When I first upgraded to captain, I had a common feeling: the thrill of the accomplishment combined with a certain sense of fear of making a huge mistake, either in flying the airplane, or in my judgment. Like a lot of people, I’ve made the physical flying mistakes, and some less-than-stellar decisions, but in both cases I’ve managed to avoid having to use the word “huge.”
But as a lot of pilots come to realize, it is the hard decisions you often come to dread, and sometimes those are simply gut feelings you can’t explain to others. They are simply there, and if you are lucky, you can explain it to another pilot and he will understand exactly where you are coming from and accept your decision, even if it can be costly. In the airline or corporate world, this means sometimes cancelling a flight or series of flights when the evidence is at first sketchy.
Flat tires, cracked windshields, or bent turbine blades are clearly no-go items. A call is placed to maintenance, and the problem is either fixed or the flight re-equipped or cancelled. Either way, you hold your head high because you did the right thing no matter who is inconvenienced. But pilots don’t get paid to make easy decisions. They are paid to make hard ones. I had two such occasions recently, one of which led to a delayed but completed flight, and the other grounded the airplane for four days.
The delayed flight was because our standby-attitude indicator, which is of the old “steam gauge” variety, failed at the gate. Twice, it began to precess in all manner of directions, showing climbs, turns, descents, and a general unwillingness to cooperate. I reset it twice, after which time it was clear the unit was broken. Having flown this type of airplane for as long as I have, there are certain sections of the Minimum Equipment List I know fairly well. In this case, we can operate the airplane, so long as we can stay in visual conditions. That was the rub. Instrument conditions were possible on this trip. Behind me was an airplane load of people who had no idea anything was amiss. With some additional fuel loaded and many options confirmed, we launched. Two hours later, in clear skies, we touched down in at the destination, and as we pulled into the gate the mechanic was standing there with a new unit to install. Problem solved.
My other recent mechanical issue took place in Richmond, Virginia, and was much more subtle, and much more expensive for the company. The FO was doing the flight control check that we do before every flight. “Huh,” he said, “that’s weird.” I noticed that he was straining to push the yoke forward, which is saying something, because it normally is not that hard, and he is no slouch. I tried it too, and I immediately noticed what he was talking about: it took everything I had to reach the full extension both fore and aft with the control column. The next time, it took both of us together. A third time, it seemed normal. Something was definitely wrong. To make matters worse, it was a holiday weekend, and we were full.
I called maintenance, and was told that the delay would be at least an hour, as the contract mechanic was at home, not happy about having his slumber disrupted. By the time he finally showed up, we had played with the yoke so much that we almost couldn’t tell what was normal and what wasn’t, but we knew something just didn’t feel right. My theory was that something had gotten into the elevator that was either moving feely or had gotten stuck in the hinges. It could have been a tool or a bird or rock, so I was surprised when the mechanic said that the elevator was totally clean. Unfortunately for the FO and me, the yoke was moving freely, and the mechanic signed it off in conjunction with our company.
This is where my gut began to take over. The FO and I just knew something wasn’t right. I insisted, much to the frustration of the contract mechanic and of our own controllers, that a more thorough test be done. By now, my boss was involved, as was the safety department of our union, wondering what was going on. As a pilot himself, the Chief understood my need to feel comfortable with the equipment. As a manager, he also had an airline to run. It was a fine line, and while I could sense he thought we might be over-reacting, he gave us the free reign we needed to see the situation resolved to our satisfaction. Never underestimate the value of that kind of trust.
As the day wore on, I kept in touch with Maintenance. At long last, they found something: several codes they needed were not recorded. The problem was a computer. Or so they thought. Almost four days later, the airplane finally left. Most of everything that had anything to do with the elevator had been replaced, and the mechanics filled nearly 10 pages in the logbook describing everything they had done in pursuit of their answer. They had done everything short of ordering a new tail assembly from Bombardier in Montreal. I felt relieved and vindicated.
Too often, pilots will write up a discrepancy, and the response is “could not duplicate” or “ops check good.” Such is life when an airplane is a flying collection of computers. But when your gut tells you that something is off, you have an obligation to trust it, no matter what the consequences might be. You may ultimately be wrong, but sometimes being wrong is also being safe.