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Paranoia Pays Off

Normally, paranoia is considered unhealthy. As it pertains to flying, however, in my experience a moderate dose can keep the doctor away much like the proverbial apple. It’ll keep the FAA, NTSB, and unemployment line at arm’s length as well.

There are so many things to be concerned with when aviating that I find great benefit in prioritizing them all by asking: Can this kill me? The answer will vary with the kind of airplane I’m flying, of course. This is where a regular reading of safety and accident reports can pay dividends.

In an aerobatic airplane, the No. 1 killer is the pilot himself. So no showboating, low flying, or things that being with “watch this.” From a preflight standpoint (and the preflight always takes longer than the actual flight where aerobatics is concerned), the canopy latches, fuel selector, and flight controls are high on the list, as is a thorough inspection of the cockpit and tail cone area for any foreign object debris. Those are the things which, historically, have led pilots to grief in those airplanes. I once had a flight control system failure in the middle of an aerobatic sequence. It gets your attention rather quickly.

In the Gulfstream, the top spot goes to the pressurization system. This is a component that keeps the crew alive just as surely as the wings. We cruise at altitudes much higher than the average airlines, where there’s precious few seconds of useful consciousness if a sudden loss of pressure is experienced. But even more insidious is the slow depressurization as it often goes unnoticed until physiological impairment is already at work.

There have been so many accidents related to pressurization, and quite often they’re fatal. Recently an Air China 737 dropped the masks because the first officer decided to vape in the cockpit and, not understanding how the pressurization system worked, shut it off inadvertently. Instead of diverting, they completed the flight without any oxygen for the passengers after reactivating the packs. Unsafe? Yes, and illegal, too. As many politicians have learned the hard way, the coverup is always worse than the initial crime.

I’m also paranoid about the galley oven and microwave on my Gulfstream. Fire in an airplane is really bad. Just the other day on the way to Hawaii, our flight attendant forgot to remove labels from a catering order and almost caught the containers on fire. Rookie mistake? Hardly. This flight attendant is highly experienced, and I’m sure she’s not alone in having made this particular error. We’re all aware that a moment’s carelessness can lead to serious consequences, but it’s vital to remember that this is as true for flight attendants, passengers, and ground crew as it is for pilots.

I try to think of other ways things can catch on fire, too. We have Firebane and a FireSock for containment of lithium battery fires from portable devices. I’ve also often rehearsed what I’d do if a fire or burning smell was detected from an unknown source, practiced the emergency descents every recurrent, and so on. My record is FL450 to 15,000 feet msl in a minute and 43 seconds. The particular Gulfstream model I fly is at somewhat of a disadvantage over newer large cabin iterations in that there’s no “automatic descent mode.” That’s an additional risk factor. We have to get the masks on in time, every time, because the airplane has no backup technology to save us.

I’m also paranoid about things like access panels, chocks, gear pins, and the like. Those won’t necessarily cause an accident, but in my experience they’re by far the most commonly missed. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen fuelers leave the single point refueling door open. We see safety reports about that stuff constantly at my company.

I’m paranoid about what’s behind the airplane. I always perform a final walk around prior to closing the door, and note what’s in the path of the airplane’s jet blast. I fly tailwheel airplanes and have seen them damaged by jets, especially at small congested fields like my home airport (John Wayne-Orange County Airport) where it’s not uncommon to have a Global or Gulfstream starting up with a Citabria less than a hundred feet behind it. I love those small airplanes!

I’m paranoid about landing on the wrong runway. I’ve intervened to save three pilots from that on various occasions. “Cleared for the visual” always gets the hair on the back of my neck standing up. I personally witnessed a Boeing 757 land at the wrong airport in Arizona once at an aerobatic contest. It happens to the pros and non-professionals in equal measure.

I’m paranoid about hitting things during taxi. The G-IV/G-450 wings are not nearly as long as the V/550/650, but relying on a wing walker or marshaller still gives me pause, especially if any of the “big three” risk factors are present: night conditions, obstacles, and/or an unfamiliar ramp. I’ve told everyone on my crew “if you’re in doubt in any way about clearance from objects, stop and shut down the plane. They can tow it the rest of the way.” And if it hits something then? Well, that’s on them.

I’m paranoid about instrument clearances. I always try to have both pilots present when the clearance is received via voice, and we verify what we’ve heard and the routing prior to departure. We see a lot of lateral navigation deviances in our Event Review Committee meetings, and from what I understand that’s true for every Aviation Safety Action Program in the industry. I say “try” because despite my best efforts, I’ve been given IFR clearances when I didn’t want them. Sometimes just calling the delivery frequency to see if the clearance is even available via PDC will prompt them to start reading it to you via voice.

Most of all, I’m paranoid about scheduling pressure, especially in the Part 135 “on demand” environment. This never comes from my company; it’s always self-induced. So: Don’t rush. If the passengers show up early, there’s a mechanical issue, the lead passenger is demanding, etc., well, that’s when things can go sideways easily. I try to slow down, take a deep breath, and be extra methodical. Never skip any checklist. If the passengers are late, they’re late. I’ve been screamed at by an aircraft owner over this. I was nice about it, but basically said, “Too bad.” It’s easy to say, but much harder to stick to in a real-world operating environment. It seems to be baked into human DNA and has to be fought constantly, consistently, and methodically.

It takes a lifetime to build up a decent reputation as a pilot, and just a few careless moments to destroy it. As Joseph Heller famously wrote in his seminal novel Catch-22, “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”

Antarctica – The Biggest Risk of All

If you asked me what part of the 26,000-nautical-mile, 23-country polar circumnavigation scares me the most, I wouldn’t have to think about it long to answer. It’s Antarctica! The earth’s southernmost continent, per Wikipedia, is 5,400,000 square miles of extremes. It is the coldest and driest continent on earth, has the highest average elevation at 7,545 feet above sea level with an elevation of 9,300 feet at the South Pole.

