Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A Christmas Flight......

Piper PA-31-310 Navajo As the end of the year approaches, it is time to reflect on the years activities, good and bad. Since most of what I write about, involves the latter, that’s where I’ll start. Some of the egregious happenings still stand out. Such as professional pilots landing at the wrong airport in a 747, or a flight crew of three or four professionals “forgetting “ how the auto-land really works. The first resulted in embarrassment, the second fiasco in some deaths, injuries and a 777 destroyed. Ouch!
To the good, I will have to reminisce a bit as I think back on Christmas season related flights. The year was 1989, a period of time when I did a lot of charter piloting of freight and passengers in Vermont. As I was often a standby “on call” pilot for the charter operator I flew for, this Christmas Eve I received a special request. A premature infant born in Burlington was in trouble and needed to be transferred to Boston Children’s Hospital. I agreed to take the trip. This normally took a bit over 60 minutes in a Piper Navajo. The largest model, the Chieftain, a Pa-350 (N30SC) would be needed to accommodate the patient in a special crib, a nurse and assistant. A quick check of the weather promised a fairly typical IFR winter trip. Strong NW winds, some snow, light icing probable and very cold.

Before I hopped in the car and drove the 20 minutes to the airport, I quickly filed an IFR flight plan adding a request for the prefix Medevac, indicating the seriousness of the flight and the need for priority handling. Routing was Burlington (BTV) direct Manchester (MHT) then to Lawrence (LWM) and direct Boston. I filed for 9000 feet, as any higher would require that supplemental oxygen be used by the pilot and passengers. At the same time I filed the return trip, estimating departure time at 0400 UTC* (11PM) for that leg. *This used to be Zulu or just Z.

The ambulance arrived at about 0230 UTC (930PM), tiny baby ensconced within the incubator, accompanied by a neo-natal nurse and aide. The plane was pulled out of the heated hangar into the sub-zero cold. As I had already done the necessary pre-flight, the passengers were quickly loaded into the plane and me into the pilot’s seat. Engine start went smoothly and I quickly called for my IFR clearance. It was called back to us and I was cleared to taxi to runway 15, which would point us in the right direction towards Boston, saving us some time. Once cleared for take-off we were switched to departure frequency and cleared on course. Leaving 6000 feet departure control told me to contact Boston center.

 This was a route I had flown often, so I could anticipate what to expect. What was new was the call sign, the prefix: Medevac. We reached Manchester in about 30 minutes and were cleared to the Lawrence VOR and to descend to 6000 feet. As we descended, I tuned into the Boston ATIS for the current weather and active approaches. Before reaching (LWM) we were cleared to 3000 feet and told to expect ILS 4R as the winds were gusting  up to20 knots out of the north. The reported weather was: ceiling 900 feet with 1 ½ mile visibility, with blowing snow. I had already taken the Boston approach plates out of the Jeppesen loose leaf binder and placed the ILS 4 R approach plate on my clipboard. Once on the Boston approach frequency I received vectors for the 4R approach ceiling 900 ft.  Once on the inbound localizer and on glide path, we broke out of the clouds at 950 feet with the runway in sight.

The landing went fine and we were cleared to the general aviation ramp, where an ambulance was waiting. I said goodbye to my passengers, wishing the newborn well, and headed to the coffee machine for a quick brew. The trip back to BTV was uneventful.On reflection, I felt this had been a satisfying, rewarding flight, a tiny person helped. A job well done.

Have a good Christmas and a Happy and Safe New Year.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

There Is A Recent Accident......

There is a recent accident/incident that I would like to present and discuss.  I believe there are important lessons that the general aviation pilot can learn from it. The accident is related to the switch from basic round dial instruments to the new format: i.e. the glass cockpit-digital format. I have to admit to having only flown the older systems. In the past I have discussed the necessity for at least having some basic (round dial) back up, so I won’t go there again now. But what is a new thing, the dependence on not only all digital instruments but also the fully automated flight. My interest in this was sparked by a recent headline in my local newspaper  the Charlotte Observer, dated November 19,2013. The title As automation increases, pilots may lose flying skills. Wow, you must be kidding right? Hardly! Only two days ago a Boeing 747-400 cargo plane, not only landed at the wrong airport, but admitted to the tower at another field (the intended destination) that they didn’t know where they were.

I ask myself how is that possible? To help answer this and learn more about the subject I googled  Boeing 747-400 cockpit, and got some wonderful pictures and discussions. There is so much information available from all the cockpit displays that it is hard to imagine anyone getting lost or confused as to where they are. The pilots of this flight landed at a wrong airport that had an ILS that the pilots may have locked on. Great that they were able to land there, but the field was some 3000 feet shorter than their intended one.  Special provisions had to be made so that they could take-off again (offloading fuel and cargo). Wow, that is a serious and dangerous goof.

Apparently the entire flight data can be loaded digitally via a disc or some other way, and the pilots never have to enter any data or look at a map. Sounds great doesn’t it? But wouldn’t common sense require one to at least look at the entered data, readily available on one of many data screens? I mean if you are headed some thousand or more miles to land at a strange airport, it would be smart to look over the airport and approach data ahead of time. So, the warning is against complacency and lack of oversight by pilots relying almost totally on automation. Pilots beware. The next step will be pilotless airliners etc!

Writing about flying long distances to a strange field and landing under low IFR conditions, takes me back to trips I made while flying charters in Beech 58 and Piper Navajos, up north while based in Vermont. Before any of these flights, I would look carefully at the weather, both actual and forecast. Figure the time and required fuel, allowing for missed approaches and an alternate landing site. When looking at alternate landing sites along the way, think what would be available in case of an emergency such as engine problems, weather or passenger illness etc. Now that wasn’t automated, it was done by me, the responsible pilot. This not only put me fully into the information loop, but also primed my brain for eventualities that might come up.

