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After many happy years being a pilot most of my actual flying is back in coach. But I still get quite a bit of hangar flying done as a docent in an aviation museum. The kinds of people I encounter range from pilots with a lot more experience than I have, to people who really have no idea why aircraft fly. There is some downtime too, and inevitably flying stories are traded, most of them at least plausible with a basis in events. Even the somewhat suspicious stories are interesting. I incorporate some of these words of wisdom in starting conversations with museum guests who are not too sure what questions to ask.
I usually start with a classic pilot joke, “In a group of people how can you tell which ones are the pilots? No problem, the pilots will make sure you know.” Assuming I have not detected that the guests wish I would stop and let them get on with their visit, I might try some pilot words of wisdom that might start a conversation. “Always fly your aircraft all the way to the scene of the accident.” This usually raises a questioning eyebrow or two and then I explain that, while humorous, it is not a joke but words of wisdom that apply to operating any vehicle. It occurred to me that pilots have a number of these creeds that are applicable to the many situations for which we do not specifically train.
In initial training and recurrent training, we practice for specific types of unusual events. Short field and soft field operations, engine failures, various combinations and permutations of instrument failures, stalls, slow flight, steep turns, and so on. All excellent situations to recognize and situations that require appropriate responses in the correct sequence. We demonstrate that we can execute those responses.
During training, checkrides, and in life, these are all the significant expected unexpected events: engine failure, icing, unintended flight into IFR, etc. Recognizing the cues and having either a memorized response or a checklist item for dealing with the issue is part and parcel of good training. Instrument failures are a bit harder to detect, generally, because there are no loud noises or other hard to ignore events. Sure, there might be a little flag or it may start to read zero, or just stop changing. Often, however, there is just a discrepancy between redundant instruments and if you are not looking for the subtle difference, this may not be obvious. During instrument training there is strong emphasis on instrument scan and cross scanning of instruments, but depending on your instructor, VFR pilots may not have put much effort into this subject.
What about more subtle things, or events, that might lead to problems but are not problems in themselves – at least not just yet? This is where overall pilot knowledge and experience comes in and I believe that a lot of that is distilled into words of wisdom that we sometimes take for granted. Not surprisingly, I have some personal stories that make the case that our short words of wisdom are valuable assets if we use them.
Sometimes it’s a little thing.
I had a business trip and had arranged a Skyhawk rental with a local FBO to get there. Everything was ready when I arrived and I had an uneventful preflight. I taxied out and departed but at about 500 feet on climb out, the pilot side door popped open and a lot of noise ensued. I climb out to pattern altitude where several efforts failed to successfully re-latch the door. If memory serves, there may have been some blasphemous words spoken as well. I continued around the pattern with proper calls at this uncontrolled airport, landed, and taxied to the FBO to get the latch fixed. They told me that they couldn’t work on the latch until the next day, but they did have a bungee cord for the door that I could borrow if I wanted to continue the trip that day. I decided against it with the thought that a company that suggested a bungee cure for a door problem might well have done some other, much less visible, temporary repair in a similar fashion.
From that experience I always did an especially in-depth prefight with every aircraft I rented. This included mentally adding “jiggle doors” to that last item on the prestart checklist, “close and latch doors.” The pilot’s rules of thumb that apply here is, “if something doesn’t feel right, something probably isn’t right”, and “a superior pilot uses superior judgement to avoid having to solely rely on superior skills”. I rescheduled the trip for the next week and rented from a different FBO.
Sometimes it’s a little bigger thing.
We were on a family trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina and my pilot brother-in-law, Charlie, and I, decided it would be a great idea to fly into First Flight Airport (FFA) and take visiting family members for a flight from that historic place and around the area. The day before the planned flights we went to the Dare County airport (MQI) across the Sound from First Flight for a checkout in one of their Skyhawks. There were some serious gusting winds and crosswinds that day to allow us to show off our skills. All went well on the signoff and we scheduled an aircraft for the next day which was forecast to be clear as a weather front was passing.
