Joy of Flying; Renewal
I chose to wedge myself into the ATA 20 inch wide excuse for a seat principally because I was too tired to fight the system. I was also, if you can imagine this…, “front-officed” out. I have sat in the jump seat or one of the crew seats on every one of the 10 or so airliners that have carried me back and forth across the Atlantic or Med in the last year. As crazy as it might seem to an aviation enthusiast at the moment I had no desire to spend another 8 hours staring out the front window or watching the EICAS do little as one mandatory reporting point after another drifted by and the crew dutifully oblidged a call to Shannon or Gander…take your pick.
I was wiped out. After spending only 30 or so of the last 401 days in the USA I was just eager to get as much sleep as possible on the way home. Home hopefully for a long period of time because let me tell you…after 25 some foreign countries in my long list of “have-traveled-too’s” I am all too ready to spend the rest of my life exploring my own country. If I might coin a phrase, I am all “EPCOTed out”. That derived from my observation that the Post exchange at my last duty station in the Balkans was a lot like EPCOT with weapons. So bad was it that we (US troops) seldom ventured into our own PX from 1000 to 1400 hours on weekends because it was next to impossible to buy something as simple as a toothbrush in the midst of every foreign troop in the world buying every cordless phone or flat screen plasma TV that they could get their hands on.
Now here is a funny thing to consider, what does a Turkish soldier need 9 cordless telephones for? For that matter how do Ukrainian Troops afford $2000.00 flat panel plasma televisions, not one but two or three at a time? The ‘cop’ in me puts 2 and 2 together and arrives at something less legal than a bunch of Russian Speaking soldiers gathered around a communal flat screen watching world cup soccer.
The two perspectives on this are; Hey great, they are supporting the US economy, and my own personal perspective of, “Get the @#$% out of my PX so I can get a toothbrush and tell your countries to build you guys a decent PX and you can buy your own TVs.”
Did I mention that it took me almost a month to get an X-Box because the French soldiers kept buying every one that arrived in the US PX? That is just one element that burns you out during deployment. It is another reason why I just wanted to sleep the 8 hours on the 757 from Shannon to Indianapolis. I was headed to the land of WalMart and Taco Bell and as soon as I went to sleep the sooner it would arrive.
But there was another element to my malaise and fatigue. A few days before we left the Balkans I learned that one of my colleagues (and a friend) had been killed while piloting his airplane. The irony of all of that is that he died just a month or so after returning from Iraq. He had been at FOB Danger, a forward operating base in the Sunni Triangle, which if you spend a day or so there and experience the mortar attacks that befall the place you would find the moniker making all the more sense.
He made it out of there and came home to pull his Grumman Traveler out and head for a BFR as he should have. Everything would seem to be in order. Sometime in the hour or so after completing a BFR he loaded himself and two passengers into his Grumman and within a few minutes ended up dead in a flaming pile of wreckage.
Survived a trip around the world to serve in Iraq and return home to die in his own airplane at a decidedly non-descript airport in Southeastern Ohio. What happened?
As I have a particular interest in the area of human factors as they relate to aviation I did what I normally do, I pulled up the data on the Grumman Traveler, the airport data from AirNav.com and the overhead imagery using a military application called Falcon View. The airport diagram tells a story but Falcon View using high resolution images shows exactly where each tree and every powerline is positioned. It is a very powerful planning tool and one that in this case made some things very clear.
A few months before I left for Iraq I had flown with my friend in his Traveler. He was very proud of it and the opportunity for travel that it offered him. He had owned a series of airplanes and the Grumman was finally enough airplane to get him places. I know that it was well maintained and he had good solid IFR equipment on board.
He asked me to go along with him because he knew of my passion for IFR flying and wanted a safety pilot along to help him along in his efforts to get his rating. We did some holds and a practice ILS. I recall nothing out of the ordinary in terms of admonition short of precision with altitudes. He drifted off target by 1-200 feet but for a new instrument pilot that is hardly grounds for a lifetime banishment from the hallowed arena of gauge flying. We made a deal to do more flying together after that trip; sadly that will never come to pass.
