Saturday, December 31, 2016

How To Fly And Survive

Over the past five to six years, I have been writing about some of my flight experiences of the past 40 or so years.  I have used this blog as the recording medium. The goal of this writing is to share these flight experiences in an effort to help fellow pilots avoid senseless and possibly fatal flight accidents.

Let me offer an example of how not to do it.  Going back to 1967 in Syracuse, NY, where I was attending medical school, I needed to go to Boston for a quick visit.  To accomplish this I rented a Cherokee 180, marginally IFR equipped for the trip.  Three fellow students joined me.  Weather forecast was VFR, with some possible IFR.  This latter point is key.

My flight experience at the time, about 400 hours of VFR flying with some IFR instruction.  We left Syracuse under beautiful VFR conditions.  Some scattered clouds and a west (tail) wind of 20 to 30 knots.  This is important.  Flight distance about 260 miles, which meant a flight time of just under 2  hours at an airspeed of 120 mph (107 knots).  Landing was planned for Hanscom Field, about 20 miles west of Boston. 

After takeoff we climbed to 7500 feet, with a cruise speed of 150 mph (133 knots), thanks to the tail wind.  Sounds good, but wait. After passing Albany, it started getting cloudy, scattered to broken clouds.  This caused concern, especially as flight service advised possible marginal VFR for Boston at our ETA. So we continued until just west of Worcester.  Flight Service advised that Worcester was going IFR as was Boston. So, what to do? As I was not a fully trained or certified IFR pilot, I need VFR conditions to fly legally and safely. I decided to do a 180 degree turn and head back to Albany and Syracuse.  Fuel gauges showed somewhat more than ½ on both sides. That should be plenty except for the strong west wind!  Ground speed was now of the order of 80 mph per hour (70 knots).  Oh my.  Do we have enough fuel to get to Albany or Syracuse?  Well, in the interim, Albany was now IFR, also. That left Syracuse as our final alternate/destination as it had stayed VFR.  But, would we have enough fuel to make it? 

Since I am alive to write about it, you know we made it. Yes, but barely. As we approached Syracuse, the fuel gauges were hovering around E.  After taxiing in and shutting down, I looked in the fuel tanks and didn’t see any gas.  OUCH! 

The moral of this story.  Always have enough fuel aboard to fly another hour after landing as a safety measure. 


Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Another Holiday Has Successfully Come And Gone....

Screenshot of Piper Navajo in flight.                                                                                                                        Another Holiday has successfully come and gone, our tree is still up. Looking forward to a pleasant and relatively quiet New Year. I have been doing some reflecting on things, appropriate to the year's end, and decided that this would be my last Operationsafeflight blog for a while. I have been writing articles since February 2009, and covered just about all areas that have concerned me.

My goal has been to help pilots adopt safer flight procedures, and offer some suggestions and cures where appropriate. My plan is to write articles less frequently. I will also be open to answering questions submitted to me

            Walter F. Erston, MD can be reached at:

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Sometimes I read Things In The Newspaper That Really Scare Me....

Reading an article in the local Charlotte paper on doing away with required flight physicals taught me a lesson. Don’t believe everything you read, and do check the facts whenever possible. The Charlotte article stated that Senator Inhofe’s PBR2 would essentially do away with a required medical exam for Class 3  (private) pilots. Instead pilots would just write a note in their log every four years, that they’d been to see a physician.  Looking further into what was written, according to Joan Lowy of the AP, “a pilot would double the time allowed between exams for pilots over age 40 from two to four years, so long as they also held a valid driver’s license. Instead of a government-certified medical examiner, pilots could see any doctor they like”. It went on to state the doctor would not have to certify to the FAA that the “pilot was healthy enough to fly”. I am shocked at the proposal and worried that something like that will get enacted.

Flying is not like driving a car. There are so many other things to consider, in addition to simple road maps and traffic signals, such as the subtleties encountered in flight like weather, aircraft performance, navigation and communication to name a few. Even at its simplest, the challenges can be huge, and are either met or calamity may occur. That is why I believe physical and mental condition evaluation to be so important.

Just to reiterate an experience I had when flying the right seat in a Pa-34 Seneca, I had to take over landing at a Cleveland airport under IFR conditions when the left seater suddenly felt ill and was unable to continue. It turned out that he had missed getting his flight physical, which most likely would have detected the condition that caused this problem.

In summary then: I strongly encourage the continuance for required flight physicals for all categories of pilots. The spacing between exams may vary, but the exams are not to be done away with.  I strongly endorse the requirement that all pilots obtain a flight physical during their flight career.  The time interval between exams is a separate issue, that I won’t get into here.

