Cutting corners as a freight pilot – and regretting it

Editor’s Note: This is the latest article in our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: editor@airfactsjournal.com

After my retrenchment from a Pacific island airline where I had been flying Boeing 737s, I returned home to Melbourne unemployed. Being in my middle fifties, I was offered no hope of a job with any of the union-dominated airlines, commuters included.

Finally, I was rewarded when the chief pilot of a charter company said he might be able to give me some casual work. Told that maintaining schedules was paramount to the success of the business, I was quietly urged to speed up my cockpit checks, taxi faster, cut corners in the circuit and generally forget airline habits (whatever that meant).

One evening, because of a delay in loading, I arrived back at Melbourne’s Essendon airport ten minutes late, and despite my explanation, was castigated by a newly promoted 27-year old senior pilot. My job was on the line, and being desperate to hold it until something better came along, I began to cut corners like a “real” GA pilot – albeit very reluctantly, I should hasten to add.

My trips now required me to fly from Essendon to Bairnsdale (140 miles) in the morning, stay in a motel all day, then after loading my freight, fly a short hop to West Sale – more freight – then finally back to Essendon with a night landing.

Baron
Load ’em up and get flying!

On this particular day, the Baron I was flying was one that the freight company had cross-hired. The morning flight to Bairnsdale was normal with the aircraft showing no apparent defects. After refuelling, I put in the control locks, and went off to the motel for the day. Not having flown this particular Baron before, I spent time reading its Flight Manual.

When I saw it was privately owned and who owned it, I vaguely recalled someone mentioning that the owner had experienced expensive troubles with repeated failure of the alternator warning lights. However, as the current maintenance release was clear of defects I assumed the aircraft was fully serviceable and gave the matter no further thought. At 7pm I returned to Bairnsdale airport to await the freight which arrived on time, much to my relief. After securing the cargo nets, I took off for West Sale (40 miles) and landed on schedule just before dark.

To my dismay, thanks to a flat tyre en route, the freight van at West Sale arrived at the airport ten minutes late and I began to sweat about the future of my job. Some bulky but light cartons were finally forced into the Baron, but despite much pulling and cursing I was unable to lock down the cargo nets again. I finally decided I would have to get going – and fast – so leaving the nets unsecured and draped over the freight I hastily started the engines, did a Battle of Britain scramble, and set course over the hills for Essendon.

As a safety precaution the nets were completely useless – and I knew it. Some 25 minutes later, and 45 DME from Essendon I noticed that the instrument panel lights becoming dim. Being in cloud, and feeling weary as well as tense at the thought of receiving another rocket for being late, I adjusted my glasses and put the problem down to imagination – and advancing years. After the excellent lighting of the 737, I had found that most GA aircraft had lousy illumination and it worried me sometimes. Tonight was no exception.

Soon afterwards the ADF needle began to wander aimlessly and the VOR flag became intermittent. The instrument panel lighting was getting worse and I suspected an electrical problem was in the offing. This was puzzling, because both alternator red warning lights were still extinguished and the load meters showed an ever so slight charge rate.

Melbourne at night
A glimpse of Melbourne before going back into IMC… with no cockpit lights.

When 35 miles from Essendon, the DME failed, leaving me in cloud at night with no radio navigation aids. Fortunately, just a few moments previously, I had glimpsed the glow of Melbourne’s city lights in the distance before going back into solid IMC.

I called ATC and advised them that I might lose radio contact due to an electrical malfunction. The controller had just enquired: “Are your operations normal?” when I lost all lighting in the cockpit. Happily, I had a small torch in my pocket, so continuing to fly with one hand, while using torchlight to see the instrument panel I checked all the circuit breakers were in. I aimed for the glow in the clouds as I neared Melbourne while attempting to keep out of clouds as much as possible. Occasional glimpses of ground lights indicated low cloud base between 700 and 1,500 feet, and the rest of the cloud seemed to be about five-eighths cover. I finally spotted Essendon’s runway lights below me, but they quickly disappeared in a patch of cloud.

At least I had fixed my position so it was simply a case of flying the aircraft with one hand and trying not to drop the torch which I was holding with the other. I planned to spiral down carefully below the main cloud base, and land normally. Selecting the landing gear lever to down, I was startled to see that nothing happened. The landing gear is electrically operated, and of course I had no battery power remaining.

