I thought I would send you a note of something that really could have ruined my day.
I had asked a friend to go flying with me one evening. The sunsets here in North Dakota are fantastic and I thought she might really enjoy seeing them from a different perspective. I had already pre-flighted the airplane when she called and said she would be late. I told her I would take-off and do some landing drills while I awaited her arrival.
We have a small non-towered airport and I explained that when she arrived that she should park next to my vehicle on the ramp and keep her headlights on and I would then taxi to her and pick her up.
When she arrived I landed and taxied to her, facing the airplane toward the runway. I had started the shut down checklist when I noticed she had exited her car and started walking toward the airplane. I had already shut off the landing light, which on the Cherokee was on the cowling below the prop. The wing tip strobes and vertical fin strobe were still operating. The prop was still spinning at engine idle speed, about 1000 rpm. She was distracted by having something else on her mind and didnt notice that the prop was still spinning.
I started yelling at the top of my lungs trying to get her attention, but with no success. I had already reached for the mixture knob and had my hand on the keys for the magnetos when at the last minute she realized what she was doing and jumped backward just before she walked into the deadly prop.
After I shut down the airplane I explained the safety precautions one needs to follow when around airplanes. Namely, do not approach the airplane until you are given the all clear from the pilot. She was about three steps away from being mangled or even killed. I learned a very valuable lesson that evening: Dont assume your passengers know as much about the operations and safety precautions of your airplane as you do.
Funny How Rust Affects VORs
I frequently rent a Cessna Twin Crusader R303 for business trips in southern California. I have my multi-engine rating but like many general aviation pilots who fly primarily for business purposes, I never seem to find time to finish my instrument rating. Still, I have always taken some satisfaction in never purposely breaking or even bending the rules regarding flight in instrument conditions or succumbing to get-there-itis. If a 180-degree turn can be executed, how do so many pilots get into trouble?
Returning to Santa Barbara from a late afternoon business meeting in Riverside, I was proud to be taking along three business associates as my first passengers in the twin 6-place Cessna. I dutifully called for the standard briefing, filed my flight plan and completed the usual, thorough pre-flight. Santa Barbara weather was 10 miles with ceiling unlimited. Weather enroute was VFR but with an Airmet for occasional obscuration of mountains in smog & thick haze. Pretty much standard summertime fare in Southern California.
After an uneventful takeoff from Riverside, we began an en-route climb for our cruising altitude of 6,500 feet. By the time we reached 4,000 feet, I began to realize that the thick haze and smog over the Los Angeles basin, combined with light refraction from flying west into the sun, made it virtually impossible to see anything forward. By the time we reached 5,000 feet, I could no longer see the ground except very dim, brief patches down and to the rear. The more I tried to penetrate the white-out, the more I could begin to sense disorientation. I began looking outside only briefly, flying the gauges. I contacted the SoCal controller and told him I was descending to 4,500 feet to try to maintain VFR.
As we continued west into the L.A. soup basin, the visibility worsened. By now I could feel the perspiration beginning to flow and my heartbeat accelerate. I informed SoCal I was descending to 3,000 feet to try to maintain a semblance of VFR flight. Suddenly at about 3,000 feet, both the NAV1 and NAV2 navigation flags dropped. The mental edges began to fray with the first signs of panic as I suddenly realized I was below the tops of the San Gabriel mountain range somewhere off the right side of the aircraft. I could no longer see any ground except dim shapes and then only directly below.
I began frantically trying to troubleshoot the inoperative VORs. How can they both go to hell at virtually the same time? I frantically reset my hand-held Garmin GPS. I desperately peered into the haze and smog to locate the mountains. I turned left 30 degrees away from where I think the mountains should be. The GPS began to blink. It wouldnt reset because the batteries were dying. I frantically ripped through my flight bag to get the charger cord, but I couldnt find it.
SoCal Approach called, but the radio just barely readable. Were my comm radios going out, too?
Crusader 1234A. Traffic at 1 oclock, a westbound Cherokee, 2 miles. Altitude 3,100 feet. My blood ran cold. The controller immediately added, Say your altitude and position. We have you at 2,400 feet, heading 200 degrees. I frantically scanned the altimeter, gyro and attitude indicator. How did I get down here? I visualized my ex-wife and her attorney with my life insurance check.
Shakily, I advised SoCal, Crusader 1234A. SoCal, Im not sure of my position. Visibility is definitely IMC and my VOR has failed. Negative visual on the Cherokee.
SoCal replied, Crusader 1234A, we have your position 2 miles south of POM, now heading 190 degrees. If you climb back to 4,500 you should be able to pick up the VNY VOR on 113.1
This comedy of errors had overtaken me on a routine flight within a period of 15 minutes. Why was I shocked that I was at 2,400 feet? How is it possible that I had forgotten, even for a couple minutes, to fly the airplane? The Crusader has a service ceiling of 29,000 feet. Why was I frantically darting around down there when I could quickly and easily have gotten above the dust and haze?
With at least some visibility in the haze when looking away from the sun, why didnt I turn east, back to Riverside or fly another 15 minutes to a crystal clear Palm Springs? Why didnt I immediately realize that my VOR and communications problems were because I had dropped too low for reliable radio reception?
Why, with my thorough pre-flight, hadnt I checked the condition of my GPS power or located the alternate power cord? Why didnt I call flight watch and provide a PIREP advising of the IMC conditions to prevent another pilot from relying on the VFR briefing?