There are six things about flying to Antarctica that chill me to the bone (pun intended) and that keep me up at night.

1 – Weather

The Antarctic is known for some of the worst weather in the world! Winds and temps are intense and it is not uncommon to sit at Punta Arenas, Chile, for a week or two waiting for tolerable weather. On a 20-hour leg, there will be multiple fronts to cross before I can make it safely home.  On the positive side, Punta Arenas has a good weather reporting station and has allowed my team to monitor the weather a year in advance for temperatures, fronts, pressures, and winds.

2 – Distances

The distance from Punta Arenas at the southern tip of Chile to the South Pole and back is 4,457 nm. This will be my longest leg. My aircraft, a Gulfstream Turbine Commander 900, was originally designed to fly unmodified for 2,000 nm. With the addition of six fuel tanks, five-bladed MT nickel tipped scimitar props, RVSM, and two zero time refurbished Honeywell TPE 331-10T engines (the same type you find on Predator drones), we are estimating a 5,000-nm range, but nobody knows for sure how far and efficiently the airplane can fly that heavy. This is the equivalent of flying from San Diego to Hawaii and back nonstop. I have been asked where I could land if I had an issue. Theoretically, I can land anywhere. It’s just taking off again that is the issue.

3 – Navigation

A magnetic compass doesn’t work at the magnetic south and north poles and GPS doesn’t work where the meridians meet at the true north and south poles. I’ve been told that an old fashioned directional gyro with a metal ball spinning at 15,000 rpms is the solution. One expert told me, “Just fly the heading you are on for about 50 nm and then everything will be fine.” Recently I spoke with the Avidyne engineers who said that when they simulated the poles their units did “fine.” Possible solution: Use a GPS waypoint before the pole and one after it, and the unit won’t get confused. But will I?

4 – Fatigue

How does one stay up for 18-plus hours in an extremely cramped, stressful space loaded with 948 extra gallons of JetA1 in six aluminum fuel tanks expanding and contracting in the cabin near an HF radio and power supply? When I asked a pilot who set a world record flying for 20-plus hours how he stayed awake he answered, “Honestly, I was afraid the entire time.”

The pilots of Solar Impulse, the first solo pilots in a solar airplane ever to fly through the night between two continents, stayed up for longer periods of time but were also flying at very slow speeds in friendlier conditions compared to the Citizen of the World. They took micro naps and were monitored by their team in different parts of the world. I’ve been advised to bring a timer, set the STEC 2100 digital autopilot, and sleep in 30-minute intervals. But even the best of the autopilots can be persnickety at times.

5 – Extreme Cold

With outside air temperatures as low as minus 67-degrees Celsius at 35,000 feet, we were concerned this could result in below-freezing temperatures in the cockpit for up to 20 hours. The airplane’s environmental system, designed 35 years ago, has been unreliable, inefficient, and incapable of handling extreme heat or cold. This has presented a great opportunity to update the Citizen’s environmental system with a Peter Schiff system, giving us 60 extra horsepower, reducing weight by 150 pounds, increasing the pressurization, providing a backup pressurization system, providing non-contaminated air in the cabin, and allowing me to pre-cool the cabin on the ground using ground power. Problem solved!

Outside the cockpit, there are things to consider as well. Jet A1 gels at minus 47 degrees Celsius and Jet A gels at minus 40 degrees Celsius. During the month of December 2017 when we monitored temps, the South Pole got as cold as minus 67 degrees Celsius. You see the issue: Even though my TPE 331-10T engines have heat exchangers to warm the fuel with hot engine oil, the airplane doesn’t have anything in the wings to prevent the fuel from gelling before it gets to the heat exchanger. If you know what the low-temp gel point is or know anyone who does, please comment on this blog post or email me at [email protected].

6 – Survival

The last guy to attempt this trip didn’t bring any survival gear with him. He figured that the extra fuel he could carry was worth more pound for pound than any survival gear. He thought that survival would only prolong his misery. I have heard a similar belief from the highest-time ferry pilot in the world who has more than 500 Pacific crossings. I’m more optimistic. Thanks to modern satellite technology installed in Citizen, my potential rescuers will know where I am within 20 feet and two minutes if the airplane should go down. My survival suit and gear will give me the extra time to stay alive while they get to me.

To help improve my chances for a successful trip, I will fly the longest and hardest leg over Antarctica at the front end of the trip. This will ensure the Citizen of the World is working the best it can rather than letting it degrade over three months and then attempting the hardest leg at the end as I did in 2015 flying from Honolulu to Monterey during my equatorial circumnavigation in the Spirit of San Diego.

When it comes down to it, my team and I are doing everything humanly possible to plan every detail and mitigate the risks associated with flying over Antarctica. In my Zen Moments, I’ve learned that at some point you have to either accept the risks you can’t control or simply walk away. I choose to accept the risks and keep flying. The opportunity to expand the boundaries of general aviation, to inspire present and future generations to live their impossibly big dreams, and to be able fly in the name of world peace makes all the risks worthwhile.

Major life events

Getting married and having a family is a big deal for anyone, and pilots are no exception. There are, however, some other considerations that come into play.

As with any other big event, planning ahead is a big key to success. When I got married, my airline acted like nobody had ever been married before, and that my wedding was going to cause the entire operation to shut down. Fortunately, friends had given me some advice about how to broach the subject.

Because everything a pilot or a flight attendant does is based on seniority, the first order of business is to figure out how much vacation time you have. Since most companies let their employees accrue vacation time in advance, theoretically you should be able to count on your annual VA allotment for the following year. If you have the seniority to be able to hold the desired week(s) off, better still.

