Archive for the ‘Safety’ Category

The Watch is over

Monday, October 19th, 2015

4-1Flight Watch is no longer—it was terminated earlier this month.

Officially called En route Flight Advisory Service (EFAS), it was hailed as a great step forward—the ability to get weather anywhere in the country above 5,000 feet agl. It was a big improvement over the standard flight service system when it began in the 1970’s. No longer would one have to listen to some Yahoo (not the browser!) laboriously file a flight plan while an urgent weather update was needed.

Flight Watch specialists had access to real-time radar. By today’s standards—with weather in the cockpit and nearly current radar advisories from ATC—this seems a bit primitive but such is progress. The nationwide frequency of 122.0 worked well. The exception occurred when the high and mighty in Lears and Gulfstreams would foul ten thousand square miles of frequency access to ask how the weather was down in Boca Raton—usually sunny, light winds, and temperatures in the low 80’s. Meanwhile, the bottom dwellers were in a snit to see if the destination was still above minimums, if there was icing ahead, or what nearby boomers were doing.

A few decades back I had a flight to Wichita, Kansas, where a powerful cold front was marching across the country’s midsection. With an IFR flight plan on file, I departed Mt. Vernon, Illinois, in a Cessna T-210 into a darkening midday sky. A hundred miles west lay a wall of convection. It was time to call the “Watch.”

After waiting a few loooong minutes for some non-pertinent conversations to be concluded, St. Louis Flight Watch made it quite clear that this line was nothing to mess with. But there was a hole about 100 miles south of my position that looked flyable. Back on the ATC frequency, I asked for a southerly deviation, which the controller approved.

During active weather it was smart to monitor 122.0. That afternoon ATC and Flight Watch frequencies were an absolute babble; but several minutes later, through it all, the Flight Watch Specialist asked if I was still on the line. Yes…”Well sir, that hole down south has closed up, suggest you reverse course, and it looks better going about 60 miles to the north over St. Louis.” Ok—plenty of fuel and no desire to get bent. ATC again obliged, and it was off to see the Arch. No rain, one moderate jolt, and the front was behind me.

Today we have better options: many more reporting stations thanks to ASOS and AWOS, ATC radars that show where the precipitation is, and the ability to see it all displayed with only a few minutes of delay in the cockpit. 122.0 has become a ghost frequency as the better alternatives have come along. Thanks Flight Watch and to all who spent years helping us along the way!

Perhaps you have a Flight Watch story?

iPaddy Melt

Wednesday, October 7th, 2015

FlyQ on iPad _0039Although we at the Air Safety Institute have poked fun at iPads in the cockpit, they really are useful devices provided we remember that we’re flying aircraft—not fiddling with computers. Even the airlines have largely gone to electronic flight bags (EFB) for their pilots.

The benefits are myriad:

  • Fifty pounds less per crew to carry—allows for more payload, which is desperately needed in these days of more luggage and passengers.
  • Automatic updates of charts—why our IFR system needs significant overhaul every 28 days is still something of a mystery, but many of us have spent too many hours replacing thousands of chart pages, character building as that might be.
  • The ability to see our own ship, weather, and other aircraft on a moving map—priceless!
  • Greater awareness of terrain and towers—there’s hope for fewer CFIT accidents although there will always be a few Darwin Award candidates who attempt terrain-following feats of foolishness.
  • Less back surgery and chiropractic visits by not having to lug aforementioned flight bags around.

iPad-overheatBut there’s always a fly in the free lunch. On my way to the Triple Tree Fly-in, the trusty iPad went into meltdown mode. (Shameless plug: TT is one of the best East Coast fall fly-ins going and is highly recommended!) The melt had never happened before—everything was working perfectly and then it wasn’t. The iPad insisted on a cooling-off period. That behavior might be OK in labor-management negotiations but not from our avionics!

The workload was increasing for the arrival procedure into TT and the iPad’s insight would’ve have been helpful. Fortunately, the procedure had also been programmed into the aircraft’s GPS and it was a nice VFR day—so keep calm and carry on.

But why the sudden hot flash? On longer trips, I generally fly at 7,000 or 8,000 feet where the cockpit is about 10 degrees cooler in the late Carolina summer. No need on this trip because it was only a little over 100 miles. Apparently the warmer ambient temperature was enough to overheat the processor. The solution was equally simple: Turn on the air conditioning or, barring that, hold the iPad up to an air vent.