During our walk around at Wheeling, Ohio County Airport I remember talking up his airplane and telling him that the Travelers, Yankees, Cheetahs and other Bubble Grummans were great airplanes but that he should always peg airspeed and adhere to it without fail.
One of the deficiencies of Grummans, and I am not disclosing anything secret, is that they are not pilot-friendly at low speed in uncoordinated flight. They have a nasty habit of dropping wings and snapping over faster than pilots can react. More than one Grumman pilot has met his demise in this fashion. My words specifically to my friend were, “…never get it slow and ball out or it will bite you very hard.”…I have no reason to believe that he ever disregarded this advice, in fact it might well have been this attention to slow airspeed that hurt him.
Airplanes, even small airplanes are built for specific performance envelopes. Bonanzas do well in places that Cubs do not but Cubs certainly excel in places where a Bonanza would shudder to go.
As I analyzed the data I downloaded I made the notation that there are obstructions less than ¼ mile from one of the runway that are some 67 feet high. The notation is such that a minimum climb rate of 400 feet per mile is mandatory to clear these trees. On FalconView these trees were very noticeable along with the hillocks and other terrain features. The runway is 3000 feet long but as the saying goes, all the runway behind you does you no good.
Some time ago, actually about 4 summers now, I landed at a small airfield know locally as Scott Field. Scott is a private field populated by the machines of the last century. It is a 2000 foot grass field that slopes upward from south to north and parallels I-77. It is a super airfield but it has its traps and I almost found that out personally as one of my airline Captain friends and I landed there.
MPP is in her current configuration a very safe airplane when it comes to short field landings. Early 172s offered 40 degrees of flaps and combined with a judicious power and some skill she will easily land and stop in 300 feet. That day was no different and with the extra weight and upslope she was down and stopped in less than that.
I noticed and remarked to my friend that we had an upslope with an unfavorable wind. The 4-5 knots of tailwind were the penalty for departing downslope.
Now add a few elements; two pax, full fuel and only 145 wheezy old Continental ponies huffing and puffing up front. Ohio Summer and oops, failed to note prior to landing the fact that the grass had only been mowed on part of the runway. A quick mental calculation with the POH told me that I had bettered have about 1700 feet of runway to get off the ground, that was with a slush factor.
We made one practice run to test acceleration and after having satisfied ourselves that MPP would pick up and go we taxied back to the end of the runway. I kept power in and did not stop to run up; as I turned through 180 degrees to meet the runway heading I had the throttle firewalled and we were rolling. Full aft yoke until the nosewheel lifted and then relaxed pressure followed by a pull on the Johnson Bar to bring in 10 degrees of flaps and after just about 2/3 rds of the runway had passed we were flying.
Now clearly we were flying in ground effect with a stall horn blaring so the natural inclination is to lower the nose (it also turns out to be the correct aviation inclination) and get some speed. Well there is this fuzzy buffer between flying in ground effect and flying above that and as my friend and I watched the airspeed slowly increase we watched the trees ahead loom closer at a faster than comfortable rate.
If you ever doubt the usefulness of tailwheel training for an otherwise tricycle geared pilot I can attest that all of the Citabria, Taylorcraft and 170 flying I had done up to that point paid off in spades because I had but one out and that was to take an airplane flying at the slower end of its envelope (although for a 172 the slow and fast ends of said envelope are not all that far apart) and maneuver it through the gaps in the trees and find clear (read towerless/treeless) air over I-77 to continue to climb. Feet and hands dancing without a lift reserve indicator or a super sensitive posterior I did just that and it was only as I tracked I-77 south and started to see something better than 200’ AGL and a positive needle that I turned over to look at B.
Why it had escaped my attention I do not know but here was B scrolling through his cell phone received calls with no so much as a drop of sweat on his forehead.
