Night Flying

Author’s Note: This is a long piece…not originally written as a blog but as a story…about 18 years ago. I am republishing it here in memory of my good friend, Doug Blum. The impact of his death on my life can’t be overstated, and I have recently been blessed by being contacted by one of his cousins who was also in Naval Aviation with us some years later.

Flying an airplane at night takes no different skill than flying it in the day. Or so they say. I take out my tiny, black, metal flashlight with its red light lens and shine it on the instrument panel before me to assure myself everything is there. I point the light at my checklist which I remember calls for me to shut the airplane’s door. There is one, it is on the other side of the passenger seat, and I am held so tightly by seat belts and shoulder harness I can’t lean enough to reach it. To prove the point, I fumble my checklist and drop it on the floor in front of the passenger seat. My hand reaches through empty space after it, well short of the goal, to prove I can’t get there. Like I must do with any of life’s problems, I relax, sit up straight in the seat, pull the slack out of the shoulder harness so I can move, and then bend down and fetch my checklist and slam the door shut. I am in my safe little metal cocoon now, ready to go.

For a moment, I stare out the Plexiglas windscreen at an ocean of black, feeling the cool air spill through a small port in the window at my left shoulder. In front of me, the silhouettes of other airplanes, metal ghosts in the night, wait for resurrection underneath a moonless, cloudless sky. Moments ago, before I got in this airplane, I had been looking at a needle-line of trees lit from behind by the orange glow of Houston’s city lights and petrochemical plants. How light it still was here even in the dark! I have seen nights so black I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. Could I really call this a night flight? If I were flying out at sea like I used to or out at my favorite home, the desert wilderness of Big Bend National Park, or even in the small town where my Missouri fiancé lives, it would be as dark as sin, whatever that is. But now, now that I am sitting in the airplane trying to let my eyes adjust to the dark, trying to see the small instruments and switches I am about to activate, that self-derision goes away. I point my red light flashlight at the checklist and begin going through its steps…check cabin door closed and latched, seat belts and harnesses fastened, lights and electrical equipment off, parking brake set.

It is time to move on to Engine Start.

Time to move on. That thought is running through my subconscious, for what lies in wait for me on the ground is scarier than any night flight could be. I hope. My life appears to be headed for change. Big change. Change so scary I can’t stand to feel it, even though thinking about it comes easy. The fear is running through me like an electrical charge, held back from any conscious acknowledgement by my own defense, and I know it. I am trying to forget it here, trying to escape its grasp for over an hour, to escape the self-doubt and questioning that always comes with following one’s heart, one’s gut…to lose myself in the air and the preoccupation of flying this airplane. To forget for one hour that without this change, my fiancé and I will go our separate ways, forget the investment in Love and Life we have made with each other, and let go of a special opportunity to grow. An opportunity that my mind is arguing with every step of the way. Linear, logical, it solves the world’s best problems in that way, never admitting for a moment that Life itself is neither linear or logical nor makes any sense. Yet, if it did…if it could figure out what it all means except to me, I would be in very big trouble.

Throttle forward one half inch. Master switch on, and the airplane springs to an electrical life. I turn on the cockpit lights and adjust them so I can see the instruments, flip on the electric fuel pump, and listen to its agonized whir. The engine is still hot and doesn’t need priming. I yell “CLEAR PROP!” in my high, breaking voice (not likely to inspire fear or confidence in any pilot or passerby–if there was any) and then hit the engine’s starter. Out the window, the ghostly prop spins, the starter groaning at the load, and the engine growls awake. I pull the throttle back a little so the engine is at the proper idle, pushing my feet against the brake pedals as I hold her tight, not trusting the parking brake alone even though it’s doing the job, and shine my light on the engine oil pressure gauge. Its little needle is in the green. I turn on the airplane’s flashing lights, turn the electric fuel pump off and check the engine fuel pressure. It’s good and the engine is still running. Engine Start is complete.

My headset has been sitting on my shoulders, wrapped around my neck like a pet cat. With the engine safely started, I pull it up over my ears, positioning the headband so it presses comfortably on top of my head, and say “Test, test, test” to no one but me to make sure it is working. At the speed of light, my own voice traverses the distance down the chord, inside the airplane’s avionics, and then back to me. I turn on the radios, check them and the panel that controls them to make sure I don’t talk to some nasty air traffic controller who will yell at me. Not that there are any out here. I am flying out of an “uncontrolled field”, named that way because there is no control tower, and as many things in American society are, out of a reference point to government authority. Here, the pilots handle traffic separation by procedure and radio communication, and we do a good job. Most of the time. There is always the ten percent, as they say who don’t get the word. I don’t care as long as it isn’t me.

Taxi Checklist. Radios are on and set to the right frequencies; the transponder–a device that lets Houston air traffic controllers see me on radar, is on and set to ALT so they know how high I am; exterior lights are on. Reaching down, I release the parking brake, and the airplane rolls forward with no more urging. I push on the right rudder pedal and the airplane’s nose swings right, pointing into the darkness punctuated by the brief, passing white and red lights of cars whizzing down the road perpendicular to and just beyond the end of the runway. I have the airplane’s landing light turned on; the white, one-eyed monster paints the ground in a hazy white ellipse in a vain effort to push back the amoeba of darkness trying to swallow us up. I taxi forward, heading toward a explosion of white light coming from the airport lobby’s long, rectangular windows. The light seems like a blast from another world. Inside that other earth, the green cinder block hangar that is the airport’s business office, I see two young women. One is slender with hair beyond her shoulders, and the other sports a medium build and hair that stops short. The slender young woman looks like she is working behind the counter and is not paying attention to me. The other is staring, out at me, out into the darkness, out into eternity. I wonder what she is thinking about it and then jerk myself back into my moving, threatening reality. This is no time to think about anything but flying.

Turning left, I drive my airplane up to the run-up area, a small ramp of asphalt next to the runway, and spin the airplane around to face parallel to the runway. Setting the parking brake again, I flip my checklist to the next page in pursuit of my next thing to do. The Before Takeoff Checklist. I review it once because I know its actions will come fast and I want to be prepared, a philosophy I wish I had learned before I began practicing life. Which is passing quickly. Soon, it will be gone, and me with it. Then, I’ll probably be wise.

Ready. I run the throttle up. The engine growls, and I can feel the airplane trying to surge forward. I hold her tight, checking oil pressure, oil temperature, fuel pressure, before singly switching off each of the engine’s two magnetos, each firing her spark plugs, and watching the engine rpm drop to a specified tolerance. Within limits. I pull the propeller controller back a little and hear the prop change pitch and see the engine rpm drop and put it all back like it was. The propeller is working, so I check the vacuum gauge (an engine vacuum pump runs some of the instruments), the ammeter to make sure the electrical system is okay; and, satisfied that all is well, I pull the throttle back so the engine comes to an idle. After I check that windows and doors are shut, that my flight controls move like they are supposed to, that my instruments are set, the transponder is on, and turn on the electric fuel pump again, the Before Take Off Checklist is complete. I am almost ready to fly.

Sticking my small flashlight and my checklist under my right leg, I push the throttle up a little and step on the left rudder pedal. Like an obedient horse, the airplane pirouettes, allowing me to search the black skies for the flashing lights of an approaching airplane. Seeing no one, I complete the circle and point my nose and my airplane’s at the runway, its end marked by a small green light on each corner and its edges marked by white lights that draw an outline my mind completes. I turn on the landing light, its small ellipse of whiteness, of surety, outlining little more than what I can hit in the first few yards. The rest of the runway disappears into a black hole.

Any takeoff is a test of faith. As I move out toward the center of the runway, I spin the airplane left as I smoothly add power. Just after the nose is straight down the runway, which I can tell because the white lights are spaced on equal sides of my nose, the engine is at full power. The air is cool, and her power is good. Almost before I know it I am passing 60 mph, flying speed, and I pull back on the yoke and we lift into the air. Runway lights and dark tree lines fall below, replaced quickly by a panorama of lights, mostly yellow and white, that push outward to form a horizon. I make a radio call telling other pilots I am turning right as the altimeter hits 700 feet. Already the houses below me are starting to look like toys. My reality has shifted. I am alone up here. Alone with my thoughts. Alone with my fears. Only my skills and this machine, if it doesn’t burst into pieces before I get home, will bring me safely back to earth.