Once the engagement is set, it’s time to start a dialog with your chief pilot—not the assistant CP or the secretary or anyone else. You need the chief pilot on your side from the beginning.

Plan a reasonable and realistic amount of time off for the pre-wedding events such as the rehearsal, the ceremony, and the honeymoon (if you’re taking one right away). If a move of any sort is required as well, factor that in, and also plan to give yourself two or three days off before returning to work so that you’re not totally exhausted. Two weeks is usually pretty easy to get, and three weeks is not unrealistic. If it’s any more than that, then you may need to plan to ask for an unpaid trip drop, which means you also need to plan to lose a week’s pay.

Every chief pilot starts with one simple request: Bid for the time off you need, first, then come talk to me. The easiest way to do this is to plan on your events taking up the last part of one month and the first part of another. That minimizes staffing hits and makes it easier for the CP to justify giving you time off you may not be able to get with vacation accruals.

If the wedding is several months out, keep in touch with the CP office as a courtesy. If other pilots come in with similar requests, you want to be at the head of the line when it comes to getting days off you need.

In addition, you need to contact your human resources office early to start the process of adding your soon-to-be to your benefits, especially if you’re planning to use your flight benefits on your honeymoon. (Free advice: Don’t plan to use your flight benefits for your honeymoon—buy tickets for the peace of mind.) This is an easy thing to forget, but it’s an important step—especially if one of you is planning on a name change. Airlines have had to deal with dishonest employees abusing flight benefits, so expect to be required to produce what seems like an onerous amount of paperwork to prove that your intentions and actions are pure.

Part of this process is getting your future spouse on your health insurance and as a named beneficiary for your life insurance and retirement savings plans. The health insurance is especially important if you’ll be traveling outside the United States after the wedding. If a stepchild is also part of the package, address those needs as well.

Planning for childbirth is also a bit different. For starters, you may be on a trip. Once the pregnancy is underway and appears to be headed to term, have a discussion with the CP about contingency plans if you’re on a trip and need to get home. Most of the time, all you’ll need to do is make a phone call, and the wheels will be set in motion. However, if you’re on a trip to a fairly remote location and an emergency crops up, you may need to operate a flight to get out, which may have you flying in the opposite direction of where you want to go.

When it comes to having a baby, you can use FMLA provisions to take time off of work before and after the child is born, and generally you can use VA time to cover lost pay (until the VA bank is empty). Being financially prepared for the initial arrival of the baby helps. You should plan to be off the week before the due date, and for as long after the delivery as possible. Fortunately, pilot schedules make this easier, since most of us only work 12 to 15 days a month.

On the flip side, there are plenty of women who are pilots who also want to have children. Their planning situations will be a bit different. The FAA doesn’t specify a specific point in the pregnancy for a woman to stop flying. In theory, as long as the pregnancy doesn’t interfere with the pilot’s ability to do her duties, she can fly. However, this point in time will vary for each individual, and most airlines have a point at which the pilot must provide weekly or bi-weekly doctor approval to continue flying, and some will require the pilot to take time off starting around 30 to 32 weeks. Many suggest not flying at all in the third trimester.

Considering that most folks are going to want as much time off as possible, a new mother also may be facing an expiration of landing currency, or missing a scheduled training event. To the extent possible, phone calls should be made about the preferred method for handling these as soon as is feasible to minimize the headaches in returning to work. Nursing issues, day care, and other day-to-day concerns should be addressed as fully as possible before the downtime begins, with the realization that curve balls will likely follow. All the jokes about a lack of asleep aside, returning to work just for rest is not a good idea. You need to be well-rested, so coming up with a strategy with your partner to share night time duties as much as possible will be necessary to ensure your performance at work is up to par.

As with the wedding planning, you’ll need to get in touch with HR early on the get the FMLA paperwork filled out and approved. This is key, because many airlines use different forms for pilots and flight attendants than they do for hourly or salaried employees. The last thing you want is a delay in approval or pay because you didn’t get the paperwork right.

State and local laws vary with respect to FMLA, and of course, the federal law also applies. If you’re not based where you live, make sure you know both your rights and the rights of your employer. Because FMLA issues are commonly addressed in a collective bargaining agreement, touch base with a union rep early on to help guide you through everything—they’ve seen this before, and they’ll know which buttons to push.

Whether it’s a wedding or a childbirth, or even a death, major life events happen, and most will involve some help from the chief pilot and the staff. Once it’s all over, take the time to send a note and make a phone call to personally thank them for any accommodations they may have made. If the event is a baby, include a picture!—Chip Wright

Getting Used to the Alps

The Alps. What can I say? It had been relegated to the realm of dreams, and now that it is in hand for the time being, it’s hard to put into words. I’ll start with a few of the aeronautical details.

Switzerland has relatively free airspace in the Alps, other than some military activities which require a quick check on a national map issued by the Swiss authorities. Those restrictions come and go and are a lot like TFRs in the US. Flight service is run by private companies, for which the subscription is $50 per year. My navigation software offered the “official” VFR aerodrome charts and documentation for about $45 per year, and I gladly took them up on that offer. Avgas is $10/gallon, depending on exchange rates, a bit cheaper than Spain.

When it comes to landing fees, Sion charges roughly $18 for my aircraft, a combined fee for ATC and landing. That fee will increase by $7 if I land and have to clear customs, as Switzerland is not in the European Union for goods, though they are for Schengen. That means, in an odd arrangement, that customs is only for the airplane and contents, not the pilot or passenger in the event of entering the country from a departure point within Europe.

