I Learned About Flying From That: Kitfox Boondoggle

How a precautionary landing quickly turns into a full-fledged emergency.

I Learned About Flying From That

I Learned About Flying From That

** To see more of Barry Ross' aviation art, go
to barryrossart.com.**

(March 2012) A couple of years ago, I started flying a Piper Cub, and I have accumulated a good number of tailwheel hours in various types of antique taildraggers. As my time built, I had the opportunity to get some time in some pretty unusual aircraft, which is neat for a 23-year-old kid who is deeply in love with aviation. In one recent instance, I learned a lot, and definitely got more than I bargained for.

It all started when one of my high school buddies called me and told me he was looking for a light taildragger in which to build some time. I gave him my two cents about what aircraft to look for. A while later, he called me and told me he had found a Kitfox that was a good buy and located nearby. He asked me if I would ferry the airplane with him the 50 or so miles across Houston to the airport at which he had a hangar set up. Initially, I was uneasy about flying a homebuilt, especially one I had zero time in and minimal familiarity with. But, he called me a week later and said it had passed the pre-buy inspection and that he and an instructor had flown it around for a while with no problems. It also had passed an annual inspection a few months previously. Based on the information, I decided to help him out.

As the flight approached, I read up on Kitfox flying characteristics and figured that they weren’t too different from a Cub’s — maybe a little more responsive and faster, but nothing that a young kid on his way to Air Force pilot training couldn’t handle. (I am invincible, right?) I read the POH and made a thorough checklist. I even talked to several Kitfox owners I knew, and they too agreed that it shouldn’t be too much for me to handle. I also asked them about using the flaperons; each one made the comment that they didn’t use them and that they affected the aileron controllability, especially with more than 20 degrees of flaps hanging out. So, I decided that I shouldn’t use them, being so green to the airplane in the first place. They also mentioned that a Kitfox doesn’t slow down as quickly as a Cub.

After some (what I thought was) thorough researching, I planned the flight. We would take off and stay close to the field for a good amount of time to make sure we didn’t have any problems. I would perform at least one touch-and-go. We would also fly close to airports along the route so we always had a place to land if necessary.

The day finally came, and we hitched a ride across town to Lane Airpark on the west side of Houston. I performed an inspection as per the POH to make sure everything was A-OK. We strapped in and started the engine. The takeoff was smooth, and I quickly got used to using left rudder as opposed to right rudder (since the engine rotates opposite that of a normal airplane). Once I got this down, we stayed within five miles or so of Lane Airpark and climbed to altitude. After about 20 minutes, I determined everything to be operating normally and thought it would be smart to perform a touch-and-go to get used to the landing characteristics of this Kitfox. I will admit that the first touch-and-go was more of a bounce-and-go.

After this, we turned southeast to our final destination, Volk Airport in Hitchcock, Texas. I quickly came to admire this aircraft’s incredible climb rate, power and responsiveness, and we soon made it to 2,500 feet.

About 15 minutes into the flight, however, I noticed a decrease in fuel pressure and a reduction in engine power. As soon as this happened, we turned toward the nearest airport, Houston Southwest, which was about six miles to the north. I turned on the electric fuel pump as per the checklist, and the problem quickly went away as fuel pressure increased. I decided, however, we should make a precautionary landing at Houston Southwest since the fuel pump was not meant to stay on for an extended period of time. After a decent landing, we taxied up to the FBO and shut down. We talked to the line service representative, who proved to be somewhat of an expert on Rotax engines, and he quickly pointed out to us that the self-venting fuel caps were facing the wrong way. I was embarrassed by the amateur mistake, since I should have known better with my experience and time in aircraft that used them. We quickly fixed that problem and decided it was probably safe to take off into the wild blue again and head southeast toward Volk.

About 10 minutes into this leg of the flight, we started noticing the same fuel flow decrease, and it took more and more power to maintain altitude. Then, the engine started running in and out, losing a little power each cycle. The fuel pump surely didn’t fix the problem this time; it actually seemed to make the problem worse.

After thinking the options over, I realized that between us and the nearest airport was nothing but trees, power lines and roads. We had potentially a real problem on our hands, and we needed to get down as soon and safely as possible. We turned to the south and started looking for open fields. Our engine was still producing inconsistent power at 75 percent power or more, but the engine was smooth enough at 50 to 60 percent power settings to keep the airspeed up at a reasonable speed while slowly descending at around 100 to 200 feet per minute.

Soon, however, the engine started running inconsistently even at lower power settings. I made the decision to land on a field that my copilot had picked out that looked decently flat and excessively large for the 100 to 200 feet the Kitfox needed to land.

At this point, my inexperience in this aircraft truly became obvious. We passed over the tree line on the southeast side of this field, and I realized that we were too fast and too high to make a safe landing, even with a slip. And, since I was unfamiliar with the flaperons and their effect on aileron controllability, I determined they weren’t a safe option either. I was faced with a critical decision: use the 50 percent or so of power I was still getting from the engine and my excess airspeed, which I would build up in a dive, to check the field for any potential obstacles and execute a tight turn, bleeding my excess energy off and then landing, or force the landing now and risk running into the cattle fences, barns and trees at the end of the field. I gave the engine all it had and used my 40 to 50 mph of excess airspeed in the descent to turn out and around and attempt a landing.

After we got turned around, at about 300 feet the engine stopped producing power altogether. I deployed the flaperons to bleed of speed and altitude. Again, my inexperience with this aircraft became evident. I nose-dived toward the green beneath me in a steep turn, and I lost some of my aileron effectiveness. I quickly retracted the flaps, pulling my nose up as we descended over the tree line. At below roughly 50 feet, we were still in a 20-degree bank, and the nose was still pulling through the horizon. Finally, I was able to align myself with the field and level out. I maxed out the elevator movement as we entered ground effect and settled nicely into the grass in a three-point landing before gently rolling to a stop and quickly evacuating the aircraft.

Luckily, the people who owned the field brought us in for a cold drink of water and let us use their trailer to bring the aircraft to Volk Field, which was only 10 miles away. For some reason still unknown at this writing, the fuel system that had functioned for hours of flight before my flight became unsealed at some point and let an excessive amount of air into the fuel lines.

Although I wasn’t looking for an experience like this to happen to me, I learned the importance of safe decision-making. At the point that we decided to execute a landing, it was still a precautionary landing. Although during the last minute of the flight it became an emergency landing, if we had waited for the emergency to occur before making our decision, the outcome could have been different.