If the first signs of panic were beginning to set in, what would I have done with a real emergency during this time? Perish the thought!
Why had I, with a continual record of being the consummate safety-conscious pilot, let myself be drawn into a gradually deteriorating flight environment? How could this happen? Even now, months later, I am chagrined and embarrassed to realize the answer was simply low pilot proficiency.
After my experience, I dont believe there is such a thing as a truly proficient pilot with only a VFR rating. No pilot should consider he or she is truly proficient until IFR rated and comfortable in poor visibility conditions.
Just Dont Call Me Late for Dinner
During my flight training and subsequently thereafter Ive had more than one experience where the controller lost track of my call sign. The first time was with a CFI in the right seat. We were at Bartow, Fla., near Lakeland during Sun-n-Fun days. The pattern was very busy and we had been cleared to enter final.
Minutes later the controller made a call and no one answered. He called again, still no response. Finally the controller said Aircraft on final, if you are receiving you are cleared to land, but you will not be able to operate further at this airport without a working radio. At that point, my CFI responded with our call sign and asked the controller if he was talking to us.
I suppose this should be a no brainer, but for a low time (student) pilot it didnt seem obvious at the time to query ATC, particularly when things were busy. Now, if the call sign is similar and there is no other response, I ask Are you talking to me?
I Saw That Runway a Minute Ago
I read articles in aviation magazines and hear around the hangar that the best add on is an instrument rating. Almost everyone agrees that it is the most difficult to earn, but also the most useful. Everyone agrees that the instrument ticket certainly adds a great margin of safety to your flying.
As a recently annointed private pilot, I paid special attention to all the pros and cons regarding the instrument rating. Certainly, I thought, if I listened closely to the salty pilots around the airport and learned from their experiences, that would help me better decide what to do. It turned out that the best teacher of all would convince me that the instrument rating was absolutely necessary for me.
My wifes job requires that she travel all over the East Coast. She was one of the prime motivators when I talked to her about fulfilling a lifelong dream of learning to fly. She encouraged me and said, It would be very nice if you could fly me places. You know how I hate to drive.
Good enough reason for me. I worked steadily at my training and finally the FAA waved its magic wand and I was a private pilot.
Shortly thereafter, I bought a Cessna Skyhawk. With me in the left seat, the 172 transported my wife and I all over the East Coast, but always VFR. It was great until we ran into Ocean City, Md., and the fog.
We departed Danville, Pa., for a VFR night flight to Ocean City. FSS gave us a weather briefing that indicated it would be a perfect night for the trip. We flew southeast over Dover and along the Delaware Bay, always avoiding the restricted airspace. It was a crystal clear night, the airplane was purring and the needles were centered. I was enjoying it tremendously, but my wife had fallen asleep.
The GPS indicated we were 10 miles out and right on track. The lights of Ocean City and Atlantic City to the north shone brightly. It was 9:30 pm when I pulled the throttle back and began the descent to pattern altitude. I punched in the CTAF and announced my position and intentions. No reply and no one in the pattern.
At four miles out, I keyed the mic and lit up runway 32/14. There it was, just to the left of the nose. I announced downwind and began my pre-landing sequence.
While looking back over my left shoulder to gauge the turn to base, the lights, the runway and everything else disappeared. I had flown into a fog bank at 800 feet over the Atlantic Ocean. I instantly recalled time under the hood as a student and my instructors admonishment to stay on the gauges and believe what they say.
My scan was as rapid as my pulse. I remembered how to execute a 180-degree turn, not lose altitude and keep the airspeed steady. Less than two minutes later I broke out of the fog and saw runway 32 right were it should have been. What a beautiful sight!
I greased the landing and my wife woke up and said Nice job, honey. She had no idea what shed slept through. While we were tying down the plane the fog rolled over the field and it was thick enough to obscure the terminal building.
After that, I knew an instrument rating would be in my future. I keep current and file IFR even when the weather is good, just to get into the system. You never know when something unforeseen, like fog, will sneak up on you. I tell new pilots to prepare for the unexpected, get an instrument rating and keep current. It is some of the best insurance you can buy.
Fuel Problem Put the Pressure On
We had just made a fuel stop in the Cessna RG and had taken off again. We were climbing through 3,000 feet when the engine (with only 53 hours since overhaul) lost power. It was still producing some power, but nothing I did could bring back the healthy roar.
Vibration was higher than normal and a check of the panel revealed the only other abnormal indication was the fuel flow gauge at redline. My first thought was that all that fuel had to be going somewhere because it sure wasnt being burned. Was a fire imminent?
We turned back toward the airport, all the time watching for other signs of trouble. After a long 20 miles, we landed, carrying partial power throughout the approach. Once on the ground, the engine was running so roughly we shut it down and got towed to the maintenance facility.
Two fuel injectors were found plugged, but the fuel and air filters were found clear, so we never did find out where the debris may have come from. It may have come from the inside of a new hose that had been installed at the time of the overhaul.
I learned something about fuel injection from that. The fuel flow meter on the Cessna RG is actually a pressure gauge and the plugged injectors caused high pressure in the fuel line.
Not understanding that part of the fuel system not only caused unnecessary anxiety, but almost led me to take inappropriate action such as landing off-airport for fear of in-flight fire.
Dont make decisions based on false premises. Know how the switches and dials work and what they tell you.