Mistakes are all part of the learning curve, especially in aviation. I usually steer clear of flying on weekends because, well, there are way too many weekend warriors in the skies. But early October, 2023 turned out to be a hectic weekend for me. As a 250-hour private pilot (although I’ve accumlated more than 1,000 hours at this point from my days in Brazil), I still consider myself a newbie. A newbie, maybe, but a better one, for sure. The reason? It’s all about the learning and continuous journey in becoming a certified pilot.
In my humble opinion, one of the most important subjects in the certification standards is Aeronautical Decision Making (ADM) and the Swiss Cheese Model. So, I finally had a chance to put into practice what I’d been reading and training for. Let’s dig into the nitty-gritty details.
Day 1: Saturday
It was a picture-perfect fall weekend with ideal flying conditions—or so I thought. I had a prospective client to take on a three-and-a-half hour round trip down to Central Texas. My usual practice is to start checking the weather five days in advance. I’m a big fan of 1-800-WX self-briefing, which gives me updates all the way up to the end of my flight. This tool is fantastic because you can start with a weather outlook and keep it fresh until you touch down. This time, the story wasn’t much different.
On the day of departure, the weather forecast matched what I saw outside. The skies were clear, visibility was excellent, and brisk winds were blowing from the north, all the way from the ground to the cruising altitude. We were looking forward to some fall weather, with cooler days after a long and scorching summer. The flight south was a blast, thanks to 20-30 knots of tailwinds. In my 110 knot light sport aircraft, it’s always a bit of a thrill to see a groundspeed of 150 knots.
This trip involved four legs with three stops along the way, and they were all smooth and uneventful. It was a long day, but a rewarding one. A total flight time of more than four hours—this was textbook flying for me. Since everything went so well, what could possibly go wrong on the next day? And that’s when the chain of mistakes began.
Day 2: Sunday
Between my personal flying adventures and flight demonstrations, I had clocked close to 75 hours in the air this year, which is quite a bit more than the typical 20 hours. I never shy away from the opportunity to fly. More is often merrier (well, it depends…). So, I committed to another five hour round trip to South Texas the next day because the weather remained promising.
Mistake #1: I skipped an abbreviated weather briefing—oh, the wonders of confirmation bias! The sky was clear, and the weather channel said it would stay that way. You’ll see the consequences of this bias later in the flight.
Mistake #2 (well, not really a mistake in my opinion, but I’ll let you be the judge): I didn’t bother to check the battery voltage during preflight. Well, lesson learned the hard way. If you’re flying an aircraft with an electrical system, you should! You can get a digital voltmeter that plugs into the cigarette lighter socket (provided is working). In my case, the aircraft has a PFD that displays voltage and amperage, both graphically and numerically. But I still needed to know what the minimum battery voltage should be before it needed charging or replacement. Again, confirmation bias reared its head. The needle was in the green, so everything must be just fine, right? Wrong!
The transition from late summer temperatures to fall has an impact on all kinds of batteries. Don’t quote me on the technical details, but go find out for yourself. This morning was chilly, with temperatures in the low 40s, and the aircraft had spent the night on the ramp at an FBO in the Dallas area. The temperature change from the previous days was likely around 50 degrees. The battery was three years old, but hey, the needle was in the green. Remember what I said at the beginning? You can only learn from your mistakes. This flight later turned out to be a massive learning opportunity. But learning from mistakes only works if you’ve prepared yourself with the knowledge beforehand. Another reason why your pilot certificate is a license to learn.
The preflight was completed, all boxes were checked, and I was ready to take off. With 30 knot tailwind in cruise flight, my ETE was a mere 1.5 hours. That’s darn fast for a flight that usually takes closer to three hours. Although it was an 8am departure, the tiredness from the previous day was beginning to take its toll. I’m a firm believer in bringing all the necessary supplies for every flight—I carry two flying bags and a cooler with snacks, water, fruit, coffee, and a disposable urine bag (yes, they come in handy with some in-cockpit gymnastics). As the pros do in the airline world, I build a nest around myself. That’s my standard practice when flying solo. I was glad I had all these goodies on this flight to keep me going (those “get-there-itis” symptoms, you know).