I push the nose down and pull the throttle and propeller back a bit, climbing very slowly and accelerating toward the southeast. Above me at 2000 feet is the floor of controlled airspace, what we pilots know as Class B. If I fly into it without air traffic control permission, the FAA will do nasty things to me and my pilot’s license. So, I stay below it until I cross the road at the airport’s southern edge and then climb again, knowing that the floor has itself climbed up to 4000 feet. I point the airplane toward a field we use to practice maneuvers, a field that there are no lighted structures on, and whose location I know from experience and blackness. I am truly flying toward a void. On purpose. Lights below mean businesses, houses, and people who might be bothered by my maneuvers even though I can quite legally do them overhead. It’s better not to buy trouble, except in my relationships with women, where I do it all the time.

Those who say that flying at night is no different than flying in the daytime have never done it. I feel strange, out of place, like I am not supposed to be here and am unsure what I am doing. This is called feeling rusty. I am and it shows. While I flew at night only a month or so ago, I have not flown this airplane at night for about 90 days. I feels like it’s been two years. Even the ground looks strange and unfamiliar. I see lights outlining a round tank and a small plant on the east side of a highway below and feel lost even though I know right where I am. I don’t remember seeing that before. It may have been there for years or may have been built last week. In Houston, there is no way to tell. Every square inch of green in the city is being bought, developed, paved over, industrialized, condo-ized, and suburbed faster than you can blink. The Gods That Be will not be happy until every dollar is wrung out, every piece of grass gone, and every chance of skin cancer is yours for the taking. And it is.

Back to my flying. The yellow, muted, lighted stacks of petroleum plants that make up Texas City are in front of me. Beyond, black land fades to blacker water split by a small snake of light connecting to Galveston Island, itself a sliver of lights separating me from the Great Blackness beyond. The Gulf of Mexico. Like another ocean I used to night fly over long ago…

I joined Naval Aviation as a Radar Intercept Officer flying in the back seat of an F-14, then the U.S. Navy’s premiere fighter. “I hate night traps” was one of the first things I heard. I didn’t understand. As a pilot myself, except for the actual “coming aboard”, I knew most of it was instrument flying, something I was good at. I had heard that there was nothing blacker than being airborne during a moonless night at sea, but living in some kind of city, big or small, all my life, I didn’t know I had never seen dark. Until I did. Until we launched out one moonless night under an overcast sky into the heartless depths of what maps and navigation systems said was the Indian Ocean. When we came back, the ship was a small light, swimming in a blackness that had no end, no up or down, no left or right. It just WAS. DEEP. BLACK. FEAR. Procedure and instruments brought us back alive night after night, where we would plunge in less than a second from a world of air and engine noise onto a metal world, bathed in a pallor of yellow light, filled with creatures bearing goggle eyes and multi-colored vests using hand signals to tame the controlled violence that the ship was. Night after night. Most of us came back alive. But then there was Doug. The best friend I didn’t know I had until he was gone…
We were on the U.S.S. Vinson, a nuclear-powered, Nimitz class aircraft carrier, in the Meditteranean sea. The ship was on her first cruise, and we were conducting war games as training and to prove the ship’s mettle. Aircraft launchings and landings were running around the clock. I had come in from a night flight just before midnight and immediately gone to bed. The darkness of sleep swallowed me, chased away too quickly by the sound of the stateroom phone ringing in my ear at 5 a.m.. I had overslept. The squadron duty officer was rousting me on the phone.

“You’re briefing has already started,” he said.

“I’ll be right there,” I said, groggily. Wiping the sleep out of my eyes, I slapped on my boots, zipped up my flight suit, and ran down to the squadron’s ready room. We were flying two crews on my event; and though I wasn’t flying with my good friend and usual pilot, Corey, there was an empty seat right next to him. I sat down there and was listening to the briefer talk about an ongoing search and rescue which I thought was part of the games until I heard him say that the crew of an S-3, and anti-submarine twin jet, had spotted debris in the water.

“Hey, what’s going on?” I said, tapping Corey on his arm.

Corey didn’t hear me, hadn’t felt me. He was glued to the briefing. So, I hit him on his arm again. Harder.

“Hey, what’s going on?”

“You don’t know?” he said, startled.

“Know what?”

“Doug and Zack flew into the water.”

Navy airplanes start an approach to the ship at night in a way that is very similar to airliners stacked in bad weather at an airport. The ship gives you a holding altitude at a specified point, and you are supposed to be there at a certain time and begin your approach at a certain time. To the second. Most of the time, you hold fairly high. You descend down to only 1200 feet and level off, fly level there until intercepting the ship’s instrument approach, and then begin a slow, controlled approach that takes you to within three quarters of a mile where the pilot uses a visual aid called a “mirror” (we called it “the ball” because it looked like a ball sliding up or down). Doug never got that far.

The story goes that the ship launched them out on their event sometime after midnight. Doug had made it out to his patrol station some distance away when the ship realized they were sailing into fog and they wanted everyone back aboard before they did. So, they told everyone to come back. Earlier than planned. For Doug, that meant he had a lot of gas he had to get rid of. The Tomcat couldn’t take the stresses of a landing with a lot of gas aboard. Since Doug always liked to burn gas rather than dump it, he pushed the throttles into full afterburner, making the run back to the ship faster than the speed of sound. (A helluva a fun thing to do!) He arrived back at the ship when he was supposed to but with too much gas. Slowing down to something like 400 knots (about 460 mph), he began the approach and leveled off at 1200 feet like he was supposed to. But he still had too much gas. So, he asked the approach controller if he could do a couple of three hundred sixty degree turns to buy some time and dump some more gas. The controller approved. At 1200 feet and 400 knots, he did the first to the left and reversed to the right. In the middle of the second turn, radar contact was lost.

I never saw or heard from him again.

I also never saw the official accident report. We were told that after examining the radar tapes, looking at the speed and radius of turn at constant altitude, that Doug had pulled four g’s in the turn. Such forces and the reversal of turns probably had given the crew vertigo; and in his disorientation, he flew them into the water.
But Doug was too good for that. Flying was his life and soul. And where was the backseater during all that? Asleep at the wheel? I couldn’t buy it. Not as the sole explanation. There was one other thing I never heard anyone talk about, something I and every Tomcat crew has probably personally experienced, which was the fuel dump valve sticking open. That was a problem you had to solve and solve quickly if you wanted to stay airborne. And if cycling the switch didn’t work, the way you fixed it was to open a circuit breaker on a panel forward of the pilot’s right knee. If Zack was focused on the diverging fuel quantity and Doug was reaching forward to open the circuit breaker, he could have easily, unnoticeably, eased the stick forward and knew nothing until he felt the shock, the transition, and he was Moving Toward the Light.

Doug’s death shook all of us. Me, to the core. I was already getting restless, thinking about where to go on my next tour of duty, trying to decide whether to stay in the navy or get out. When Doug died, I suddenly knew I didn’t want to die as a warrior. I was there because I loved to fly, because I wanted to fly in space, not to kill. But a professional killer is what I had become. I didn’t want to die one.
Time to move on.

But underneath it all, was the fact that Doug had been night flying when he died. Look what happened to him.

Despite that, eighteen years later, I turn, looking for other airplanes in the vicinity. Seeing none, I slow my airplane down to maneuvering speed and roll into what a “steep turn”. Sixty degrees angle of bank. Two g’s. I practice balancing power, bank angle, and pitch to hold as close as I can to sixty and maintain my altitude, and then reverse in the other direction. Like Doug did, I do turn left then right. Happy with my performance, I pull the power back, drop the landing gear, and drop the flaps, slowing the airplane down until a red light and a small horn tell me I am nibbling at a stall, something I can tell from the feel of the airplane anyway. I hold the airplane there, making small turns while I hang on the edge of flyability; and then satisfied with that, I push the throttle to full, slowly raise the flaps, raise the landing gear, and transition back to a full cruise at 145 mph, which is slow for a jet but fast for a light airplane. Turning west, I check my altitude (I’m at 3000 feet. The Class B is at 4000 feet.) and decide to do stalls. Takeoff stalls first. I slow the airplane down to climb speed and then point the nose upward and add power. Once stabilized at climb speed, I pull the nose up, up, up…to get her slow enough to stall. Well above me I see what appears to be a jet heading out of Houston; I turn on my landing light just to let him see me. The nose buffets and drops slightly when I force the airplane to stall; I release pressure on the stick. The stall ends and I adjust the nose to get a climb going again.
That done, I pull the power back and turn back toward my field, which I have flown away from. I slow the airplane down, drop landing gear and flaps, and pretend I am landing. I slow the airplane to a stall, let the nose buffet and drop, recover with full power and raising the flaps and then the landing gear. With my self-imposed, in-flight maneuver series complete, I head west, making my way back toward the airport. I see its beacon and the runway itself dimly, miles away to my north, awaiting my return. I could turn in from here and fly straight toward it; but in deference to flight time and to set up for a recommended FAA entry, I fly the airplane until I am just east of I-45 and parallel it. The airport is hard to see from here because of all the lights around it. Only familiarity allows me to pick it out with just a glance.