His normal office is a Canadair RJ which has a Vref higher than MPPs fastest cruise speed. Yet he was perfectly comfortable and non-plussed. I asked him if he felt nervous and his remark was simply, “Nope, you are doing the flying, I couldn’t have done any better.”. I think all those years of flight instructing and flying Navajos in Ohio Winter must have broken something loose in the reason section of his brain housing group.
I made a decision right there; if I was going to fly short, MPP was going to have a STOL wing to include VGs and a Sportsman STOL kit and she was going to have more power up front and I would never miss the chance to abort if things did not seem right. It is never good enough to be able to say, “Wow, we can laugh about that now, we are not dead.”. Things happen too quickly and are too final to do that.
I cannot speculate on what my colleague was thinking as he attempted to climb his airplane over impossibly tall obstacles. The sad irony is that I saw my trip to Scott field before me as I analyzed the imagery of his airfield. A lowspeed turn right or left might have afforded him the room to avoid obstacles, find the four lane and find enough speed and clear air to fly out.
His vertical speed at 60mph would have had to be at least 400 feet per minute to clear the obstacles. At a faster airspeed, something more akin to what you should be flying a Traveler at on rotation, you would be needing something better than 500 feet per minute. Three adults and fuel in a Traveler and banking on 500 fpm vs might have been asking a lot.
Too much speed on final, trying to avoid a low airspeed stall. Misjudge of touchdown, float, a late decision to abort and an aggressive climb which results in decaying airspeed…throw in uncoordinated flight and could your result be the same as that which took my friend’s life? You bet. Is that what happened? I wasn’t there I do not know.
My first encounter with someone who was closer to the situation occurred just a few days afterwards when I arrived home and one of my helicopter pilot friends with a lot of hours suggested the scenario that I described above. Mind you, all of this is very personal because we are discussing one of our friends. But the desire to know WHY permeates all of us both because he was our friend and because as pilots we want a reason to grab a hold of and say, not me. Nope it won’t happen like that. You see there is a reason why he and his airplane crashed. The frustrating dilemma is that without a living pilot we can never quite know for certain what that reason is.
One of the Tailwheel guys that taught me told me that every landing ought to be approached as if it is final. Bush pilots speak of that. They do not consider themselves committed to land even in the pattern. They fly over, study the field, the rocks, the waves, the wind and then they pick an abort point. This is not at all unlike a V1 cut. During a V1 cut you are sailing down the runway and waiting for that magic number, V1; below that airspeed you can have an engine failure and abort safely with assured runway remaining to stop and avoid large insurance company investigations, above that airspeed you are going to fly no matter what because an attempt to stop is going to bend metal and break people.
DH is the same way which is why it is so sacrosanct. When you arrive at DH you either have the runway environment in sight or you do not and if you do not you go around. It is not that you cannot continue holding the needles and end up at the runway; that, is entirely within the realm of possibility. It is that the odds of not ending up at the runway and bending metal and breaking people begin to rise at an alarming rate such that any gambler with any sense won’t chance it. There in might lie an interesting oxymoron, “gambling pilot”. Pilots who gamble simply do not pilot for very long.
Approaching a short field in the Maule, and this field is 900 feet long with 50 foot trees at one end, and I mean at the END of the runway and a trailer park at the other end you arrive at a point, neither DH nor MDA but rather a DP or “decision point” (not to be confused with a visual Decent Point which is in and of itself a go/no go point on an approach). It is this point on final where you have made the weighed decision to either continue on to land or make another circuit to try and get it better.
Now here is the trick, once you pass this point, you have no other choice but to land because if you try and abort you will hit trees, granite or pull so hard that you stall and spin in and hit one or both anyway.
The point of all of this is that it doesn’t have to be a 900 foot strip for this to happen…it could be 12,000 feet long… EVERY field has a DP be that middle marker, midfield or last set of fixed distance markers. The DP corresponds to both pilot and machine in combination. So for 727, Baron and Heliocourier all three above might be precisely correct in that order. The bottom line is that understanding your own combination of your airplane and yourself and your set limitations is everything in aviation.
My take-off minimums under Part 91 are exactly those of Part 135 operators. They do not need to be by law but for my pilot/airplane combination that is what I know to be reasonable. Ice is an entirely different arena.