While pondering a solution, I suddenly found myself in a 60 degree bank – my torch beam having wandered off the artificial horizon as my concentration lapsed. I was thankful that I was experienced in night IMC flying – “black hole” approaches into tiny Pacific atolls had kept my cross reference skills up to scratch.

Fortunately I was aware of the basic emergency drills for lowering the landing gear and after pulling the appropriate gear motor circuit breaker, groped in the dark to find the emergency gear handle. In the Baron it is situated in a difficult position just aft and between the pilots’ seats. I now discovered that because I had failed to tie the freight down, some of the packages had worked themselves over the handle assembly. I could have done with three hands – one to fly, one to aim the torch at the artificial horizon, and one to shift the boxes!

Circling with only partial visual contact, and unaware that I was straying near the ILS approach path to nearby Melbourne International airport – and that ATC were watching me on radar like a hawk as two 747s were inbound – I finally succeeded in shifting the freight out of the way, and reached blindly again for the emergency gear lowering handle. It operated freely for only five or six turns then jammed. Normally 50 turns were needed to lock down the landing gear. So what was wrong now? Once again I had to guard against overbanking as I tried to look down and aim the torch at the emergency gear handle.

Not being completely familiar with lowering the gear manually (I only had about five hours on type) I decided I’d better confirm exactly which way the handle should wind – clockwise or anti-clockwise, because it was jamming in both directions. Fortunately fuel endurance wasn’t an issue, and providing I didn’t drop the torch and break it, or flatten its battery, or worse still, lose control in cloud, I felt confident of sorting out the landing gear problem.

Baron gear extension handle
Trying to fly, keep the lights on and crank down the gear – in IMC.

I scrabbled in the dark for the Flight Manual situated in the glove box over the far right side of the cockpit, and carefully placed it on my lap. Now have you ever tried simultaneously flying an aircraft at night with one hand, watching the flight instruments, and trying to read the manual’s emergency index? All the while waving a torch between the instrument panel and your knee? The book slides off your knees because you have to keep your feet apart on the rudder pedals and your knees together to hold the book. Wearing trifocal glasses is no help either!

Anyway, between much wing waggling and semi-visual navigation, I eventually found the right page and proceeded to read the small print – and I can tell you for someone of mature age in that situation, it was very small print indeed.

Having now confirmed the correct direction of handle rotation I had managed some 20 full turns when it jammed rock solid. By now I had lost a fair amount of skin from my right hand – thanks to the handle, pieces of broken plastic and sundry bits of fuselage all being in close proximity to each other. With blood on my hand I was in a fair amount of pain.

Forcing myself to stay calm, I faced the embarrassing possibility that a wheels-up landing might be the only way out. I was angry with myself for being such an idiot because failure to secure the freight was not only a clear breach of the regulations, but worse still, an example of poor airmanship. I vowed that never again would I be pressured into potentially dangerous situations by fears of job security. I am sure that most commercial pilots have been down through a similar road at some time or other in their career, but inevitably history repeats itself and good resolutions of GA pilots are tempered by the reality of earning a crust.

All this drama over Melbourne had taken about 20 minutes. Now, as an afterthought, I turned on the aircraft master switch which had previously been turned off to conserve battery power. Delighted to see the VHF selector glowing a faint green I quickly set 7700 into the transponder and transmitted that I was unable to lower the gear. No sooner had I pressed the VHF transmit button when everything went dead again and I was back to square one.

At this stage I was orbiting Essendon airport, which I could see 2,000 feet below me, and I was fairly confident I could stay close in, despite frequent cloud penetration. I did not want to descend further until I was ready for an approach, because I needed the altitude for which to recover from any unusual attitude that may have occurred while flying, reading and winding by torchlight.

I made a few more attempts to free the now jammed emergency gear handle but finally gave up in disgust; My hand hurt, I was tired and irritable and my flying was becoming sloppy. I decided I would have to belly land within the next ten minutes – worried that that if the torch battery went flat, events could go swiftly from bad to worse.