A few moments later, I am in the traffic pattern abeam the runway. I perform my landing checklist and fly my descending rectangular course toward the runway. To keep the airplane aligned it once I line up, I am flying with left rudder and right wing down. There is a crosswind, a wind blowing ninety degrees to the runway. Unexpected, but No Big Deal. But why is the runway so dark?
Sometime between takeoff and now, the landing light had burned out. I normally practice no landing light landings and no instrument light landings and no instrument and landing light landings. It was No Big Deal, except I hadn’t planned on this. I wasn’t in control. Which always turns on the fear inside my head. I know how to defeat it. Just let go.

I landed without a problem, even if a little firmer than I liked. But what did I do now? I brought the airplane to a full stop on the dark runway. The light was not legally required. This was the second time in a couple of weeks I was trying to re-qualify for carrying passengers at night. The FAA required three landings to a full stop every ninety days. The last time I had flown it I had grounded the airplane for a broken airspeed indicator that was legally required. Part of me, the part that wanted to be perfectly safe, maybe the smarter part of me, said to taxi back in, shut down, and call it a night.

I checked the trim and praying that there wasn’t a coyote or deer on the runway, pushed the throttle forward and took off again. And again. And again.
The third time I landed, taxiing back to the hangars at a pace slower than I could walk. The airport’s taxiways are not lighted. Using a small flashlight but mainly the light from the red and green position lights on the low wings, taxied back to the dark hangars and unlit rows of airplanes without hitting anything.
Once again. Night flying.

In life, we all do a lot of night flying. As I buttoned the airplane down and walked back to my truck, I thought about the night flying I still had to do. My upcoming marriage (I hope. I’ve been in a broken engagement. Even though in my soul I know this will happen, my fears still creep in, not content to relax until the fat lady sings, if then). The necessary change in career that it will probably bring. Possible economic ruin. The unknowns of friends, family, and locale. The fear of failure. The fear of the unknown. All those things that night flying represents. All those things I do anyway–unless I am already dead–even when I am afraid. And I usually am. Maybe I need to be.

Pushing the Margins

Me, my wife, and our dog Jedi were sitting out at the airport in her Ford Explorer and eating a Chick Fil A supper while listening to the CTAF and watching whoever happened to be in the traffic pattern. That evening, there was a rather unique warbird working the pattern. It was all alone until a green and white Citabria entered the downwind midfield in front of it. The Citabria touched down, turned off mid-field, crossed the hold short, and turned to taxi down the parallel taxiway. The warbird pressed down final with its landing light on, suddenly sidestepping to the right of the runway and leveled off at about fifty feet. It roared past a hangar at just above rooftop level and then cut back toward the taxiing Citabira which was turning into the fuel pumps. While it wasn’t clear whether the warbird pilot was saying “hello” to someone he knew or whether he was showing his irritation at the Citabria pulling into downwind in front of him, it was the most dangerous and immature display of airmanship I have ever seen out there, and that’s saying something.

About a month later, we were out there holding another fast food soiree as we watched a Maule angle itself across the taxiway leading out of the hangar area, and the pilot got out. A Cessna 172 taxied over to it, nose to nose, and a young man and woman got out to be arranged by a female photographer who started shooting pictures. It looked to us like an engagement or wedding photoshoot in which the groom, bride, and probable best man were all or mostly pilots. When it was done, the Cessna taxied off while the Maule started up, taxied the short distance to the runway, and took off mid-field. The Maule rolled a couple of hundred feet, broke ground and then performed a hard right turn which took it directly over aircraft, buildings, and us at about 100 feet altitude.

As pilots, we get a bit complacent about altitude restrictions and flying safe altitudes at small airports because we are landing an taking off where our proximity to the ground and facilities is a fact of life. But in both those incidents, the pilots involved were acting without regard to the safety of others in the name of convenience, testosterone, or both. It’s easy to think that the restrictions within FAR 91.119 don’t apply; but there is nothing in the regulation that exempts operations at airports. My bet is if either one of the unsafe operations we observed had resulted in an accident, violations of parts of that regulation would have been used in the administrative actions and lawsuits that would have followed, assuming the pilots survived.

An area where the regulations are not so crisp has to do with what constitutes a ‘safe” distance on the runway between aircraft when approaching to land. Where I see issues surrounding this come into play the most are at non-towered field patterns and runways. While good practice dictates a go-around if another airplane is on the runway, there is nothing in the regulations that requires it. This too often results in impatient or impetuous pilots pressing their margins when another aircraft enters the pattern ahead of them or they have to land behind another aircraft whose approach speed is slower. An aircraft on a 60 knot approach is moving at 101 feet per second. If you assume a stopped obstacle and you’re 500 feet behind it, you have 5 seconds to react, brake, and stop. Even a 1000 foot margin gives you only 10 seconds to get her done. Grass or soft runways may help or hurt by either helping the airplane stop or preventing any braking from being effective, respectively. Many times, you make the decision to continue based on what you believe the pilot in front of you intends to do; but he/she can change his/her mind or have to deal with something unanticipated, regardless of where you are. The pilot in front of you only has to fly their airplane; as the following pilot, you are totally responsible for where your airplane is and what it’s doing, even if the pilot in front of you doesn’t do what’s anticipated. A radio call only announces a pilot’s intentions and doesn’t guarantee you anything. So, there’s good reason for going around when anyone is on the runway as you approach touchdown at a non-towered field.

Believing your expertise will keep you safe while pushing your margins will generally require you, at one time or another, to prove it. And if you’re lucky, someone will post a cell phone video of your performance on Facebook, You Tube, or Twitter, and it will go viral while escaping the attention of the FAA.


My wife, my dog, and I often sit out at our airport in the car and eat a fast-food supper in the evening; and when we do, we often have a handheld radio tuned to the traffic frequency (i.e., CTAF = Common Traffic Advisory Frequency) to listen to the “going’s on”. You never know what you’re going to see or hear sitting out there, and I recently noticed a spate of pilots performing touch and go’s while calling they were “upwind” on the climb out. In all my years of flying, I had not noticed that becoming a problem before, so I decided to go look into why it might be happening. Obviously, the pilot had never paid attention to the traffic pattern diagrams or terminology used in the Airman’s Information Manual (AIM) and, worse, somebody may have trained them to say that. So, I spent a little time reviewing what the AIM and some other publications that provide pilot training might be doing. But, before we take a look at what I found, let’s talk a little about why using straight- forward and standard terminology when talking on the radios is important. If you don’t think it is, you can unplug from this discussion now and turn off your radios anytime you’re flying at a non-towered field. You’ll be better off because you’ll be totally dependent upon your Mark II eyeballs and not get sucked off looking in the wrong place or confusing other pilots who are listening to the radio for advisories and really do care.

Talking on the radios is not a skill all pilots take value or pride in, as we all know when we hear someone clobbering the frequency with a monologue that would compete with the best of the late-night talk shows and demonstrates to the world their lack of training. While using the Mark II eyeball is ALWAYS required for collision avoidance and is a pilot’s primary tool, using the radios to improve pilots’ situational awareness in the traffic pattern at a non-towered airport will always improve one’s odds of survival and even of having a good time (just not at the expense of everyone else listening on the CTAF). I realize, too, that my training as an F-14 Fighter RIO (Radar Intercept Officer) is kicking in here, since the RIO generally spoke to Air Traffic Control for the airplane, and both my superiors and my pilot deeply cared whether I communicated like a professional. That meant thinking about what I said before I keyed the mike, making my communications crisp to get on and off quickly while also getting my point across or relaying information quickly but accurately, and doing it in a way that made us sound “Sierra Hotel”. Part of getting there is by using standard terminology. When we don’t, we can make the other pilots guess what we mean. They might guess wrong. Sometimes that might just irritate or inconvenience us; but sometimes it can actually put us at risk, exactly what using the radios is trying to avoid.

