Well…we really didn’t have to call May Day! We didn’t actually have to talk to anyone. But when the turbo 210 we were flying lost a big chunk of power a few minutes after takeoff from a small, non-towered airport near Denver, my first instinct was to check the manifold pressure gauge. It indicated around 22 inches. Hmmm…Turbo failure?
The engine seemed quite content to run at that reduced power setting; a scan of the oil pressure, oil temperature, cylinder heads and EGTs showed nothing out of the ordinary. There was no odd odor, no smoke, no roughness, no oil splatters on the windscreen. Normal, normal.
So why did the power just drop like that?
When something unusual like this changes things, my first question is a very simple one, and it’s not “What happened?” The answer to that question might or might not come with time. Instead, I’m more concerned with the answer to this question: “What do I have left to fly?”
First, I determine what is working correctly, and therefore, what is available to take me back to the airport, or at least get me safely back on the ground. In this case, I had what appeared to be a normally-running engine attached to an airframe quite capable of flying back to the runway for landing.
At his request, I took control of the aircraft from my client, and turned back toward the airport from which we had just departed, about four miles behind us. The engine continued to run just fine, but just in case something might suddenly change that, I maintained the power setting that the engine had dropped to, stayed a little higher and faster than normal coming into the traffic pattern, and while closely monitoring for any signs of change, flew a close downwind to the runway. This put me in a position to lose what was left of that engine and still make the runway, should that become necessary. In these situations, altitude and airspeed give you time and options; it’s best to give up either one grudgingly, and only after careful thought.
A Cessna 172 was ahead of us, flying much slower, and seemed intent on flying an extended downwind. I wasn’t willing to get that far away from the airport under the circumstances, so I told the Skyhawk pilot on CTAF that I was turning inside of him because of engine difficulty. He responded by offering to do a 360 on the downwind to allow us to take the lead. Nice gesture.
The resulting short approach and landing was uneventful and a few moments later, we pulled the cowling. This was our first flight in the Cessna since it had left the shop for several minor squawks that turned into a couple of weeks of work.
When the right cowl half was removed, the reason for our power loss was immediately obvious: a hose coupling in the induction tunnel had popped off, causing the engine to revert to non-turbocharged power settings. We reattached the hose coupling, talked to the mechanic that had made the mistake, and went right back out to fly that afternoon.
Losing a turbo is not a big deal as long as you’re not over tall rocks or trying to stay out of icy clouds below; the important thing to take away from this incident is the thought process that serves us best when these kinds of “abnormal” occurrences demand our full attention. Sure, determine as much as you can about the “abnormal” situation to make a proper assessment, but then establish what you have left to fly, and make a plan to get back on the ground, keeping your senses open for changes to the plan. Be stingy about altitude and airspeed too, until you can safely throw these life-giving commodities away.
Oh, and don’t forget to breathe.
A few days ago I took some recurrent training in a JetRanger from an instructor who runs a flight school nearby. I’ve known him for years, but this was to be our first instructional flight together. In addition to teaching regularly in a JetRanger, Don often flies charter in the type, whereas I’ve been flying one too-infrequently lately, and only give dual instruction in it when I do.
Don started with a little chalkboard time, asking me questions about the limitations of the ship. His first question was: What are the doors-off speed limits of the JetRanger? I couldn’t pull those limits from my foggy brain to save my butt; I remembered that there were different speed limits with the front or rear doors removed, and I took a stab at it, but my answer wasn’t correct. I have never flown a JetRanger with the doors off — the owner of the aircraft that I fly doesn’t want it operated that way. Yet Don regularly does, and often bumps up against these limits, so it was important to him that I know what they were.
This raised a question in my mind: Is it important that we know all the numbers in our aircraft’s limitations section?
That would spark a lively debate in most pilots lounges. I could take a position and argue for either side. On the one hand, a pilot should know all the limitations of the machine he’s flying. On the other, if he never runs doors-off, as in my case, why does it matter? And if he is familiar enough with the limitations to know that he needs to check the book when he intends to do something that has an “unfamiliar” limitation, wouldn’t that be enough?
One would hope.
Are there limitations you should know about the machine you’re flying – regardless of whether you think you’ll ever run up against them? Absolutely. Temp limits on turbines would be a good example. You just don’t have time to look them up when you are pushing those limits. But what about the many other limitations in our books? Is it necessary to know the minimum pressure of the tail skid strut on a 727, as I was required to know for an airline I once flew for? Um…no.
We tend to fall into a groove (some would call it a “rut”) in our flying. We repeat certain operations with the machinery, go to certain airports, fly only in certain weather conditions, all the while striving to make things comfortable for our machine and for ourselves.
But recurrent training isn’t about being comfortable; it’s about being asked to dig a little deeper, to get out of our comfort zone, think about things we rarely consider, and in the process, learn something new. Recurrent is also about dropping the ego, saying, “I don’t know.” If we do that, the doors to new learning swing open and new ideas, thoughts, and knowledge come pouring in. Often, there’s something in this “new” that we hadn’t even thought about, perhaps a connection to what we do that is quite relevant.
One of the true gifts of recurrent training is perspective. We ask another pilot to show us another way to view our world that has become so familiar, to encourage us to consider other ideas about ways to operate a machine that might be helpful, or to offer a different perspective that we’ve possibly never thought about.