Noise fees rear their ugly head again, a throwback to my days getting smacked around in Germany. Switzerland has a national classification of make/model/engine configuration, with grades of A through D, and each airport has a matrix of weight and letter grade for applicable landing fees. My model is not listed, so the airport intended to charge $2 more per landing, and I was able to whip out my “noise certificate” and negotiate that the cowling and engine are exactly the same as some PA-18 models (labeled as classification A). The airport quickly assigned my file a grade of A, and I got a credit of $6!

Sion is a Class D towered airport, due to heavy traffic, occasional airliners, and lots of heavy metal coming in with paying passengers. They have a unique requirement where all flights must have a flight plan or avis de vol (flight announcement). The rationale is due to the severity of the Alps and the desire to have an indication of where a pilot was heading in the event of no return. While I like my ideological freedom, I have managed to work all of these requirements into my workflow and stay ahead of them. One thing about the Swiss is that they are very orderly with a relatively common-sense approach to processes. Things flow pretty well.

Other than my stint in Germany based in airspace with mandatory information service, this is the first time I am based for a period at a towered airport. Recall that I got a radio 3 years go for this airplane, so there was a bit of caution as it’s a new environment. In short order, I am pretty sharp with the process. I cannot find any distinguishable differences with Swiss ATC and controllers in the USA. It’s pretty common sense, GA friendly, and everybody works well together to be accommodating on all fronts, considering that there are usually gliders, business jets, helicopters, and general aviation aircraft swirling around most of the time.

When it comes to flying, I have almost exclusively been going to 14,000 feet or more on each flight. There was one where I wandered along Lake Geneva before seeing Mont Blanc in France gleaming in the sun, so up I went to 14,000’ to make a crack at the summit. The rest have been focused on a project of mine: the 82 peaks over 4000 meters (13,120’) in the Alps. It’s an official list published by a well-regarded mountaineering organization. As of today, I have completed 78 of the 82, so it has been some hard work figuring out massive mountains in a brand new area. Once I get the last 4 done, I might go cruising over some Swiss farms and do something easy.

A very strange thing about the Alps is the fact that they tower so high, have a timberline at 7,500’, and yet valleys plummet extremely low. The only place in America such a thing happens is where the Sierra Nevada in California plummets to Death Valley, or some of the massive ranges in Alaska. Otherwise, the Rockies tend to have high elevation valleys, which means someone is truly “in” the Rockies when visiting. My wife noted that “you don’t go in the Alps, you go through them.” To cross from one peak at 14,000’ to another across the valley may require dropping to the valley floor at 5,000’ or less over a very narrow valley. In the case of Sion, I am taking off at 1,582’ while looking at 10,000’ peaks in the Bernese Alps to the north and 7,000’ foothills to the Pennine Alps to the south, which then tower over 15,000’. Every 2,500’ of climbing, the climate zone distinctly changes.

It is a bit Mediterranean in Sion due to a microclimate. Reaching 4,000’, thick deciduous forests cling to the mountainsides. By 6,000’, that has transitioned to towering evergreen and larch, which are deciduous pines. 7,500’ is timberline, which is followed by grassy terrain until roughly 9,000’. Glaciers can begin at 9,500’, with soil noticeably disappearing at this level. On the north faces of mountains at 11,000’ it can be full “ice cap” terrain, which is more than just a glacier – it’s a massive pile of ice hundreds of feet thick that tumbles down in the summer, creating glaciers beneath. When one is flying in the Alps, the question is not only the specific location, it is the altitude and what world one is in.

I am still figuring it out, as the first time around the Matterhorn, I didn’t bring gloves and had such wicked pain holding the camera with bare hands, while also absolutely freezing cold in the cockpit. Then again, why would I bring winter gear in August, when it was 80F at takeoff, 30 miles to the north? Lesson learned….

Competition on the taxiway at Sion.

Airliner ready to takeoff. Makes sense my downwind turn was requested to be completed early.

East end of the runway, looking east down the Rhone River Valley with the Bernese Alps as a backdrop.

Struggling to gain altitude beneath L’Epaule. It would be ideal to have more than 100hp. Altitude: 11,000 feet.

Getting knocked around by wind, trying to corkscrew up in a lee side rotor. On the Italian side at 13,100 feet, looking up at Mt. Blanc, France (15,774′).

Looking eye to eye at the Matterhorn, from Italy toward Switzerland (14,672′).

Bernese Alps, 10,000 feet with Pennine Alps on the horizon and the Rhone River Valley (with Sion Airport) in between.

August snow, south of Interlaken, with the Jungfrau on the far left.

Classic image of the glacier line. 12,200′ altitude, west of Zermatt, Switzerland, looking east.

The Matterhorn playing hard to get in the clouds, south of Zermatt, Switzerland.

Looking up at the terminus of the Hohwänggletscher.

Ice cap, north slope of Dufourspitze (15,203′), the highest peak in Switzerland.

Dufourspitze and a few other peaks from Italy.


North side of Mt. Blanc, France, the highest peak in Alps and in Europe (15,774′)

 

Reviewing cold weather operations

As summer comes to a close, it is worth remembering that in some places, colder weather will hit while the rest of the country stays warm. In the northern climes, the onset of fall means colder temperatures at night, and that means there is a distinct possibility of frost. This may mean deicing, even though you can still wear shorts in the afternoon.

Even though it is still hurricane season, this is a great time of the year to begin reviewing cold weather operations. Believe it or not, most airlines start planning for winter ops around the first of June. There is a lot of background work that needs to be done. Deicing trucks need to be tested and maintained. Fluid needs to be ordered and strategically placed (in some places, this is handled by the airport, but not always). Employees need to be trained, equipment needs to ordered—the list goes on, and everything starts with an honest review of what did and did not work well the last couple of seasons.

