What it takes to be one sharp pilot: pragmatic

It’s far from one of the seven deadly sins…

Pragmatic: Dealing with things sensibly and realistically in a way that is based on practical rather than theoretical considerations.

That does sound like a pretty good flying plan for private aviation. I say that because our flying is unscripted and flexible as opposed to, for example, airline flying which is anything but unscripted and flexible and is not always based on practical considerations.

I’ll give you an example of what I mean. It relates to the power failure at the Atlanta airport on Sunday, December 17th. Son Richard and his wife, Ginny, had been here visiting and left BWI at 12:40 bound for Atlanta on Southwest. The power at the airport had gone off at 12:30, crippling the entire terminal facility. The fight arrived, on time, at 2:40, two hours and ten minutes after the power failed.

The airplane was parked close to a gate but the jetways were not working. There was only one set of stairs available so each flight had to wait its turn to use the stairs. Richard and Ginny waited two and a half hours for their turn, at which time they deplaned onto the ramp and then at the insistence of the TSA, went up the stairs into the powerless terminal.

ATL power outage
The airlines were going to ATL, whether there was power or not.

They had quite an adventure finding their way through the darkened concourse, using illumination from cell phones, and, after a really long walk, they finally got on a Marta train to head for home.

The point is that the airline was wired to go to Atlanta and nothing else. Anybody flying a private airplane could have gone to any of the many other airports that might have been in range. That would have been much more practical, or, pragmatic. We get to do what we want to do when we want to do it and when we look at both sides of that coin our freedom has resulted in a lot of accidents.

I have always had a keen interest in aviation safety and have read every accident report issued since I started in the magazine business in 1958. I have also read most of the press reports on accidents. Most of all, I have vicariously reflown most of my flights as well as carefully considered flights by friends and acquaintances, some of which did not have a happy ending. Understanding what leads to crashes has been, to me, a practical way of learning to manage the risks.

I’ll share a few things that I picked up over the years that relate to this subject. Some who know me might inject another “p” word, paranoia, because I have been accused of being obsessed with a few things.

Fuel is at the top of my list. I have read of so many accidents that resulted from fuel exhaustion, fuel mismanagement, fuel starvation, fuel contamination as well as misfueling that I long ago resolved to remove that from my risk list. I was determined that no fuel problem was going to get the best of this Collins boy.

Even the FAA will tell you that fuel problems are the usual cause of power failures and 20-percent of the power failures result in fatal accidents. Three fourths of these are caused by something the pilot did or did not do.

I can say with a straight face that once I got over the young and foolish part of my flying, at about age 20, I never intentionally landed without an hour of fuel on board. I did land with a bit less once because the airport was closed due to a gear-up landing on the main runway as I was arriving. I circled over the airport for a few minutes while things were sorted out and that few minutes came out of my one-hour reserve.

I was flying from Illinois to Maryland one day with a rare eastbound headwind. I knew of the wind but it was far stronger than forecast and it put my fuel reserve in doubt. I kept figuring and refiguring and finally told the other experienced pilot in the airplane that my hour wouldn’t be there when we landed in Frederick so we landed in Martinsburg for fuel.

It is 28.2 nautical miles from MRB to FDK. I thought I was being pragmatic and practical and realistic and careful and all that. I think the other pilot thought I was pretty dumb to stop that short of the destination for gas. I did it then, though, and I would do it every time. Drawing lines in the sky and never crossing them always seemed like a good idea to me.

Checking fuel
How much fuel do you have? Best look in the tank.

There is no way to make a fuel plan unless you know how much fuel is in the tanks to start with. The only way to be certain is to look in the tanks. That’s easy on a low-wing airplane. I carried a small step ladder in my P210 so I could climb up to have a look inside the tanks.