With less than 30 minutes to go before arriving, the battery couldn’t hold a charge anymore. A warning message popped up on the PFD, and it only took five minutes for the electrical system to shut down. Thankfully, the PFD has a backup battery, so I knew I had around 30 minutes before it would go dark. I also had a Sporty’s backup radio in my flight bag, although it was only half charged. Another lesson learned: always make sure your devices are fully charged before a flight. I was in flight following when the radio suddenly went silent.
My first instinct was to keep flying the plane at my cruising altitude of 6,500 feet and reconnect with Houston controllers. It’s fascinating to observe how we react when something out of the ordinary happens. This is why it’s critical to think about and train for these scenarios on the ground. I also use a kneeboard-mounted iPad to take notes. I typically jot down the frequencies every time there’s a change. This time, I forgot. Three minutes after the radio went silent, I turned the avionics back on, and they came alive (briefly), allowing me to reestablish contact with Houston and plan for a precautionary landing. This time I noted their frequency. The radio went dead again, but now I switched to my two-plug handheld radio and made reporting calls on CTAF and finally landed without trim and flaps, but into the wind.
My mechanic came to the rescue with a fresh battery and a rectifier to rule out both. The previous battery would be charged and observed for discharge rate. No longer a grounding item, I canceled my appointment and decided to fly back home. But wait, what about the weather briefing?
It was around 1pm when I took off, now facing brisk headwinds with groundspeeds of 75-80 knots. This was expected, but when you’re tired and you’ve just experienced an in-flight incident, the “get-there-itis” symptoms started to set in. My home airport is northeast of the Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) class Bravo airspace. Typically, on this route, I fly northwest of the DFW Bravo and eventually turn eastbound on a direct route to the airport. Since I always request flight following on long cross-country flights, I usually ask ATC to keep me heading north until we’re mostly clear of the controlled airspace. Why do I do this? Because I’d rather not fly smack in the middle of the Dallas Metroplex region and be at the mercy of altitude assignments by ATC. There’s not much empty space on the ground between Fort Worth and Dallas, and it’s an ever-expanding region. If the engine quits, I’d rather be on the outskirts of the Bravo airspace with plenty of pastures, lakes, and ranches to land upon. But this time, I had a new idea. Changing my course by 30 degrees to the right would result in a better groundspeed (albeit with a crosswind). I picked up five to seven knots.
I was now on an almost easterly heading, flying toward the southern edge of Bravo airspace. Okay, I thought, this will get me home faster (like maybe 20 minutes quicker—say hello to “get-there-itis”). When north flow is active, DFW traffic is landing to the north and Dallas Love Field (DAL) traffic to the northwest. This meant I wouldn’t get Bravo clearance until I was past the final approach. That was alright and I decided to keep flying east. By the way, my altitude was 7,500 feet, which is my usual minimums on an easternly heading. I hate flying closer to the ground. Eventually, ATC took pity on me and decided to clear me into Bravo airspace before I ended up in Louisiana. What happened next was quite a moment of reckoning. A layer of sparse stratus clouds started to form at 6,000 feet. At the same time, ATC asked me to drop to 5,500 feet because traffic on approach procedures, and I could see them all lining up on my PFD.
As I got closer to downtown Dallas, those sparse clouds suddenly transformed into an overcast sky at 5,500 feet. Oh boy, I’m not supposed to be flying in the clouds, and now I’m stuck at 5,500 feet, in and out of the clouds, with multiple targets on my screen and ATC issuing rapid-fire instructions, which I hadn’t experienced before (are Sundays supposed to be this busy? Now I know better). On the plus side, the aircraft I was flying has a two-axis autopilot, and it had been engaged for most of the flight. So, I kept my hands on the yoke and the throttle, my eyes glued to the screen, making sure I was holding my altitude and heading steady inside this extremely busy section of Bravo airspace.
Eventually, I made a quick call to approach, sharing my dilemma. I needed to descend and get out of the clouds. Kindly enough, ATC told me to hang in there due to conflicting traffic—those Southwest Airlines 737s landing at DAL and everything else in between. Thank goodness for ADS-B! At least I could see them on my screen. Finally, I got my lower altitude request and a decent clearance from the clouds. The controllers at DFW are top-notch. As I left the airspace, I was thanked for my patience and helpfulness, which I cordially replied with the same thankfulness. So yes, this journey had a happy and safe ending, but boy, did I learn some lessons. Stick to those briefings and checklists on every flight, every time, and don’t let “get-there-itis” get the best of you, because it will.