November Oscar Uniform Sierra, I just lost my navigation instruments,” the pilot said quietly.

“November Oscar Uniform Sierra, you say you lost your instruments?” the controller said.

“November Oscar Uniform Sierra, I can’t navigate. I will need a heading to Aruba,” the pilot said.

“November Oscar Uniform Sierra, two eight zero is a good heading. Fly heading two eight zero. You are forty-eight miles from Aruba. I show you descending through flight level one zero zero,” the controller said.

Okay, I know the Beechcraft King Air can maintain ten thousand feet on one engine. My point is this: get over the top of the airfield with some altitude underneath you. Then, if your second engine quits, you can glide down to the airport without power. If you intentionally lose all your altitude before you reach the airfield, you have nothing to work with if the second engine quits. Altitude equals gliding distance.

“Curacao, November Oscar Uniform Sierra, I have about 2 minutes of fuel remaining,” the pilot said. I want to point out that the pilot’s voice was cool and calm this entire time. His voice never went up in pitch. He never talked fast or sounded nervous on the radio. I’ll have more on this at the end of the story.

“Curacao copies. You are three zero miles from the airport. I show you descending through flight level six zero. Beatrix weather is CAVOK. The winds are one two zero at one five knots. QNH 1013. Landing Runway One One.”

Several minutes pass.

“November Oscar Uniform Sierra, I think I have thirty seconds. Thirty seconds of fuel left,” the pilot said calmly. “Do you have rescue on the way?” This was the first time I heard the pilot mention rescue. I never heard him use the word “Emergency.” He may have said it before I checked onto the frequency.

“Curacao copies. Search and rescue has been coordinated. I show you passing two thousand, five hundred. Heading two eight zero is good. Rescue wants to know if you have life vests on board.”

There’s no answer to this question.

“November Oscar Uniform Sierra, do you have life vests on board?”

No answer.

“November Oscar Uniform Sierra, Curacao, do you have life vests?”

No answer.

“November Oscar Uniform Sierra, Curacao Control. How do you copy?”

No answer.

“November Oscar Uniform Sierra, Curacao.”

No answer.

Two days later, I’m on another trip, returning from Caracas to Atlanta. I checked in with Curacao Control and asked about the aircraft with the fuel leak that I heard on the radio a couple of days before. The controller told me the plane went down in the ocean close to the coast of Aruba. Everyone on board survived the ditching and was picked up by search and rescue.

Why I’m telling you this story besides the fact it is dramatic? First, in most emergencies, altitude usually equals options. When you give up altitude by descending, you reduce your options. In most emergencies, try to stay away from the ground until you have to land.

Don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not saying you should stay high and delay landing for as long as possible. I’m saying don’t give up altitude until the situation requires you to descend. The lower you go, the more you have to pay attention to the ground and obstacles on the ground. In an emergency, unless you need to be low, stay high enough where you don’t have to worry about running into the terrain or obstacles sticking up from the terrain. In a situation where you may have to glide, engine-out, altitude equals gliding distance. (Have I said that enough?)

Second, it pays to stay icy cold on the radio in an emergency. If you let panic creep into your voice, everyone around you will react frantically. A controller may try to spend time calming you down, which is fine; but, you need him to focus on your emergency, not on your emotional state. Also, keeping a calm voice will actually help you remain calm and focused. Nervousness breeds more nervousness, which can lead to unclear thinking and poor decisions.

Third, if you are in an emergency situation, do not hesitate to declare an emergency on the radio and get the rescue system in gear. I know most pilots are reluctant to declare an emergency because it means the FAA will investigate, and who needs that kind of attention, right?

Baloney!! Declare the emergency early and let the rescue machinery work for you. Screw worrying about the investigation. Save your ass, your airplane, your passengers, and let the bureaucrats sort it out later.

I would ask: Failing to declare an emergency, where someone gets hurt or metal gets bent, and the rescue service was not activated? That would be judged harshly.

Say it with me now, “November Seven Two Five Charlie Oscar is declaring an emergency for . . .” Roll the rescue vehicles.

*The transition level when flying into Aruba is FL40. All altitudes at or above 4,000 feet above sea level are flight levels, where the altimeter is set to 29.92 or 1013. Below 4,000, the altimeter is set to the destination airport’s altimeter (QNH) and altitudes are referred to in thousands and hundreds. For example, 3,500.

**Dead stick is a term meaning flying with no engine power. Another word for it would be gliding.

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2 thoughts on “Real Aircraft Emergency Near Aruba”

  1. Great message. I had to declare an emergancy for a faulty gear sensor and I didn’t have to fill out any paperwork or sign anything. I was told it was prudent and good judgement by the emergancy staff who met me on the ground. And had this pilot stayed at fl210 he may have been able to have glided in rather than ditching it. (hindsite is always 20/20).

    1. Hey Eric,

      Thank you for commenting. I’m glad your situation turned out well. It’s a good object lesson for other pilots who might be hesitant to declare an emergency with ATC.

      Funny you should mention hindsight is 20/20. I listened on the radio to the pilot with the fuel leak as the emergency was unfolding. The captain I was flying with discussed whether we should get on the radio and advise the pilot in distress to stay as high as possible to improve gliding distance. We had the opportunity to consider intervening in real time, rather than review the problem in hindsight. Ultimately, we decided the pilot had his hands full already and didn’t need a third party adding to his workload.

      Thank you for your comment and your story.


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