So, let’s start looking at that standard terminology and what it’s supposed to be. We’ll start with the Airman’s Information Manual’s (AIM) part 4-3-2. While this section discusses operations at a field with a control tower, the make-up of a traffic pattern is defined generically. Here’s the picture it presents.

Here’s how it defines what we’re looking at: “The following terminology for the various components of a traffic pattern has been adopted as standard for use by control towers and pilots (See Figure 4-3-1):
1. Upwind leg. A flight path parallel to the landing runway in the direction of landing.
2. Crosswind leg. A flight path at right angles to the landing runway off its takeoff end.
3. Downwind leg. A flight path parallel to the landing runway in the opposite direction of landing.
4. Base leg. A flight path at right angles to the landing runway off its approach end and extending from the downwind leg to the intersection of the extended runway centerline.
5. Final approach. A flight path in the direction of landing along the extended runway centerline from the base leg to the runway.
6. Departure. The flight path which begins after takeoff and continues straight ahead along the extended runway centerline. The departure climb continues until reaching a point at least 1/2 mile beyond the departure end of the runway and within 300 feet of the traffic pattern altitude.”

There is no graphical depiction of the departure leg in the above figure, but there is one a few pages later:

So, when taking off from a runway and climbing out, calling you are on the “Upwind” is NOT correct! When you do that, pilots approaching the airport, on the downwind, or even on the ground can be suckered into looking for you at any point except where you are. Even if they think they know who made the call, the uncertainty created causes a distraction, something no one can afford if they’re on downwind, reconfiguring their airplane for landing and performing their landing checklist while trying to keep everyone else in sight.

The Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge also uses the same diagram above with the same terminology we have been discussing. Look at how the graphic shows the use of the term “departure”.

“Upwind” is nowhere to be found.

So, just how has this practice come into play? It probably is one of those common usage/myth things, started by someone (and maybe even trained by someone) who didn’t know better. Or didn’t care. Maybe the assumption is that since the nose is pointed as the same direction as “upwind” and you’ve got power on, it’s the same. It’s not. Your position is directly aligned with the runway centerline, you are NOT flying parallel to it. (Your closest argument to being correct would be on a go around in which you had side-stepped to the right; but I would not personally call “upwind” for that case since my lateral displacement from the runway is rather small.). Frankly, if I heard a radio call telling me an airplane “was on the go” from the takeoff runway, I would consider that call more accurate and likely to lead to a better result even though it is non-standard. (It still tells me where to look.)

But when I looked into it, I realized there was some training material put out there by a pilot’s organization that could be contributing to the problem. It is AOPA’s “NON-TOWERED OPERATIONS” brochure, which includes the following graphic:

With the number of pilots and CFI’s involved with this organization, you gotta wonder what made them comfortable codifying a practice inconsistent with FAA usage (i.e.,the AIM and the Pilot/Controller Glossary). My own experience with the organization’s training materials is when they start off with a disclaimer or an excuse, you can bet it’s wrong. (Don’t get me started about their Aerodynamics training. It fits that pattern.) I would contact them to suggest they correct this; but I’ve done it before and they’ve blown me off. I’m sure the argument will be they were just telling you that folks were doing it; if that’s it, it’s not clear. Additionally, for new pilots trying to learn this stuff, it can be misleading. There really is NO reason for it to be there at all. You gotta have some boundaries and discipline somewhere.

Or maybe you don’t. It is up to you.

More Than Just Airshows

Today was National Aviation Day. CNN highlighted the day by writing about some of the major airshows left in the calendar year, one of which Connie and I plan to attend (i.e., MCAS Miramar). While I personally highlighted the day by taking the CTSW out for a short flight where I reviewed power on and off stalls, turns about a point, S-turns across a road, and power-off landings and captured it all with an on-board Go-Pro. I would love to have had a Young Eagle or an Eagle flight to do. I didn’t, but doing those flights is one way I give back and try to show others that aviation has more to offer them than they might think.

Last evening, I attended an Educator’s Evening at Lone Star Flight Museum. I was invited not because I am a volunteer there but because I am one of the Young Eagle coordinators for EAA Chapter 12 meeting at Ellington and I had participated in a Young Eagle rally held at the museum about a month ago. Kenneth Morris is the museum’s Director of Education and Outreach and our host for the evening.

Kenneth and I are both ex-Navy. He has shared with me he considered his time in the Navy as a “life-changing’ experience, and that is how I feel about my time in the service as well. It was my Naval service that opened the doors to my involvement in both civilian and military aviation and, eventually, paved the way for my involvement in manned spaceflight. Those were things I dreamed about but didn’t know or initially think there was a way in for me, a geeky, non-athletic kid from a lower middle-class family without a lot of resources to help any of those dreams out. I initially got to college on scholarship and by working my way through, though due to my own emotional immaturity and limited resources, that began to collapse during my sophomore year. It was a college program for Navy enlisted personnel that enticed me in and ultimately did become my bridge to a better life. I started out as an Airman and a jet engine mechanic and finished as a Lieutenant flying the backseat of an F-14. While I dared dream of being an astronaut, it became clear I wasn’t going to get the type of military assignments I needed to enhance my chances. Still, my experience and education (aerospace engineering) opened the door to the next best thing, i.e., working at NASA’s Johnson Space Center as a flight controller and astronaut trainer (mainly the latter). A decade of that (which included learning how to fly and teach how to fly space shuttle ascents and ascent aborts) led to another fourteen years as an operational safety engineer with shuttle and part-time work today with various NASA programs.

At heart, I am a teacher, which is why I have a Light Sport Flight Instructor rating and why I have been trying for the past few years to use my experience to give back. A few months ago, I started volunteering at the Lone Star Flight Museum as another extension of that, and I really love the place. It is more than a museum; it is a place to learn and grow. For many of us, it is a place to share with others our passion about aviation and, in doing so, hope to inspire people to learn, dream, while they’re having a good time. It makes aviation a means to execute the present as well as a hopeful door to the future.

Aviation affects everyone in some way, whether it is through the airline seats you purchase and use to see family or take vacations, the packages that get shipped to your doorstep overnight, the emergency flights that carry your loved ones quickly to critical hospital care, the TV helicopter that shows you how to get to work on crowded Houston freeways, the helicopters that pull you out of your flooded homes, or, for some of us, the replacement for the car that makes distant family visits possible and practical in otherwise too-short slices of time. In other words, it is as varied and multi-faceted as life itself.

No matter how you slice it, aviation is a lot more than just airshows.

Charting a Better Course for LOC Training

In my last blog, I talked about the changes to stall training in the new ACS and how they looked when you put them in a hazard reduction precedence sequence in addition to the arguments Rod Machado is making against them. I believe that the best solution to reducing LOC accidents in general aviation is going to be BOTH some new or additional design solutions AND a proper approach to training, which I’m not convinced the new ACS approach affords. Part of the reason is that I believe it is based on standards coming down in the new Part 23 which puts more emphasis on design solutions and warning systems (the weakest of the design controls) and most of the aircraft we fly today simply don’t have those systems. But I also believe that the current training regimen does pilots a disservice because it is only PART of the answer and that the recent gains in Part 121 accident reduction point in the right direction.

In the February 2018 edition of Flying magazine, there’s a great article entitled “Loss of Control: The Persistent Risk” by Rob Mark that discusses what was done and how it contributed to a positive result, quote: “Some 65 safety enhancements appeared on the CAST (Civil Aviation Safety Team) list published in 2007, with 10 of them devoted to loss of control. One specifically called for advanced maneuvering training to “prevent and recover from hazardous flight conditions outside of the normal flight envelope”. It goes on to detail that the ICAO published a manual on Upset Prevention and Recovery Training. All of this points to going in the OPPOSITE direction of the new ACS at least in philosophy if not in actual practice. (As I mentioned in my earlier blog, the new test standards are tied to having equipment in your airplane that most do but is NOT required and may not even exist.)

The other statement in the article I consider especially telling is this one: “Anytime a pilot allows their aircraft to become a sort of airborne tail wagging the dog, a departure from normal flight or loss of control is usually not far behind.” While such an event could be caused by a pilot simply not exercising authority, I believe it often lies more in line with a loss of situational awareness whether due to misplaced focus (which could be from overconfidence, a lack of confidence, or not knowing what to do) or some type of distraction that the pilot allows to take him/he there. If that is true, then the new ACS seems more of a “slight of hand solution” since it emphasizes a reaction to a stall warning in the same environment as we have conducted stall and slow flight training in the past, i.e., a controlled environment in which the pilot knows and is in control of what is happening.

