The anatomy of a forced aircraft landing

An aircraft that was forced to land in a field

Spotting the right field and gliding in to land was only the start of the story when Charlie Huke's motor stopped mid-flight - Credit: Charlie Huke

Spotting the right field and gliding in to land was only the start of the story... pilot Charlie Huke describes a forced landing after the aircraft motor stopped mid-flight!

A grounded plane in a field

With tall trees all around, not 'in a month of Sundays' could the Klemm be flown out from the forced-landing field - Credit: Charlie Huke

It’s a fantastic gliding day, unlimited visibility, and strong thermals right up to a broken cumulus base. What a contrast to a couple of weeks ago, when I was last in this area... 

For now, I’m in David’s fantastic red Mew Gull, holding at about three thousand feet a few miles east of Woburn Abbey, waiting for my slot to display. It’s the DH Moth Club’s annual bash, and there looks to be a good turnout. However, my attention is focussed on a point on the ground a few miles west, unfortunately too far off to see clearly. I divide my attention between this and the display below. Frustratingly, I can’t move further west and still maintain my position to run in easily but I push it as far as possible. A radio call giving me ‘one minute’ grabs my attention, and I look down to see a silver flash from the Moth displaying ahead of me as he turns final. All other thoughts are suddenly banished from my head, as I arc down, accelerating to well over 200mph. ‘Mew Gull running in....’  

Four minutes and thirty seconds later, I pull up hard from the final pass, and soar away from the display. A check of the watch, reveals I’ve got eighteen minutes before I meet up with Jez in the Mystery Ship for Sywell’s display - ages−and without really thinking I find myself over a small field near Soulbury, the point I was trying to see earlier. Pulling hard, I am able pivot round a smallish field surrounded by tall trees. Unprompted, a line from Monty Python’s Life of Brian comes into my head “You lucky, lucky bastard!” 

A grounded plane in a field with a lady walking towards the camera carrying two bags

Tarpaulins to cover the aircraft and rope to secure it were supplied by The Boot - the Pub in which Charlie and Anna found refuge and some welcome nourishment - Credit: Charlie Huke

The flight
A couple of weeks earlier couldn’t have been of greater contrast. Another display, true, but this time in Jan’s little Klemm 25. An antique from the twenties, and of limited performance−as far removed from the Mew Gull as anything can be. And that wasn’t the only difference−the weather then was awful! I was due to display at Old Warden, and at fifty-five knots just getting there from Wiltshire was going to be a bit of an epic−and that was without the stagnant warm sector and associated front in the way.  

As it was, the day dawned with good vis under a solid overcast at about 600 to 700 feet, but it looked reasonably consistent along the route−worth a go! Anna, my wife, decided to come along for the ride, and we left home early, getting to the airfield to find Jeff pulling his Tiger Moth out. Between the three of us we went through the palaver of putting the wings on the Klemm. Thankfully I’d refuelled it and done everything else including a brief air test a few days earlier, as the poor Klemm rarely flew. 

More interrogation of the internet on the phone confirmed the weather, but now with the added spice of isolated thunderstorms behind the front. 

A call to Old Warden confirmed the front had passed through, “It was a bit drizzly, but not too bad...lovely here now!” I decided we’d go; with about five hours endurance we’d have plenty of options.  

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With no radio in the Klemm−or much else−we had a little portable microlight intercom that we’d use en route. Putting this in the aircraft, Anna discovered our PLB (distress beacon) in the same bag. Based on the premise that it was of no use whatsoever left behind in the car, Anna put it in a pocket. 

As Jeff was hoping to lead a Tiger Nine display at Bicester, he asked if we wished to travel as a pair for the initial part. I declined, saying that he was that much faster (and you don’t say that to Tiger Moth pilots often!) We did however taxi out together, and once aloft the vis was excellent and I kept the Moth in sight for a long while as he steadily pulled away from us. The cloud too was almost as forecast, so we settled at about 500ft and slowly chugged eastwards, the Klemm’s little Salmson radial cheerfully buzzing away. 

Didcot power station was visible for probably twenty minutes before it slowly slipped past the wing. The map gave its tallest chimney as 656ft agl, and it was just in the base of the cloud but mixed in with the steam. It was all a bit murky, but still legal and safe. We plodded on.  

After about fifty minutes we were getting towards Leighton Buzzard, and murky was turning into murkier. We were obviously getting to the front itself. Ahead lay the high ground just south of Milton Keynes, with Woburn Abbey in the middle. Using the term ‘high ground’ is a bit dramatic, as you’d do well to notice it on a nice day, but it was obvious we weren’t going over it! With reasonable, but deteriorating vis, I elected to route north of it, as once past, I’d have lower ground for the rest of the journey−now only twenty miles or so, and we knew the weather there was OK. However, sneaking round the edge of the high ground we encountered drizzle, and the vis plummeted. I gave it another mile or so, but it just got worse. 

