Last week I was scheduled for my second solo flight, and I arrived at the airport (a controlled, class D field) ready and willing. It had been a rainy day up until that point, but the weather had broken, and it was now clear VFR with 10 miles of visibility and a scattered layer at about 6,500.
It was 4:00 pm, and I figured that I could get in at least a good hour before sunset. My first solo the day before had gone splendidly and I was feeling confident in my abilities to go up and do it again. I got my weather briefing, preflighted the aircraft, a 1998 Cessna 172R, and was all ready to start her up when I was interrupted.
My instructor, who had been in the pattern with another student, had just landed and was taxiing to the ramp. He gave me a signal to wait a minute. I figured that he wanted to wish me luck, so I sat there while he ran over to the plane and told me that he was concerned about the visibility and he wanted to go up with me to go once around the pattern before I went at it alone.
He called the conditions marginal VFR at best, despite what the weather briefer and the ATIS were saying. I wasnt happy about the news because it would cut into my solo time, and I didnt quite understand his concern because, from where I sat, it was nearly crystal clear out.
Even though my instructor has a reputation for being a bit paranoid, I didnt want to argue the point, because he is the instructor. So he and his other student climbed in and I took off.
Immediately after takeoff, I noticed that the heading indicator was not working. Had it not been for all the distractions, I probably would have noticed this on the ground. But thats no excuse. We got up to the traffic pattern altitude and, as I expected, you could see all the way across Long Island, from the north shore to the south shore. I was upset at the waste of time that this exercise had become, and now on top of everything, I had to go back to the FBO and swap planes, further wasting valuable daylight time.
We then got a radio call from the tower that we were cleared to land, number two behind a Cherokee. But our clearance included, But be prepared for possible wave-off and go around to allow for priority Learjet traffic on final approach.
As I turned final, my instructor decided that it would be a good time to familiarize me with the ILS, seeing as the heading indicator was out. He tuned the frequency and gave me a harried lesson in how useful the localizer is in this situation. Apparently, he also turned down our comm radio without me noticing to get rid of that annoying background chatter.
I was about three miles out, nicely on the glidepath, when the student in the back seat said, Uh, guys, that Learjet looks kind of close.
The smart thing to do would have been to make a go around on our own accord, considering that things are just a bit too close for comfort. But my instructor decided to speed up the approach. He gunned the throttle and we made 110 knots until about a mile out, when he slowed it to a normal approach speed.
When I called the tower after landing, I realized the radio volume was turned all the way down. My instructor sheepishly turned up the volume to hear the tower controllers inevitable wrath.
She told us to remain on frequency, the Learjet landed, and then she got back to us. She asked us what exactly the problem was. My instructor replied that we had radio issues. She then told us that the tower was shooting the light gun at us and that we should have heeded them if we were having radio trouble.
She was upset, and my instructor apologized profusely to all parties involved. Luckily thats all he had to do.
This experience has provided me with a valuable lesson on how several small distractions can compound to cause a significant problem. Any one of these issues individually would not have been enough to lead up to a bad situation, but when all of these ingredients are mixed together, the result can be very bad indeed. Luckily all turned out well, but it is not difficult to imagine how similar situations may not.
Too often the lure of adventure and exploration does not mix with safe flying. As a 17-year-old aviator with seven hours of solo time, I was on a cross-country flight across the openness of western Kansas in a Cessna 140.
Since I had flown over farm country for all of my previous flight time and I now felt alone in the airspace, I decided to explore the course of the Kansas River as it snaked through the rural area. I flew at treetop level following the bends of the river, turning one corner, then another. Suddenly, a surprised raft of ducks flushed off the water and screamed in front of my prop.
Luckily, I avoided contact, because a duck through the windshield could have meant disaster for the duck and also for me.
Something to consider when flying low, even if youre doing it in a way thats perfectly legal.
Frequency Shuffle Raises Risk
Is it possible to get ATC to change its radio frequency procedures? Over the last 10 years or so, controllers have begun working multiple frequencies simultaneously, which can create several problems.
When the traffic increases, transmissions get stepped on because pilots broadcasting on one frequency cant hear that other pilots are talking to the same controller on a different frequency. The result: Pilots are told to standby. Sure, they may just have a question or request, but they may need a prompt heading or altitude change to avoid thunderstorms or ice.
