Beat the Clock

I knew the weather was marginal, but everyone else was going, so I felt compelled to go as well


It was a fairly nice November morning, and I had booked a Cessna 172 from John Wayne Airport to Catalina for a day trip to celebrate with my wife on our anniversary.

The weather was VFR and was forecasted to remain that way until 1900 local. As we approached Catalina, I could see the low clouds just west of the island with their eastwardly movement hampered by a weak high that sat over the area.

The tour bus took us from the airport to Avalon and would not return until 1600 local. The entire time in Avalon, I was checking the weather on my cell phone, worried that the weather would not hold. The bus ride back was a miserable 30 minutes as I watched the sky and monitored ASOS.

When we arrived at the airport around 1635, it was apparent the high pressure had lost its battle and the low clouds were moving in. They were rapidly overtaking the hills southwest of the airport and a large fog/cloud bank was beginning to block Runway 22s upwind departure.

I could tell there were quite a few VFR only pilots on that bus with us, as it seemed everyone scrambled for their aircraft. Folks boarded quickly, cranked the engines and taxied for the runway. I followed suit, to a point. I knew the weather was marginal, but everyone else was going, so I felt compelled to go as well.

While I was performing my preflight inspection of the Cessna I rented, I noticed few others were bothering. I cant be sure but it seemed as though several aircraft took off without doing a run up. Several of the aircraft were taking off downwind on runway 4 to avoid the fog that was now covering the departure end of Runway 22.

All the airspace and VFR rules were now screaming in my head against the fierce and determined get-there-itis. I went as far as starting the engine. Listening to CTAF, I heard that an aircraft went into the water – a Cherokee Six that had just taxied swiftly by. That clinched it. There was no way I was going to fly out of there without encountering IMC and I resigned to the fact that I was going to stay in Avalon that night.

I shut down the engine and secured the aircraft and returned to the airport management office. They gave me a ride into town and back the next morning. We actually had an enjoyable night in Avalon, without worrying about the weather. The next day it was raining, but cleared by afternoon.

It was unlimited visibility as we headed home. I took a hard look at my actions that night and will never forget how lured I was by the actions of others.

Faster than a Speeding Bullet
I am a 1,700-hour instrument-rated private pilot and recently purchased a 1978 Cessna 310. With only 12 hours of twin/retract time, my transition to the airplane took about 40 hours of training. Cruising at 190 knots and handling a 90-100 knot approach speed took some getting used to.

After about 100 hours of flying the 310, I noticed I was starting to balloon more in the flare and that I was consistently using three-quarters or all of the 3,500-foot runways I typically use. I felt my landings were fast, and I was concerned with the upcoming winter and the icy runway conditions it would bring.

I called my instructor and told him of my concerns, so we went out the next day to do some short-field takeoff and landing work.

On my first takeoff, I told him I would rotate and hold 82 knots. On the roll, he looked at the full set of copilot instruments on his side and told me I was at 95 knots and still had not rotated.

Further investigation revealed that the airspeed indicator on the pilots side read about 20 knots low at the low end of the scale. I had been landing at 110 knots instead of 90 knots and thereby adding 1,000 feet to my rollouts.

The problem was traced to a loose fitting on the airspeed indicator – cheap to fix but it could have been very expensive not to have done so.As instrument pilots, we are taught to trust our instruments. The truth is, sometimes they let us down. We also have to trust our senses, too. Good judgment is knowing when to trust which.

Insidious Errors
Im never going to have an accident due to pilot error, Ive said to myself on more than one occasion. As far as I was concerned, truer words were never spoken.

Well, a few months ago, despite my best intentions I almost made a liar of myself.

Shes a beautiful plane, I thought to myself as I approached my rental for a two-hour local flight under the hood with my instructor. I had been flying the Piper Arrow IV VFR for a couple of months and now was working on my instrument rating with her.

The start-up was smooth and after my clearance I taxied to the run-up area. All was going well as I went down my checklist for the run-up. As I got to the bottom of my checklist my instructor said, Whats up with the alternator?

Alternator? I asked, slightly annoyed. I knew Id already checked it, but to my disbelief the alternator was not working at all. I had used my checklist. That meant either it failed between the time I checked it and my instructor noticed it or I had been reading the checklist but not really checking the items.

Im a relatively new pilot with about 160 total hours, and I am very passionate about flying. This little incident got me to re-evaluate my pre-flight routine – even before I get to the airport.

Do I really apply the information from the weather briefing before I decide its good to go? I think Im good there.

As a VFR pilot, I have pretty strict personal minimums, which are higher than the FAA VFR minimums. Do I actually look and see that the engine gauges are in the green before I rotate? I know my attention sharpens as I power-up for take-off but that could be too late.

For all the safety seminars on the potential of in-flight problems, it seems the assumption is that pre-flight routines do not need to be mentioned. Maybe not, but that little incident in the run-up area taught me to start out before I get to the airport with my attention sharp.

So now I try to treat each flight like its my first, but I also use the experience that I have gained along the way. I go down the checklist and really look at my gauges.

Is everything where its supposed to be? What does the magneto check tell me? Is the oil pressure really in the green or is it tickling the red? If so what do I do about it?

If you really look and understand what your plane is telling you before you get airborne it will mean fewer problems in the air.

As it turned out, the alternator in the Arrow was bad. I didnt fly that day, but Im still around to fly her again.

Plenty of Power
On a late January day I received the call I had been waiting for. My new engine had been installed. After a short test flight, I was ready to get flying.

I had been an inactive pilot for more than 20 years, but I was ready to get back into it. I hired Randy to instruct me on my return to the fold. Wed done a few hours in a Cessna 152, but as I got to the airport I was eagerly awaiting my chance to fly my Cherokee.

The preflight inspection was perfect, the new engine sounded great and all the gauges were in the green.

We started the lesson with a few touch and goes. The first two went fine. On the third I had just turned to the left downwind when I pulled the throttle back to maintain 80 mph without continuing the climb. Nothing happened. The engine was running at about 2400 rpm and the airspeed increased to 90.

Randy took control of the airplane and began to troubleshoot the problem. The throttle had no effect on engine speed, so he used the mixture control to reduce power for a safe landing.

Further inspection revealed that the shop that did the overhaul had neglected to key the accelerator pump and the cable had fallen off.

Its easy to make only a cursory peek into the engine compartment during the preflight inspection. But after this, I give it a better look than Id ever thought to do before.


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