By Rick Durden
In the movie Good Morning, Vietnam, we saw disc jockey Robin Williams deal with an incompetent CO who required him to give the morning weather report in a season and location where the weather was invariant. His solution was shouting into the mic, Its hot! D%$#ed hot! Obviously, the screenplays authors knew they were writing for pilots.
Summertime is when we do most of our flying; the days are longer and getting the airplane ready to fly doesnt involve digging it out of a snowdrift. Yet, when we look at reality, we have to admit that a bunch of that easy flying involves sweating in the heat-soaked confines of ill-ventilated cabins while trying to convince the airplane to climb over oncoming terrain as our passengers heave out their breakfast in turbulence and think malevolent thoughts about little airplanes. And their pilots.
From a distance, summertime flying is pure enjoyment. We can finally do the things we so wish to do in the objects of our aeronautical desire. We go to flight breakfasts, carry on extended quests for the ultimate high-dollar hamburger, swap rides with buddies in the latest and greatest homebuilts, fly the family to Six Flags Over Goofy and, all alone, go up on those soft evenings when no one else is about and we can glide down final toward the grass runway, power off, open the side window in the 172, flare just right and be unable to say for certain when the rubber molecules first came into contact with the blades of grass. Then, for just a moment, we hear the airplane utter a sigh born of utter contentment.
Yet our accident rate during summer operations remains distressingly high, particularly on takeoff as we blunder off the ends of runways into obstructions, attempting to extract performance never built into our airplane.
With our summertime foibles in mind, what might we do to prepare ourselves for the summer flying season in a way that maximizes our chances for it to proceed safely and happily, without diverting all of our time and attention to preparing for flying rather than actually committing the act?
Being good, dedicated, tightwad pilots, lets do the free or cheap stuff first. We have a tendency to frequently think about flying-at least when were not thinking about…other things-and thinking is free. So we can start recalling the details of those takeoffs weve made on the first hot day of summers past. Sometimes those memories are a little painful. Those were the takeoffs where we hadnt made the mental shift from flying on much cooler days, and things just didnt go according to our expectations. We were primed for yet another takeoff in which the airplane leapt happily into the air as a result of our deft and heroic ministrations at the controls, but we remember just how surprised we were that our formerly faithful airplane seemed to be most unwilling to leave the runway on that fateful, sweaty afternoon.
Going deeper into repressed memories, we recall the trees that had formerly been well off the end of the runway and of no consequence, had suddenly come to animated life and moved a heck of a lot closer to the runway. We opined that someone must have been going overboard with the fertilizer because they were remarkably taller than we remembered and-holy smokes!-we made it over them, but we wondered whether there were leaves in the landing gear.
Intellectually, we know that performance drops off when it gets hot, but a lot of pilots die each year because that knowledge fails to deeply penetrate their flying psyches and they do far too exciting things with their airplanes involving not enough runway and too-close obstructions. Therefore, we can take a few moments to let that intellectual store of knowledge about crummy performance on hot days become a true, deep-seated understanding-to let it sink in before we make those first few hot-weather takeoffs. It doesnt cost us a cent to do a little directed contemplation of our upcoming flying.
For example, we can easily recall how it feels when we raise the nosewheel at the appropriate speed on takeoff and-yikes!-the airplane doesnt leave the ground immediately. Instead, it rolls on the mains for what seems to be an interminable period as the runway end grows ever closer until, finally, it sags and wallows into the air. Think about how a 400-fpm climb rate looks and feels when weve been used to 800 fpm, and to translate that 400 feet upward in one minute into the fact that at a 80-knot climb speed: We will cover about a statute mile and a half (after weve finally accelerated to Vy) just climbing that first 400 feet above the ground. And we can think about what is out there, near our favorite airport, for us to hit.
We can go out to the airport and sit in our airplane (or beside it if its too hot) or go out to our favorite rental machine when its not scheduled, and pull out the POH. We can take a look at the takeoff-distance numbers and see what the ground roll was once upon a time demonstrated to be and how long it took to clear a 50-foot obstacle at various temperatures during certification testing. And we can start remembering our old, oft-ignored friend, density altitude. When we look at the numbers in the POH we can recall that the data was collected on an airplane with a nearly new engine, putting out its full rated horsepower, turning a prop in perfect condition, rolling on properly-inflated tires, with brakes that didnt drag at all, being flown by a pilot who knew how to get the best out of the airplane, accelerating without deflecting any control surface and raising the nosewheel at precisely the correct speed to precisely the correct pitch angle. So, out of respect to our aging airplanes and less-than-perfect engines, nicked props, under-inflated tires and dragging brakes, well add 50 percent to the demonstrated distance.