On the pilot front, most airlines issue flight manual updates in the fall, and these almost always include updates to deicing procedures. In 2017, many airlines began using a new liquid water equivalent (LWE) concept that takes into account multiple variables at one time. In the past, deicing ops were predicated mostly on precipitation intensity or type. LWE takes into account temperature, dew point, and humidity as well to more accurately predict the hold-over times that can be used while deicing. The result is longer holdover times without compromising safety, which minimizes the risk of re-deicing—a time-consuming, expensive process.

Updates will also consist of new procedures—will the flaps be up or down for deicing this year?—that might be specific to the fleet, the airline, or the airport. Pay attention, because we can easily forget the details, and sometimes the changes are significant and dramatic.

A review will also make it easier to find quickly the sections of the manual needed when something is out of the ordinary, such as an inoperative APU. A lot of the updates will be buried in the company-specific pages of the Jeppesen charts, and while most airlines do a good job of communicating these, inevitably something will get through the cracks.

I always make a point to review cold weather ops just after Labor Day. This year will be no different. It’s a great habit, and having done it now for almost 20 years, I’d feel naked if I didn’t. Ice can be deadly and dangerous, and it deserves respect. Company procedures need to be followed. As always, two heads are better than one, and a good captain appreciates a first officer who is on his or her game.—Chip Wright

Benevolent or predatory?

The following message was recently posted to my company’s website by a Skylane owner based in Southern California:

My 1976 C182P is in for its annual inspection. The mechanic removed the propeller and spinner bulkhead. (I didn’t know this was part of the usual annual routine, and I don’t think it’s been done before.) The mechanic advised me that he found tiny hairline cracks (they looked to me like tiny scratches) on the spinner bulkhead around some of the bolt holes. How serious is this? Coincidentally, the mechanic said he “just happened” to have used serviceable bulkhead of the same kind that he’d sell me for $1,500.

Cessna 182 spinner bulkheadI found this disturbing on so many levels.

What possessed this mechanic to pull the propeller in the first place? I’ve never seen an annual inspection checklist that called for propeller removal. The normal procedure is to remove only the spinner dome and then inspect the propeller hub and spinner bulkhead while mounted on the aircraft. The mechanic had no business removing the propeller without an awfully good reason, and even with such a reason he shouldn’t have done it without first obtaining the aircraft owner’s permission.

Then there’s the matter of the alleged “cracks” that the mechanic found in the spinner bulkhead. The owner indicated that they didn’t look like cracks, just tiny scratches. There’s no indication that the mechanic performed a dye penetrant inspection to determine whether the alleged “cracks” had any appreciable depth, or whether they were superficial scratches of no real significance.

Finally there’s the issue of the used bulkhead the mechanic “just happened” to have on the shelf and offered to sell the owner for $1,500.  If the owner really needed one of these, then $1,500 might be a bargain price, since Cessna wants nearly $5,000 for a new one (I kid you not).

On the other hand, if the existing bulkhead exhibited nothing more than the “tiny scratches” described by the owner, it would be crazy to replace it for $1,500. If they were indeed scratches and not cracks, then no action would be necessary or appropriate. If they were actual cracks, they could very likely be weld-repaired by a company like K&K Precision Welding in Troy, Wisconsin that is FAA-certified to do such repairs.

“How serious is this?”

Indeed, that’s the threshold question. To find out, I decided to consult with a colleague who is an A&P/IA, owns a nationally known maintenance shop that specializes in repairing single-engine Cessnas, and who “just happens” to own a Cessna 182 himself. Who could be more qualified to assess whether this mechanic was being benevolent or predatory?

I emailed my colleague the Skylane owner’s query and asked for his reaction. His response was too good not to share.

This would be funny if it weren’t so sad. This is one of those stupid mechanic tricks that make the rest of us look bad.

These bulkheads are a well-known common problem area, but one with no known safety-of-flight risk. Worst case, the spinner departs the airplane. When this happened to me, I didn’t even realized it happened until I noticed it on the post-flight walk-around.

In my opinion, this mechanic is taking advantage of the Skylane owner. The owner should absolutely refuse to pay for the removal and reinstallation of the propeller, which shouldn’t have been done in the first place. The owner should demand a dye penetrant inspection of the original spinner bulkhead, performed while he is present to watch.

If cracks are confirmed by dye penetrant, then the owner should get on Google and research his options for getting his bulkhead repaired or finding a replacement elsewhere (eBay is a good place to start). If he must purchase the one from this mechanic , then he should negotiate the price to something no greater than the least expensive alternative his research came up with.

Others might say that the mechanic made a “great catch” and did the owner a favor. In my view, however, the mechanic performed exploratory surgery without the owner’s authorization and for no valid reason. If the bulkhead was actually cracked but the cracks hadn’t yet progressed past the edge of the mounting hardware (and therefore not visible without removing the prop), then they didn’t constitute a safety issue.

Even in the very unlikely event that a hidden crack suddenly propagated to the point of bulkhead failure, the resulting damage would be minimal. Cracks found in the normal course of an annual inspection must be addressed, but there’s certainly no need to take heroic efforts to find them…like pulling the prop.

My best guess is that the mechanic wanted to dispose of the spinner bulkhead he had on the shelf, and decided this owner might make a good mark. I hope he doesn’t get away with it.

It’s not uncommon for mechanics to take over-the-top maintenance actions that have adverse consequences for aircraft owners’ wallets. But in my experience, these arise mostly out of mechanics’ fear of being sued if something goes wrong, and rarely out of greed.

This one might be an exception. What do you think?