The idea of a wheels-up landing did not worry me too much in itself; but the thought of being crucified by officialdom for not tying down the freight, weighed heavily. I had enjoyed a reasonably trouble free career as an airline pilot – but I’d certainly stuffed it now in GA.

Three green landing gear lights
Three green for a second – good enough for freight flying.

After a few minutes thinking through the proposed belly landing, I switched on the battery for one final call to Essendon to warn them I was coming in – ready or not. Again, a faint glimmer of green on the VHF light. It then struck me that if there was some power restoration in the flattened battery, the normal gear mechanism might work. Pushing in the main landing gear circuit breaker (pulled as part of the emergency lowering drill), I selected “down” on the main gear switch. Within a couple of seconds I heard a reassuring thump below. It was like music to my ears. At the same instant the green down lights glowed momentarily then went out. Next there was total darkness as I flew into a thick patch of cloud.

It was good enough for me. I had seen three greens before the battery finally died. Using my one handed torch technique, I descended in and out of low cloud into the circuit at Essendon. I had no flaps or landing lights and no real certainty that all three wheels were locked –but with the aid of the torch aimed at the ASI, the approach and touch-down was OK. I decided to stop the aircraft on the runway while I tied a handkerchief over my right hand which was bit messy. Then I taxied to the freight terminal where the waiting van driver grumbled about my late arrival. I put the aircraft to bed (we did not have the luxury of on-the-spot maintenance staff), installed the gust locks and wrote in the maintenance release: “Total electrical failure and emergency gear handle jammed.”

In a rather feeble effort at sick humour, I then left a spot of blood on the maintenance release! The few remaining staff on duty weren’t the slightest bit interested in my problem apart from complaining I was late as usual. So I kicked started my old Honda motor bike, and drove through the night to the welcoming lights of home.

After a kiss and a “Did you have a nice flight, dear” from my ever-loving spouse, I phoned Melbourne ATC and apologized for disorganizing their flow control. Then I rang the DCA air safety people to explain things. Next day I filled in the mandatory incident report form (omitting to mention that the freight had not been secured) and gave it to my chief pilot for on-forwarding to DCA. Wonders of wonders, they never received it – possibly because it never left our company office – after all, a DCA investigation might turn up a few secrets when it came to poor maintenance.

That day I had a closer look at the emergency gear handle. A maintenance engineer who had seen my write up (and blood spots) in the maintenance release told me that he could find nothing wrong with the electrical system – apart from a flat battery and a popped circuit breaker which was part of the generator control system. Although I believed I had checked all the circuit breakers after the electrics had failed, this one vital circuit breaker hidden from sight beneath the instrument panel had evaded me. I was unaware of its presence because its label on the front of the main circuit breaker panel had been ripped off. Some Barons had this circuit breaker – others did not. The Baron in which I had done my initial conversion did not have this circuit breaker. A prime example of Murphy’s Law!

I wondered when and why the invisible circuit breaker had popped – and why no alternator warning light operation? The latter was easily answered. There were no bulbs in the generator lamp module, only the transparent red plastic light covers! The earlier repeated problems with the alternator warning lights blowing had proved too expensive for the owner, so he simply removed the light bulbs and put the red covers back in place. He conveniently omitted to record his actions in the aircraft maintenance release which when I took over the aircraft was squeaky clean i.e. no recorded defects.

So what about the hidden alternator control circuit breaker?   If one wriggled oneself under the instrument panel to fit the rudder gust lock, the defect was clear. In the Baron, the elevator and aileron control lock consists of a large metal pin that in turn fits into a matching channel drilled in the axis of the master control column. Attached to this pin by a length of retaining wire is a metal bar, designed to be placed in between the rudder pedals, so forming a rudder lock.

On this particular Baron, the wire was too short and it took a lot of fiddling under the instrument panel to fit the rudder lock correctly. When so fitted, the retaining wire came up hard against the side of the hidden alternator control circuit breaker. Apparently when I removed the gust lock mechanism at Bairnsdale, the retaining wire jagged the collar of the circuit breaker, pulling it out.

Unwittingly I then flew two sectors at night on battery power alone – including two engine starts. With the absence of alternator warning lights (remember they had been removed from their sockets) to indicate all was not well, I did not monitor the load meters closely. And when the battery gave up the ghost 35 miles from Essendon, the load meters showed a slightly positive needle position only because it was their electrical zero.