I really enjoyed my session with Don. Recurrent training is not about answering every question perfectly; in fact, it’s better if you don’t. I’d rather not know “everything” than have a perfect score, because a good instructor will then go to work to supplement and flesh-out the gaps in your knowledge. And let’s face it, we ALL have those gaps in our knowledge.
Next time you have recurrent training to accomplish, view it as an opportunity to “not know,” to be a beginner at something, to be the one who doesn’t have all the answers. And your recurrent experience will not only be more enjoyable, but you’ll learn something. Guaranteed.
A friend and fellow flight instructor had a bit of bad luck recently when two of his students crashed within a month of one another. One of the pilots recently passed his private pilot checkride; the other one was flying under a supervised solo when his accident occurred. My friend was deeply troubled by the events, and wondered aloud if he had neglected to teach these pilots something which resulted in the accidents. He also was having serious misgivings about his ability to effectively teach.
What does it say about an instructor who’s students crash? Is he a bad instructor?
Not necessarily. There are many reasons for accidents and even the best instructors and his best students have them. The difference is in what the instructor takes away from this experience. It seems there are two types of instructor in this kind of situation: One screams and yells and rants about the student, as in, “What the @Not necessarily. There are many reasons for accidents and even the best instructors and his best students have them. The difference is in what the instructor takes away from this experience. It seems there are two types of instructor in this kind of situation: One screams and yells and rants about the student, as in, “What the @Not necessarily. There are many reasons for accidents and even the best instructors and his best students have them. The difference is in what the instructor takes away from this experience. It seems there are two types of instructor in this kind of situation: One screams and yells and rants about the student, as in, “What the @Not necessarily. There are many reasons for accidents and even the best instructors and his best students have them. The difference is in what the instructor takes away from this experience. It seems there are two types of instructor in this kind of situation: One screams and yells and rants about the student, as in, “What the @$&&## hell was this dumbass thinking? I can’t believe he tore up a perfectly good aircraft like that!”
The other type of instructor begins quietly with a question: “What could I have done to prevent this tragedy?” Thus begins a healthy introspective process, where the instructor takes the opportunity to learn something about himself — and in so doing, becomes a better instructor. Teaching people to fly is a uniquely HUMAN process.
My friend was beating himself up when we talked, the day after the second student crashed. When he asked if I had any advice to help him through this difficult period right after an accident, I told him that I felt that he was doing exactly what good instructors do when they are confronted with such difficult challenges: they look within for that all-important learning edge. They ask questions. They honestly work to learn the lessons from the often embarrassing, heart-rending experiences — and then pass those lessons on to their next student.
There really is a difference in flight instructors. And that difference makes all the difference in the type of pilot you will turn out to be. Choose carefully.
Sometimes because of my A&P certificate, I am asked for my opinion about the airworthiness of an aircraft. This happened recently when a young instructor asked me to look at a Schweizer 300 helicopter he was scheduled to fly with a student. He showed me what appeared to be cracks around the bolts that attach the struts to the tailboom. He wisely recognized that should this bolt lug fail, the boom would certainly leave the aircraft, and he would have a very bad (though short) day!
Sometimes in these situations, I have a level of comfort with the part or machine and thus, easily offer an opinion; other times, I just don’t know. Though I’m a certificated mechanic, I don’t have any real experience working on Schweizer helicopters. So my default mode in these situations is this: if I don’t know, I don’t go – and I advise my questioner (who obviously doesn’t know either, or he wouldn’t have asked) to stay on the ground until we do know. We can’t be killed by an aircraft we don’t fly.
“Not knowing” is a common place for humans to find themselves; in spite of our best efforts, we just can’t know everything. So what do we do when we face this “unknown” chasm before us?
First, we gather new information: we call the experts, perhaps the mechanic who worked on the aircraft last, the mechanic who regularly maintains it, the pilot who last flew it, or the owner who has a history with the machine. We also consult the FARs, the service manual, service bulletins, and other supporting data that might provide clues. In other words, we research the issue.
Only after this crucial step is honored do we get our hands dirty. The unwritten methodology in maintenance is to start with the simple and inexpensive and work toward the complex and expensive. This might involve ever-more extensive disassembly or throwing increasingly expensive parts at the problem.
Start with a careful inspection of the suspect part. This might just begin with your fingernail and a good light for a crack like the one we had. Get a bright flashlight, though — and a mirror, if necessary. Lighting is critical here; a dark hangar won’t do, and surprisingly, a brightly-lit ramp might be just as bad because it’s often too bright and offers no contrast. A simple magnifying glass is often the perfect tool, or you might need some NDT (non-destructive testing) methodology like dye penetrant to “get deeper” into the problem. If that doesn’t solve the uncertainty to your satisfaction, you might have to remove more parts, inspection panels, or cowlings; paint might have to be stripped.
After a cursory inspection of the cracks, several phone calls were made. The mechanic who regularly cares for the machine offered to come look at it. After carefully inspecting it, he assured us that the paint was cracked because there are rubber shock grommets around the boom’s attach bolts, and they had been painted over some months ago; needless to say, the natural action of those grommets easily cracked the paint over time. So, what appeared to be potentially life-threatening cracks turned out to be “normal” and the little helicopter was good for flight.
But how would you know unless you asked? We simply don’t know what we don’t know. Would it have been worth it to fly the aircraft…and just hope that it was OK? I call that “whistling in the dark….”