Exiting the Hold: Choose your course of study wisely

Get to know your learning style and choose your course of study wisely

This is the second part of six in my series Exiting the Hold: Reaching your Aviation goals. Last month we focused on the importance of timing and the Greek concepts of time: chronos and kairos. This month we will be delving in to choosing a course of study or preparation for your meeting your goals. Having just returned from Oshkosh at the beginning of this month, the use of my instrument rating in actual weather conditions is fresh in my mind. The decision-making I used for the 26-hour solo flight relied heavily on my IFR training. The smoke, rain, low visibility, thunderstorms and clouds with ice, I encountered gave me real-world experience that tested me.

Learners are as variable as the airplanes they fly. Now that you have made the decision to reach your goals, set yourself up for success. Are you choosing a professionally developed curriculum or leaning on a variety of books and study guides? Do you need the pressure of having a time-based weekly program, or are you self-motivated enough for home-based study? Whatever you choose, choose wisely to maximize your chance of success.

A decision on the best course of study must take into account the following components:

  • Quality of study program
  • Mode of study [in-person, online, self-study]
  • Level of accountability [peer pressure, schedule, community]

Quality of study program

The aviation community is very lucky to have wonderful educators and educational institutions that have been around for decades. Over the years I have used King Schools, Rod Machado, Sporty’s, Gleim, and AOPA’s Air Safety Institute. Don’t skimp on the quality of your study program. My advice is to purchase the best that you can afford. Think of your education being an investment in you, your life and longevity.

Mode of study [in-person, online, self-study]

As one of my IFR instructors said to me, “Here is where we are going to go to school.” I am a psychotherapist with 26 years of experience. In that time I have become fascinated in the differences between males and females, specifically in terms of brain differences. I am not a brain researcher; my thoughts are based on a basic review of the current science, and are by no means exhaustive. You should also know that there are exceptions to the facts and we can train our brain to do less than innate activities.

Here is the short story: I versus We:  Competence versus Connection.  The male brain is organized and focused more as an individual, striving for mastery.  The female brain is wired for communication, connection and cooperation

Men have slightly larger brains even when adjusted for their larger heads. They have larger parietal cortices (in charge of space perception), and amygdala (which regulates sexual and social behavior). This might explain why visual-spatial tasks are easier for men. They tend to be able visually manipulate things in their brain, whereas women tend to need to see spaces and shapes on paper.

Men also have more gray matter in their brains, which is full of active neurons. This might explain why there are more men in physically or mentally active professions like airplane pilots, bush guides, racecar drivers, and mathematicians. Men also tend to be more systematic in their thinking.

Women’s brains are 8-10% smaller than the male brain, yet on average, are much more active. Women have larger volume in both the frontal cortex (the inner CEO) and the limbic cortex (involved in emotional responses). This, in conjunction with speedy connections facilitated by the white matter, is another reason why women’s brains work faster. Renowned brain researcher, Dr. Daniel Amen’s research shows that women have greater activity in the brain’s hippocampus. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that helps store memories.

In addition, the female brain has a larger corpus callosum, which is a bundle of nerves that connects emotion and cognition. As a result, women are better with language abilities and rely more heavily on oral or verbal communication. They also tend to have a better time controlling emotions, although they are more emotional. Women, on average use four words to every one word a man uses. The female brain secretes more serotonin and oxytocin, which connects them further to the emotional world. These differences are important because when you know what lights up your brain, you will be better equipped to make the best “course of study” decision.

In sum, males will be excited about the individual mastery, competition, or competence in aviation. Females will be excited to be part of a collaborative, interactive group of students. Males might be better with conceptualizing basic principles of flight. Females would learn better by hands-on demonstration. In sum, think about yourself, your learning style and make the choices that support an optimal environment for your education.

Level of accountability [peer pressure/community, schedule]

I decided that 2017 was my year to get my IFR rating. In late 2016 I started studying for the IFR written exam. I used online training, attended a weekend intensive seminar, and had individual tutoring. Although my friends knew I was studying, I kept my test date a secret. I didn’t want anyone to know I was testing, but once I passed with a healthy 90% I did put it out to my friends and family that I would complete the rating in 2017. I know myself. I knew that I didn’t want the social pressure of folks knowing I was taking the written. But I did want the social pressure of publicizing that I was committing to getting done in 2017. Think about your personality and the impact peer pressure will have on you. It might be a good thing to put in to words your goals and methods for attaining them.

There is never a good time to do anything. As discussed in last month’s column there are instances where you just have to leap. Think about your life, responsibilities and energy level. You might be best served by a weekly course of instruction, slow and steady toward the goal. However, your work or family schedule might be better suited for a two-week intensive program.

Good luck in determining the course of study to help you reach your goal. Next month we will tackle the third element in Exiting the Hold: Quieting the Critic. For those of you on the West Coast, if you would like to come see my multi-media presentation of Exiting the Hold: Reaching your Aviation Goals, I will be presenting at the Capital Airshow in Sacramento, CA [Mather] on Sunday September 23rd at 10:40 a.m. in the education pavilion.

The Darkest Hour: A Recap of the Thunder Mountain SAR

 

The following is a story about what happens after the ELT goes off. It is written from the perspective of a fellow Alaska Range Pilot… who happens to be married to the incident commander of the search-and-rescue effort.

At 6 p.m. Alaska Daylight Time on Aug. 4, a de Havilland Beaver on a scenic flight impacted the side of a jagged ridge in Denali National Park. The aircraft’s ELT was the first indication that something was amiss. Shortly following the accident, the improbable occurred: A satellite phone call was made by the pilot. Though exact details remain mysterious, the pilot indicated that there were major injuries and/or fatalities, and that the occupants were trapped in the aircraft. One irrefutable fact was taken away from that call: There were survivors. 

Thus began the largest-scale SAR the Alaska Range has seen in decades. Other scenic aircraft continued to swirl about the mountains nearby, going about business as normal, while the occupants of the Beaver were passing through their darkest hour. Yet, across south-central Alaska, forces were marshaling. Military and civilian aircraft of an astounding mix were to become involved, syncing their combined talents in a battle against the odds.