I turned round, and quickly we were back to fifteen-mile vis, but still only at 500ft or so. Looking toward Bicester it was similar, and I doubted Jeff would get much of a formation display until the front passed. I was tempted to divert there, but with no radio and a display at least planned it wasn’t an option, but I didn’t wish to go home as if we could sit out the front, there was still ages until the display brief, and we should make it. Holmbeck seemed the obvious place – I could see the pylons next to it and they’d been very welcoming in the past! There also wouldn’t be any flying going on in this rubbish cloud base. So, at a barely legal 500ft, I routed down the river valley just south east of Bletchley. And then the motor stopped! 

A group of people pushing a grounded plane across a field

Thanks to the arrival of the landowner and family, there was 'a decent posse' on hand to manhandle the aeroplane out of the landing field - Credit: Charlie Huke

What to do when the aircraft motor stops!
It was just as if someone had pulled the throttle. “Was that you?” asked Anna. “Er... no.” Although the propeller was still windmilling, there was absolutely no noise, nor power from the motor. Several decent fields were below, and the lack of wind made each of them all viable, but all had a standing crop. There was however one obvious grass field, possibly too far away to my right. I turned towards it, as even if it was out of reach the turn would put me into a good position for the wheat field directly below. 

Whilst turning, I cycled the throttle to be rewarded with about a four second burst of power. This, and what was proving to be an excellent glide from the Klemm, confirmed the grass field as the destination. I would have preferred a curved approach - easier to judge the glide and to spot the best area to touch down. However, it was going to be straight in. 

Switches and fuel off as we passed over a wood. “You secure?” “Yup”, over the last big trees on the boundary and a steep sideslip into the flare. A gentle rumble announces we’re down, and the Klemm slowly curves left with the field’s contour. With no brakes and a fixed skid, I’m powerless to stop it without slipstream over the rudder, so I sit and watch. And then... silence. Total and utter silence. I’ve been in a field a few times and always been surprised by this instant tranquillity.  

Things suddenly zoomed back into reality with the clunking of Anna undoing her straps in the front. “You can turn that off now,” I say. “Turn off what?” It transpires that she hadn’t activated the PLB because ‘it looked a nice approach’! I virtually never carry one over the southern UK, and the day we do have it with us and actually need it! Oh well... 

Two men putting a plane into a trailer

Having moved a similar BA Swallow by road, Charlie's friend Jim reckoned a truck would do the trick and took the initiative in hiring one - Credit: Charlie Huke

You've landed safely... now what?
I got out, and things continued to feel more ‘normal’ as I wandered round the aircraft. No damage, and the propeller pulled through cleanly: nothing mechanical – obviously fuel, of which we still had enough for four hours. Slowly I surveyed the field. Not big, and it gently sloped up from the edges to a low dome, where we’ve stopped. Possibly just big enough to get airborne if light, but the Klemm would never in a month of Sundays out-climb the ring of tall, mature trees that surround the field. It’s going home by road then, a pain but at least a valuable historic machine is safe, not to mention us. 

Whilst we wait for someone to turn up, I try to phone the police to let them know they can stand down the cavalry, who will be responding to multiple reports of an aircraft crash. This proves difficult. 101 is automated, and as I can’t get internet for another number, there’s no option but 999. The girl listens to my story, and I can tell she doesn’t buy it all. However, when the penny does drop it’s all I can do to stop her from pushing the big red button, as she’s obviously now got visions of Lockerbie or Chernobyl in her mind. Then the second battle, explaining that “no, I don’t know where we are but it’s on a bearing of about 310, three miles from Leighton Buzzard” ‘Three-one what?” Eventually I’m passed through to ‘someone local’ and have to go through the same process again.

Thankfully, after at least half an hour they finally accept what I’m saying, and agree that there is no need to mobilise the military. I put the phone away, and look around. Anna, and that’s it: no kids on bikes, angry farmers or walkers−just us. Bloomin’ good job we’re not trapped under an aeroplane that turned over in the unseen ditch or whatever... However, I sense that now probably isn’t the time for the PLB conversation with Anna. 

I then phone Old Warden to say sorry, we won’t be making it, to be told that it “looks a bit thundery now anyway”! After that it’s a call to aircraft owner Jan, to somehow convince her that her Klemm being in a field is in fact the good news. Thankfully there’s no answer.  

After a good forty-five minutes and still nobody appearing, we walk round the field looking for the gate. A small woodland and two fields later, we get to a road and the big house I’d seen beyond the wood. With every step the enormity of getting the Klemm out just gets bigger and bigger. Anyway, the big house looked farm-ish, and even if they didn’t own our field, they’d know who did. Again, no answer, just an unfriendly looking dog snarling under the gate.  

There’s a church tower visible in the distance, so we head that way. As luck would have it, we walk past a ‘for sale’ sign, advertising a block of land that seems to include our field. I hesitate to phone the agent as my phone is now lowish on battery, but we need to find the land owner. The recorded message informs me ‘the office is now shut until Monday’.  

