When absolutely, positively nobody believes you

I don’t know why these things happen to me. If I’ve offended the aviation gods, they’ve taken a particularly creative tack in exacting their revenge.

Forty Days and Nights

The flight originated just south of California’s Sacramento/San Joaquin river delta and continued up to Redding, near the Oregon border. It was a long hop in a Cessna 150 so an early departure was required. Shortly after takeoff, I checked in with the departure controller at Stockton. All was well with the airplane, but out of the morning mist something appeared decidedly odd. So odd, in fact, that it took a bit to realize what I was looking at.

Miles ahead, the familiar view of the Sacramento Delta with its intricate sloughs, channels, and levees, had been replaced by an enormous inland sea. There was no mistaking it. How could I not know about this! I queried ATC with a mixture of bafflement and curiosity.

“What is going on in the delta?”

The response was calm if condescending. “What do you mean ‘going on?'”

“I mean it’s not there!”

“Let’s be a little more specific.”

“I mean it’s under water!” The controller knew what water was.

“That’s the Clifton Court Forebay at your eleven o’clock.”

Flooding
Where did everything go?

The Forebay is a substantial body of water that regulates the flow into one of our state’s major irrigation canals and also provides electric power generation for load leveling. On this morning it was dwarfed by the great expanse of water just to the east.

“It’s not Clifton Court. I can see the Forebay. That’s not this.”

“Where exactly is this?” he asked with growing irritation.

“It’s EVERYWHERE! Maybe you should call someone.”

I didn’t press the issue further. Anyone they were likely to call now would be waiting for me at my destination.

I did ask permission to leave the frequency and then contacted Flight Service at Rancho Murieta. The response was similar but the FSS specialist took a more fatherly approach, reminding me how the morning light can create optical illusions in the mist.

When the delta receded behind me, so did my worries as the familiar agricultural landscape returned. On landing I consulted with a Civil Air Patrol crew who had just arrived from Concord (in the Bay area). What did they know about the inundation in the delta? Again, the same response: “What inundation?” What did I think I saw? Was I sure?

I wasn’t sure anymore. Perhaps I’d suffered one of those mini-strokes, or gone insane. Maybe I was asleep and this was a dream.

The return flight from Redding took place in blistering heat, the kind that hurts the tips of your fingers if you press them to the radio knobs. By then I’d put the morning’s events out of my mind. And that is where they stayed until Stockton advised me that I’d be restricted “at, or above, four thousand” until quite near my destination. The controller explained there was a large Temporary Flight Restriction established to facilitate the massive emergency response to a levee breach in the delta. A couple of weeks later an article appeared in the Los Angeles Times with the headline: “Levee Break in Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Declared a Federal Disaster.”

Twilight Zone

We’ve all done our share of preflight inspections. Some are thorough and others less so. For career professional pilots that number might reach into the thousands.

I’m reluctant to criticize, or second guess, another pilot’s operating techniques as long as they don’t seem egregiously unsafe. I stepped outside that reluctance once. It was as a passenger on a scheduled commercial flight.

My wife and I were comfortably seated just forward of the wing on a (mid-hundred series) Boeing 737. Near the end of the boarding process I was watching ramp workers moving back and forth under the wing when I realized one of the draw-style fasteners on the engine front cowling was undone—it was simply hanging loose on its hinge pin.

Call button
No, my drink is fine; let’s talk about the preflight.

My first reaction was to chuckle. I pointed it out to my wife, saying, “there’s a slack preflight.” Then I began to wonder how many legs had been flown in that state. A couple? A dozen? A hundred? How long had the remaining fasteners carried the extra load? Did their design safety factor account for that possibility? I gave the problem some thought. If the cowling detached in flight it would be decelerated smartly and might strike the stabilizer at, say, 200 to 400 feet per second. What did it weigh? A couple of hundred pounds? Several hundred? How much of that energy could the stabilizer dissipate? The humor of our situation diminished.

I pushed the call button. When a flight attendant answered I pointed to the fastener and described the problem. She did not see anything wrong with anything. I pressed her to ask one of the pilots to come back and take a look. A couple of minutes later she returned to tell me the pilots assured her that what I saw was normal and not a cause for concern. I was pretty sure they did not elevate this issue to the flight crew but, instead, employed the time honored procedure for dealing with nervous, drunk or unruly passengers. Then she was gone.

The next time she passed I waved to her and suggested, again, that one of the pilots should take a look. By that point other passengers seated around us began looking at the engine. Some spotted the problem and pointed it out to their seat mates. When she returned she assured me “they” had taken a look and everything was fine. There were two possibilities: 1) the First Officer had looked back from the copilot seat, 2) they’d asked someone on the ground to look. It was hard to believe they could see much from the cockpit and prior inspections had already shown looking from the ground was ineffective.

