Thursday, October 14, 2010

For Gabriela, Who Flies Her Own Solo Mission

You do not have to hang out very long at your local airport to be exposed to a "hangar flying" session. Hangar flying takes place when two or more pilots stand around in someone's hangar, swapping flying stories. Some of these stories have been passed on from pilot to pilot for years and have morphed into the mythic.

Hangar flying stories have a familiar structure. They usually start with the Intrepid Aviator (IA) saying something like, "I can't believe I got myself into this jam. What was I thinking?" The rookie then asks, "What happened?" This gives AI the opportunity to set up the events that took place that got him into the jam. He then recites the options that he considered to deal with the problem. Finally, he reveals how he solved the problem and how he lived to fly another day. In short, most hangar flying stories start with "I can't believe how dumb I was" and ends with "But I am really smart and a good pilot, because I figured a way out."

Hangar flying stories serve a useful purpose. First, since they usually involve doing something stupid to get into trouble in the first place, a good listener gets a tip on how to stay out of that trouble to begin with. Second, a discussion of options considered offers a verbal review of emergency procedures, which is always good. Finally, the solution usually tenders a couple of flying tips not covered in a flight manual or by an instructor.

The classic hangar flying story that illustrates all the above is the story of the African bush pilot who was flying a sedated lion to a new locale. All was well until the lion decided he did not want to be sedated anymore and became very much un-sedated midway through the flight. I looked in all of my flight manuals and, can you believe it? There is no procedure on what to do with a ravenous, unsedated, growling lion in the seat behind you. (If you want to find out what the pilot did, read on.)

Every pilot I know will tell you that he learned a lot more about flying by listening to hangar flying stories than he ever learned from textbooks and instructors. Learning to fly well is a lot like learning to play music. A good teacher can teach you to play the right notes on the sheet music, but merely playing the right notes does not necessarily make music, and it certainly does not make you a musician. Only a musician can truly make music. All good pilots want their flying skills to rival the skills of a talented musician.

There are two recurring topics in hangar flying. First, what makes up the perfect flight? Second, what is the perfect flying day? Consider this: a pilot takes off into a sunny, blue sky and flies uneventfully and competently to his destination and lands safely. A perfect flight, right? A perfect flying day, right? No way and not necessarily.

In the example above, suppose the pilot is flying due north on a heading of 360 degrees. He decides to turn left and go directly south on a heading of 180 degrees. As all pilots know, he pushes the stick slightly left while at the same time giving a little left rudder, all of which establishes a bank angle. As soon as the bank is established, the controls are neutralized and the airplane will continue the turn until the pilot feeds in a little right stick and right rudder to roll out of the turn headed south. Simple, right? Well, it is and it isn't. What usually happens is that the initial bank angle is not quite right, so a correction is made mid-turn. And during the turn 50 feet of altitude is lost or gained. And when the roll-out is completed, the airplane is headed somewhere between 175 degrees or 185 degrees, rather than 180 degrees.

Are these mistakes? I do not think so. Is this dangerous flying? Clearly not. Flying to that degree of accuracy or inaccuracy, depending on how you look at it, will get you a pass on about any flying test. The simple turn that I described was competently completed within an acceptable performance range. But the point is that the turn wasn't performed perfectly. If it was not performed perfectly, then the flight was not a perfect flight, was it? I can assure you no one has ever flown a perfect flight and no one ever will. Maybe close, but not quite. All good pilots constantly strive for that perfect flight, knowing full well they will never accomplish it.

What makes up the perfect flying day depends on who you ask. My dad, a several thousand hour Naval aviator-fighter pilot, thought the perfect flying day was when a winter wind of 20 knots gusting to 30 knots was perpendicular to the runway, the night was moonless and accompanied by turbulence, snow, ice and sleet. He used to practice his instrument approaches on nights like that. His firm conviction was that you could not expect to shoot a good instrument approach under actual instrument conditions unless you practiced the approaches under real instrument conditions. Being on instruments trying to land on a nasty night is not the time to see if you really can do it. He was right, too.

On the other end of the spectrum there are the rest of us. We think that a perfect flying day is when the sun is shining, the sky is blue, and a few white, puffy cumulus clouds float by in smooth air. Couple this with 50 miles of visibility and it's perfect, right? I wouldn't argue with you, but these conditions do not normally increase your flying skill or experience, either. My dad would be sure to point that out. Again, he would be correct.

With all the above in mind let me engage you in a hangar flying story, which began with my trip to Wisconsin last Monday morning. My airplane engine had been sick. It was down for two weeks while the mechanic tried to troubleshoot the problem. I won't bore you with the details other than to say that when I would run up the engine to check it before takeoff, it would not run right.

It shook like a paint mixer.

Piston aircraft engines have two spark plugs for each cylinder. A left magneto supplies electricity to one spark plug per cylinder, while the right magneto supplies electricity to the other plug for each cylinder. The airplane flies on both magnetos. A switch lets you check each magneto separately. My airplane ran like crap on the left magneto, although it ran fine on the right magneto and when both magnetos were selected. At any rate, eventually, the mechanic said it was fixed, I test flew it and it seemed to be fine. So, I launched into a clear, blue sunshiny morning headed 200 miles away for Dekalb, Illinois to refuel.