I learned to fly in the Air Force and spent 23 years flying for TWA. Currently I fly a Cessna 310 and have logged more than 17,000 hours. Recently I tried to get a course change to avoid thunderstorms. The controller told me to standby, and during the interim I altered my course. Then I made my request again. The controller said to standby again, but I could no longer wait. I deviated without clearance, maintaining my assigned altitude.
Finally he noticed my course change and wanted to know what was going on. I told him, and that was the end of it, but I wonder what would have happened to another pilot who was not so willing to deviate without clearing it with the controller first.
Race You to the Ground
You may think this kind of incident could never happen to you. Thats what I thought.
For 10 years I had been making a twice-a-year trip from Wisconsin to Atlanta for the NASCAR races in Hampton. Originally it was four of us plus baggage in a crowded Piper Archer. But the fates smiled on us and we started flying a regular group of eight in a Piper Chieftain for a semi-annual male-bonding weekend.
We always fly into Peachtree-DeKalb Airport north of Atlanta on Friday, stay in Atlanta until Sunday, then fly to nearby Tara Field, which is right next to Atlanta Motor Speedway. On this particular trip a couple of years ago we filled the mains and added some fuel to the aux tanks at PDK, then headed to the races.
Tara Field is one of those small county-run airports that seem deserted most of the year, but on the race weekends there are about 200 airplanes spread all over the field. They set up a temporary control tower for what amounts to a four-day fly-in.
We taxied to the ramp and they directed us to park in between the jets owned by Dale Earnhardt and Dale Jerritt. We paid the landing fee and put in an order to have the mains topped with 100LL.
After the race, we departed to the west on an IFR flight plan, but I noticed the airplane had problems climbing from the 4,000-foot runway, barely clearing trees at the end.
ATC vectored me to the north to fly over Hartsfield International at 5,000 feet, but while climbing through 3,500 I noticed a vibration from the left engine. It was minor, but was one of those things I noticed because I had 500 hours in that airplane.
By the time I was 10 miles from the departure airport, the airplane had stopped climbing at all. The EGTs spiked and the right engine started smoking and blowing oil from the cowling vents.
I advised ATC that I was unable to climb, then noticed the left engine was smoking as well. Both powerplants were detonating and shaking about six inches on the wings.
Hartsfield cleared me to land on 27L and, as I was on short final, advised me the engines were smoking. Well, I already knew that, but I wasnt about to shut down the engines and land short if they were producing any power at all.
I landed and then stared into the maw of a huge foamer, which they were kind enough not to use because the airplane was not burning.
The airplane limped along to an FBO, where we got out and relaxed. The airplane was covered with oil.
The next day, I called an FBO at Fulton County Airport, because there are no piston mechanics at Hartsfield. Two of them came out and discovered there was Jet A in the main tanks.
I had sumped the tanks before departure, but the mechanics said the 12 gallons Id taken on at Tara might not have shown up right away.
Back at Tara, they flat out denied mistakenly fueling my airplane with jet fuel. The FAA also got involved, and when they arrived at Tara they saw the part-time race-weekend fuelers defueling another airplane that had been misfueled. The airport manager finally admitted the ground crew had misfueled several airplanes.
Everything from the firewall forward on the Chieftain was ruined, but the airports insurance would only cover a portion of the expenses, prorated to TBO. It cost my company $40,000 to repair and took the airplane out of Part 135 charter for four months.
During this, I learned that, while aircraft that use Jet A are required to have larger fuel tank openings than planes that use avgas, there is no requirement that the fuel truck nozzles have to have the wide mouth.
In retrospect I could possibly have prevented some of the damage by switching to the auxiliary tanks when I saw the EGTs spike. On the other hand, by then most of the damage to the engines was probably already done.
We teach new students to look at the color of the fuel, but I guess I didnt that day. Smelling the fuel is another way to detect subtle changes.
I am not condemning small airports, but I have reservations about the practice of hiring part-timers to fuel airplanes during busy weekends. They dont know the differences among airplanes, even those that are placarded.
It can happen to you. Will you be ready if it does?