Monday, July 27, 2009

Don't forget the gear!

I remembered an interesting story and I figured there was a lesson to be shared. Back in my instructing days, I was training a fellow who bought a high performance aircraft and needed a check out for insurance. I had flown with him before and found it challenging to say the least. Being so young at the time, he really didn't want to listen to me. I would continually drive home the importance of cockpit check as the likelihood of him using a checklist once solo, was nonexistent. When operating an aircraft with retractable gear, it's important to establish solid checks from the get go. I still remember the "BBGUMPS" brakes, belts, gas, undercarriage, mixtures, props and switches. Just saying it puts a smile on my face as it has been drilled deep into my head.

As I was saying, this gentlemen was a challenge and whenever I brought up the checks, I would receive a response such as, "I don't know how people can ever forget, I have an ultra-light and I haven't forgot the landing gear." His ultra-light only has a retractable nose wheel. One day, while doing circuits, I gave him a simulated engine failure. During the entire procedure I continued to give pointers to see how he would handle the situation. He did a fantastic job right up to the point when I took control! In the overshoot, I looked over at him and asked, "what did you forget?" He looked around the cockpit and couldn't figure it out. I then asked, "what's the one thing you would never forget?!" His language was colourful to say the least.

We have all had those instructors who have allowed us to make mistakes without jeopardizing safety to drill home the importance of the lesson at hand. I still find it interesting when an employer considers instructing time as low value time. With my instructing background, I believe the contrary and you should as well. For those who haven't had the privilege to experience instructing, as an instructor you learn how to deal with multiple personalities and different skill levels. You become an excellent communicator and it can be very exciting or down right scary at times. As I fly with different pilots on occasion, I can see who has had a professional instructor and who has had a time builder instructor. Unfortunately, the latter generally is a poor communicator and lacks the necessary confidence. Marginal hands and feet skills can also be an indicator.

For anyone starting out, I recommend instructing for a year. If working a ramp job or flying and getting your feet wet are the options, it's easy to choose. Also the PIC time will help you greatly down the road. Fly safe and keep it rubber side down.


Sunday, July 26, 2009

Pushing the weather

I know I'm getting myself into a touchy area of flying but it's the point of my blog. Too many low time guys get themselves into hairy situations without any practical training or know with all to get themselves out of it. Refer to the accident reports to justify my previous statement.

I'm here to provide you with some solutions to exiting dangerous situations. My focus is based around single engine and light twin aircraft as this is what most low timers will start out on. Also this information precludes to not only bush flying, but also flying privately and instructing.

First of all, I strongly recommend getting some IFR training. This training has saved my butt more times than I can remember and especially if you aren't flying very often, it's always good to have it in your back pocket.

Many pilots are familiar with "get home-i-tis" and it's very important to recognize it before it's too late. I will admit I have been in situations where I think to myself, "if I just go a little lower, I will pop out and see what I'm trying to see," or "I know so and so made it in, I should be able to as well." At that very moment, sound the alarms. This attitude and thought process will kill you! Always fly the aircraft in your comfort zone as this will allow you to maintain your situational awareness and a high level of safety.

I can't stress how important it's to monitor what the weather is really doing. I know this sounds obvious but more times than not, many pilots will continue further into the weather hoping it will improve. Unless you know the route like the back of your hand; nine times out of ten, you are taking the first step towards an accident. Normally, if the weather is worsening, you are heading towards a system and the likely hood of it improving is slim. On a side note, those pilots that know the routes have a tendency to push themselves a little more and a little more every time. I don't know how many accident reports I have come across where a fifteen thousand hour guy has thundered it in pushing the weather. It's an unfortunate event and we must all learn from it. Always, and I mean always remain in your comfort zone and don't deviate. Over time, you will become more familiar and your zone will expand with each hour flown. I'm sure many of you have heard the saying "there are old pilots, there are bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots." The quote still holds true today, so learn from the mistakes of others.

Ok lets say you get yourself into the soup and become disoriented. At that very moment, keep cool and get on the instruments. We all have had some basic instrument training and these situations would be an IDEAL time to use it. You have two options at this point: one, you can turn around. This is what I recommend. Two, you can continue. If you choose to continue there are important questions you need to ask yourself without much of a delay.

How well do I know the route and what obstacles are ahead of me? Should I be climbing? I would much rather fly a little higher with limited forward visibility and the ground in site, than be tree top. Have I reached the half way mark? Is there another airport that I passed along the route that I can return to? What's the weather at my destination and what type of approach aids are available? Am I current with IFR procedures? And finally, what kind of instrumentation do I have available?

These questions need to be answered in the matter of a seconds depending on how familiar you are with the route. You can't fly in the soup for too long without knowing where you are. If you are unfamiliar, I can't stress the importance of maintaining a safe altitude. If your well above the obstacles, you will be more relaxed and able to focus on the solution to the challenge at hand.

I know to some of you this information is new and I'm pleased I have been able to share it with you. Fly safe, and keep it rubber side down.


Saturday, July 25, 2009

Getting Stuck

Generally speaking, one will get the aircraft stuck once a season. Fortunately I avoided the dreaded occurrence this spring! I feel it's as important to talk about how to avoid getting stuck as it's getting one's self un-stuck.