So, in summary. You the PIC (pilot in command) have a lot of responsibility.  Whether on auto-pilot or manual mode, the safe operation of your plane depends on your good judgment. An error such as happens.landing at the wrong airport or worse, is yours to deal with. You really can’t blame it on the auto-pilot.

When sitting in the left seat, make sure that you are in control and fully accountable for all that 

Saturday, October 26, 2013

It's Time To Look Out For Icing....

                                                    The weather has turned cold, it was 29 degrees this morning in Charlotte. That means it is time to consider the effects of icing on your airplane. The main considerations I will get into involve how ice accumulations on the airfoils affect flight. I just reviewed an excellent article published by AOPA*. Well worth reading, as I only touch on many things discussed therein.

I would like to reference three articles I have written on the subject of icing:
                Ice Beware It’s  Everywhere-2/1/09
                Ice Will Get You Unless You Do It Right-2/15/09
                You May Not Be Able To Prevent Significant Icing From Forming On Your Plane

Quick review. So you arrive at the airport and find that there is just a little fuzz type of ice on the wings, no thicker than a piece of “coarse sandpaper”*. No problem, right? Wrong according to most authors, who claim that even this thin accumulation of ice may decrease lift and increase drag. The referenced article offers this: frost and thin ice accumulations may decrease lift by as much as 30% and increase drag by 40%. So pay attention to your planes lifting surfaces.

Now if you arrive at the field and your plane has a thick crust of ice and or snow all over, you better go for a cup of coffee and prepare yourself for a tough job ahead. You have to get the white stuff off!  Why can’t you just scrape a bit off and fly away. Because, basically the presence of the snow, ice and whatever, has changed the shape of the airfoils of the `wings and stabilizer. This decreases the lifting ability of the flight surfaces to provide lift. Importantly the stall speed increases as does the drag. So pay attention to your planes lifting surfaces.

I am not going into what flight conditions pose the most problems for icing. Check the listed reference for a good discussion of those factors. They also discuss carburetor and induction inlet icing.

I will relate one of my experiences with arriving at the airport ready for a quick departure, only to find my Cessna 340 covered with a layer of clear ice. My wife was with me, and we had to spend almost an hour whacking and banging on the ice. After I decided that enough was gone from the main lifting surfaces, I decided to give it a try. The plane was lightly loaded, the air temp about 34 degrees. The plan: keep the plane on the runway longer than usual, thereby taking off with some excess airspeed. If the plane responded normally, continue the take-off, if not chop the throttles and land. All was ok, the take-off felt normal with good control responses, so off I went.   

In flight icing in my experience, never caused me any real problems. I always was alert for a decrease in airspeed due to drag, or an apparent mushiness of the controls. The biggest fear was to get into a stall due to the negative effects of the ice on airspeed and lift. Make sure that the stall warn deice was on and carb heat on when flying that type of engine in icing conditions.

So study up on the negative effects of icing and plan ahead. The big trick is to AVOID getting  into ice and always leave yourself an out.

*Aircraft Icing-Weather Advisor AOPA  SA11-11/02
NTSB Safety Alert- Aircraft Ground Icing 


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Common Yet Unexplained Accidents

Terrafugia TransitionTerrafugia TransitionSometimes it’s hard to figure out what to write about. This is one of those times. However, there has been something nagging at the back of my head for some time. How come I read about so many seemingly trivial accidents/mishaps on takeoff and landing on the FAA accident site?* For example: landed and went into the trees, on landing flipped over, on taxi struck a parked vehicle or airplane, on take-off from a private field crashed into a shed etc. I counted twenty-one of these events in just two days plus a weekend. Yeah, I know weekend warriors etc. For example on 9/21/13 two events were listed one after the other. Both struck a pole while taxiing. Just one day prior again two listed one after the other: aircraft left the side of the runway and the other aircraft left the side of the runway into a ditch. How does one manage to do all this?

In my 40 plus years of flying I once dinged the wing tip of another plane while taxiing and cracked the lens of a wing tip light of another high wing Cessna. Cheap to repair and not really a big thing, although at the time I was horrified on seeing what I had done.

So I have to wonder whether pilots are really paying attention to what they are doing. Could they be looking at something non-essential such as a hand held device? Or maybe texting a friend that they are running behind and not to worry if they are a bit late.

Another thing I puzzle over is why I keep reading about nose wheels failing on landing. The only reason I can come up with is that maybe pilots aren’t flaring sufficiently to hold off the plane and land on the mains. In other words, landing too hot and literally forcing the plane on the ground when there is still some flying speed left. Ok, maybe there is an occasional bearing failure or some other mechanical problem causing a failure, but I believe that to be rather rare.

If you find that you are having some of the problems I have described above maybe you should try flying the”Terrafugia**, A Transition Roadable Aircraft”. Good luck in staying safe and on the tarmac.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

After Reading That There Have Been 96 Accidents In Various Models Of The Rockwell Commander 690....

After reading * that there have been 96 accidents  in various models of the Rockwell Commander 690 since May 1969, I have gained a new respect for the level of piloting skill that is required to fly one. I spent time reviewing some articles concerned with the piloting of twin turboprops and turboprops in general.  I now appreciate that they are really considerably more complex than their smaller conventionally powered cousins e.g. the Beech Barons, Cessna 300 and 400 series etc.

