"Cessna 377, cleared to land runway 31 left number 2 behind a Citabria turning base," said the tower controller as I joined the downwind leg from the 45. It was a pleasant Saturday morning and I'd decided to do some pattern work in my club's Cessna 172 at nearby Reid Hillview airport. It had a been a very short hop from San Jose International.
"377, cleared to land 31 left number 2; looking for the Citabria," I replied. I scanned ahead looking for the telltale motion of the other airplane. It wasn't jumping out at me. I was passing abeam the runway threshold, the point where I usually throttle back and lower the flaps a notch, but I still hadn't seen the Citabria. Finally, I saw its wings as it turned base-to-final and called out the traffic to the tower. As I passed abeam him, I started down, lowering the flap handle for 10 degrees of flaps. Turning base, I came to 70 knots and went to 20 degrees of flaps.
"This doesn't look right," I thought to myself as I turned final and lowered the flap handle for 30 degrees.
My airspeed didn't match the sight picture I was seeing through the windscreen. What's more, my glide angle was much shallower than usual.
"Do I have a pitot-static problem?" I thought. Whatever the ASI said, I decided to fly the sight picture. Still high, I put the airplane into a forward slip, which I held all the way down to short final. As I flared over the numbers and floated down the runway, I thought to myself, "Wow, this feels just like a no-flap landing!" I landed long and taxied off the runway, holding short of 31 right as directed by the tower.
Once cleared to cross the right runway, I ran my after-landing checklist and got clearance from the ground controller for a taxi-back for another pattern.
"That was weird," I thought to myself.
The tower cleared me for takeoff and I started another circuit around the patch. Abeam the runway threshold, I lowered the flap handle for 10 degrees of flaps. That was odd, I didn't feel any change in pitching moment. I looked out the window. The flaps hadn't moved!
The light finally dawned. My flaps weren't working! This was surprising because they'd worked just fine during the pre-flight inspection just half an hour earlier. Suddenly the sensations of my last approach made sense. It was a no-flap landing!
In retrospect, my thought process at this point surprises me. The first thing that occurred to me was, "This will be good practice!" Immediately afterwards came another thought: "Wait a minute—I've just determined that this airplane is not airworthy!" Could I have safely made a series of no-flap landings at Reid Hillview? Yes. Would it have been legal? Probably not. Would it have been smart? No. Canceling my session in the pattern and returning to land on San Jose's 11,000-foot runway was the right answer.
So what turned out to be the problem? A ground wire had broken, probably due to fatigue, breaking the circuit and disabling the flap motor. After a quick and simple fix, the airplane was back on the flight line.
But the experience provided a valuable lesson. I'd practiced no-flap landings many times in the past, but this was the first time I'd experienced an actual, unexpected failure. I was embarrassed that I completely failed to diagnose the problem, but I was also reassured that I adapted to the situation and flew the airplane to a safe landing.
A specific lesson learned is that if I should ever see unexpected instrument indications, the first thing to check is my configuration. It might not be a big deal in an airplane like the Cessna, but in our club's A36 Bonanza, this could prevent a gear-up landing!
But the more general lesson was this: if something doesn't look right, it probably isn't!
Filed under Aircraft by
Looking back on the 16 months or so that I've been writing this blog, I see that I've managed to produce a post of at least 500 words every week since I started. Until last week, that is. Lying in bed with a nasty fever, I regretted not writing, but I was in no shape to do it. Like a flight canceled due to bad weather, it's something I just had to accept as part of life.
But it got me thinking. Am I really directing my energies according to my priorities? It's something I like to assess periodically, and I find I want to make some adjustments.
First of all, I love writing this blog and I am definitely going to continue it, but I also have other priorities competing for my time and attention. As I've mentioned many times in these pages, I'm writing a book, The Confident Pilot, a more in-depth treatment of the ideas I've been developing here. I'm studying to become a certified flight instructor, with the goal of earning that certificate this year. Oh, and I'm also working full-time for a living!
To prioritize and balance these goals effectively, it helps to be clear on what's motivating them. When someone asks why I want to become a flight instructor, I'm tempted to respond with a sly smile and say, "Why, for the money, of course!" All the CFIs I know would get a kick out of that! No, paltry CFI wages don't provide much incentive. The real reason is simply that I love flying and I love sharing it with others. I've introduced several friends to flying who've expressed an interest in learning and asked if I could teach them. A couple are actually serious about it. I also know from past experience that the best way to learn a craft is to teach it.
Writing the book is important to me because I want to be able to reach more people than I will ever be able to take flying in my little airplanes. As all the major aviation organizations including AOPA and EAA are saying these days, the viability of personal flying, from regulatory concerns to the continued availability of airplanes and aviation products, depends on whether we can increase the pilot population. We won't do that by "preaching to the choir" about the joys and benefits of aviation. We have to reach out to people who are not yet part of the aviation community and invite them in. We need to appeal to people's natural fascination with flight and make it clear to them that yes, they too can fly. It's not just for rich people, or talented people, or lantern-jawed test pilots with ice-water in their veins. Flying is accessible to everyone who's medically fit, has a strong desire, and has even modest financial means (more about that in a future post).