Another issue I would like to discuss is weather, particularly thunderstorms. I recently came across another discussion of the hazards associated with flying when thunderstorms are around. This becomes an issue when one is flying IFR under radar control, or when VFR with the bad guys out there somewhere. If one is under the eye of a controller, don’t assume that they will always steer you or advise you safely around a dangerous cell in your path. Particularly, in busy air space like New York, Boston or Atlanta, to name a few, the controller may be just too busy to pay attention to all on his screen. I remember having to dodge a cell because I received a warning too late, and almost lost the plane. Now with radar aboard, and a pilot familiar with its usage, the odds get much better. Again, remembering one radar experience I had that almost ended up badly, because the radar set just couldn’t penetrate the storm adequately for me to see a clear path through it.

My advice is: don’t try getting through an area of storms unless you have a clear, accurate picture of what’s ahead of you and have the experience to handle it.  A 180 degree turn often can be a life saver.

Hope you have a happy Thanksgiving. Fly well and safely.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

With Winter On The Horizon, It's Time To Start Thinking Of Things Like Ice, Snow And Sleet......

With winter on the horizon, its time to start thinking of things like ice, snow and sleet. Three things that can cause real danger to the casual pilot, and are best avoided. I had flown in to Monroe airport (EQY), just east of Charlotte, to be together with my wife for a weekend. As there was no hangar space available, I had to park the plane, a Cessna 340, next to a hangar outside in the cold. There was the possibility of some snow or ice, so I kept my fingers crossed. After spending a nice two days with my wife, it was time to fly back to Wilmington (ILM), just forty minutes away to the east. As there had been some precipitation, rain snow and even ice, I was concerned about what we would find. As it turned out, things were not good. There was a covering of light snow and ice over the entire plane.

It was Sunday evening, so no help from the FBO, which was closed. My wife and I just started out getting off what we could. We were dressed warmly, and fortunately had gloves on. We sure needed them as the hand broom just dealt with the snow. The ice would have to gotten off by hand. This was accomplished by banging on the ice where ever it was reachable. The areas of most concern were the airfoils, particularly the leading edges. Amazingly most of the ice on the rounded portions of the wing and tail, did break off when struck by our gloved hands. The flat portions of the wing did not want to cooperate, and we didn’t want to dent them either. I believed that getting the front portions of the ice off would suffice. Props had electric deice strips so no worry there. The plane was not heavily loaded. Take off would be done with some excess airspeed to offer a bit of a cushion, in case lift was lost.

Before climbing into the plane, I hugged my wife and reassured her, that I would test things out before actually lifting off. This was done to avoid stalling the plane due to the presence of residual ice. Taxiing out to the runway, I had a good feeling, that all would be OK. After a brief run-up, with prop heat on, I applied full power, feet pressing hard on the brakes. Things felt normal and off I went. The plane accelerated normally, so I gently applied pulled on the control wheel. The nose started to lift and airspeed seemed about normal, so I continued the take off. Climb appeared normal, and I even saw some of the residual ice break off the wing. Good riddance. And that was that. I felt quite lucky about how things had turned out. On landing at Wilmington I phoned my wife, and was pleased to leave an ”arrived safely” message. The reason for the message, was that I got to Wilmington before my wife drove back to our home in Charlotte.

Icing shouldn’t be treated casually. Each plane can respond to icing in a specific manner. Differing airfoils, power plants etc. all contribute to unique handling characteristics. The best advice I can offer is to avoid ice if you can. 

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Same Old, Same Old..............

It seems that I have written about the type accidents that are occurring over and over again. Things like forgetting to lower the gear, or crashing alongside or off the runway in the weeds because of inattention. No one wants to read about them again. And, I don’t feel like dealing with them now either. So I am just going to relate some flight adventures of my own. Yes, maybe I will repeat myself.

Remembering some of my earliest flights as a young student or a neophyte private pilot, makes me laugh and groan a bit. For instance shortly after getting my private ticket, I invited three of my buddies for a short flight to the coast. Taking off from Tewksbury, MA., on runway 21, I dutifully turned south according to the DG (directional gyro). After a short while I noted the hills were getting more prominent and wondered why. Finally cross checking the DG with the compass I figured it out. I had set the DG off by 180 degrees. Nowadays, many DG’s are automatically linked with the proper magnetic heading, eliminating this sort of error. By the way, the trip finally went well, and we landed at Cape Cod and had a good swim.

One other incident remains solidly embedded in my personal flight computer. I was making a flight check for my instrument rating with an instructor friend of mine, in an Aztec. We had done several approaches and touch and go’s and were on a final flight. This had been a no gyro approach to simulate instrument failure. I guess the additional stress of doing something unusual contributed to my forgetting to complete my pre-landing check list. As a result as I was about to touch down the instructor calmly said: “ Aren’t you going to put the gear down?”. Wow, did that make an impression, as I added power and went around. I never again failed to complete the pre-landing check list and drop the gear. Yes, I firmly believe in check lists. Just keep them as simple as possible, and use them faithfully.