A photo taken by glacier pilot Matt Bethke, depicting conditions near the crash site shortly before it’s occurrence. Though VFR, it reinforces the old adage “… treat every cloud as if there were a mountain behind it”

The odds were about as big as they come. The crash site was just under 11,000 feet on very steep, serac (ice cliff)-filled terrain below the ridge, one of an impressive peak called Thunder Mountain. Situated about 15 miles south of 20,310-foot Denali, it is actually a fierce arm of Mt. Hunter, the third highest peak in the Range. It is one of the more inaccessible areas in a mountain range known for its vertical nature, and an improbable place to survive a crash. Yet somehow they had. But for how long?

According to other pilots who had been in the area around the time of the accident, the weather was volatile on the high ridges. “Really swirling clouds with a lot of flow,” a colleague of mine remarked. However, there was good VFR in the main glacier corridors, including the large highway of the Kahiltna. A weather camera on this glacier confirmed this for the times before and after the crash.  “We’ve all worked with less… much less,” another pilot said.

A screenshot of the Kahiltna weather camera taken approximately one hour after the event. The summits in the background are just south of the crash site, and depict a ceiling of over 10,000 feet msl. The glacier sits at 6,500 feet in this view shed. Photo by the author.

However, things were about to change. The weather began deteriorating in earnest almost immediately. The National Park Service A-star B3 helicopter was able to get within a mile of the site about one hour after the ELT was detected, but it and all other aircraft were forced to return to Talkeetna ahead of the large storm that was to impact the area for the next few days. Overnight, the rain came down in sheets. I lay awake, listening to the roar of it on our cabin roof. At 1:15 a.m., my incident-commander husband finally made it home from the SAR room. At 5 a.m., he went back to work.

Denali National Park maintains an elite team of Mountaineering Rangers and a contract helicopter for SAR during the summer. This resource is usually  more than adequate to handle incidents. Because of the potential for survivors, the number of occupants, and the location of the aircraft, this was something much larger. It required the outside resources of the military.  The Alaska Rescue Coordination Center established a Unified Command between the military and the National Park Service. The title of Incident Command fell to District Ranger Tucker Chenoweth, head of the Mountaineering Rangers… and my husband. In trying to explain the situation to our five year old, he put it very aptly. “You know, it’s like daddy is in charge of a soccer team, and I’m trying to get them to play soccer… and they all come from different teams.”

The next day passed darkly, with no further contact from the downed Beaver. It’s tracking mechanism continued to give a signal, indicating the location of the aircraft. Forecast conditions aloft indicated high winds and snowfall at the crash elevation. The rainy calm of the morning was ripped asunder by the military helicopters, bravely making their way to Talkeetna through the murk. Two CH-47 Chinooks and two UH-60 Black Hawks journeyed south from Wainwright Army Base in Fairbanks, joined by two HH-60 Pave Hawks from Elmendorf. Additionally, the company of the downed plane sent out multiple aircraft.  But no one would reach the Beaver that day. My husband came home late again, with stooped shoulders. At 4 a.m. he sat straight up in bed, clutching his iPhone. The weather camera showed unexplainable, good VFR on the glacier. “It’s happening,” he said.

A marriage of NPS, Air Force, Army, and Pararescuers surged toward the site, while a military C-130 circled overhead. The downed beaver was in a precarious site, plastered to steep snow above a 4,500-foot cliff. A ranger friend  remarked that it was not the scene they were hoping for. “About the worst-case scenario,” he said. A debate ranged over which helicopter was best for initial response. In the end, the NPS ship, dubbed the “hummingbird” by the larger aircraft, was dispatched. Talented pilot Andreas Hermansky short-hauled NPS ranger Chris Erickson to the precarious site. Hermansky has been the SAR pilot for many years, and has saved lives from as high as 19,000 feet. Ranger Erickson, like all his team, is a light in the dark for those trapped on steep mountainsides. On Thunder Mountain, they battled a fierce wind and deteriorating weather as the military ships massed on the glacier below. The Chinooks had become mobile medical/refueling sites, equipped to handle multiple injured. The Pave Hawks and their attendant Pararescuers were prepared for extrication and paramedic duties. A wave of capability was breaking on the shores of Thunder Mountain. Radio silence fell as Erickson assessed the smashed aircraft. There were no survivors.

Below the aircraft is a 4,500-foot cliff. Photo courtesy NPS.

The belle of the ball: this ship and pilot Hermansky (along with all the mountaineering rangers) specialize in high-altitude, snowy, steep, glaciated rescue.

This incident will forever mystify us glacier pilots. A jagged, snowy ridge at 11,000 feet with swirling clouds is not an improbable place for CFIT. It is, however, an improbable place for a Beaver with other options. We regularly take Beavers past Thunder Mountain on scenic tours, but it seems an odd choice given that the glacier corridor below was so good. But this was not authored to pass judgement on the actions of the pilot. The description of the aircarft’s interior was grim. It is amazing that any occupants survived for any time. Even more amazing was the SAR effort put forth by the Unified Command. The NPS returned to the site a few days later, this time with my husband on the short haul line. He braved avalanche conditions, a crevasse underneath the aircraft, jagged metal, and (of course) a huge cliff below to assess the recoverability of the bodies. Hermansky hovered for nearly an hour as Chenoweth made his inspection. The enourmous hazards precluded removal.

If there had been survivors, they would have had an amazing array of rescuers at their aid. Mountain pilots, capable aircraft, paramedics, climbing experts, extrication experts, and SAR command came together to help the downed airplane. In it’s grief, the community may not have given this the attention it deserves. I encourage detractors of the decision not to remove the bodies to imagine themselves on the end of that short haul line. So I write to highlight this fact: There are a lot of brave, capable people coming to help you after your ELT goes off. If you can survive your darkest hour, there will be light.