So it's clear to me that becoming a CFI and finishing my book are my top goals (aside from continuing to pay the bills!). As anyone knows who works full-time while also pursuing other interests, time is precious. Increasingly, I find that I want to make more time, energy, and focus available for writing my book, studying, and flight training. To that end, I've decided to limit these blog posts to bi-weekly for the foreseeable future.
I'll be learning at a rapid pace over the next few months, so I expect to have a lot to share in these pages. I've also found that writing about my experiences helps me derive even more benefit from them. It's incredibly helpful to reflect on the lessons of past flights, internalize them, and find a way to express them in words.
So, with all that in mind, look for my next post two weeks from now!
Filed under News by
"What'll you do if the rope breaks below 100 feet?" asked my glider instructor Jim as we prepared to take a tow at Crazy Creek gliderport in Middletown, California. We'd completed the rest of our pre-takeoff checklist and now just needed to consider our abort plan.
"I'll land in that open area next to the big tree over there," I answered, reciting the gliderport's standard procedure.
"OK, and how about between 100 and 200 feet?" he asked.
"I'll put it down in the field across the road," I said.
"Good. And above 200 feet?"
"Get the nose down, make a steep turn into the crosswind, and land back on the runway."
"OK, let's go," Jim said. I waggled the rudder to signal the tow pilot and soon we were off.
Because they have no engines, glider pilots must plan for "engine failure" on takeoff, in the form of a broken tow rope, as a matter of routine. Because of their excellent glide performance, though, gliders typically require only about 200 feet of altitude to make a successful turn back to the runway, unlike airplanes which need a lot more (see last week's post).
In airplane flying, we're taught a similar practice to the drill I learned in gliders: always have an abort plan in case of engine failure on takeoff. But if we're honest with ourselves, I think most pilots will admit that we tend to get a bit lax about this. I've certainly been guilty of this myself and I've recently been doing some soul searching about it.
It's true that modern aircraft engines are extremely reliable, so the chances of engine failure are very slim, but the consequences could be grave. The fact is that the initial climb after takeoff is the most vulnerable phase of flight. To maneuver an airplane for a safe landing requires sufficient altitude or airspeed, but right after takeoff we don't have much of either to spare.
Early in our flight training, we're taught not to make any turns if the engine quits at low altitude. The usual admonition is "land straight ahead regardless of obstacles." This is important because of how much altitude is lost in turns due to the reduction in the vertical component of lift. As we gain a bit more altitude, we can consider turns of a few degrees left or right, but most airplanes lose a surprising amount of altitude making even a 90 degree turn. It's also extremely important to push the nose down to maintain flying airspeed, and many pilots have stalled, spun, and crashed by failing to do this. When the airplane is trimmed in a climb attitude when power fails, the airspeed decays quite rapidly unless you push! (See Engine Out! from last month.)
Assuming we maintain flying speed and keep control of the airplane, we still need to put it down safely, and that's where the abort plan comes in. At our home airport, we can thoroughly scout the surrounding area ahead of time for possible emergency landing areas, taking into consideration gliding distance, landing ground roll, and obstructions.
When arriving at an unfamiliar field, the usual recommendation is to survey the surrounding area from the air looking for suitable emergency landing areas. This is a great idea in principle, but approach and landing are particularly high-workload phases of flight. I generally find it's hard to spare enough attention for such a survey. These days when planning a flight to a new field, I use Google Earth to survey the area ahead of time. This is helpful not only for emergency planning, but also for considering the surrounding terrain in planning a normal approach, landing, and departure.
In terms of piloting technique, I like to practice coordination so I can get maximum glide performance when I need it, forward slips to shed altitude when I need to get down quickly, and short-field landings. Most small airplanes can land quite short with careful airspeed control. Even my club's A36 Bonanza, a relatively "hot ship" for its size, can easily land with a ground roll of less than 1,000 feet.
I'm chagrined to admit it, but I haven't been thorough enough in my abort planning in all the years I've been flying out of San Jose International Airport. I'm going to change that! It's especially important considering the dense urban development that surrounds the field. I want to have specific landing areas in mind before I need them, just like I used to have in my days flying gliders at Crazy Creek.
"200 feet," I called out to Jim as the glider climbed through our minimum turn-back altitude and I breathed my usual quiet sigh of relief. It was already shaping up to be a great flight.
"You just lost your engine," said my instructor Rick as he pulled the throttle to idle.
"Best glide speed, pull the prop, turn into the crosswind," I called out. We were just over 1000 feet AGL, climbing out after takeoff from South County airport in San Martin, California. As the A36 Bonanza started slowly coming around, it was clear we weren't going to make it.
"You're turning too slow," Rick said. "You need to use a steeper bank and get it turned around or you won't make it."
"Yep, I see that. OK, throttle up," I said ruefully as I aborted our little training exercise. Had it been a real emergency, the outcome could have been bad.