So, let’s talk about what would be a BETTER training approach than our current course, one that fits in with what we know does work and that fits the actual flying environment pilots are operating in.

(1) Pilots need to be taught (and tested) to respond correctly at the first indication of an approach to a stall (which could be a warning system activation or an aerodynamic indication, i.e., buffeting or sluggish control response). That is what the current Private Pilot ACS specifies; the argument seems to be about whether 10 knots away from that is really sufficient…and I’m not convinced you learn or demonstrate much there. Having a pilot demonstrate he can get out of the situation when the stall is nibbling at you is a lot more meaningful. For this ACS standard, you could move the approved speed range to +0 to 5 knots above the stall, though since it’s 0 to 10 the DPE and CFI can still them there. (“0 to 5 ” is probably the region where an asleep pilot is most likely to wake up.)

(2) Continue to train and test pilots in the slow flight (back side of the power curve–everyone needs hit that point in slow flight where more power does nothing–and experience really sluggish control response) through recovery after the stall. If you want to know why, go back to the “Anytime a pilot allows their aircraft to become a sort of airborne tail wagging the dog…” statement. Failure to teach these things plays into that scenario. CFIs and Examiner’s can handle the “desensitization” argument by emphasizing that disregarding any stall warning devices is NOT something you want to do; considering the limited exposure most pilots have to this type of training, I wager this approach would be MORE effective than sticking our heads in the sand and saying “you can’t do nothin'” which is NOT true if there’s enough air underneath you and it demonstrates mastery through the entire regime.

(3) The FAA and the GA alphabet groups can put their heads together and come up with an Upset Prevention and Recovery program that would be the most effective if it was mandatory before or shortly after getting an initial pilot’s rating and every so many years thereafter. Yes, that would be very controversial (like spin training used to be and is now done only for CFI applicants) and I know getting a rating and keeping it is expensive enough, but it all depends on how serious we are about LOC reduction. The use of simulators here (and for recommendation #4, next) can reduce both the risk and cost as well as be effective if the fidelity is good enough.

(4) SAFE and NAFI (as well as other local CFI organizations) and individual CFI’s can take a look at formalizing training scenarios that emphasize conflicting priorities and distraction that put a pilot into near-LOC situations. Yes, this training is already required and we all do it; but have you ever seen any of this formalized? Might be a good idea and will help bring it to the forefront.

Lowering LOC is a goal everyone’s interested in, but especially us CFI’s. Give what I’ve said here some thought, and feel free to let me know what you think of it and bring forward your own ideas.

Stalling Stall Training; Thoughts on the new ACS Approach

If you’re a new student pilot or a flight instructor, then you know the FAA changed the PTS (Practical Test Standards) for Private and Commercial Pilots to the ACS (Airmen Certification Standards). This is equivalent to the bureaucratic reorganizations that routinely reoccur and propel every Federal agency forward, especially when a new administrator takes the reigns, for the purpose of “streamlining” operations and putting someone’s new footprint out there, usually without accomplishing any long-term change that anyone can remember. I’ve paid attention to it but haven’t worried about it too much as a Light Sport instructor, though I am now hearing they’re about to do the same thing to Light Sport, making me sit up and take notice. If you know anything about what was changed, then you know that the slow flight and stall recovery parts of the test standard were “renovated” in an effort to reduce Loss of Control accident statistics, the thing that has been the big push in general aviation for the past few years. If you’re a follower of Rod Machado, then you probably have seen his tweets about how he disagrees with those changes. You can read his arguments against it in this blog: “The Stall Horn Fallacy of Stall Prevention.” Frankly, I agree with him, not only because of the arguments he makes about the learning and training processes but also because I have serious doubts that, from a safety standpoint, it’s a push in the correct direction. I come at this subject as a pilot who’s been around for a while (and interested in aviation safety for quite some time) and as a Light Sport instructor and a manned spaceflight safety analyst. As you’ll see, when I use a space shuttle based safety analysis on this subject, it casts doubt on the whole approach. (Some of will reinforce the arguments Rod was making.)

I personally believe a pilot needs to be able to handle an aircraft in any attitude and that “you fly like you train”. I’ve always taken pride in my ability to handle an airplane in slow flight and right through the stall, something that has given me a better understanding of airplane control in these regimes; I believe in preparing for the “bad day”. So, when you tell me that I’m supposed to only train pilots how to stay out of stalls and NOT how to recover from them if they get into one, it makes me squeamish. It’s like asking me to stick my head in the sand and telling me to take my students with me. It’s not that I don’t understand why the new approach is the way it is; I believe it is tied to the new aircraft certification standards re-write. Part of it is based on the rationale that stall/spin accidents that kill pilots occur too low for any recovery to take place, so it’s a waste of effort to try. (Kinda like “that person has no heartbeat, so just forget CPR and call the undertaker”.) Putting more effort into teaching pilots stall avoidance is always a good thing to do, but the argument that not teaching stall recovery is the way to get there because it “desensitizes” pilots to stall warning systems is not the way to do it (nor do I believe that desensitization is the main issue; how many hours have you spent “disregarding the stall horn? Should full throttle ALWAYS be the response to a stall horn going off? What about on those days gusty days when you’re on the approach and it’s burping at you? Is that a built-in form of desensitization?) The new aircraft certification standards DO put more emphasis on designing in stall warning and resistance systems and also DO mesh better with the new ACS stall response training; but that does nothing for the rest of the fleet that doesn’t share those design features and probably won’t be in widespread use for a decade. Most of the current fleet was designed under Part 23.207 (B) that says: “The stall warning may be furnished either through the inherent aerodynamic qualities of the airplane or by a device that will give clearly distinguishable indications under the expected conditions of flight.” So, there is no requirement that says a stall warning horn has to be included. (I suspect current ASTM standards for Light Sport also follow this approach because my Flight Design CTSW does not have a stall horn or a light…)

So, now, let me educate you a bit on how I’d look at this issue as a space shuttle safety guy.

When looking at how to eliminate or control hazards (and the hazard we are talking about here is loss of control in the form of a stall/spin), the shuttle program invoked a philosophy known as the “hazard reduction precedence sequence”. The sequence consisted of the following approaches:
1. Design for Minimum Hazard – Eliminate the hazard by design where possible. (In our case, make the airplane where it won’t stall or is extremely hard to.)
2. Safety Devices – Reduce known hazards which cannot be eliminated by use of safety devices as part of the system, subsystem, or equipment. (Stick shakers and ballistic recovery systems are examples of this one.)
3. Warning Devices – Employ devices that provide timely detection of the condition and the generation of a warning signal. (Stall horn, audible warnings, lights or other indicators…including angle of attack indicators…fit this category.)
4. Special Procedures – Used when the above approaches do not reduce the magnitude of the existing or potential hazards. (Pilot response to a stall or stall warning fall into this category.)

This list proceeds from the point of the strongest control of the hazard (1) to the weakest (4). For the case we’re talking about, a pilot responding to a stall horn with power or angle of attack reduction will be using 3 and 4. These are the weakest of the controls, i.e., hold the least amount of risk reduction. That said, the reality of a lot of general aviation flying is that we depend heavily on pilot training to reduce risk because of the nature of our aircraft, i.e., low weight and sophistication. That said, the rate of loss of control accidents over the last several decades has remained relatively constant; and since we are primarily dealing with it via the weakest of controls, there is little reason to suspect that training (once we are in the scenario) will have little impact on the rate. I also suspect that there are very often other causal factors (i.e., distraction due to aircraft or operational issues) involved in getting into the “bad day” that any training approach will not address, other than the big one involving “flying the airplane first” and taking the rest of the chips where they fall. I have no knowledge of whether this was considered when looking at the LOC accident rates; I suspect they all stopped at the “pilot eror” point without the substantive digging necessary (if it can be accomplished at all) to nail down the true “root causes”, which often lie deeper than people can or choose to look.

While we’re talking about this, I want to pull on one other analogy from a shuttle safety approach, i.e, the idea of system criticality and how this new training approach affects it. Shuttle had three classes of systems’ criticality. They were:

Crit 1 – systems that if they failed could cause loss of crew or vehicle
Crit 2 – systems that if they failed could cause loss of mission
Crit 3 – systems that, while desirable, would not cause either loss of mission or loss of crew or vehicle.