All one has to do is to look at the pictures of the cockpits, with special attention to the engine and prop controls, as well as to the engine instrument gauges to gain a new perspective. The fixed shaft Garrett engines that power the 690 have four engine gauges per engine. While the Pratt & Whitney PT-6 which powers the King Air has six gauges per engine. That’s a lot to pay attention to. The main time the pilot must watch these gauges is at start-up so as not to exceed a critical engine temperature. Failure to do this might result in a Hot Start, with resultant engine damage if the engine is not immediately shut down. Anyway, this is just to make us aware that the turboprop engine requires more out of the pilot as compared to the conventional piston powered type engine.

The planes themselves are heavier than their piston counterparts such as the C-310, Pa-31 or B-58 by several thousand pounds. Critical stall speeds are higher. For example the stall speed with full flaps and gear (dirty) is 75 kn, while in a Pa-31 Navajo, a plane I used to fly (and love), stall speed dirty is 65 Kn. Big difference, especially for the non-professional. OK, now maybe you see where I am heading with this. In order to feel competent when flying any of the planes I used fly, whether Pa-31 or a Bonanza, I needed to fly a lot, frequently as often as once a week or more. To think that I could comfortably handle the complexities of a twin turboprop, as a non-professional on a casual basis is just out of the question.

So, in my opinion, the pilots of the recently crashed Aero Commanders  had a lot to contend with.    Maybe when everything is just fine, both engines purring along, weather not too bad, field in sight and cleared to land, all is OK. But as in New Haven, things can get a bit dicey, quickly. Weather getting bad, a sudden runway change and too much to deal with in a demanding plane can be overwhelming. The other crash occurred during recurrent training at 12 to 15 thousand feet. It isn’t that hard to enter a single engine stall when the nose of a heavy plane is pulled up a bit too far with one engine idled. But it is almost impossible to escape a flat spin when one is accidentally entered. These usually end with a fatal crash. That is one scenario I suspect happened as discussed in my article of July 5, 2013 in  

In summary. The twin turboprop is considerably more difficult to fly than the smaller conventionally powered twins. That means piloting a turboprop requires considerably more skill and training than some may believe. The statistics are a bit scary as are the recent number of crashes.  Future turbo pilots beware and prepare.


Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Recent Crash Of A Boeing 777.....

 Disclaimer:  The following is a presentation of a recent crash and discussion based on published information. Analysis of this information is that of the author of this report.

The recent crash of a Boeing 777 at SFO was very disturbing when one had the chance to analyze the data presented. Mainly, it seemed that no one was minding the shop. The defense of the flight crew that hinges on the autothrottle is almost ludicrous. I compare it to the driver who is caught speeding along at 75 telling the trooper that “I had the speed control set at 60”. It hinges on responsibility. Whether driving a car or more critically, flying a commercial airliner. The pilot in charge or the driver behind the wheel must be accountable for the actions of their vehicles, whether a plane or a car.

In doing some research on the internet, I was fortunate to come upon a detailed analysis* of a 2008 Boeing 777 crash that occurred at Heathrow airport in Great Britain. Due to the exemplary (and what one should expect) actions of the flight crew, a serious disaster was averted.

Let me present some facts about the Boeing 777 before proceeding further about specific actions. It entered the flight line in 1994. There have been only two or three hull type accidents since inception, the one above included. The recent crash is of particular interest as there was no apparent mechanical problem noted. The only area in question, according to the three pilots, referred to the function of the autothrottle, an automated throttle control linked to the autopilot etc.

Now let me get into some of the features of the B777. I just finished reading that it was designed using the fly by wire (fbw) concept. This protects the airplane from control inputs that might cause structural damage or exceed safe flight conditions e.g. a stall. On the pilots instrument panel as part of the primary display, specific warnings are shown when the plane is flying below the minimum maneuver air speed. The crashed plane at SFO was flying dangerously below safe airspeeds. Therefore I must assume that ample warnings were available. What was done by those pilots? Good question, it doesn’t seem like enough.

By comparison, the flight crew of the* B777 landing at Heathrow in 2008 did everything right. They followed established procedures, learned and practiced over their entire careers. When on final approach into Heathrow, there was a sudden decrease in thrust in both engines occurring almost simultaneously, due to an undetectable ice accumulation in the fuel system. The autothrottle was engaged at the time. The co-pilot, flying at the time advanced the throttles to try to increase engine thrust. However there was no response from the idling engines. The plane started slowing to below minimum safe speeds and the plane started to sink towards the airport outer boundary. The auto-pilot tried to pitch the nose up, but as this would further decay the airspeed, it had to be disconnected by the copilot. While the co-pilot was lowering the nose of the plane to prevent a stall, the captain was wisely reducing the flap setting to 25 degrees to decrease drag. But, alas it was too late to stop the inevitable, and the plane sank further until striking the ground just short of the runway. There was only one passenger injury, no deaths. The plane was a total wreck.

That the flight crew performed admirably is an understatement. When one compares what apparently the flight crew of the Asiana plane did, or rather didn’t do it is appalling. In reading further about the 777, it is stressed that there are all kinds of low speed warnings, prior to “stick shaker”. According to the flight report, there was a “master caution aural warning, indicative of “”airspeed low””.  What more was needed to alert the crew of three including a high time instructor? The accompanying picture above, taken from the cited article is an example of a typical (quite visible) airspeed to the left of the main screen.