I climbed to 4500 foot, programmed the GPS for Dekalb, checked all the gauges, and settled in for a two hour flight. On the seat next to me was my sectional chart with my course drawn on it in pencil. Much like a Rand-McNally map, a sectional chart has airports, towns, cities, lakes, highways and so forth marked on it. I occupied myself with checking off the landmarks on the chart as I flew along. There was no turbulence, so sitting in my airplane was not that much different than sitting on my living room couch. It was darn near perfect.

Two hours later, I saw the Dekalb airport over my nose, called in and landed. The gas tanks were filled as mine was emptied. I filched a piece of coffee cake someone brought in and out I went to climb back in and take off. I checked the oil, made sure the gas caps were on tight, fired up and taxied to the runway to takeoff.

Here is where it gets interesting. When I ran up the engine, guess what? The roughness was back on the left magneto. It was bad. I tried leaning out the engine, but it did no good. Frustrated, I taxied back to the ramp and shut it off. I now had a problem of significance. What should I do? I could get a mechanic to look at it and wait. I could get a mechanic, leave it there, rent a car and drive home. I could continue on with the sour motor. I could fly back to Kokomo with the sour motor. What to do?

I was not convinced a mechanic in Dekalb could fix what the mechanic in Kokomo had apparently been unable to repair. I did not want to get stuck in Dekalb, either. Continuing the trip was out, because my college friend who I was going to see specifically warned me there was no emergency landing sites in upper Wisconsin and when a plane goes down, it is not usually found until deer season. (Good to know.)

As I sat there in the cockpit, I looked at the sectional chart and the course line I had drawn. I noticed that there was an airport every 15 to 20 miles all the way to Kokomo. If I could takeoff and climb to 5000 feet above the ground, even if the engine quit, I could glide to an airport. Even if I missed the airport I had lots of harvested fields from which to choose. If I hop-scotched from airport to airport, I could get home. I just had to make sure I was always within gliding distance. I decided to try it.
I fired up the airplane, taxied out and took off. I spiraled up over Dekalb to 7500 feet and started for the first airport, hop-scotching along. I made it. One hundred miles later, all was going well, until I was about 10 miles from Kankakee, Ill. I had been checking the oil pressure and oil temperature gauges every 30 seconds, figuring that if the engine was going to call it quits, I might get a little warning. I glanced over at the fuel gauges and was horrified to see the port tank gauge on empty! I thought, that is all I need! I knew the tanks had been filled. I checked the tank vent and I could not see any leak. I knew I checked the gas caps before I took off. What could be the problem? I checked all the fuses. Everything seemed OK. What to do?

Then I remembered a hangar flying session with Dad. He said you should never pass up the opportunity to refuel your airplane whenever you land. (I did this.) Running out of fuel has killed more pilots that anything else since the beginning of powered flight. Fuel system problems can be fatal, he told me. Never continue a flight with a fuel system problem, if you can land and get it checked out. To continue on with a known problem, even if you think you know what it is, is stupid and dangerous.

So I landed at Kankakee and learned the fuel tanking sending unit had broken. I had plenty of fuel in the port tank after all. A broken sending unit was not critical to the flight, so I filled up the airplane again and took off, continuing to hop-scotch my way home. I landed safely in Kokomo about an hour later.

So, was this a perfect flying day? It was close. The air was smooth, the sun was out, and visibility was 50 miles. You can't do better than that. Even more, I encountered two glitches on the flight to challenge my skills: a rough-running engine and the broken fuel sending unit. Life-threatening? No. Cause for concern? Clearly. An opportunity to think outside the box? Yes, and that's good, because it what makes flying so challenging.

Did I make a good decision to fly back home? Some would say not. I wouldn't argue with them. One of my pilot- friends asked me if I would have flown home with a passenger. I would not have done that. I told him I would not have risked someone else. He asked me, then why would I risk my own life? Good point.

On the other hand, I know what Dad would have said. He would have listened to my story and then, after a few moments would have said, "Well, you recognized the problems. You analyzed them and came up with solutions that had minimally acceptable risk within your flying skills and experience. I would say it was a competently flown flight encountering adverse circumstances. Good mission."

Before I forget, the bush pilot pinned the un-sedated lion against the fuselage of the airplane by doing a series of continuous high-g turns, until the veterinarian on board could get another syringe full of Phenobarbital pumped into the lion. The flight was completed without further incident.

Mike out.


  1. Holy cow! I just about fell outta my chair when I opened your blog and saw my name right up there in what I momentarily thought were old fashioned light bulbs on the perimeter of an old theatre marquis. Next time you plan on making my heart jump like that, er - um, a little warning please?

    That was quite a gripping story; I'm so glad you shared it. I was literally on the edge of my seat devouring your every word. Remind me to tell you about the time I lost the engine on my 140 over the Arizona desert. At night.

    Thank you for sharing your story and for the excellent photos. What a ride!

  2. Perfection...such a beautiful goal...amazing how the simple act pf aviating can be so easily quantified and yet so intensely personal. By what standard do I consider perfection? How close is close enough? What are MY limits? What are yours? How much risk is enough? Too much? I love how it can pierce directly to the heart of who one is...Though I do tend towards the minimums approach at night with failures, etc... it really opens the window into ones soul...or not. :-)
    Thanks for sharing.