I learned some lessons recently about what it really means to be pilot-in-command, crew resource management, takeoff planning and personal minimums. I hold a commercial helicopter rating with private ASEL privileges and an instrument rating (obtained seven months ago). Total time is about 230 hours, with eight hours in actual IMC.
It was a typical winter day in the South, 48 degrees with a forecast of 1800 overcast, with temporary periods of 400-800 broken. It seemed like a good day to schedule some dual in actual IMC to maintain my IFR currency. Arriving at the airport, the temporary lower ceilings seemed a little more persistent than the forecast would indicate. On the non-precision approach to our satellite airport, I normally like to keep my personal minimums to 800 ft, with 500 feet for the ILS at the nearby Class C airport. When I expressed my doubts about the ceiling, the FBO manager said no problem, go for it.
My young flight instructor (who obtained his CFII the same day I got my instrument rating), said no problem. I reasoned that since I had an instructor, I could settle for slightly less than my own personal minimums.
Mistake #1: Your personal minimums have to remain fixed, no matter who else is in the aircraft. As we were getting settled into the aircraft, the FBO owner came out and said, the temperature/dew point spread is only about 1 degree, so be careful. Visibility can go to zero in a hurry. If that happens, shoot the ILS into the Class C and well come get you.
My instructor said the spread has been stable all day, so there shouldnt be a problem. I was uneasy and suggested delaying the flight until the next week, but my instructor urged me to go ahead.
Mistake #2: If you are pilot in command, make your own decision. Dont let others influence your judgment. As we taxied out, the defroster seemed to be working poorly. Most of my flying is in warmer weather, so I didnt realize the significance of that at the time. We received our clearance from the Class C approach control, lined up on the runway and made a clean takeoff.
Scanning the six-pack, I was just reaching for the radio to contact ATC as we entered some wispy clouds when my instructor said, we have smoke in the cockpit. Looking down at his feet, I noticed some light smoke coming from under the panel. I was reaching for the electrical switch when my instructor said, turn back for the runway now.
I nosed over into level flight and started a turn back to the runway, which was just visible through some thin clouds. Although I had always had a plan to land straight ahead in the event of engine failure on takeoff, I hadnt planned for other types of emergency that would require a return to the airport under power. Instead of just making a downwind landing on the 6000′ clear runway we had just departed, I began a tight traffic pattern for a normal landing.
Mistake #3: We didnt talk about emergency actions before takeoff. Review your emergency contingency plans immediately prior to entering the runway. By this time, the smoke had cleared, but the runway was only intermittently visible. My instructor was saying do you have the runway in sight? Keep it down out of these clouds, etc. I was worried about the Notam of an unlighted tower to the east of the airport, so I didnt want to get too low.
We were right on top of the approach end of the runway at about 400′ agl. As we began to circle back to the runway, it disappeared in the low clouds. Vertical visibility was good, so I could see landmarks below that told us where we were. About that time, my instructor saw the runway on his side of the airplane and I transferred control to him for the landing.
Mistake #4: We didnt use CRM very well. We should have split the duties with one concentrating on flying and one concentrating on looking for the runway. We taxied in, shut down, and called ATC to cancel the flight plan. It turned out that the defroster duct was loose and some oil that I had unknowingly dripped on the exhaust during preflight had caused the momentary smoke.
As we should have done to begin with, we scheduled to finish the flight a week later when the weather wouldnt be quite so close to minimums. The FBO manager tore up my Hobbs card saying, You shouldnt have to pay for having that much excitement.
Actually, I learned more about real-world flying on this flight than in all my previous training combined. Be adamant about your personal minimums, have an emergency plan and review it prior to takeoff, use your crew resources wisely, and most of all, when you are pilot-in-command, you have to act like pilot-in-command and trust your own judgment.
Suffer Jet City
The day I went out to the airport to begin my checkout in a Cessna 172 RG was a rather scuzzy day, with clouds and scattered rain showers. My flight instructor and I discussed the weather after evaluating the ASOS and decided to go ahead with the flight, as it was going to be conducted in the pattern of the Class D airport with the tower being active.
We had been practicing the usual routines that went with a complex aircraft checkout and had done several touch and goes. On this particular one we had announced downwind and had been cleared to land and just turned base when a Citation roared into view from a long straight-in approach.
We notified the tower of what was happening and immediately the Citation was told to go around. The Citation was probably operating on an instrument flight plan but had not been handed off to the tower in time to let them know where it was.
We continued our approach from the base leg to final with no further incident. The lesson learned here was to be ever vigilant and look outside even in a controlled airport environment, where you tend to give up the control to the ATC people.
No. 2, No. 3, Whats the Difference?
On a rare CAVU day this Oregon winter, the tower was extremely busy with arrivals, departures and touch-and-go traffic. For some reason, they chose that hectic hour to put a nervous young trainee on the tower microphone.