Well now I hope you have a good idea of what can be done in a time of crisis with an airliner at near stall speeds only a few hundred feet above the ground. But more importantly I want to discuss responsibility in the cockpit. The pilot in charge (PIC) must know what is happening at all times. That means monitoring lots of data such as airspeed and attitude perhaps the most basic. When the plane is flown with the autopilot engaged, one could easily assume that all is well and become complacent. The same thing with the autothrottle that commonly is linked to the autopilot. These automated systems however are not absolutely infallible and must be monitored. If they do indeed fail or inadvertently disconnect, the pilot must be ready to immediately take over. If not a duplication of what happened on final to SFO could happen again i.e. passively sit by as the airspeed and altitude bleed away as the plane crashes to the ground.

Remember that the pilot in charge is responsible for the safety of his/her crew and passengers. Complacency just won’t cut it. You may get away with it for a while, but eventually some form of  disaster awaits.

*Aircraft Accident Report 1/2010, Report on the accident to Boeing 777-236ER, G-YMMM at London Heathrow Airport on 17 January 2008

Friday, July 5, 2013

Thoughts On A Recent Accident

Recently it was reported that a South Carolina businessman on a recertification flight in a Rockwell Turbo Commander 690B crashed over McClellanville, SC. Two people were killed, the 44 y.o. pilot and the 69 y.o. instructor. They had taken off from John’s island airport and were to operate between 13000 and 15000 feet as cleared by ATC. Supposedly the pilot-owner had been flying this plane for three years. Credentials of the instructor are unknown.

The purpose of the flight as stated above, was to recertify the pilot, presumably for insurance reasons. To comply, generally a set of flight skills are examined. These would typically include: take-off and landings, air work such as steep turns, slow flight etc. and of course instrument flight under simulated low visibility conditions. The other important area of consideration is putting the pilot through simulated engine out procedures. This normally is done by retarding power to flight idle on one engine, usually the so called critical engine (usually the left hand engine on most twins). Finally, the approach to a stall with one engine idled is tested, likely also with the pilot under simulated IFR conditions (pilot hooded). This latter flight test just may be the cause of the recent crash.

Now it has been a few years since I went through a similar procedure. It was when I flew part-time charters for a fixed base operator (FBO) in Burlington, VT. Every six months it was necessary to obtain a check ride with a certified instructor in order for me to legally fly charters. These charter flights included both passengers and/or freight.

Typically the check rides consisted of a variety of maneuvers including slow flight and this key: slow flight approach to a stall with one engine “out”. With an “out” engine being simulated by retarding the throttle of one of the engines, usually the “critical” one (see above). Before entering into this exercise, the correct procedure for carrying it out was clearly discussed with the instructor. The hazard to this maneuver was this*: if while slowing the plane by bringing its nose up, the plane was allowed to stall, a violent falling off towards the “dead” engine most likely would occur. This almost certainly would progress into a flat spin with possible aircraft inversion. If that were to happen, it most likely would be unrecoverable. The goal of the exercise was early recognition of an impending stall. Once the warning of a stall is received as for example by noting some slight vibration in the control yoke, a prompt push of the control yoke is done to start the plane down immediately. Some of the more sophisticated aircraft have various indicators of stall, including: lights, buzzers and other type annunciators. The reason for all of this is that a stall in a complex plane like the above twin has a reasonable likelihood of being a fatal event. (See NTSB report referenced below)

When I was practicing this on my check ride in a B-58 Baron, all went well. I brought the nose of the airplane up until the first indication of an imminent stall, and then quickly shoved the nose down, allowing the plane to regain a safe flying speed. The next week however, another pilot was undergoing the same series of maneuvers, including the approach to stall with one engine ”out”. This time however, the pilot waited too long to push the nose down and the plane entered the stall with the awful result discussed above. The plane, the same one I had flown, entered a flat spin and descended rapidly towards the waiting rough terrain. Fortunately the instructor pilot was a National Guard F-16 instructor pilot and was able to stop the spin just before the plane struck the ground. There were serious injuries, a destroyed aircraft but no deaths.
This scenario is what I think may have occurred over McClellanville.

*NTSB Aircraft Accident Report, North American Rockwell Turbo Commander 690, Wellsburg, West Virginia, 8/14/72 NTSB-AAR73-5, A-73-8 thru 10

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Gear Down And Locked ?

Gear down and locked? I certainly hope so. If not you are headed for an LGRA (landing gear related accident). According to the FAA, they occur about six to seven times per week. These accidents almost all are done by general aviation pilots.  Interestingly according to the same author *, high timers rather than neophytes outnumber the perpetrators. Before I go into the ramifications of landing gear-up, I must point out that the majority are caused by pilot error and not mechanical failure.
Perhaps the worst thing about forgetting to put the gear down is damage that occurs to the plane and the high cost to repair it. Some examples of cost are as follows*:
                                 What insurer pays                                  Pilot owner pays
              Single engine 1990 -$40,000-65,000                     $16,000 -25,000
               Multi-engine   1990 -$80,000-145,000                 $26,000-44,000
Pretty expensive isn't it?

Of course, in addition to a bruised ego and a drained bank account, there is the loss of being able to fly your plane and the potential large increase in insurance premiums, if at all still available. Finally, the plane loses market value as it was damaged.

So how can one avoid the costly mistake of a LGRA? There really are two cases. The first is under VFR (visual flight rules) or good weather, with the pilot arriving at an airport and making a landing without the need of electronic guidance, e.g. landing at the local small airport. Usually a pilot would enter a standard traffic pattern consisting of a downwind leg, then on to a base leg and then turn onto final and land. At each of the above segments, in addition to other pre-landing checks such as proper fuel tank etc., say to yourself gear down as you manually move the gear lever to the gear lowering position. Verify that the green gear down light or lights have lit. On the base and final legs also verbally acknowledge that the gear are down and locked. I used to say “three in the green”, meaning that all three wheels were down and locked. Again on final, check three in the green and even just before touchdown once more.