I lost my job with that company. No reason was given but I knew that it was because I didn’t cut corners fast enough. Three months later that same Baron still had no alternator warning lights, no decal to indicate the whereabouts of the hidden alternator control circuit breaker under the instrument panel, and the wire of the control lock mechanism was still too short – it still passed within a cat’s whisker of the circuit breaker collar. Despite these defects, the maintenance release stayed clean – except for a tiny stain of dried blood in one corner.

Oh yes – I almost forgot to add that the reason for the jamming of the emergency gear handle was damage to its mechanism probably caused by heavy freight resting on it. The protective heavy plastic cover in place to protect the handle from external forces, had shattered from years of abuse. This aircraft had passed numerous previous scheduled inspections – speaking volumes for the standard of maintenance countenanced by its owner and the complacent attitude of the GA pilots who flew it.

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10 Comments

  • Thank you for telling the truth. It is invaluable for aviation’s future. Newbies need to know the realities of flying, and I applaud your courage and willingness to keep the faith with your fellow aviators. I’d fly with you any day.

  • Well done John.

    The photograph used to illustrate the emergency gear crank in the item shows a condition which will prevent emergency extension without “modification” of the spar cover. This is not an uncommon problem ex maintenance where it has been necessary for the spar cover to be removed. What is illustrated is the handle in its disengaged and folded position with the handle trapped behind the spar cover. The cover has been refitted without ensuring the handle is “outside” the cover. Very embarrassing and a good reason the emergency gear handle is checked on every pre flight in any Bonanza or Barron.

    On another note the working life and job security of many Australian GA pilots has been transformed over time by the proactive work of the Australian Pilots Federation (Union). It is a unique association in that it has always represented all professional pilots in Australia regardless of there working environment and has successfully fought many unfair dismissal actions in the Australian legal system.

    I feel John may have been a little unfair in branding the airlines in Australia as “union – dominated”. In over 50 years of involvement at all levels aviation activity in Australia I cannot recall any occasion where the union interfered with any employment policy or decisions save working to allow access regardless of gender.

    Keep the items coming John they are well written and always enlightening.

  • John,
    Very interesting story that hits home, as I too flew a Baron in a freight business. I guess I was more fortunate, as I owned the plane and leased it to the operator, and only flew it on occasion as a fill in pilot. But I controlled the maintenance.

    Also, a good lesson in training, and knowing differences. For the most part all Barons are similar, excepting the big panel change in ~1984. That “gotcha” with the hand crank under the spar cover is in all of them, and, yes a minor but necessary part of preflight.

    Also, a great lesson on allowing oneself to succumb to an unsafe operation. That still goes on today, but much less than in the past, thank God.

    Another comment that John Raby made regarding unions…. here in the US, unions dominate the airline business and it’s all seniority. No consideration for past experience or if a pilot is just lousy… as long as he passes the minimum standard. However, perhaps that’s not all bad, and the unions did a lot for safety, which today is excellent.

    I would like liked to have seen you with an opportunity to fly 737s or similar after retirement. There is little hope for a retired or furloughed airline pilot without starting over at the bottom. Sucks.

    However, you really handled it well, and a great story with lots of good reminders on safety and maintenance.

  • Good story, mate. It does give credence to the woes that befall freight flying. I, too, can attest to those. Thankfully, most younger pilots heading to commercial jobs will never have to test their mettle through such recklessness as you see in many Part 135 operators. But, I suppose, those calamities help teach you how to maintain your cool when things go sower, huh?

  • A very good article on dealing with external pressures.

    I am curious about the manual gear extension procedure. Isn’t the landing gear handle supposed to be moved to the down position with the circuit breaker pulled before manual extension? You noted that you moved the landing gear handle to down once you turned the battery back on.

  • Wow, I read this one at the edge of my seat. Doing all that at once could have ended poorly for someone less cool headed and skilled.

    During my primary training we had to follow checklists, including testing the annunciator panel to ensure warning lights were functional, goes to show that it isn’t for naught. Thanks for sharing your experience!

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