A lot has been written about the so-called "impossible turn," the 180-degree turn back to land on the runway after an engine failure on takeoff. Most airplanes lose a breathtaking amount of altitude in the time it takes to turn them around and many pilots have augered them in with a stall and spin when making the attempt. Several of my fellow flying club members have experimented with this turnaround at a safe altitude to determine just how much altitude you really need to make the "impossible turn" safely. Generally, they've found that 1000 to 1200 feet AGL is a safe minimum if you're prepared.
In April's AOPA Pilot magazine, Barry Schiff has a very interesting article about the "impossible turn." He offers a piece of advice that I hadn't considered before. Apparently, climbing out at a speed about halfway between best-angle-of-climb speed (Vx) and best-rate-of-climb speed (Vy) puts you in the best position to make the runway if the engine should quit, assuming you have enough altitude. I plan to experiment with this during my next session in the pattern.
A few weeks after my South County experience, as Rick and I continued my A36 checkout, we dropped in at Half Moon Bay airport on the San Mateo County coast. We were climbing out after practicing some takeoffs and landings. At just over 1000 feet AGL, Rick again pulled the throttle to idle.
"Engine out," he said.
"Best glide, pull the prop, 45 degree bank into the crosswind," I called out. "Come around, baby!"
The airplane responded sweetly and we were quickly established on a final approach for the downwind runway. I could see I had the runway comfortably made, so I lowered the gear, came to short-field approach speed, and soon touched down smoothly. With the tailwind, we used up a lot of concrete, but I had no trouble stopping with room to spare. Sweet!
"Your emergency landings are better than your normal ones!" Rick said with a smile.
I chuckled. "Hey, I'll take it!" I replied. "That steep bank made all the difference."
That was a really valuable exercise. I learned a lot about the airplane and the situation that I can apply if I ever find myself in it for real.
But what if the engine quits before we have enough altitude for the turn-back? More about that next week…
Filed under Procedures by
"Bonanza 46R, when able direct STINS," said the NorCal Approach controller.
"Direct STINS, 46R," I replied. My wife Janet and I were in my club's A36 Bonanza on an IFR flight plan, but in glorious California VMC. I'd recently earned my instrument rating and took the opportunity to file IFR whenever possible to get practice "in the system." We'd been on vectors at 4000 feet, keeping us to the West of traffic approaching San Francisco International airport, on our way to the North Coast to visit my parents.
The huge parallel runways of SFO passed off our right side as we headed West past San Bruno Mountain. Soon we were heading out over the ocean. I looked at the GPS distance to our next fix, STINS, near Stinson Beach. It read just under 15 nautical miles. I took another look at our IFR en route chart. I'd been so focused on navigating as directed, I hadn't noticed how far offshore our route would put us. Ocean and land look just about the same on an IFR chart. I looked up and gazed uneasily out to sea. We didn't have any ditching gear, and because the flight wasn't for hire, none was required.
The cockpit was quiet as we motored out over the blue ocean. It was a gorgeous day with barely a cloud in the sky. The majestic Golden Gate Bridge passed abeam far to the East. Finally Janet spoke up.
"Is it OK to be so far out to sea?" she asked. Apparently that big expanse of blue made her uneasy too. We both knew how cold that water was even on such a glorious day.
"It's fine," I answered casually. "ATC likes to use this routing to keep us little guys clear of SFO." She didn't seem particularly reassured. I racked my brain trying to remember the airplane's glide ratio at best-glide speed without looking it up. I recalled it was about 1.7 nautical miles per 1000 feet, assuming gear and flaps up, cowl flaps closed, and the propeller pulled to low RPM. Assuming there was enough oil pressure to keep the prop at low RPM. Which there wouldn't be if the engine failed catastrophically.
"What am I doing out here?" I thought to myself. "We're well beyond gliding distance from shore!" I'd known this was a bad idea as soon as we crossed the shoreline. Why did I continue? The wording of FAR 91.13 echoed quietly in the back of my mind: "No person may operate an aircraft… in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another." Was the IFR practice really worth this risk? No, it wasn't. I should've canceled as soon as I recognized the risk and kept us close to shore.
On subsequent trips, I've learned that ATC prefers to assign the Point Reyes One Arrival to small airplanes approaching the Bay Area from the North. It's pretty much the reverse of the route we flew that day. These days when approaching the Bay Area, I stay VFR and inland as long as I can. If I finally need a pop-up IFR clearance to get through the thin stratus that often blankets the Bay, I know my routing will keep me over terra firma. And if the weather is so bad as to require IFR the whole way, well, there's always tomorrow.
Before long, our Bonanza made landfall once again as we approached the Point Reyes VOR. We didn't say anything about it, but we both breathed a little easier.
"This is a beautiful flight, honey," Janet said. "Thank you."
"You're welcome, babes," I answered. "It is an amazing day." To myself, though, I thought about how I might make decisions more worthy of the trust she places in me flight after flight.