In about three minutes the eBrain reverted to its normal brilliant self, but if this little incident had occurred on a solid IFR approach with approach charts needed for reference, that could have been a bit messy. Navigationally, it’s a non-issue because we have onboard tools—provided they are programmed before the outage. VFR pilots also might need some reference for staying clear of various airspace, even for that old-time skill of pilotage, etc.

Plan B: If the overheat occurred in the final phases of an IMC approach, perhaps best to advise ATC and have them help with chart references. If not in radar or a good comm environment it likely means a missed approach and diversion to an alternate, or fire up the backup system—which could be paper, another iPad, or a cell phone with the EFB app installed—and come back around for another try. Multi-tasking close to the ground or while needing to navigate precisely is not a life-prolonging strategy. Tell ATC you need a hold to reconfigure.

Don’t drop the aircraft to cool down the iPad and do plan for the occasional iPaddy melt, although it’s not near as good as barbecue!

Of course, one could carry paper charts—at least for the trip in progress.

If you’ve had a meltdown, what was the situation and what did you do about it?

Prop Problems

Monday, September 21st, 2015
Inadvertent Q-Tip Prop

Inadvertent Q-Tip Prop

Propellers are unsung mechanical heroes of GA. Jets are wonderful, but for those of us who pay our own expenses chances are good that a prop is the driving force. Few such high performance items on an aircraft perform so reliably with so little attention. Even when abused they often perform beyond the call of duty—but then perhaps a Darwin Award is in the offing.

A young CFI was asked to drop the owner of a fixed-gear Cherokee off at his destination and fly back solo. On preflight he noted that the owner had invested in a Q-tip prop, the kind that is bent back at the tip about an inch to improve performance and reduce noise.

Shortly after takeoff it became apparent that this particular engine, prop, and airframe arrangement was not quite optimal. The best climb they could get was about 100 feet per minute despite being far from the aircraft service ceiling. Being on an IFR flight plan, ATC was not happy.

Upon landing, the CFI asked the owner about lack of performance—this was the slowest climbing airplane he’d ever seen. Then came the admission about a really hard landing—somewhat on the nose wheel—but not to worry, everything seemed to be in order. The CFI flew the aircraft back to the departure point under VFR. Seems the Q-tip “configuration” came about as a result of the nose-first landing. How the gear didn’t collapse or the firewall avoided buckling is anyone’s guess. Later, the CFI admitted that it probably wasn’t the smartest thing he’d ever done.

Another instructor, whom I know really well, was asked to give an instrument proficiency check to a Beech Sierra owner. The CFI, having not flown the aircraft before, gave it a very thorough preflight and noted a significant ding in the prop about four inches from the tip. It had been dressed out and was smooth in all facets. The owner said the aircraft had been through several annual inspections and that there had been no problem whatsoever.

The IPC went smoothly, but on the owner’s very next flight with his wife aboard, the prop tip separated and they had to set down in a corn field. The aircraft was written off. Fortunately, there were only minor injuries. It could have been a lot worse. To this day, I should have listened to that inner voice that said, “Wait a minute…this doesn’t feel right!,” and rejected the aircraft. Whether it would have made a difference to the owner is open for discussion.

When a prop tip separates the rotational forces instantly become more unbalanced than the Federal budget. We’re talking literally tons of force. If the engine is not shut down immediately there is a very good chance that it will break the mounts and quite possibly depart the aircraft.”Losing an engine” takes on a whole new meaning. Devoid of engine and any sort of balance—well, you get the idea.

When pilots forget to put the gear down it sometimes results in a prop modification as shown on this Aerostar. The mishap was caught on video as the pilot landed gear up, but he aborted the landing and returned to home base. Rumor has it the aircraft was put up for sale immediately with the caveat of “some prop damage.” Q-tipping your own props is not an approved owner-performed maintenance procedure for obvious reasons.

At the risk of stating the obvious, any prop strike calls for a mandatory engine teardown and complete inspection. Crankshafts may suffer hidden damage and are often replaced rather than chance a catastrophic failure that may occur immediately or not for years. The risk just isn’t worth it.

To avoid the dings that caught my Sierra pilot, avoid run-ups anywhere there’s gravel or even sand. If the airport doesn’t do a good job of dealing with FOD ( foreign object debris) you may get FOD—Foreign Object Damage.

Rolling takeoffs aren’t a bad idea IF runway length allows it and there’s enough fuel on board to avoid unporting a tank. It’s less likely to abrade the prop tips. There’s always a trade off.

Periodic prop overhaul and balancing are more than just good ideas and they deserve just a little more respect. The Air Safety Institute has a great free online course that covers both engines and props.