As a practical matter, the average top-off of my P210 left the airplane from four to eight gallons short of really full. The tanks were relatively long and flat and most line folks had been yelled at for spilling gas so when the level was about an inch or so from the top of the tank, they would quit pumping. The only practical way to deal with this was to supervise the fueling and egg the line person on to pump until the fuel was level with the top of the wing. Only then did it have the advertised 89 gallons usable in the wing tanks. That wasn’t important on every flight but it was quite important on some flights.

I stopped for fuel at an airport in the high plains one extremely cold and windy day, like -4F with gusts to 35. And, yes, even in severe conditions I did drain the sumps after every refueling, not just to check for water but to make sure the liquid in the tank smelled like pure unadulterated 100 LL.

This day I saw something I had never seen before. There were what appeared to be tiny ice crystals in the fuel. My airplane was a P210N and I knew that the next model, the P210R, had been having trouble with power failures caused by fuel system icing, mainly because the temperature inside the cowling was cooler than in the older airplane. Still, as a practical matter, could that affect my airplane?

The recommendation for the R model was Prist in the fuel. Even though it took a little doing, I located an appropriate amount of Prist, climbed my little ladder, and put it in the tanks. I’d add that even with L. L. Bean’s heaviest coat I froze my butt off doing this but in the end it was worth it. Pardon the bad pun, but, every now and then. . .

One day and evening my airplane was tied down outside through a big rainstorm and apparently the seals in the fuel caps had deteriorated. There was water in the fuel sample the next morning. I am here to tell you that getting all the water out of 210 fuel tanks is a real chore. Drain, rock the wings, drain again, rock the wings, drain, and repeat until the samples are free of water. Even after doing that, a little residual water showed up in fuel samples for quite a while after the event.

I remembered a Mooney that had sat outside in a rainstorm at my home base and after what was apparently a rather hurried departure, the engine quit and the Mooney and pilot were no more. Definitely something to avoid.

My father had a Piper Clipper (PA-16) that you might say was developed “on the cheap” because all the money from the post-World War Two boom had gone bust. The four-seat airplane was developed from the two seat Vagabond (PA-15) and one of the modifications was the addition of a fuel tank. There was a placard declaring that one of the two tanks was for use in level flight only.

You guessed it. My father took off with the level flight only tank selected, the engine quit soon after takeoff, and the resulting off-airport landing hurt the airplane but thankfully not the occupants. He traded the remains of the Clipper on the PA-20 Pacer that he and I flew for a long while. Either tank is okay for takeoff and climb in a Pacer.

There was definitely a trap in that Clipper fuel system which was a common thing back in the good old days. Human factors had not become a concern and the convoluted nature of some of the fuel systems would test the mettle of even the best pilots if they did not use a checklist religiously.

A fellow I knew, an experienced pilot, made a rapid turn onto the runway in his Baron and took off. He admitted that he was showing off a little for the crowd gathered at a fly-in.

Right after liftoff, one engine quit and he put on quite a show cartwheeling down the runway. Fortunately, only the airplane was hurt. Beech was well aware that with low fuel it could unport during a rapid turn before takeoff with a resulting power interruption a bit later, at a bad time. There was warning of this in the owner’s manual (what became the POH) and checklist but they did eventually fix the problem after being accused of malfeasance.

Fueling a Cessna 172
Avgas or jet fuel?

A final thought on pragmatism and fuel relates to misfueling, specifically, putting jet fuel in the tanks of an airplane with one or more piston engines. This was a big problem for a while and it can still occur.

This happened to twins a lot more than singles, mainly because a lot of turboprops twins were developed from piston twins which meant they were look-alikes on the ramp. More than one fueling technician (ramp rat) said he thought a misfueled airplane was a turboprop because it had polished aluminum (or chrome) prop spinners. I mentioned that I smelled my fuel to make sure it was pure avgas. I guess my polished spinner made me do that.

Then one day I read a report of a crash at an airport I had been to not long before. The crash involved an airplane I had flown when I was there, and the injured pilot was the person I had flown that airplane with. The piston twin Aero Commander, which looks a lot like the turboprop Commander, had been topped off with jet fuel and the power failed soon after takeoff.