Welcome to the Crowd
Well also consider that because summer is the time we are most likely to fly, that its probably also the time for other pilots to go commit aviation.Its reasonable to assume that there are going to be far more airplanes about than there were a few months ago; and while were doing this thinking thing-the free stuff before we go fly-well resolve to be very aggressive in watching for traffic.
Because we are pilots and cant help it, well watch the Weather Channel and check the Web sites we like for weather information, because the patterns change as summer arrives. Worries about thunderstorms replace our concerns about icing. If we have an IQ above room temperature, we probably dont have to be warned about thunderstorms beyond recalling the sign in various military aviation weather offices: There Is No Reason to Fly through a Thunderstorm in Peacetime. Morning and evening ground fog has a funny way of appearing on those hot, humid days. We should remember one of the other little presents summer gives us, especially east of the Mississippi: absolutely rotten visibility in haze.
While we are sitting and thinking, why not dredge up recollections of that flight we made with the family to visit friends, the one where we flew west, toward home, about two hours before sunset? Remember that nightmare? The visibility was officially five miles, but into the sun it was nil. We were technically legal, we had ground contact and when we looked over our shoulder, back at the tail, we could see four or five miles. But we couldnt see a thing ahead of us; we might as well have been flying in milk.
Luckily, wed had a little instrument review training not long before and we were able to keep the wings level and hold altitude as we swam our way home. And, while were sitting there, well remember the resolution made after we got home: not to fly VFR into the sun in the summertime unless visibility is reported to be more than eight miles.
When its time to fly, well resolve to spend some time alone with the airplane before any passengers show up. Not just so that we can commune with the airplane and whisper sweet nothings into its nether parts, but because there are probably more than a few items that need to be addressed before it is ready for summer flying, whether it is a rental airplane or not. On a basic level, does it have the correct oil for warm weather flying? If weve been running straight-weight oil, its time to put in the higher viscosity stuff. Even if we have been using multi-viscosity oil and even if the airplane hasnt flown the 25 or 50 hours we prefer between oil changes, has the oil been changed in the last four months? If not, well change it; after all, calendar time matters to oil as well as engine time. Has the winterization kit been removed? Did we put duct tape over the inlets for the cabin air vents to keep them from leaking last winter?
Finally, we can be good to our passengers. If possible, we can fly in the morning or evening, when things are cooler and smoother. We can preflight the airplane early, so they dont have to stand out in the heat and hurry us so we miss something important. We can get our maps and headsets and portable GPS units set up and positioned before we put any passengers in the airplane, and we can have all the doors and windows open during that process. Then, once they have boarded, weve briefed them and they are buckled in, we can start up and taxi out without any delay. The oil is going to be plenty warm, so there will be no need for engine warm-up, all well need is enough time for the gyros to come up to speed. That will take place as we do our runup, so that we can be heading down the runway within five minutes of starting the engine and before our passengers have had time to become miserable. We can also resolve to climb to an altitude where its cool, even if we are on a shorter flight and it may not be otherwise efficient to climb high. We can climb above the turbulence to give our passengers a pleasant experience.
Sure it takes a while, but we like summer flying. If we want to convince our friends and family that flying is enjoyable, we had darned well better make the effort to show them through good experiences. We have to demonstrate that its enjoyable by providing the safest, most comfortable experience we possibly can.
Well check that the vents actually work; general aviation airplanes have notoriously poor cabin circulation, so a blocked vent just makes things that much worse, and one of the corollaries of Murphys Law as applied by aviation is that the passenger sitting next to the blocked vent will heave on the pilot.
Well also bring water for everyone aboard. Sure, we got into the habit of dehydrating ourselves so we could make those long cross countries in airplanes devoid of biffies without embarrassing ourselves. The current medical information on dehydrations effects is unpleasant enough that we should take heed: One of the common symptoms is diminished cognitive function and ability to deal with time and distance issues, both of which are fundamental to conducting a flight successfully.
There is reason to believe that some of those accidents weve heard about, where everything seemed to be going fine, and the pilot just lost it without reason, may have been due to dehydration. The problem becomes worse as a pilot ages; so well also carry piddle packs and plan shorter legs between stops to refuel and defuel.
Summer flying can be magical, but its different than in the winter. Nows a good time to think through the changes, and to think through how to prepare your airplane and your procedures.
-Rick Durden is a practicing aviation attorney and type-rated ATP/CFI with more than 6500 hours.