A short time ago a friend asked why I was putting a Garmin GNC 300 XL GPS COMM in MPP. He figured I would want to have a 530 so I could do the much anticipated LNAV/VNAV ‘precision’ approaches. I explained to him that most non-precision GPS approaches will get you down to 500-1000’ AGL or thereabouts. I have ILS capability but my comfort level is better suited to a non-precision approach because I can fly MPP all day safely with 1000 feet agl to work with. If it is lower than that then I screwed up and I will shoot the ILS and hit myself for poor planning OR if I was smart I will be sitting in 15E cursing seat pitch and allowing Southwest to get me there +or – 5 minutes from estimated.
You see the trouble with us purists is that we tend to kill inspiration. I see no point in putting Garmin 1000 systems in a 172 that can’t (notice I didn’t say shouldn’t) fly in Ice and shouldn’t be doing approaches to minimums on a routine basis. My redundancy comes in the form of an isolated Garmin 295 and my ILS and NAV radio. They are redundant to my own eyeballs because aside from some limited climbs and descents in the soup without a solid autopilot I have no business doing extended single pilot actual IFR flying.
Strong opinions, but the numbers back me up.
My friend knows what happened. Sadly it will be a very long time, if you are of the belief persuasion that I am, before I get a chance to ask him for his take. By then it will be moot. For now I, we, his friends are left wondering what happened and how we avoid something that we cannot clearly see. Frustrating to say the least but the best guesses are frequently all that we really have in life anyway.
I pulled the log books out of the hangar and patted MPP on the nose the other day. It is time for her annual and she need a thorough going over before I fly her again. Nosewheel is flat but otherwise she looks very good. But looking good is not the same as being good.
I told her (yes, I do speak to my airplanes, I believe that there is something to that ;) ) that I had missed her and was glad to see her again. I thought of the OH-58D flying that I did in the Balkans and how different maneuvering around in the trees and flying through mountain passes is from the typical flying I do in my 172. I also thought of a friend of mine, Captain Chris Cash.
Chris was killed in a typical Iraq city. You might have heard of it, it goes by the name of Baquba. A very dangerous place on the edge of the so-called “Sunni Triangle” and Chris died while doing what he did very well; operating his Bradley, commanding his company and working for a better place for a people who have suffered terribly for far too long. There is no doubt in my mind that Chris did everything right that day.
He got up, he ate his breakfast, he briefed his patrol on what the mission was for the day, he armored up and he checked his equipment and weapons and as I know his nature he carefully checked his men’s as well. He was very thorough and in that most dangerous of places he would have been all the more so.
He departed from his base camp and sometime between the start of his patrol and the time he should have been back debriefing the intel and operations people, a series of events lined up and in spite of all the right things that he did he was shot and died.
You CAN do everything right. You can have the best maintenance and you can have the best planning and yet you can still get shot in Baquba, Iraq or have a -58D engine ingest itself over Novo Brdo, Serbia or perhaps even have something very odd happen to a Grumman Traveler trying to find the safety of the sky over Southeast Ohio. It is life. It happens. And it is not YOUR fault.
It is with this thought in mind that I shredded all the documents that I downloaded regarding my friend’s crash and decided to wait and see. The NTSB will have a report and it will most likely read something like “Failure of the pilot to…” we have all seen them enough to know how that goes. But even then, I am going to give the benefit of the doubt to my friend. He was a good man, a good doctor and he was a thoughtful pilot; human and capable of error to be sure, but I know him to be someone who always tried to do the right thing.
We are far too want in our land of convenient distance from the reality of the world to play sidewalk lawyer and find the simple answer to ascribe blame to pilots who are dead and who certainly were not accompanied by investigators in their last moments. It has caused tremendous grief for families and allowed many people who “were not there” to profit from their loss.
Facts might educate us but finding an “answer” for “convenience” will not replace those people that we have fought with, loved and cared for. I have seen far too much in the last year to want to play that game anymore.