The second case, as mentioned above is when making an instrument approach in bad weather. It is really almost easier to NOT forget the gear lowering procedure here. As part of an instrument landing there is always a final fix which indicates the point one has to start the descent to the runway. At this point normally the gear are lowered to facilitate descent. Again as in VFR, acknowledge that the gear are down and locked (three in the green). Do this again before touchdown.

Sounds easy doesn’t it? Well during my 40 plus years of flying I never crunched down on the fuselage, but did come close just once. I was taking a recurrent check ride in a twin. We were finishing up a simulated engine out landing about to touch down when the instructor yelled into his intercom “aren’t you going to put the gear down?”. I gulped and started to reach for the gear lever but was stopped by the instructor and told to “go around”, a safer procedure in that circumstance. After that I went back to saying “three in the green” and verifying that in fact the gear were down.

There are other errors a pilot can make. For example after landing and in a hurry to raise the flaps, one might accidentally move the gear lever into the up position rather than the flap lever**. Nothing would happen if the “squat switch” is functioning. But if it is not the gear will retract and your plane is on its belly.

Well you get the idea. An ounce of prevention, in this case four magic words, will help keep one from a belly landing. Just say it: Gear Down And Locked or Three In The Green.
Happy and Safe Landings.

*What a Gear-Up Costs –by John Doolittle, owner of Sutton James Insurance in Hartford,Conn.

**The gear lever is shaped as a wheel and the flap lever wedge shaped resembling its name. This of course is to help the pilot differentiate the two without looking.


Sunday, May 26, 2013

Did I Use Up My Nine Lives?

Did I use up my nine lives? My wife thinks so, and I guess I do too. After I relate some of my adventures and misadventures, see what you think. Please note that several of these accounts have been previously reported.

The first of many really started way before I ever sat in a plane either as pilot or passenger. As a kid I used to ride my bike to nearby LaGuardia airport to “watch” the planes land and take-off.  I would stand as near the threshold  of runway 4 as I could, letting the planes, DC-4,6 and 3 types as well as Connies get as close to me as possible. That is until a policeman came up to me one day, and pointed to the large ruts in the bushes at the threshold area that marked where the landing planes had left their marks. They were made by the landing gear, and if I had been standing there. Ouch! After that I stood way off to the side. An early lesson l learned.

It was quite a few years later that I ended up doing the flying. When still a young inexperienced pilot flying out of Tew-Mac field north of Boston, I was supposed to be headed towards the Cape area in a Cessna 172 with several of my friends. All was well until I started seeing the mountains of New Hampshire instead of the flatter terrain south of Boston. Something wasn’t right. As I was only on a VFR flight I really hadn’t set up my navigation instruments, or really paid attention to other some things important either.This older plane, not unlike many small planes, did not have a slaved DG (directional gyro). This is the instrument that gives the pilot the magnetic heading the plane is on. As part of my pre-take-off check I had not taken the time to set the runway heading into the DG, and as a result it had been almost exactly 180 degrees off. So instead of flying south, I was heading north.  Therein was the explanation for seeing mountains instead of the ocean. Luckily I wasn’t in heavy IFR (bad weather)!

The next event, occurred years later also over northern Massachusetts, but somewhat to the west. I was flying my B-55 Baron( a light twin engine plane) from Great Barrington (GBR) to Burlington, VT (BTV). Flying VFR(visual flight rules), I was cruising at 8500 feet, without being in contact with any particular ATC facility. All of a sudden my windshield was filled with the image of a single engine plane that shot by me from my 5 o’clock position towards 10 o’clock. No time to react. The other plane, a Bonanza type had missed colliding with my plane by very little. Nothing to do but suppress a scream and wonder whether the other pilot had been asleep or reading a book while on autopilot. This was before TCAS and other anti-collision systems were available to help prevent near misses.

Finally I will relate another episode that could easily have ended with serious consequences. While a second year med student, I was able to continue to do some flying, working on achieving my instrument and commercial pilot licenses. One day some of my friends and I decided to that it would be great to visit Boston. I arranged to rent a Piper Cherokee (140 or 180). The four of us set off. Weather was VFR back in Syracuse but a bit iffy in the Boston area. Nevertheless, we departed. Great tailwind, so pilot beware. It didn’t take too long to reach the Massachusetts border, and all was well. A routine check of the weather in Boston revealed only some clouds but it was still VFR. However as we approached the Worcester area, the weather was deteriorating  rapidly enough so that I would have to make an instrument approach in Boston. Wow, how did that happen? Things can happen fast in the aviation world. As a VFR pilot I wasn’t prepared to land in bad weather. So, as Boston was I had no option but to turn around and try to land somewhere to refuel. Remember the great tailwind? Now it became a whopping headwind, knocking our groundspeed to probably about 80 to 90 knots. To add to the concern also was that now the airports such as Albany and even Utica had bad weather, only Syracuse was open to VFR traffic. Ouch! I leaned the engine as much as possible to stretch our diminishing fuel supply and crossed my fingers and maybe even prayed a bit. ATC(air traffic control) gave me advice and weather upgrades, but weren't able to advise me that the weather was legal to land for us until Syracuse. At any rate, we made it back, but just barely. When we pulled up to the pumps there couldn’t have been more than 20 minutes of flying time left. That was scary and a lesson learned for the rest of my flying career. Plan ahead for all contingencies.