So, let’s apply this to a general aviation aircraft in this scenario.

Our current approach to the criticality of a stall warning system (because there’s no requirement that a pilot to respond to it and because there its operation is not required for VFR flight) would make it a Crit 3 item. The main responsibility lies with the pilot to recognize his aircraft is approaching a stalled condition and respond accordingly if it gets into it, whether the stall horn is working or not. The new focus on stall avoidance and making the pilot’s response DEPENDENT on the activation of the warning device would RAISE the criticality of the stall warning system if it was assigned one. Since the pilot’s reactions are based on the stall horn (or other warning system) and the ACS committee considered this an emergency, the criticality of the system (if I were rating it) would jump to Crit 1! You don’t fly without a Crit 1 system being operable! Since there are no FAR’s in place that require a stall warning device to be operable. This suggests a disconnect between the training approach which assumes the device will be in place and operable and the aircraft’s required systems. There is much better integration with the new design standards; but for now, this approach is very premature, even if I were not against it for other reasons.

The Best Trip Home That Didn’t Happen (Part 5/Conclusion)

The next Saturday (after I had returned from a trip to Reno, Nevada to attend the Tailhook Association’s 2017 convention and a reunion dinner of my Navy fighter squadron), I performed a quick “check flight” consisting of two touch and go’s and one full stop landing in our local pattern. There were no oil leaks and engine performance felt and sounded normal.
On Sunday, I came back out to take a longer flight involving some climbs at least up to 2500 ft; but as I headed out to the southeast to my favorite practice area, the CTSW began emitting a strange howling noise I had never heard before. Once again, I turned around and headed back to the airport. The winds were out of the north so we were landing on three –two; as I approached the airport, I heard and saw no other airplanes in the pattern so I made a bee-line for the end of the runway to get back on the ground. I landed without incident, taxied back to the hangar, pulled the cowling off with the help of my wife, performed a full power static run up, and listened for the noise. I didn’t hear it. That suggested to me that the noise was probably due to something associated with the airframe. It sounded like it was coming from an area above and ahead of my left ear, though I really wasn’t sure that it wasn’t transmitting through to there from somewhere else. Pointing toward it, though, was the fact that the wings had been pulled off as part of the conditional inspection. I couldn’t dismiss the probability that something had not being properly sealed up, especially considering everything else that had happened.

Judging it to be more of an annoyance than a safety risk, I launched again with my Go Pro mounted in the cockpit and recording. The sound showed up as I moved past ninety knots. I varied the power and heard no change in the noise but then noticed it decreased with airspeed. After landing, I took all the video I had and put together two clips. One began with footage that illustrated normal cockpit sounds and noise level but then switched to footage that contained the new noise. The other was a shorter clip from a flight that caught the noise starting up. I posted both clips to You Tube and then posted them to my aircraft’s online owner’s forum along with a question asking if anyone could identify the noise. Two owners, one of them a well-known CT mechanic, responded almost immediately. They both identified it as “tape noise”. Bolus tape is used to seal small gaps between several of the aircraft’s aerodynamic structures, the wing/fuselage joint being one of them. I was told to inspect the tape for any cracks or sections that weren’t sealing against the surfaces. Somewhere, the air was exciting the tape so it was acting like a reed in a musical instrument. It was hard for me to believe that tape could make a noise that loud, but I trusted what they were telling me and did an inspection the next day.

I didn’t find anything telling. I did notice the mechanic had used on a single strand of tape to seal the wings (versus multiple layers used previously), and that the tape in the front gap looked more depressed, even if it didn’t appear broken. I laid another strand of tape over the first, overlapping about 80% of it and the edge against the inner part of the wing. I took off and didn’t go far before the sound came back, though it delayed its appearance until 110 knots. After returning to the ground, I overlapped the other side of the original tape and the new layer so both strands were partially overlapped and ensured the seals against the lower fuselage were really tight and the tape ran all the way back to a bracket at the flaps, as the mechanic had instructed me to do. I launched out again and the noise did not show up, no matter what speed I flew. Once back on the ground, I laid one additional layer of tape over the installation on the other wing to hopefully ensure the same problem did not develop there later on.


All the problems seemed to be licked. The only thing I still felt I needed to do was put enough time on the engine while airborne air to ensure the push rod tube sealing at the head was good. So, I planned a flight from Pearland to Brenham via Houston Southwest and Lane to provide me that assurance. As I was checking tire pressures for that flight, I inadvertently pushed the nosewheel tire stem sideways and its joint ruptured, deflating the tire in in instant. (OMG!) It’s a small tire and I could not locate a tube for it at any local store, so I had to order one online and lost ANOTHER week! Luckily, the guys over at Air Professionals at the airport jumped on it and got her done as soon as I got the parts, and I finally launched out on that “check flight” eleven (COUNT ‘EM….11!) weeks after the airplane had been released from its conditional. I performed climbs to 1500, 2500, and 6500 feet, followed on the return with a climb to 5500 feet right after takeoff followed by a high speed, near idle descent to continuous low altitude cruise at 5400 RPM, 100 RPM below the engine’s maximum continuous operating limit (and the RPM I typically fly at in a headwind). I returned to Pearland about two hours after I took off and immediately got out and checked for oil leaks. There were NONE! What a RELIEF! Finally, all this crap appeared to be over; and I could go back to JUST FLYING!

I was grateful to the shop that performed the conditional that they hung in until most of it had been resolved, but I was more than unhappy with the time it had taken to get it all resolved and the low priority they had given the whole affair, especially considering it was all due to their errors (five in all), and how they stopped communicating when they didn’t have an answer. I was convinced that the mechanic knew his stuff but I was also convinced the whole thing had occurred because he rushed all the work and took shortcuts to complete it. Because of that, I will not return my aircraft to them for any work nor will I recommend them to any other Light Sport owners, even though they are manufacturer approved.

Here are my other “take-aways” from all this.

1. Don’t ignore what your gut is telling you; follow it! Believe me, when I first started feeling something was wrong, I didn’t instantaneously snap to the right answer, I wanted to ensure I was right, something you really can’t do. (Better dead than look bad?) I did take the time to investigate what was happening; but as I discovered that there were several small clues the airplane had an issue, I knew it was in my best interest to do what my gut was telling me to do, a lesson often hard learned through my life experience, including being in the middle of the space shuttle Columbia accident. And I did it not once but TWICE! While you can argue about what the oil leak rate was, what you can’t argue is there was a real if not totally quantifiable possibility of oil starvation and engine failure and whatever outcome that might have brought. When dealing with both machines and people, sometimes it’s the small things that you pick on that prove to be the most telling. Better to put your aircraft on the ground and be safe and wrong than stay in the air and be dead and right. (“I thought something was wrong…)

2. Knowing your aircraft and its systems involves not only what’s in your head but what’s in your senses and your experience. This was demonstrated in the small kinesthetic and audio clues that triggered my awareness while the gauges appeared to be telling me there was no problem. The motto in the space shuttle Mission Engineering Room (MER) during the Columbia era was: “In God we trust; all others bring data.” While that often does make sense, the Columbia accident (and the Challenger accident) and this experience showed there are often limits to that approach, and like most things invented by humans, nothing is absolute. It took me a long time to learn the hard way that to ignore what my senses are telling me (and they are giving me a very valuable but different forms of input) is as big a mistake as failing to reason things out. Sometimes, the data you need to make a logical decision just isn’t there. Welcome to Life!

3. You’re a pilot, a passenger, or CARGO! At different times, we all vacillate between those three states. It usually doesn’t kill us. But life does present those moments when you MUST become the pilot or failure to do so can have definite and sometimes serious consequences. As aviators, we often have to deal with other people who are in authority or have our fate in their hands. Sometimes the right thing to do is trust and follow; sometimes the right thing to do is rebel and take charge. How do you know when to do the latter? Go back to bullet point #1; when your gut is telling you something is wrong. In that case, be the pilot! Tell the air traffic controller you can’t or won’t comply (UNABLE or declare an EMERGENCY) or the mechanic where you think the problem is. Yes, there may be some pushback but ultimately no one is going to keep you safe but you. That doesn’t mean other folks won’t help you and you can thank them when and if they do; it’s that we’re all human and nobody’s perfect. BTW, if you sit on your hands and don’t say anything, even that you’re concerned, then you’ve moved from being a “passenger” to CARGO. Don’t complain to anyone if you get mishandled.

