Learning Experiences

September 2003 Issue




Radar Rescue

“The Cherokee pilot made no change in course or altitude, and apparently didn’t even know I was there until he flew through my shadow.”

On a cross-country flight from my home base in Southwestern Oregon to a type-club fly-in at Columbia, Calif., I was southbound east of Sacramento at 5,500 ft. with flight following from NorCal Approach. The NorCal controller called to advise that there was traffic at one o’clock, four miles, my altitude.

At that distance, of course, I couldn’t see the traffic (which, as it turned out, was approaching me head-on), so I reported no joy. A second call informed me that the traffic was two miles, still at 5,500 ft., and a few seconds later the controller called, sounding rather urgent, “Citabria 05G, climb to 6,000 feet for separation.” I immediately fed in full throttle and began climbing.

As I climbed through 5,700 feet, a Cherokee suddenly materialized at 2 o’clock and flew directly under me, no more than 150 feet below. The Cherokee pilot wasn’t talking to NorCal Approach, made no change in course or altitude, and apparently didn’t even know I was there until he flew through my shadow.

I expressed my heartfelt thanks to that controller for his “heads-up,” for without it a collision would have been hard to avoid; even though I knew the Cherokee was out there somewhere, I didn’t see it soon enough to have taken much, if any, evasive action.

This incident reinforced my already firm determination to request VFR flight following whenever possible, even on relatively short flights, and I’ve rarely had controllers turn me down because of their workload.

Though it’s no substitute for a vigilant scan, it’s certainly a valuable supplement. In fact, prompted by my aerobatics instructor, I’ve been asking for flight following when doing aerobatics in the local practice area, a service Cascade Approach willingly provides and which has informed me on several occasions of nearby traffic I probably would never have known about (and, of course, vice-versa).

I know other pilots who seldom or never ask for VFR flight following. They tell me they can’t be bothered, don’t like listening to all that chatter on the radio, or don’t want “Big Brother” telling them what to do.

Personally, I regard failing to use radar service when it’s readily available to be just plain stupid, a judgment I think my recent experience strongly confirms.


Other lessons to consider: You said it well, but we would reiterate that flight following will not alert you to all traffic and anyone who uses it should guard against complacency because of radar contact.

----------

Pilot Turns Tourist
I had gotten my license about four months earlier and had a total of 64 hours in my book. Due to my “need for speed” attitude, no one would really go flying with me. Don’t get me wrong. I know you fast flyers are asking what kind of speed demon am I flying. Oh yeah, a nice C-172.

Luckily for me my dad was willing to take the flight with me from Turners Falls Airport (0B5) to Norwood Memorial Airport (OWD) in eastern Massachusetts.

It was the first time I had ever flown there, and I was making sure I had my route and navaids preselected and available. I figured I would fly from 0B5 to GDM to OWD. Piece of cake.

I typically spend a lot of time on preflight, staring at the map for little things that might make a big difference. Nothing too exciting on this flight, just a few towers at about 2,000 feet msl about five miles south of my flight path and some 1,400-footers five north of my flight path.

I can see forever and for the life of me couldn’t believe someone would be dumb enough to just go ahead and fly into one.

The flight there was great, a little bumpy but nothing to worry about. On the way down I pointed out the antennas to dad. I told him how I read about people flying too close and snagging one the support cables and crashing.

I showed him the map and told him how if I were to stay to the north of this lake I would be well clear of it. He looked nodded and continued to admire the view we had of Boston. I landed in OWD and had some soup with dad. We ate fast and loaded up.

I took off from OWD and climbed to 2500 feet to stay below the Class B airspace. I contacted Approach and requested flight following. The controller took a few minutes to ask about our flight and the turbulence. I told him that things were OK and there were only a few bumps to worry about.

I stayed at 2,500 just to buzz along. I, too, started to enjoy the view of Boston and all the airline traffic going in to Logan. Just as I was at the peak of my Skyhawk happiness, dad mentioned the lake in front of us. As soon as he said that, the super pucker factor set in.

I accidentally said out loud, “Where’s that antenna?” and in a panic looked to the west. It took a few seconds until I picked it out at my 9 o’clock and 2-3 miles.

Although I had 500 feet clearance, by the time I picked it out I was just passing it – showing that I should have been more aware of where the heck I was rather then taking in the scenery.

If the wind had been stronger out of the east and I lost track of my altitude I could have ended up like those dumb guys who go flying into things. Luckily everything went well and I landed back at my home base without any further heart attacks.


Other lessons to consider: Your dad is a smart guy. He let you get comfortable, then brought you back to the real world when it would teach you something. Fly with this guy more often.

----------

Sump’n’s Wrong
When I bought my plane three years ago I noticed that using the fuel strainer sump during preflight usually yielded only gurgling sounds followed by a few drops of avgas. I asked my mechanic about this and was told that it was nothing to worry about as long as there were no visible signs of fuel leaks or stains.

For three years I didn’t worry too much about this, but every time I sumped the strainer I told myself there must be some kind of problem in the fuel system.

Last weekend my son asked me if I would fly him to the shore for breakfast. During the preflight I slumped the strainer and got the usual few drops of avgas. I visually checked both tanks, which were full to the tabs. I had 3.5 hours of fuel for a 20-minute flight.

During engine start I could feel that the primer plunger was not drawing fuel when I pulled it out. This sometimes happen on the first or second stroke; however, this time I had no resistance after 7 strokes. I made myself a mental note to have my mechanic replace the primer and managed to start the plane with a little extra cranking.