Well there it is: my reflection on some events that could have had severe if not fatal outcomes. Yes, I do believe Lady Luck may have played a part here. What do you think?

Sunday, April 21, 2013

An Ounce Of Prevention.........

Same old, same old, that’s what I seems to keep happening. A twin Beech turboprop takes off and loses power on one engine. Instead of flying the engine out procedure (after gear and flaps are up) the pilot just lets nature take control and crashes. Now really, you only have two options depending on the type plane, and number of engines. Fly the engine out procedure (bank towards the good engine and try to stay above stall by carefully dropping the nose) or retard the remaining good engine, or accept your job as a glider pilot if you are piloting a single and look for a spot to put the plane down. Larger commercial type planes with more power, as all airliners, are  certified to be able to fly on one engine once a minimum airspeed (V1)* has been attained on take-off.

Since I started to write this article an awful thing happened in Boston. My train of thought has been altered as I try to process all that has occurred. One of the things that emerges from the horrendous event, is that we must be more aware of our surroundings. That is not only true in public places, but also in and about our airplanes. When you do your walk around pre-flight, are you aware of all the potential hazards in your future taxi path? Are the tires inflated, and do you have any brake pads remaining? How does the oil look? When you sample your gas, is it free of water and particulates? Some of those possible hazards could have been introduced by a person rather than mother nature. Yes, we must be vigilant especially in these times.

When you are checking the oil level, including whether the oil cap is tight, take a look around. You might just find some things you weren’t expecting to find. Things like a screwdriver, an empty soda can, or worse a leaking oil or fuel line. I did find the first two items in some of the planes I flew. Significance? Maybe it tells you that a mechanic was less than careful. A leaking oil pressure line can definitely ruin your flight, as I can relate.

It happened to me when I was flying my B-55 Baron to Indiana to be sold. Prior to that, I had had an oil line leak that was “repaired”.  Well, as I taxied up to the purchasers FBO at (IND), the oil was pouring out of the left engine’s cowling. Bad timing as it cost me $5000 off the proposed sale price. The only good thing was that the oil didn’t all run out while I was in the air for the three hour flight to Indiana. Maybe if I had checked out the left engine more carefully, in my preflight, I might have found the leaking fitting ahead of time.

Moving to a different area, albeit, still on the tarmac, is the subject of taxiing. Although taxiing can be challenging, especially in a tail dragger, it is a chore that must be learned early on. As a young buck while taxiing in a 172, I remember clipping a friend’s planes wing tip with a 172’s right wing. Embarrassing and easy to do, but not bankrupting. Hitting a pile of debris with your prop on the other hand, can be expensive. Not only does it damage the prop, but also may cause internal engine problems with the crankshaft etc. So, don’t rush it, rather take the time to look and think about your flight plan and check the avionics settings. You can also listen to the aircraft chatter and learn about potential problems, especially at the bigger airports. 

While on the subject of larger airports, it is worth mentioning that it takes paying particular attention to all taxi instructions. In the busy airports, they can come at you very fast and furiously. So, listen up and anticipate. I can remember the Boston controllers talking non-stop at times. So fast in fact, that if you missed your call it was a long time before you could find a break to call up with a “say again for 855C”. If you goof however, don’t feel too badly. Even the pro’s do it. I have read numerous incidents of airliners ending up on the “active” instead of an adjacent taxiway, not someplace you want to be.

Well as the Boston horror seems to be coming to some sort of conclusion, we can start to breathe more easily. Remember that these are different times, so you must  pay more attention to all that’s going around you, both in and outside of your plane.

Take care and fly right-side up.

Comments are appreciated.

*FAA Pilot Guide To Aircraft Safety-Dealing with airliner take-off requirements (V1 speeds, rejected take-offs etc)

Monday, March 25, 2013

Do We Really Need All Those Control Towers?

This thing with yanking controllers out of airport towers is way overblown in my opinion. In fact, thinking about it makes me wonder. In the days past when I did a lot of flying, both private and commercial, I landed at a lot of uncontrolled airports and never had a problem either. Arriving VFR you listened to ATIS or just announced your intention to land on Unicom frequency and listened for other traffic. If you were on an IFR flight plan you  would receive your clearance to shoot the approach from whomever had been your contact, typically a nearby radar facility or a center controller. Anyway not a big deal if no tower on the field.
To give you an example of how it worked I’ll refly us through a trip from Burlington, Vt  (KBTV) to Bennington, Vt (KDDH) at night. Bennington is significant as it has a lot of high terrain around it, most of which won’t be visible in the dark ( e.g. two mountains, one 3109 feet the other 3764 feet high). They were only about five miles to the east, with others somewhat lower all around. KDDH is at an altitude of 826 feet, located in a small valley surrounded by higher terrain. After leaving Burlington in the Baron, I was cleared to the Cambridge VOR (CAM) at 7000 feet and handed over to Boston Center. The VOR was 102 miles to the south, a straight shot. At that time the approaches were by GPS or VOR. As I didn’t have GPS aboard, that left the VOR approach. This was a circle to land with a minimum descent altitude, unless it was VFR, of 1740 feet. The GPS minimum altitude the same. When I got about 25 miles north of CAM,  Boston Center me to 5000 feet and down to 3500 feet when 10 north of the VOR. When reaching 3500 feet, I was cleared  again by Center for the VOR approach to Bennington. Now this was almost a straight in approach requiring a 159 degree heading inbound from the VOR. So far, I hadn’t spoken to anyone on the ground at Bennington. I really didn’t need to.(As it was late at night, no one was there anyway). The airport recorded weather was transmitted on 122.8 or the VOR, if it was available . This was what I needed to determine whether I could land VFR or IFR. Well, it was pitch dark night, the runway six miles ahead was visible from the VOR, so this was a visual approach. The runway, a 3700 foot strip of concrete, looked about like a tombstone from this distance. (Probably similar to the deck of an aircraft carrier as viewed from the cockpit of a landing jet.)  The whole setting was a bit humbling considering the mountainous terrain so close by. Anyway the landing was uneventful, as was the departure after picking up my passenger. Again, if you followed the Jeppesen departure instructions, you would avoid any of the dangerous surrounding terrain. The instructions for departing on runway 31, the opposite of the landing direction were to make a climbing right turn direct to the CAM VOR, holding there until reaching 3500 feet in altitude, and then proceed  on course, which in this case was back to Burlington.