4. Stay cool and take it one step at a time! It’s one thing to think ahead to what can happen next and anticipate it; it’s quite another to overreact and elevate your risk beyond what is necessary to meet the moment. Bias your options toward the worst case; but be careful you don’t take it so far you create a BIGGER problem. Yes, sometime this involves your best guess, but that’s what your training is for. Stay with what you know and do what you need to in order to stay safe, including sacrificing the aircraft. Walking away is all that matters.

5. Have the patience to stay with it until it is COMPLETELY resolved. In all my years of owning and flying aircraft, this was the situation that tried my patience and my endurance the most. There were several times I was so exhausted and frustrated I almost turned it into a legal case, something I didn’t want to do and I knew would mainly be a win for the attorney. It also became so tiring that I was temped to do what was EASIER and shortcut the measures I felt needed to be taken to validate the aircraft’s safety and ASSUME that things were okay without proof. I could not do so without putting me and, more importantly, the people I care about (and others on the ground I didn’t know) at jeopardy that could be avoided. In the end, I followed each issue to a resolution and performed a “check flight” campaign I felt would push out any remaining flaws. I pushed the aircraft and engine into flight profiles similar to some flown on my more difficult cross-country flights, giving me some confidence I could re-employ the aircraft without undue concern in the same manner.

Eternal vigilance is not only the price of freedom but the cost of aviation.

(NOTE: If you haven’t read the whole thing and would like to do so without wading through the website, a pdf version of it is here.

The Best Trip Home That Didn’t Happen (Part 4)

I learned to pay attention to a little ditty when I was involved in Naval Aviation that goes like this: “It only takes one dumbsh*t to wipe out a thousand “atta’boys”.” That was about to apply to this evolution, as you shall see.

I was pretty impressed that the owner of the shop had flown the mechanic involved with this whole thing and his boss (also a mechanic and an IA) in a Citation down to fix my airplane. They roared in about 11 a.m.,jet blast reversers screaming them to a stop, and pulled into a parking spot near the FBO. My hangar is only a short walk away, so I headed toward the jet to escort them to my CT. After shaking hands, saying “hello”, and thanking the mechanics for coming, I walked them back to my airplane. They did a quick inspection that couldn’t reveal much; it had been a week since the airplane had flown and any oil that might help them pinpoint the leak had disappeared. So, we pulled the airplane out of the hangar, pointed the tail at only empty grass, and started the engine. Even though the ambient temperature was already in the nineties and climbing toward the century mark, it still took a few minutes before the engine hit its minimum operating temperature so the mechanic could open up the throttle while the IA searched for a leak. And found one. Unlike the other leaks, which had been at a single push rod seal at the bottom of a tube, this one was coming from the top; it was inside the head. They would have to not only take the head off but remove the push rod tubes and reseal them. The mechanic said he needed Loctite 620 to do that; and he didn’t have any. (So much for delaying five days to make sure they had the right parts.) The IA started immediately saying they’d “have to come back”, which meant to me they had no hesitancy about putting my airplane down for two more weeks; despite what had happened, the mechanic was going on a two week vacation the next day! I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and was determined not to let them off the hook easily; what sense did it make…especially after they had flown down in a Citation…to simply declare defeat and walk away before trying to see what could be done? I suggested they go to a nearby mechanic’s shop and see if there was any down there or if someone could tell us where we could get some locally before throwing it the towel. They didn’t want to do that. The IA asked the mechanic what Loctite would work, and after some checking, he said any 600 series Loctite would. From my hazy memory came a nagging that I had some Loctite, though I wasn’t sure what type or where it was. I found it after a short search; it was a bottle of Loctite 648. Giving them now no reason not to proceed, they took it and started taking the head apart.

The first words I got about how long it would take to do the repair was a couple of hours; so, after going over and meeting the shop’s owner to thank him for coming down and checking on whether I could do anything for them, I left to grab some lunch. When I got back, I sat and waited for the job to finish up, hoping to take the airplane for a short hop around the pattern to verify the fix. When the job was almost complete, they finally told me the airplane needed to sit for at least 24 hours for the Loctite to completely cure. That meant they would have to leave anyway, and I would once again be left with an unairworthy airplane for an uncertain and already LONG length of time. The IA promised to come back to perform a leak check in the next few days. I encouraged him to do just that.

The end of the week came with the IA saying couldn’t get transport down. Since he was convinced all we were after was a leak check, he asked if I would allow a mechanic’s shop on my field to assign someone to do the leak check whose time he would pay for. Wanting to move forward, I agreed. A day later, the local guy and I went out to the CT and, after I pulled the engine through and checked the oil, pulled it out of the hangar. As he inspected it closely to get a good look at its condition, I saw him hesitate as he looked in the area of the push rod tubes; but he didn’t say anything. I got in the CT, started it up, sat waiting for the engine to warm up, and then signaled him I was going to run it up. He nodded and I did, advancing the throttle in steps as he watched for leaks. When I shut the engine down, he called me aside and showed me where we had a new leak. This was back at the push rod seal…AGAIN!

“I thought that seal looked a little rolled up,” he said.

We put the airplane back up and I got on the phone with the IA in Dentin. He wasn’t sure how he was going to tackle it now with his Rotax certified mechanic gone. He admitted it was his problem, and I sent him a link to a website he could use to search for Rotax certified mechanics anywhere to help him out.

I gave him a day to work the problem and then got in touch with him again. He stated he was legal to do the repair himself and planned to have someone fly him down in a King Air in a day or two so he could. But as the time approached and the King Air ride didn’t work out, he said he didn’t have a way to get there (despite the fact that Southwest Airlines was flying multiple flights to Hobby every day and he could drive down in five hours if he was really motivated), so he asked if he could hire someone at KLVJ to do the work. Since I personally knew the mechanic who did the leak check had Rotax experience if not a formal certification and I was convinced having someone local pursue it was a better course, I agreed. I spoke to the owner of the local shop and he was fine with doing the work, though it would be the middle of the next week before he could get to it. Since that was about the same time the Denton crew could get to it if they pressed ahead, I didn’t see we’d gain anything by having the guys in Denton fly down; and, frankly, I felt it was time to move the work to someone with fresh eyes and hands.

I wrote an e-mail that included both shop owners and the Denton mechanic who had been so far unsuccessful at completing the work and discussed how I saw us proceeding if we had an issue after the next attempt to close it out. Bringing someone else in held the potential for complicating things if there was still an issue, especially since the airplane had not been flown since the push rod tubes had been reinstalled. I proposed a three way conversation for any issue, and that if anyone involved didn’t agree with what I was proposing, then we needed to halt moving forward in this manner. I didn’t hear anything back. I figured that, in actuality, no matter what the result, the original shop still would have legal responsibility to resolve the matter, especially since the second shop was working on their behalf. I knew I was taking some risk going this way, but I didn’t see I would be risking any more than I would by bringing the original mechanic back in. He had made already made FOUR attempts to “get her done”. I was just glad the shop manager (the IA) was standing behind their work regardless and was at least making some effort to get it all resolved.


Ten days later, nothing had happened. The owner of the local shop decided he didn’t want to get in the middle of it; and while I didn’t blame him for that, I was irritated at him for promising to get it done in a week and then not telling me he had decided not to work on the plane. I didn’t find out until I called the Denton shop and informed them nothing was happening. The owner of the Denton shop said he would come down on Thursday or Friday of that week but then shuffled the job back to the original mechanic who couldn’t come until Tuesday of the week following. (God forbid someone consider driving down from Denton on the weekend to get her done, even though almost sixty days had passed since this mess started.) On the Tuesday morning of the planned visit, I got a text as I waited to hear the mechanic was airborne that said instead he had wrecked his car on the way to the airport and wouldn’t make it. I responded that I was glad he was okay and also texted the shop manager and asked him to call me. A hour or two later, I called the IA and told him I didn’t think it was wise to continue to send the original mechanic and reminded him of his promise to come down and finish the job for him. He said he heard me and would get back to me with his next plan.