We completed our before-takeoff checklists and took off into the early morning sky. I turned the controls over to my son, who flew us down to the shore in what seemed like an unusual attitude training session (he is only 8, and doesn’t believe in relaxing his grip on the controls). I spent the flight watching for traffic and enjoying time with my son.

When we got to our destination I took over and landed. Once clear of the active runway I opened the cabin door to get some cool air and was immediately met by streaming avgas blowing into the cabin.

I taxied to a safe spot and shut down. When I got out the source was immediately apparent. The fuel strainer drain valve had been locked in the detente position for the entire flight. I had not noticed it during the pre-flight because no fuel ran out after I sumped it.

I nervously checked the fuel tanks to see how close I had come to an emergency and got a real gut wrenching feeling with what I saw.

I am very grateful for the lesson I learned last weekend, but I could kick myself for jeopardizing my son’s life. If something does not seem right then it is not right. Period.

When I could not get the primer to work I should have investigated why. I knew deep down that it wouldn’t just quit working like that, but I didn’t pay enough attention to my senses.

The chain of events started three years ago when I let my mechanic tell me there was nothing to worry about with the strainer. Had it been working right I would have known the valve was locked open by the fuel pouring out.

The chain of events continued when I did not pay close attention to the valve position during pre-flight, and it continued when I ignored the faulty primer plunger. Slow down and listen to your senses, they are telling you something.


Other lessons to consider: If you were “greeted by streaming avgas” when you opened the door, we’d think it would have been visible before then, even on a Tomahawk.

----------

From Inside a Fishbowl
I have several thousand hours of flying time. I am IFR rated and fly almost exclusively that way.

Part of the reason is that it is hard to see anything in the muck on the east coast. We had had a lot of rain and one recent Saturday was no exception. Before coming back to RDU from PGV I filed my flight plan on the way to the airport and checked with FSS about any convective activity. None was reported, only light rain, and I felt I could handle that.

I fired up my trusted C172XP and was in the clouds about 30 seconds after leaving the runway. Sure enough there was light rain as had been advertised. I got to my assigned altitude of 4,000 feet and settled in for the 30-minute flight home.

Just minutes after being trimmed, with the autopilot on and the GPS doing my steering, the windows turned a very strange color of green/blue and I was no longer able to see any raindrops. It was like flying in an aquarium.

I began to wonder how the engine could keep running with all the water. There was thunder in the cockpit from the water hitting every part of the airplane. I had been turned over by Washington Center to another sector controller and was unable to establish radio contact.

All of a sudden my airspeed began to increase dramatically and the VSI was pointing downward and the altimeter was turning counter-clockwise at an alarming rate. In a minute I had lost 2,000 ft.

I had pulled back the throttle so my airspeed would not exceed 100kts, as I wanted to keep my wings. I was concerned that there may be another airplane in the area and I had seriously busted my altitude. I was looking down at my hands on the yoke and they were shaking.

I kept reminding myself to watch the airspeed, fly the airplane, keep trying on the radio, give enough throttle to maintain altitude, don’t stress the airplane, keep scanning the instruments and evaluate any discrepancy.

I noticed that indicated airspeed, DME groundspeed and GPS groundspeed did not agree. In a five-minute stretch that seemed like an eternity, the light returned to normal light gray and there was light rain again. At this time I was about 10 miles off course and was again able to climb.

I finally was able to get in contact with ATC who wanted to know what my intentions were. By this time I was fortunate to have been with RDU Approach, as they have weather radar and the controller could steer me around significant weather.

I told him I had to deviate for weather and had lost radio contact during that time. The rest of the trip was uneventful.

I must say that my reading Aviation Safety had a lot to do with my reaction. I have been reading it for some time now and find it wonderful to be able to learn from the experience of others. For example, I instinctively disengaged the autopilot as I had read about stalling when the airplane wants to maintain altitude in a significant vertical movement of air. I did learn that my Stormscope is useless unless there is electrical activity.


Other lessons to consider: You say your airspeed was increasing dramatically, you had pulled back power and you were descending like a fiend of Satan. That implies to us that the distraction from the rain may have started you down the path to a graveyard spiral, rather that being due to any turbulence associated with the rain.

We also wonder if the cell was visible on the weather radar you or a preflight briefer undoubtedly checked just before you took off.

----------

A Hard Case to Break
I have a short story to tell, and you’ve probably heard it a million times, but I thought you might find it interesting anyway.

As a student pilot, I was on final approach to Hammonton Airport in Hammonton, N.J. At the time, I was flying a Beech Skipper. I had a total of 15 hours, having soloed at 11 hours.

I routinely used a thin, hard attache case to carry my essentials. On this particular flight, I put the case on the right seat and did a few touch and goes.

On one of those landings – a landing I’ll never forget, by the way – I experienced my first “emergency.” Too bad it was of my own making.

I made a pretty rough landing, bounced a few times, and didn’t get the airplane on the ground until there wasn’t much runway left. At the same time, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that my attache case slid forward off the seat and onto the floor on the passenger side.

During the landing, the airplane veered toward the side of the runway and I attempted to apply rudder pressure to keep the Skipper on the runway.

To my surprise, I could not move the rudder pedals at all.

I glanced down and realized that the attache case had wedged itself into the worst of all places: under the rudder pedals.

Fortunately I was able to free the case with a quick tug and maintain control.

I learned to keep things buttoned up from then on.


Other lessons to consider: We consider it important to be spring-loaded for a go-around if something isn’t right, but here is one case in which a go-around might have spelled disaster. You were either good or lucky, or maybe good and lucky.

While strapping down such a case is certainly a good idea, you might also consider going with a soft-sided bag – just in case the situation got even more out of hand.