Easy wasn’t it? The only reason I would have found a ground controller helpful here would be in the case of pilot confusion or inexperience. Someone watching from the ground via radar, sort of holding ones hand, could help the errant aviator from flying into the mountains. But here lies the controversy. Do I want to or need to have my hand held? I really loved the independence of flying. Not being told what to do at every step of the way, as well as the challenge of learning all the lingo and techniques needed to become a competent safe pilot.

Before I sign off I will relate another *flight I made, this time into IFR weather, to evacuate an injured Lake Placid skier back to Burlington. I got the call late at night, around 2230 (1030PM) or so. As I lived about 25 minutes from the airport, it wasn’t until about 2330 that we were airborne in the Piper Navajo. I had to bring two people along, a nurse and a helper to get the injured party aboard. The weather was typical February stuff: snow showers, windy and very cold. I don’t remember getting the latest Saranac Lake (KSLK), weather ahead of time. At any rate we were cleared from BTV direct to KSLK via the Plattsburgh VOR(PSB) at 6000 feet. One had to stay on course as there again were many mountains around SLK, the highest, Whiteface Mountain at 4872 feet. There were numerous others as well, not surprising as these were all part of the Adirondacks.

Once airborne heading west, we climbed to 6000 feet and tuned in the SLK VOR. The recorded weather gave us some pause as it went something like this: ceiling 300 to 500 feet, visibility in blowing snow ¾ to 1 mile, with wind form the NW at 12 to 16 knots. Could be worse but we would definitely need to fly the ILS approach faithfully, probably to just above minimums. Minimums here were 200 and ½, pretty much as low as it gets. The approach plate called for the approach to begin at TRIKY intersection which was off the Plattsburgh VOR(KPSB). Not having an RNAV was a definite disadvantage here, as it would have saved us a jog up to KPSB. Any way from Plattsburgh it was 18.1 miles to TRIKY and we would be on the ILS localizer to KSLK. So we did all this, while staying in radio contact with Burlington. When approaching the TRIKY intersection we were handed off to Boston Center who cleared us for the approach. This meant we descended to 5600 feet until TRIKY, at the same time being tuned into the (ISLK) ILS approach. Once the localizer needle started to move we turned south until the localizer needle centered and the final heading was about 229 degrees. In three miles we were at ZECKA intersection, descending to 4300 feet to intercept the glide slope. Once the localizer and glide slope needles were centered I just tracked both inbound, utilizing the autopilot which was coupled to the ILS. I know that sounds like a lot to do, but having done it for many years made it almost automatic. We tracked the ILS signals toward the decision point, the middle marker. Before we got there, luckily the runway approach lights became visible and I felt that a landing was assured. Then I called Boston Center to advise them that we were cancelling IFR and would call on the way out. I had filed the departure back to BTV beforehand. We taxied in a few inches of powdery snow to the FBO and were greeted by an ambulance crew with the severely injured patient. After loading the stretcher aboard we departed Saranac Lake for Burlington. There again we were greeted by another ambulance that quickly unloaded the injured party and hustled him off to the hospital.

So, here are two flights, one more challenging than the other, where there were no Tower Personnel at either location. Maybe then, we should make less of a deal about losing some of these services, as I believe strongly that many are really not needed anyway. 

Thanks for visiting. Pilots pay attention to your charts. Keep your eyes and ears open, and stay off your digital distractions. Do all this and you’ll be a much safer pilot, and also have more fun flying. Try it!

*This flight was described previously in another article.

Any comments? Please feel free to, they will be appreciated. 

Monday, February 25, 2013

Icing Considerations Begin On The Ground

Flying a plane during actual or potential icing conditions, involves not only inflight weather, but what happens on the ground before take-off. Most of my flying career, the majority up north, I tended to worry most about encountering ice enroute, not usually too concerned about the first part of the trip, ie: the take-off.

By now, we should all understand the negative effects that icing has on aerodynamic lift and drag. Basically the accumulation of ice on the wings, fuselage and control surfaces, may seriously degrade performance to the point of inadvertent stall. OK, so what’s new? Mainly, that to get the plane through a safe take-off and departure, you must keep dangerous accumulations of ice from forming on your plane. If your plane is parked outside during a period of icing potential it must be checked thoroughly for any ice accumulation. Some of the articles I just read, state that a thin coating of ice only .08mm thick can cause problems. (Fellow pilots, that’s not much!)  I know I have flown with some tiny amounts of ice on the wings without bad effect. However, the plane was light and not flown near stall. Also, the type of wing design has a bearing on the negative effect of ice, e.g. the thick less inefficient airfoils are somewhat less sensitive to icing.