I thought long and hard before pressing the call button again. One of the conditions of my employment was holding a current SCI security clearance and nothing would vaporize that clearance faster than interfering with a flight crew. Any demand to deplane after the cabin doors were closed would amount to that. The fact that other passengers seemed ready to back me up made all the difference. This time it was the senior flight attendant who approached.

I made no effort to point out the problem but handed her my airman certificate along with a scrap of paper reading “a fastener on the RH engine cowling is not secured.” I said, “Take these to the captain.” She examined them and left without a word. Momentarily, the first officer appeared and asked me to show him the fastener. A few minutes later a truck brought a maintenance technician with a ladder who secured the cowling.

At the end of the flight, as we shuffled toward the exit, the crew stood by the door thanking passengers for choosing the airline. I’d worked up some choice words for the lot of them but, in the end, I kept these to myself. Everything had turned out alright and, to be honest, I’d done far worse.

8 Comments

  • It is incredible to think that those flight attendants were not trained to take situations like that very seriously.

  • I remember a man who told of flying on the French Concord out of Washington. He noticed a piece of skin missing from the upper part of the wing was not flying with them. Being an aeronautical engineer, he informed the crew. They were not impressed. He made a big enough stink that a cockpit crew member came back to reassure him. He put the guys face next to the window. The pilot then thanked him and quickly returned to the cockpit. The plane made a return to Dulles to straighten out a “small problem”.
    As Edsel Murphy says “Stuff happens”.

  • Had the same experience years ago on a F27. I saw an access door loose on the aft end of the nacelle while passengers were still boarding. Since it was hinged on the front I decided to wait until after landing to notify the FA. When I did her immediate response was to say, “There’s nothing wrong”. I told her that I was an aircraft mechanic and then she summoned a ground crewmember. As he entered the cabin he expressed surprise to see the door hanging down.

  • about two years ago in BGR, after dropping off a G450 and about to airline out, I had a window seat on a regional jet. It was snowing, and the deice job was poor. As we taxied out I noticed a large area on the wing still covered in ice, and I hit the call button several times. The annoyed F/A eventually listened after I showed my license, and crew ID, and we taxied back to the gate. The crew did look me in the eye, and needless to say they were embarrassed and grateful……..

  • Crew resource management needs to go clear down to the flight attendants and others involved with the safe completion of a flight. Thankfully Sully’s flight that ended in the Hudson is a great example of that. I recall having a wheel pant on the Cherokee I was flying with my CFI become partially unattached and scraping on the runway. We heard nothing over the sound of the engine, but another aircraft departing behind us made a radio call alerting us to what they saw. My CFI handled the landing, exited the aircraft, and retrieved the offending wheel pant. No problem other than a scraped tail on the wheel pant, thankfully. Even in GA we can be looking out for others.

  • Too many “pilots” think of the aircraft they are going to “fly” (pilot)………………… as a ground vehicle.

    They are lackadaisical and close to moronically dense when it comes to not paying WAY more attention to the aircraft you’re now going to fly……..than that “Corvette” or sport car they transported their inattentive “azz” to the airport.

    I find the lack of excitement of the pilot of an upcoming flight disturbing……as I don’t like someone in charge of transporting me above ground……with their attitude……lacking in enthusiasm……..a way of keeping me excited about the joy of flight………….but now wondering if “Pilot Gravity” will get me killed as he flies his steed with me on it into a twisted crumpled explosive burning and melting pile of “al – you – minny – um” on the ground. NOTE: The aircraft build material was phonetically spelled out for our limey readers.

  • Kim, the same type of event has happened to me many times over the past thirty-six years. Only I was in the driver’s seat each time. I nor any of my compatriots whom I knew personally would have been so cavalier regarding passengers’ concerns about the airworthiness of the machine – ever! Upon hearing of a customer’s doubts as to the airworthiness of the machine, we would have, and always did, examine the item of anxiety and resolved the problem immediately. (Especially when it came to “speed tape”). We even had a woman cause a commotion at the boarding gate one time when she was convinced that the Airbus she was about to board had a huge dent near the tail – on each side of the airplane. Two identical dents… A chief pilot came out from his downstairs office with technical drawings of the airbus just reassure her and the customers she had upset that these ‘dents’ were actually designed into the airplane to allow the horizontal stabilizer to travel freely up and down. Your pilots should have listened to you the first time and settled the matter promptly.

    • I agree no professional flight crew would have let a matter like this go unaddressed. That leads me to believe the cabin crew, not seeing anything amiss, made a decision not to get the flight deck involved.

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