How do you avoid it? Here are a few things you should do to prevent the situation:

1) Training - During your aircraft training, ask the trainer to go over the tow points. Also flying into the strips during your training with someone who knows the strip will save you many headaches down the road. I find being pulled with tow straps wrapped around the main gear will work best. Never pull a stuck aircraft by the nose wheel. The nose gear is not designed to handle the stress of pulling it free.

2) Airstrip Operator - When you finally hit the real world, you will find it a challenge to keep up on the weather and strip condition during the busy season. Strong thunderstorm activity can leave an area completely saturated and miss them all together. It's good practice to check with the strip operator for an in depth weather report and strip condition. Having your questions made up prior to the call will allow you to gain more info. The strip operators aren't normally pilots and therefore may not be sure of what you are looking for.

3) Co-workers - Many times you will be flying all day and won't be sure what the other pilots are doing for the day. While you're out and about, make radio contact with them to see if they have been to the strip yet, or if they know of anyone who has gone in there yet today. The strips change daily, so the most current info is best.

4) Weather reports - Keeping an eye on the weather systems can improve your chances greatly. Watch each Front closely and take note of its route of travel. It may seem like it's not along your route but mother nature has been known to throw a fast ball now and again.

If you are unfamiliar with a strip, weather its paved or not, get a briefing from a co-worker or someone who knows the area. With how quickly the weather can change, you will want to be knowledgeable about the route and strip.

When flying over head, I suggest you fly as low as possible without jeopardizing safety. They teach you to fly at 1000ft above ground level (AGL) but at that height, there is less detail. When flying the strip, keep a close eye on areas of darker soil or standing water, these areas love to eat airplanes. If you can find a side that is dry, plan to stop on that side of the strip. I will normally take a light tail wind in order to stop on the hard dry surface. On the departure, this will help you again because you will be able to accelerate the aircraft that much faster.

I once took a C-206 into a new strip; they were in the process of building it. It's a long strip with rising terrain at either end. It has a clay surface which makes it pretty solid when dry or a little rain. Well I went in there one day and it was pretty wet, well it was soaked. The info I received was that the strip was wet but still do able. Gotta love it when they are more interested in getting out of camp than their own safety. Upon landing the aircraft, it became was very difficult to control. I got it stopped but I was STUCK! The tires were in deep and I had used half the runway up. There wasn't an option of back tracking the runway to use the full length, the strip was un-usable. I loaded my one passenger, got two guys pushing on each strut as I gave her the juice. As I started down the 2500ft and I couldn't get the speed up. I started rocking the aircraft controls to get the nose wheel out of the mud and finally got the aircraft airborne. It was too late though so I banked the aircraft towards and accelerated down the service road. As I accelerated the aircraft in between the clearing I was able to build enough speed to out climb the terrain. I still remember looking over at my white passenger and giving him an evil laugh. I felt a rush of empowerment which ran through my veins.

Many of you reading this, you will still get yourself into similar situations. Learn from them, as pilots are similar to cats we aren't guaranteed nine lives. Fly safe and keep the rubber side down.


Not taught in school

I have now been flying in northern Canada for the past three years. As I continue to build my experience, I would like to share my stories in hope others don't make the same mistakes.

It was definitely nothing they teach you in school. It was my first summer and I was flying a C-172 from Fort Mac to a small community north. The trip would take me roughly three hours to complete. I was flying an RCMP officer who needed to pick up a broom and a bat as evidence for a court case.

To start the day off, I woke up and my car was covered in a nice thick layer of snow, the wet stuff, so you know it will stick to your under-powered Cessna. I got to work at 5:30am and the computers were down so I got a half ass weather brief from the flight service guy in Edmonton. His advise was to hang out and wait, but I had to go, we needed that broom and bat! We get airborne and I'm right into it. I was flying just above the trees until I was about 50 miles north when it started to clear up. I followed the river valley north; what I could see of it, and than continued direct once the weather improved. Upon landing I got to work chipping the ice from my wings as the RCMP officer went to town. On the way home, the weather conditions hadn't improved and the visibility was very marginal with low ceilings.

I know what your thinking, why did he go flying? At the time, having only a few hundred hours and feeling the pressure from the officer, I choose to go. Many low time pilots will get themselves killed doing the same thing I did. Here are a few tips to better prepare yourself for a similar situation:

1) ALWAYS know your route - what I mean by that, know your altitudes along the route. This is best done on a sunny day when you can focus on what obstacles may be an issue. Find the highest point along your route and than add a buffer. Also keep in mind, during the winter months when its cold, add additional attitude to correct for the Altimeter error.

2) Briefing - the Flight Service guys know their stuff, believe them. I know it's going to be a challenge to deal with your passengers but you need to stand your ground. Learning to say "No" will become easier and easier as your experience builds. Find out about the weather along the route and what's coming up next. Call people in the town you're are heading too, especially if there isn't any weather available.

3) Your equipment - DO NOT take an aircraft with little to no instrumentation into marginal weather, PERIOD.

4) You - unless you know your terrain and are comfortable, don't take off. It's a lot easier wishing you were flying rather than wishing you were on the ground.

For those pilots reading this, please take note, Cessna's don't like ice, nor do they perform very well in it. Also on my return, I choose to take a short cut and a radio tower passed off to my right above me. Make a plan and stick with it. Good luck to all, fly safe and keep the rubber side down.