I just reviewed some of the latest thoughts and practice on dealing with ground accumulation of ice.* I believe the studies are aimed at the large commercial types (Airliners). The interesting things I learned were: the amount of liquid in the precipitation is key, as is the type of deicing material applied. This article gets technical, but here goes. The more liquid in the precip the more icing potential it offers and the more the pilot will have to deal with. So for example, freezing rain is more of a problem than a fairly dry snow.

Once you have decided to deice the bird, you will have to decide on what to apply or have applied. This will vary depending on whether you are at JFK or the local FBO. The topic of deicing fluids is beyond discussion here, but worth reviewing if icing is in your future. The other aspect to consider is Holdover Time, (the length of time the particular de-icing substance will prevent ice accumulation). That means you have only so many minutes after the de-icing substance is applied to safely take-off. Once airborne, your inflight de-icing systems must take over. The reason this is so important is that there have been quite a few accidents on take-off due to unappreciated ice on the wings etc. One particular case comes to mind. On Jan 13,1982, an Air Florida 727 crashed into the Potomac, after being deiced 45 minutes before take-off. That was too long (exceeding the holding time for that deice substance) with the resultant crash due to the wings losing lift, etc.

I do remember one Sunday years ago at KEQY (Monroe, NC). It was late and no one was at the FBO. My wife to be had driven me to the airport, but hadn’t intended to be a lineperson, but rather only to give me goodbye hug and kiss and head back home. Instead when we reached N340JC, a Cessna 340 (a plane I really miss), we found the wings and all else covered with a pretty thick film of ice. Well. As I indicated no help was to be found from the FBO, so we were it. I would have waited for Monday, except that I had a job to perform the next day and had to get back to eastern, NC. So we started banging on the ice covered surfaces with our gloved hands, knocking off as much ice as we could. Finally after about an hour, I deemed it clear enough to take-off. I know it wouldn’t have passed today’s standards for ice removal, but as no more was coming down, off I went. I didn’t experience any adverse effects from what was still on the plane. But, as I mentioned above, we were light. Not at gross or even near it.

So, if flying when icing is a possibility, keep in mind that de-icing considerations begin on the ramp. Your safe take-off and departure depend on a thorough inspection of the airframe and application of de-icing materials when needed. Then start your stopwatch and don’t exceed the Holding Time of the particular de-icing material applied.

*www.RAL Aircraft Ground De-icing
  www.Skybrary Aero./  Aircraft Ground/Anti-icing



Friday, January 25, 2013

New York Center New York Center Cessna 711USA Calling Mayday Mayday

“New York Center New York Center Cessna 711USA calling Mayday  Mayday”.  “Go ahead Cessna 711USA what is your emergency”?  “711USA  is losing power and cannot make it to XYZ airfield”. Cessna 711USA set transponder on 7700 and be advised we are alerting rescue services in your area. Good luck, New York out”. Well anyway you get the idea. Your engine isn’t working up to par and you’re going to crash land. If you haven’t checked the FAA accident site lately, you have missed an awful lot of reports of small airplanes crashing in the middle of nowhere.  My question for you the pilot who crashed is this: what could you have done to keep your engine running?

Before I get into some specifics, let me revisit an experience I had with a rough running engine. We were flying the A-36 enroute to Boston, just west of Harrisburgh, Pa. The engine wasn’t losing noticeable power, but just not as smooth as it had been. Playing with the mixture, mags and RPM didn’t definitely change anything. So, as we were just west of Carlisle, I decided to land there and check with the FBO. As luck would have it, a mechanic was available. After looking things over, we decided that it sounded like plugs. I decided to go ahead and replace the spark plugs. After paying a hefty bill we left Carlisle and proceeded east. That seemed to do the trick, as the engine ran smoothly once again. It brought peace of mind, and just may have averted an off field landing.

As I mentioned in the first paragraph, the number of these crashes puzzled me. Since I postulate that many of these were due to engine failures,(simply running out of fuel is not considered here), I decided to try and look for some reasons that engines malfunction in flight. Now as I am not a mechanic, I cannot discuss specifics but only look for generalities. Since the major engine manufacturers  are Continental and Lycoming (Textron), I logged onto their websites. Very interesting indeed. On the Lycoming site I found the: “Trouble Shooting Guide” for reciprocating engines. This was under the heading: Support, which also included : Publications, Training, Tips and Advice, Auth. Service Centers Etc. Each of these sub-headings had interesting, important information for the owner-operator of any type of reciprocating engine not just a Lycoming. For example, under Trouble Shooting were discussions  of causes for power loss: abnormal oil pressures, unusual  fuel flows, loss of ability to climb etc. Maybe, if an interested pilot went to this web site and read some of the info there, they might avoid an inflight engine failure from happening. Remember the old military mantra: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

The other website I visited, Continental Motors, didn’t seem to offer as much to the pilot, but did list mandatory service bulletins for the various engine models. Some were crucial as they involved the magnetos and other key parts or systems. Certainly it seems worth reviewing on a regular basis for one’s particular engine type.

Before I sign off, I would like to pass on a tip offered on the Lycoming site. They suggested keeping records of various engine parameters, such as various temperatures, pressures etc. in a notebook. This should be done on a regular basis and comparisons made each time.  By doing this, you may be able to detect a problem before it becomes a serious one. This was discussed under Tips and Advice, worth reviewing.

So fellow pilots. It’s in your hands to keep up to date on your airplane (not just the engine as discussed here). Airplanes are complicated things, and deserve your utmost attention and respect, or eventually you may not make it to your destination.