Ditching the Long-EZ in the ocean Long-EZ, Varieze and other Burt Rutan Aircraft

Ditching a Long-EZ in the ocean

by Tim Bailey

The purpose of the flight was to complete the Permit to Fly test flight for the Popular Flying Association of the United Kingdom. The first attempt on the 14th of July was abandoned because of a strong burning smell in the cockpit shortly after take-off. Inspection of the engine did not reveal a cause, so the smell was assumed to be caused by excess brake fluid spilled when the right brake was bled before the flight.

The second flight on the same day was continued after the same smell was noticed for a few seconds after take-off but then cleared. The whole of the test flight schedule was completed except the high speed run to Vne. This was because the oil temperature and pressure was erratic and it was considered unwise to operate the engine at full power. The owners were advised to replace the oil temperature and pressure probes and gauges in matched pairs to rule out any indication problems. This resulted in normal oil temperature and pressure indications.

The third flight on the 26th July (after an extension was issued by the PFA) was to complete the Vne run. The engine started reluctantly and was rough running for a minute or so after start. The pre-flight engine power check was normal with all indications normal. The take-off was normal with a hint of the burning smell for a few seconds after take-off. The climb to 1500’ at full throttle was normal and all engine indications normal. The oil pressure was noted at 65psi and the oil temperature at 210f as the nose was lowered to accelerate to 190kts.

At 1000’ and 170kts the engine lost power and shuddered. The speed was converted into altitude and a turn back to the airfield made while a MAYDAY call was made to Shoreham (EGKA). Carb heat was applied. The fuel selector was switched from right to left (which were both almost full). The mags were switched L/R/BOTH. Nothing gave any hope of the engine restarting, so Shoreham were advised that a ditching would be made in the area of Shoreham Harbour.

The canopy safety catch was released, straps were already tight. The nose wheel was not extended because of the ratchet modification requiring both hands to release the ratchet and extend the nose wheel. It was considered more important to “fly the plane”. The aircraft would only slow to 60kts and then descended at 300’/min. This was noted on the “stall” test and the aircraft would not porpoise as with my own VariEze. This made the ditching less than ideal, but the sea was calm and the wind only 160/4. The beach was very busy with swimmers and an inflatable pleasure craft was heading west about 200 yards off the coast. My planned ditching position was to be far enough out to avoid the swimmers and close enough to the pleasure craft in order the get assistance.

On impact with the water, the main landing gear separated and was found floating 25 yards behind the aircraft. The nose did not appear to pitch down at that moment, but there must have been some effect. Deceleration was very rapid and water rushed into the cockpit. When the aircraft had come to rest, the nose and the instrument panel bulkhead had detached and were floating away from the rest of the aircraft, which was intact and floating.

The Canopy opened normally and escape onto the wing was easy. The pleasure boat arrived very quickly and the aircraft was towed 150 yards to the beach.

This aircraft had only flown 220 hours since 1986 and was well known for being hangar bound during the flying season. The engine had just been zero lifed and the aircraft sold to a group who had employed a reputable engineer to make the aircraft airworthy. Initial attempts to start the engine failed and the engineer who overhauled the engine was required to rectify the problem. Once started, the engine ran well once warmed-up, but often hesitated at 1500 RPM when the throttle was opened, but not on the day of the flight. The weather conditions were excellent…160/4 +26c 1019 clear sky and low humidity, so carb icing seems unlikely. The prop was still rotating slowly on impact, one blade snapped off at the hub and was floating near the aircraft, the other was still attached but split lengthways several times. The concerns about the oil system had been satisfied, so the cause of the engine failure is likely to be fuel, air or ignition related. A previous report of a collapsed air duct on another Long EZ springs to mind, but that will have been destroyed on impact. The Air Accident Investigation Branch does not wish to have the engine stripped down, so the cause will probably remain a mystery.

The pilot was Tim Bailey, a VariEze owner with 450 hours on type and a total of over 13,000 hours. His left ankle and his left thumb were badly swollen and his right leg was gashed. The aircraft has been written off.

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