Engine Failure Over The Sea

Treasures from The Pioneer Era, reported by Ernie Tanner:

On one of my first flights from Africa back to Switzerland in the early 1970s: I flew merrily along the Italian coast towards Genoa. At La Spezia, I had to fly past the military airport giving it a wide berth of around 4 miles (7 km). And right there, over the open sea, the engine suddenly began to sputter. 

Where could I land? On the water? Was there a ship anywhere? The engine sputtered again. Oh, if only it would start humming again! “Father in heaven, can you hear the engine? Please send your angels to save my helicopter! Look, it’s going to crash!” Each of us prayed fervently.

The sputtering didn’t stop. On the contrary, it got worse and worse. I could feel the engine losing power.

I radioed Genoa and reported “Technical failure over water!” The coast was steep and built up everywhere. There was no question of landing. With bated breath, we sputtered on towards Genoa. The air controller halted the air traffic and allowed me a direct approach. Again and again he asked how we were doing. At long last, Genoa appeared in the distance. Would the machine make it? We counted the seconds. We made it! I was weeping with relief and gratitude. Once again, we had survived.

With shaking fingers, I checked the engine and found two of the six spark plugs completely burnt out. There wasn’t much left of the others, either. Obviously, if the engine had failed in the next few minutes we would have plunged into the sea.

Then I understood the cause of our mishap. In the desert our usual aviation fuel with an octane rating of eighty to a hundred had not been available, so we had refueled with an octane rating of a hundred to a hundred and twenty, which was normally allowed for our engine. However, it was maybe not advisable at those temperatures.

With plugs and courage renewed, we set off on the last leg but one from Genoa to Samedan, and then, at last, the final hop to Trogen.

It was only after the detailed inspection by Heliswiss in Belp that I learned just how thin a thread our lives were hanging on during this last part of our journey. The mechanic rang and explained, “Mr. Tanner, you must have had more than one guardian angel on board. The wire cable of the tailrotor control was down to the very last two thin strands.”   I saw the shaggy-looking string that led from the pedals, under the cockpit over tiny thin plastic wheels, to the tail rotor. Any jerky movement of the controls would have been enough to snap the thin wire cable. I’d have lost control of the tail rotor, and that would have meant losing control of the helicopter. And that, while flying over the Alps!

Yes. God’s guardian angels truly were on board!