The final statement was not directed at family members of the deceased. As the spouse of a glacier pilot, he understands the importance of bringing a loved one home. A local detractor with no connection to the deceased has unjustly criticized our brave public servants, and, through unclear motivations, has suggested that private contractors put themselves in harm’s way to attempt removal.

FAR 117 challenges

Prior to the advent of FAR 117, the FAA held airlines primarily responsible for violations of its scheduling rules. In theory, the pilots also were accountable for what happened, but the FAA was well aware that airlines—especially smaller commuters and regionals—would lie, cheat, and steal to get their flights completed.

Further, the airlines had computers that were supposedly infallible, and when problems were occasionally found, it was because the airlines had created the problems. Because most airlines record conversations between pilots and schedulers, it usually didn’t take much to catch the airlines in the act—especially when the incriminating tapes would suddenly go missing, which they too often did.

FAR 117, however, has changed things. Now pilots are held to a much higher standard—but so are the airlines. The problem is that FAR 117 was supposed to make things simpler, and that wasn’t always the case. A series of tables was produced for both augmented and unaugmented flights, and the maximum hours on duty and hours flown was supposed to be as simple as using a table to get the magic number. The rules varied some for reserves, but even those rules were supposed to be easier to understand.

Unfortunately, there have been a lot of valid questions and concerns brought up over the years that required some interpretations from the FAA. Questions have been posed by the unions, the airlines, and individual pilots. The result was a lot of confusion. Most of that confusion has been eliminated, but some is still there.

I had a recent example of an easy mistake that could have led to a violation. My initial report time was changed because of a flight cancellation. My new flight left later, but it also ran late because of late-arriving passengers and a traffic jam at the runway. My next leg was a transcontinental flight, which created a problem. Even though the initial early report time was changed, the start of my duty time remained the same, because a phone call to me prior would have triggered a mandatory new rest period, so I was notified with an email that I got when I woke up.

I didn’t put all of the pieces together until we got ready to do the transcon and the gate agents were trying to get us airborne. Because of the confusion, we called the company to get a clarification. Fortunately, I could agree to an extension of my duty time, which I did in the interest of not stranding a jetload of passengers.

But, had we just assumed that we knew better and taken off, I would have been in violation of 117, and unlike the old days, the FAA would have come after me, possibly for certificate action. But under 117, both sides are equally responsible, and both are vested in getting it right. All of our Ts were crossed and our Is were dotted.

If you move into the 117 world, there are a number of resources you can use to ensure compliance with the rules, including some FAQs that have been compiled based on FAA interpretation and real-world experience. There are also apps for your phone. Know what your resources are, but more important, don’t be afraid to make some phone calls if you’re in doubt. Once you know you’re legal to operate, then—and only then—can you go. There is often more to the table than meets the eye.—Chip Wright

Different airplanes of the same type

Flying for an airline is obviously different than flying general aviation. The airplanes themselves are much more complex, and even when they are the same…they are different.

You likely have some familiarity with this in the GA world. After all, there are multiple models of the 172. Some have flaps that go to 40 degrees, but most don’t, and a few didn’t require waiting for the white arc to extend the first 10 degrees of flaps. There are also as many radio combinations as there are pilots with money to spend on radios.

Airlines do what they can to maximize fleet commonality, because it’s cheaper and safer to do so. When I flew at the regionals, the airplanes were exactly the same for the most part. The differences that existed were more behind the panels, and the few that were not didn’t really matter.

But there were a few differences, notably in the max takeoff weight of two variants of the CRJ. It was hard to miss this, though, since it was on a (big) placard in the cockpit, and our flight release always noted the heavier airplanes. The landing weights were the same, which helped.

At the majors, the differences can be more stark. I fly the Boeing 737, and my airline has four basic variants: the -700, the -800, the -900, and the -900ER. Some of the differences are obvious: The -700 is smaller and the -900 and -900ER are much bigger; the wingspans vary a bit as well; and the -700 has much better overall performance. In the cockpit, the -700 has a different temperature control system than the larger airplanes. There are some significant details that must be committed to memory when it comes to the -900 autoland system, which isn’t something we use a lot—which makes remembering those details even more important. Further, every airline operates airplanes differently, which means that procedures in use at Southwest may not be common at United, and vice versa.

There are other, smaller differences, most of which are transparent to the pilots. During an emergency, it becomes important to read the notes in the quick reference handbook (QRH) checklist, because sometimes the checklist will stipulate different procedures based on the serial numbers of the airplane. This is especially common when the manufacturers have made significant changes or upgrades to the electronics or the avionics.

The introduction of the 737 MAX has added some new wrinkles. The MAX looks different (although it has the same shark-tooth engine cowling as the 787), and the cockpit has been drastically altered, so there is no mistaking which airplane you’re flying. The start procedure is different—it takes twice as long per engine, and it must be done correctly to prevent an auto-shutdown. There are some system changes and enhancements as well, all of which required some form of training. The airlines operating the MAX also provide cheat sheets that summarize the differences for the pilots, especially since the small fleet size of the MAX means opportunities to fly it will be rare.

Fortunately, there is a movement underway to eliminate the requirement that copious quantities of information be memorized, as was done in the past. Now, the FAA encourages airlines to provide written guides whenever possible. There are too many minor variables involved, especially after the round of mergers that took place in the past 15 years. Throw in airplanes purchased from airlines overseas, and it just makes sense to provide up-to-date guidance whenever possible.

However, none of this alleviates the pilots’ responsibility to be aware of those differences, even if they don’t have to memorize all of them. Limitations still need to be recognized and respected.—Chip Wright

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