I took off from MQI with two passengers, enjoyed a nice flight at 1,500 feet over the Sound to enter the FFA pattern. Radio call, enter downwind, power to 1500 RPM, flaps 10 degrees, pitch and trim for 75 kts. Looking good. Radio call and turn to base, flaps 20 degrees, pitch and trim for 70 kts. Halfway along base and despite having trimmed, the nose started to pitch up a bit and airspeed dropped. A quick look at the flap indicator showed 30-degrees and moving toward 40. A great time to call missed approach and go around to diagnose. What apparently happened was that after setting 20 degrees and going back to flying the aircraft, the switch did not go all the way back to the neutral position.
The important rule here is, “If an approach doesn’t feel right, execute a missed approach”, or “Don’t try to salvage a bad approach.” This especially applies to IFR flying. I was VFR, knew right away how to correct the issue, and had time and altitude but felt safer and created less stress on my passengers to just go around. I told them I just didn’t like the approach. There is another rule of thumb that fits this situation too, “If you change something and something undesirable happens soon after, consider undoing what you just did.” Fuel selector changes are often the most dramatic cases where this rule applies.
Sometimes it is invisible things that you need to know about.
Most of my flying has been on the East coast, and my mountain experience mostly with the worn-down nubs of ancient mountains known as the Appalachians. I will note though that they can behave just like real mountains and can produce some impressive roll and lenticular clouds when conditions are right. How to behave around mountains is another one of those pilot knowledge things well worth knowing about even if you never plan mountain flying.
My brother-in-law, Charlie, and I, planned to do some flying in the West to include getting some experience with mountain flying. This would involve high density altitude flying in a venerable C172. We planned a stop in Bisbee, Arizona ((P04) for a visit downtown and an overnight with a leg into Grant County Muni (SVC) in Silver City, Nevada the next day. The plan was to get some experience with the normally aspirated Cessna at altitude, high temperatures, and winds around actual mountains and high dessert and log another state, hence the choice of Silver City. The traffic pattern altitude at SVC is 6,500 feet and the runway is 6800 feet long with the added feature of the potential for cattle and wildlife around the airport. Pretty much nothing around it to worry about though.
While this airport altitude was not particularly challenging on the surface of it, in a venerable 172 on a hot day you can really feel the effect on performance. Winds at altitude were favorable for the experience we wanted, perhaps 25 kts. from the West over the mountains we need to cross returning to Tucson. The plan was to drop in, have the usual bathroom break, drink, and have some of the classic orange peanut butter crackers that are seemingly always available at FBOs.
Flying conditions were great, visibility amazing to someone from the East, and a great tailwind on the way in. The winds were strong, but almost directly down the runway. The gusting made taxiing an active sport, but not a problem. The wind was strong and gusty enough that we tied down the aircraft while we went on our visit to the FBO. The flight back to TUS was to be the practice part of the trip heading over some ridge lines that peaked at more than 7,500 ft. We would be heading into an almost direct headwind of 25 kts. at our proposed cruise altitude of 10,500 feet. This altitude was chosen to give us sufficient altitude to deal with the expected descending air in the lee of the mountains and minimize the potential for excitement in maintaining altitude.
The C172P handbook said that we could expect a climb rate of maybe 400 FPM on initial climb out, of course decreasing a lot as we climbed to cruise altitude. It would be getting cooler as we climbed of course, but engine performance would be decreasing too. I was expecting the climb rate would taper to maybe 200 FPM at cruise.
With the mighty 160 HP engine carefully leaned, those predictions, even though modest, proved optimistic. Once above about 8,000 feet, the climb rate was about 100 FPM or so, gusting to 150. At this rate, it could take a long time to get to altitude assuming even that rate held. Even flying into a strong head wind, we would end up too close to the mountains for comfort. Trying to outclimb a descending wave with a C172 is not a good bet. We circled while climbing then we noticed the birds. We started looking for thermals. By looking for rising air and turning within, we had climb rates of 150-300 FPM and were on course again in 10 minutes.
Given the gusty winds on the surface and taxiing across the wind the rule that applied was, “Fly the aircraft all the way from tiedown to tiedown”. This rule applied at both ends of this leg of the trip. I guess the “if something doesn’t feel right …” and the “use your superior cognitive skills …” things also work here. The bottom line, do your homework and always have an out. I did a little research while writing this story and discovered that there have been a significant number of serious accidents over the years that started out just like our trip, but without applying the words of wisdom.
There is another rule of thumb that probably always applies, courtesy of Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, “You’ve got to ask yourself one question: do I feel lucky?”