I thought that pilot was about as careful as they come but he got caught in a simple trap. After that, I not only checked the bill for the correct fuel and then smelled my gas, I poured a little on my fingers and rubbed them together to see if the substance had any of the oily property of kerosene (jet fuel). If that is being paranoid instead if pragmatic, count me in.

When considering realism and practical (over theoretical) considerations, we have to look at the misconceptions that many pilots have about how we view and deal with airplanes. There is often a difference between what pilots think is true and what is really true.

Mike Busch (Savvy Aviation and an AOPA PILOT columnist) is one of the most respected technical people in our business. He reported on an engine conference and one of the things covered there was a study done by an FAA engineer of power loss accidents in the 2000-2014 time period.

Mike said, as a Cessna 310 owner, he was shocked to learn from the FAA engineer that the fatal power-loss accident rate for piston twins is more than twice the rate for piston singles.

I first learned that was true over 50 years ago and have written about it many times over those years. The twin-lovers always say I am slamming their airplanes and that this doesn’t consider all the twins that are landed safely after an engine failure but all I am doing is quoting fact. What matters is the rate at which they bite the dust, twins at twice the rate of singles; the number dodging the bullet is of no consequence.

I’m not slamming twins, either. I always enjoyed flying them. I am slamming the pilots who buy twins and do not maintain the level of proficiency required to operate the airplanes after the failure of one engine. A practical and realistic twin pilot acknowledges that his pride and joy can become a stone-cold killer after an engine failure if the pilot is not sharp, really sharp.

Flying weather is an area where being practical and realistic comes into play big time, at least to me.

Clouds in sky
Who cares about the TAF – what you see is what you get.

I was always interested in weather and had I been able to stay awake in classrooms and kept up the old studies, I would have probably gone for a degree in meteorology.

Instead, I immersed myself in the subject by poking holes in clouds with light airplanes and learning as much as I could about how those clouds got there and how to deal with them while taking as little risk as possible.

I wrote a book about this, Flying the Weather Map, in 1979. Most of the book was based on the practical aspects of flying trips in various weather conditions. Because I did also nibble at the edges of the science of meteorology in the book, I thought it best to have it reviewed by a real meteorologist or two. One was an academic, the other was a practicing weatherman and pilot.

The academic said the manuscript was an insult to the scientific community because meteorology shouldn’t be viewed in practical terms. I found an example of what he meant in an exchange with another non-pilot meteorologist. I had written of the bad flying conditions found as a front occludes. He said that conditions are weakening in an occlusion. I said if he ever flew in an area where a front was occluding he would agree that it is, from a practical standpoint, a miserable place to fly, weakening or not.

The weatherman/pilot who read the manuscript found a few small items he said I should fix but that was about it.

I think the main thing that I learned about weather over the years is that what you see and feel is what you get. The study of the science of meteorology can help and the study of all the available information before and during a flight can help a bit more. Nothing changes the fact that you are dealing with Mother Nature, though, and you know the old saying about what she can be and often is. Pilots just have to deal with that.

Pragmatism is helpful in a lot of flying areas other than those discussed here. If you go back and look again at the definition of pragmatic at the first of this post, I think you’ll see what I mean about it being a good plan for risk management, as outlined in the few examples offered here.

Note: This is the fifth in a series of articles from Richard Collins about “what it takes to be one sharp pilot.” Read the others here.

17 Comments

  • The fuel restriction on your father’s PA-16 Clipper was not Piper’s fault. It came from the factory with a 12 gallon cabin tank and an 18 gallon tank in the left wing. The fuel restriction placard is part of the STC for removing the cabin tank and installing a second wing tank in the right wing. It did not come from the factory with this restriction.