When he had worked me into the arrival sequence, and I was past the numbers on a left downwind, the new controller called me with traffic: follow the Arrow on half-mile final. I glanced back to my left and saw an airplane down low on short final, and responded I have the Arrow in sight. The tower cleared me for landing, Youre number two, follow the Arrow, and I advised my left turn to base.
As I turned final, I glanced to my right and saw a T-tailed Arrow sharing the final approach corridor, a couple hundred feet away and coming right at me. I had cut him off. He reacted by quickly banking away to his right, and after my own startled bank to the left, I straightened out and continued on to the runway, trying to figure out what had gone wrong.
Like many accidents we read about, this close encounter was caused by a chain of errors – mine and the controllers. I had forgotten the tower had earlier issued a straight-in clearance to an airplane, apparently the Arrow, when he was still several miles out. I hadnt paid attention to that airplanes description at the time or it might have clicked when I was looking for an Arrow on half-mile final.
I had misidentified the airplane on short final, thinking it was the Arrow, but looking back I realize it was probably not even a low-wing airplane. If you dont pay close attention, you are likely to see what you expect to see instead of what is really there.
For his part, the kid in the tower had badly misjudged the Arrows distance when he called him at a half-mile, since he was still well outside my base leg when I turned from the downwind. Or else, like me, he had confused the Arrow with the airplane on short final. Plus, he had lost count of the airplanes that had been cleared to land, calling me #2 when I was actually #3 behind both the short final and the Arrow doing the straight-in.
I cant really blame the Arrow pilot, since he was where he was supposed to be, although he seems to have been oblivious of my position in the pattern and the fact that I had announced a base turn. He located me stumbling around in his way just in time to avoid slam-dancing, but in his place I hope I might learn to be more attentive to the competition around me.
Pay attention not only to the location of the traffic called, but also to the description and learn to distinguish one airplane type from another. Form a visual picture of the traffic in the pattern, and dont forget about the guy doing a long straight-in.
Dont trust the distance estimates from the fellow in the tower. And dont count on the controller to keep things straightened out – he may be as screwed up as you are.
Stealth Mode Maule?
One afternoon, after doing my runup, I did my normal spin to scan upwind, downwind and final. Seeing nothing, I started pulling onto the runway and announced my intentions.
As I moved past the hold-short line, I turned the plane toward the approach end to take another look – just to be sure. Sure enough, I saw a Maule on short final just as I heard him on the radio asking me if he was invisible.
I made a quick turn trying to clear the runway, but was blocked by the guy following me, who had already crossed the hold line. I got as far off to the side as I could and the Maule did his touch and go. Then he left.
So, where did he come from? He had been in the pattern the whole time, trying to practice landings. Ten minutes earlier as I was leaving my tie-down spot, I saw and heard one pilot depart the opposite direction on the same runway while the Maule was on final. I stopped to do a VOR check on the way to the runway and I saw and heard the local commuter pilot pull his Caravan onto the runway and depart ahead of the same Maule, which was on short final at the time.
I wont say what I was thinking about those two obviously unsafe pilots. It wasnt nice.
I will say that the Maule pilot was very polite when he asked the commuter for a radio check, which went unanswered. And the very next pass he made, I pulled out in front of him just like everyone else had.
Its nice to think that looking and seeing are the same thing, but they werent that day. I know I looked, but I didnt see. And I learned that the guy who just cut you off may not be as rotten a pilot as you think he is, because, as Pogo said, Ive met the enemy and he is us.
The pilot on final has the right of way, so he isnt the one who would have caused the crash. The guy pulling onto the runway in front of him would be.
Theres (Half) a Man on the Wing
Recently after calibrating the tip tanks on my Cherokee 235 I took off to do some touch-and-goes just as refresher training. Did I get a surprise.
I had not flown for a couple of weeks due to maintenance on my plane and wanted to gain additional skills in handling in moderate crosswind. I am a low-time pilot with approximately 200 hours and have only owned the airplane for five months.
Calibrating the tanks and replacing an o-ring seal on the right tip quick drain valve had resulted in gross imbalance with 15 gallons in the left tip and 0 gallons in the right tip tank. The mains were somewhat equal at about 12-15 gallons each.
During the takeoff roll I experienced a major imbalance, with the right wing wanting to lift while the left wing was firmly planted. I needed to crank in about 30 degrees of aileron control to correct for the imbalance at takeoff. At about the same time the light bulb came on in my brain as to the cause.
I did a quick pattern and attempted to land. With a moderate crosswind and 90 pounds too much on the left tip, my landing approach was so poor that I aborted the landing with the wheels only briefly touching.
I decided to work off the left tank for 30 to 40 minutes to reduce the balance problem, after which the landing was much better. I have now worked out a fuel plan based on passenger distribution and using a maximum moment offset of 25 percent of what I experienced with that fuel imbalance.