We continue toward the church when my phone rings. It’s the Duty Officer at Distress and Diversion (the guys who monitor 121.5) who’s received half a message via Old Warden. Yes, we’re OK thank you and no we don’t need a SAR helicopter and yes, the police are happy and it was me flying and... and in fact, thanks for looking after us and everything but do you mind phoning later as I’ve got no battery? Begrudgingly he says he will. Then someone else−a Department for Transport Neddie, phoning in some capacity. Thankfully he too agrees to ‘leave it until Monday’ (I never heard from either of them again, nor were my later attempts at finding out who it was and what they wanted successful!) 

We turn a corner as we enter a village announcing itself as Soulbury, and there it is; a Pub. It’s only now that I realise how knackered we are, and how long ago breakfast was. It’s just what we need. And what a service The Boot provided. Food, despite the time, a phone charger and although they didn’t know who owned the land, they promised to find out. They even gave us, unrequested, some tarpaulins and rope to cover the aircraft. Thank you!

A mean lying under a plane trying to find faults

Back at base, Charlie drains the fuel system to discover what had caused the engine to stop... - Credit: Charlie Huke

How to recover the aircraft
Sat chewing my sandwich, I started to address the problem of recovering the Klemm. Jim had recently moved a Swallow (a descendant of the Klemm lineage) by road, so I called him, as I thought he had a trailer. “No, but leave it with me...” As a second string to my bow, I called Cliff. He’d sold his big trailer, but was at Old Warden and debating leaving, as the heavens had opened. “Would you like us to pick you up?” Would we ever... 

Profuse thanks to our hostess in the Boot and we set off the mile or so back to the Klemm. Halfway there a monsoon starts, almost instantly we’re soaked to the skin. With the wind whipping up with the storm, I decide we need to move the Klemm to a sheltered corner. After ten minutes of heaving and swearing and not really getting far I decide to see if it’ll start. And it does, first swing! Really?

Taxying to a corner of the field takes seconds, but putting the cover on is utterly unpleasant, we’re half drowned. We trudge back to the road and amazingly there’s Cliff and Nigel waiting. Never have I been so relieved to get in car. Hardly have we told our story when the phone goes. Its Jim: “Don’t worry about a trailer, I’ve hired a lorry... see you tomorrow” He’d even paid for it. It really is astonishing how generous and helpful people are when an old aeroplane is in need!  

The rain cascaded down in sheets, and I must admit to nodding off on the journey back to our car. Later, as we got home the phone was ringing. Friendly chap who had been called by the Pub. Yes, it was his field, he’d just inherited it and was selling. He was brilliant, indeed excited to have a visitor, and said he ‘might pop over tomorrow’. 

Tomorrow started too early, loading foam and cushions I only keep to move dead aeroplanes along with tools and straps before we set off to meet Jim in his lorry. He even had to do all the driving as I hadn’t been there in the morning when it was hired. In much better weather we drove back to Soulbury.

We had to park the lorry on the road, two fields and a wood from the Klemm, but it would never have coped on the soft ground. As we were taking the covers off, the landowner and family appeared. Now, with a decent posse, we easily pushed the Klemm to the gate. Here we took the wings off−and thank heavens it’s designed to be de-rigged for storage, we’d have been in big trouble otherwise.

I’d brought the tailwheel trolley from my Swallow, and we quickly got the fuselage through the wood and first field, before going back for the wings. Moving these was less funny, a real effort. So much so that we elected to rig the Klemm and push across the last field, which was not only bigger but uphill. So, why not try the motor? Again, first swing. I could see everyone looking on as though I had imagined yesterday’s failure. Indeed, it was almost with some relief that after about two thirds of the field, it died again, exactly as it had in flight. 

Dismantling, loading, securing and then driving home all went smoothly and appeared quick, but in reality, took ages. Indeed, we had to get the Klemm into the hangar using the lorry’s headlights for help−it’d been a long day and Jim still had an hour ahead of him to get the truck back... 

An aircraft header tank and gascolator full of muck

With a header tank and gascolator full of this crud – flakes of slosh sealant – no wonder the fuel supply petered out - Credit: Charlie Huke

Diagnosing the problem
I couldn’t get back to the Klemm for a couple of weeks−until after the Mew Gull display at Woburn. And yet again others helped. This time Stan from New Zealand.  Staying with us for a few days after the Moth ‘do’, he knows his way round an old aeroplane, so was put to work.  

It wasn’t difficult to find. The gascolator was absolutely full of flaky bits that looked like porridge oats−so full that there was no fuel flow whatsoever. The engine is fed from a little header tank (which you top up in flight with a manual wobble pump from the wing tank), and this tank too was full of porridge flakes. At some point in its past, the header tank had been sloshed with a sealant that had obviously let go.

However, I’d dismantled the filter only a couple of days before our forced landing−and it was spotless! So, all that crud had appeared in the short test flight and our trip to Soulbury: an hour and a quarter at most. Just imagine if it had taken an hour and a half−I’d have been mid display at Old Warden! As Monty Python said “You lucky, lucky bastard!” 

For a number of reasons, it’s taken a couple of years to tell this tale in print. But without the unstinting generosity of others, a fully charged phone and a decent Pub, landing out could be a whole lot more traumatic than it was! Thank you all.