  • Richard– insightful and… pragmatic… as usual. Your essay called to mind a simple, probably simplistic, categorization of private pilots: those who fly to move fast, boost their egos, or show off; and those who fly because they love everything about aviation, including the details of why and how. In the heat of my infatuation with aviation, I subscribed to just about every GA magazine, bought every good book (including several of yours), took safety classes, studied weather and aerodynamics, studied accident reports in detail, and on and on. My wife commented that “You just can’t get enough of airplane stuff, can you?” It seemed to me that such detailed knowledge made me realistic & pragmatic. On the other hand, airmen I knew who just wanted to “get in and get there,” and did not do such study, were deficient in many areas, including understanding and respecting weather and aerodynamics. I felt that they were consequently more vulnerable to bad decisions and outcomes. What do you think?

    • I too was a student of Richard Collins absorbing all of his pragmatic writings as I developed my aviation avocation in the 70s, 80s and 90s. But contrary to your assertion that “get in and get there pilots” were deficient in many areas – I found myself and Richard Collins to be highly motivated to “get in get there” as this was the mission and reason for having an airplane for both business and sometimes personal travel. One had no choice but to become as pragmatic as speedily as possible in order to enjoy airplanes as practical business tools.

  • Flying the Weather Map, was on the shelf with other of your books and videos.
    I always looked in the tanks and dipped my finger in to smell the fuel.
    I told my wife, another pearl of wisdom Richard taught me.

  • Amen.

    Even when traveling my flying is for enjoyment. I don’t enjoy calculating and recalculating fuel in the hope that a negative trend improves. If after a couple cycles it doesn’t, I pick someplace convenient, land and refuel. It makes the rest of the flight much more enjoyable. Same goes for weather, more gas equals more options even if it is not in the direction of the original destination.

  • Fuel is like blood in the body; if it’s contaminated bad things will happen. If you donot have enough things start failing and you will go down.
    I had a commercial flight with a family of five with KY Derby gates and times to hit. I planned my fuel perfect but the ATC sent me West at 4000 feet 10 Miles till cleared Direct 29000 but at altitude and at decision point I had 50 gallons at landing in ASHEVILLE. I dove into Downtown Island Airport, delaying us, but topping off appropriate amount to meet “MY” personal comfort to complete the mission safely for me but also the 5 passenger family who trusted me with their safety.

  • Once a person steps out of the college classroom, facts and practicality seem to matter far more than they did when they were sitting in the classroom listening to theory from a professor who may have never faced any circumstances that were more serious than a commencement ceremony. Put that same professor and his students in the cockpit of an airplane some night when there are thunderstorms in all quadrants and life or death reality is at stake and they get really quiet and they are not nearly as confident in all of their theories.

  • As a pilot I like the trick to distinguish avgas from JetA. As a chemist however I would strongly recommend against making any kind of skin contact. Fuel contains carcinogenic compounds and as organic solvent has no trouble penetrating skin.

  • Enjoyed your insight as always. Is there any chance we could get you to write about your experiences of flying your Dad’s Culver Cadet?

  • Richard – you spent a day with me and my boss developing a story on instrument training devices in the early 80s. Back then I was a twenty-something electronics engineer trying to make things work while I was working on my private license.

    Well life got in the way and I just recently started over having soloed a couple weeks ago. Thanks for the practical instruction then and now. I’m glad you are still in the business.

  • My fuel rules:

    I always refuel it myself (C-182).

    Always, always look in the tank before departure.

    Never depart in the acft with less that 1/2 full tanks. I have one of those clear plastic dip sticks to check.

    In the balloon it is always full tanks on departure. Sometimes it may take the entire flight to find a suitable landing spot.

    One hour remaining on landing.

    Always sump the fuel

    Color makes no difference on avgas. Mix a quart of avgas with a quart of jet fuel. The half-and-half mixture looks exactly like 100% avgas.
    Just recently I read about another piston aircraft refueled with Jet-A (accident occurred 10/5/2019 – see NTSB CEN20FA002).

    If I run out of fuel, I will return my pilot certificate to the FAA as I am too stupid to fly.

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