That’s it for now. Fly often and safely.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Planes Colliding End Up Badly.........

Image result for pictures of small planes colliding crashesA phrase you must have heard a thousand times: “there is nothing new under the sun” applies to bad landings and resultant sequelae. In the latest FAA accident happenings 5 out of 5 accidents involve landings and the day before 7 out of 17. Typical errors such as: hard landing, busted left main wheel, struck prop etc. As I have dealt with these before, I don’t want to belabor it now. But If I had to use one word to help pilots reduce these errors, it would be PRACTICE. Practice makes perfect, is a phrase commonly thrown about. It would be great if   one’s practice always made a positive change in piloting technique. No guarantee, but go out and try, so you have a better chance to beat the odds.

Changing gears, we have recently had an awful (avoidable?) mid-air accident involving an F-16 fighter jet and a Cessna 150. The pilot and his passenger, his father, died in the crash. The military pilot was able to safely eject. The F-16 was IFR, the C-150 VFR. The F-16 pilot was in radio contact with the radar controller, the C-150 was not.  The controller advised the jet pilot that he had traffic ahead, and if not in sight turn left 180 degrees.  The jet pilot replied by asking “confirm 2 miles?”.  The controller replied “..if traffic not insight turn left heading 180 immediately”. Over the next 18 seconds the track of the F-16 began turning southerly. Ouch! If you ever have an “immediately” order, you must do exactly that. Lean on those controls, nice steep bank up to 60 degrees if needed. That is not a casual order. The result here was a mid-air with two innocents buying the farm.

Another landing accident, albeit somewhat unusual, involved a Socata TBM700  landing in Wisconsin. Apparently the plane was on short final and decided for an unknown reason, to initiate a go-around. Now the TBM700 is a turboprop with an engine that can deliver a lot of torque to the prop rapidly. If flown slowly as on short final, the throttle must not be shoved full open too rapidly as the large amount of torque delivered to the prop, can overwhelm things. This apparently happened here with tragic results. The plane supposedly went into a steep left turn, stalling and crashed into the ground. According to Socata, there have been 36 crashes between 1990 and 2010. This included 6 crashes where pilots applied power while landing with resultant stalls and crashes. Power must be applied “steadily and slowly to full climb power”, as related by a Socata instructor.

So that’s it for now. Enjoy the coming cooler weather, and watch that power application.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Lately It Seems That Nose Wheels Are Being Busted......

Lately it seems that nose wheels are being busted as if they were meant to be destroyed. In a recent FAA accident report, there were no less than “six nose wheels destroyed on landing” reported on a single weekend. Wow that takes some doing. The thing that really got my attention was this occurred in six different models, including a small twin. What I would like to know is: how does one destroy a nose wheel on landing? The only answer I can come up with is this: by landing with full aircraft weight on them. This means that the pilot failed to properly flare the plane, bleed off airspeed and then touch down on the mains. Occasionally a three point landing can be done, but carefully after slowing down properly, with enough back pressure on the elevator to shift most of the weight back on the mains. This can be a useful procedure in a short field situation, where braking immediately after touchdown is required.*

I remember one flight in my B-55 Baron. It required landing on a short 1950 foot runway at  night. Little if any headwind, so braking would be at a premium. It was marginal VFR, with slightly limited visibility.  It was almost straight in after following the VOR procedure approach, speed down to 95 knots, partial flaps gear down and runway in sight. Half a mile to go, time for a GUMPP check. That stands for: Gas, Undercarriage, Mixture, Props, Pump (fuel). OK, three in the green, (something so important to check).** Coming up on the threshold lights, start easing the power back, check props full forward  (again a must if a go-around is to be done). Start back pressure on the control wheel, pulling the nose up and slowing the plane. But not enough to stall.  Now this is key. I want to land as flat as possible as I will be stepping on the brakes as soon as I touch down with the mains. If the nose is up high, the nose wheel would slam down as the brakes take hold. Following the protocol I was able to stop well before the runway end, not even close to the runway end red lights. You can too with some appropriate practice!

 In summary: to avoid slamming down the nose wheel when landing, the goal is to land on the mains, with one exception offered above (careful three point landing). This requires attention to airspeed and attitude. Enjoy your flying, practice and be safe.

*Advice offered here is rather general, and not meant to counter anything “your” instructor might say. It might best be classified as: Food For Thought.
**Recently I read about several moderate sized turboprops landing “gear up”.