In the meantime, Hurricane Harvey spun up in the Gulf, making one of my worst fears about this continuing debacle come true. The un-airworthy state of my aircraft meant that flying her out of harm’s way was impossible, and I would have to take my lumps and hope her hangar would protect her. I won’t go through the horror show that Harvey was; and, obviously, the fate of one’s aircraft pales in comparison to trying to keep yourself and your loved ones safe and water out of your home. We were some of the most fortunate ones; we got no water in our house. Though we were trapped in the house for days, we had plenty of food and water and power the whole time. As it became clear we weren’t going to have to call for a water rescue, Harvey left, and the water began to recede, so my attention turned first to our cars (which didn’t get flooded though the carpeting in my convertible did get soaked by overflow from some drains) and then the airplane. A flooded Clear Creek not far from us cut us off reaching the airport, so there was no information about our airplane’s fate for days. As things were calming down, I texted the owner of the hangar and asked him if he could see its security cameras and, hence, our airplanes; while he had lost his internet connection, another pilot in my hangar had been out to it and let us know all the airplanes were untouched. It was a few more days before the creek receded enough to allow me to drive out to the airport and see for myself.

It was only a day or two later that Hurricane Irma formed; and as it barreled west, some of the early computer model runs were spewing out the possibility that Houston might be in its path. This prompted me to make an angry phone call to the guys at the Denton shop to light a fire and get them down here. I wanted the airplane ready to fly out; considering what we had been through, there was no way I was going to consider remaining in Houston if we were in for another hurricane hit. The problem mechanic said he’d be down on the following Tuesday (about a week later). I was expecting that to be the first day back at work and so I told them I needed for them to make their own arrangements to get around. I heard nothing until that Tuesday morning when I got an e-mail from the mechanic saying he wasn’t coming because he couldn’t get a rental car. I sent him back a very irritated e-mail telling him he should have called me and gotten on the airplane, and started a text conversation with his boss as well. Having finally reached the end of my patience, I told them they had until 1800 Friday to get my airplane up or I would take legal action against them (I did indeed have an attorney picked out.). They got the mechanic on a flight down on Southwest the next day. I made arrangements with my boss to do some work from home and take a short day to make it all work.

The mechanic FINALLY did make it the next day, and I picked him up at Hobby, drove him to my hangar, and left him to work. I asked him to call me about 20 minutes before he was ready to do a run-up to check his work; he said he would. Two hours later, I decided to see what was going on and returned to the airport to find the CT sitting outside the hangar getting ready for her run. After some initial problems getting the airplane to start, I got the engine running and we checked her out. The seal did not appear to be leaking. We talked about me doing a few trips around the pattern to verify the fix and I agreed to it, at least until I checked the winds and found them gusting up to the airplane’s demonstrated crosswind limit. I was exhausted from all I had been through and decided flying in those conditions wasn’t a good idea. So, we buttoned up the cowling, I taxied her out, and we did a full power static run instead. Again, there were no leaks; so I taxied the airplane back to the hangar and out her up. By then it was lunch time, so I took both of us over to Chick Fil A and then dropped the mechanic off at Hobby to catch his flight back to Denton.

(Continued; see Part 5).

Shooting an Aerodynamic Elephant

Since the reason I spend time blogging is an effort to “give back” by passing on my experiences and knowledge, I’ve focused some articles on the current turmoil in aerospace education concerning the generation of lift. The misinformation and misconceptions are quite widespread; they are now affecting most information sources pilots trust to be correct and that we are tested on. (Yes, I am now speaking to you, FAA, which all the pilot training organizations like AOPA, Gleim, and instructor published pilot books march in locked step with.) Worse, this misinformation is being passed on as fact by educational organizations entrusted with training youth. The bottom line is that we will likely suffer for a decade or more with people not really understanding how a wing works and having completely wrong ideas about it; hopefully, it will result in only having folks busting test scores and looking ignorant and not in an actual accident somewhere. The problem is that is not guaranteed and people usually find a way to make the most improbable things happen. Which is what proper education is supposed to guard against.

Wanting to help tackle the problem, I knew I needed to make sure that what I was writing, thinking, and teaching was correct; so, I began going back to my various aerodynamic texts and refreshing myself on the generation of lift. Some of those are texts I used to get my pilots’ ratings, some of those are texts still tagging along with me after my aerospace engineering degree (“Foundations of Aerodynamics”, Kuethe and Schetzer; “Airplane Aerodynamics”, Dommasch, Sherby, and Connolly; “Theory of Wing Sections”, Abbott and Doenhoff), and others were texts I had come to respect as good references (i.e., “Aerodynamics for Naval Aviators”). As I looked at what the controversies were and how they were spreading, I started re-examining what I knew and looking for the truth. As I integrated all I knew and went through the various arguments, I began realizing there was more to the picture than what my engineering education had taught me, though none of it was wrong. (I couldn’t say the same for the information I was seeing primarily on the Internet and that was creeping into pilot’s educational books, probably because of both an incomplete understanding by their authors and their reliance on Internet sources, which are sometimes difficult if not impossible to independently verify…not that anyone appeared to be going to the trouble.) I was specifically focusing on the shortcomings of the Bernoulli explanation (though I knew its basic heart of using pressure distributions to explain lift was correct) and how Newton’s Third Law was being misapplied..and, later, how the Coanda effect was being incorrectly drawn into the explanation of basic lift. (We NEVER discussed Coanda during any engineering class I took and my literature search only turned it up in a NASA paper on high-lift devices…for very good reasons!) I became convinced that a lot of the problem was centered around not considering the wing and air as a “system” and that the application of Newton’s Third Law really had more to do with interactions in the pressure field than it did with any kind of direct mechanism where “the wing pushes down on the air” (a.k.a AOPA).

Then, along came Doug McLean tackling the problem with his book: “Understanding Aerodynamics: Arguing from the Real Physics” (Wiley).

I can’t say enough good things about this book. It has become my main resource for enhancing my own understanding of this subject AND tackling the issue on the aerospace education front. It is a very technical read; but for most folks interested in understanding what’s really going on, if you do nothing but read Chapter 7 (“Lift and Airfoils in 2D Subsonic Speeds”), then you can come to understand where the “truth” lies.

I expect to be working on an explanation of the generation of lift that relies heavily on what he had to say; but all I want to address today is this. I strongly disagree with him on one thing: he believes it’s easier for most folks to understand lift using Newton’s Third Law. Most folks experience with Newton’s Third Law lies only with some kind of reaction engine (i.e., jet and rocket engines), and so they erroneously think that the wing lift occurs in exactly the same way (leading to little jets of air pushing out of the wing). But this is NOT where Newton’s Third Law comes into play with a fixed wing. This sentence from McLean’s book captures it well: quote: “The pressure differences exert the lift force on the airfoil, while the downward turning of the flow and the changes in flow speed sustain the pressure differences”. Newton’s Third Law does play quite a role in the generation of lift; lift is the wing’s overall reaction to the pressure imbalance while the Third Law (as well as the Second one) also plays a role in the creation and maintenance of the flow field that produces it.

BANG! Call that a shot of one “aerodynamic elephant”.

The Best Trip Home That Didn’t Happen (Part 3)

About ten days later, the airplane was fixed again. The mechanic had gone back in, rechecked the valves, and discovered that neither the intake or the exhaust valves were getting a complete seal. He had reworked them, done several ground runs over thirty minutes long, and had seen no issues. To be absolutely sure they had a fix, they decided to test fly the airplane and contacted Scott, a Light Sport pilot and instructor who had worked for them in the past and whom I personally knew, to fly the flight. Once I was sure Scott would be covered by my insurance, I okayed the flight, contingent upon him calling me and making sure we set up good test conditions. He did, and I shared with him everything I knew and had seen. A day or so later, both he and the mechanic manned up the CT and flew for a one hour and twelve-minute flight, performing multiple climbs up to 7500 feet. They were convinced there were no issues, so they talked Scott into flying the CTSW to Houston if I would run him over to Covey Trails, a pretty little airpark northwest of Pearland and Sugarland and on the west side of Houston. I agreed. It was a small price to pay not to have to go through the hassle of getting the CTSW back from Denton. We scheduled the flight for Wednesday morning, July 19th. Scott hoped to launch about 7 am and get to Pearland about 9 in a two-hour flight. It was theoretically possible to do it if you cut straight through the Class B with either no headwinds or winds in your favor, but I was skeptical it would actually happen that fast.

Scott launched only a few minutes later than he had hoped to; at about eight a.m., I received a text with a picture of the instrument panel and a comment: “Ugh! It’ll be a little while….”. I could see his groundspeed was 103 knots, his estimated time of arrival was one hour and fifty-six minutes, he was cruising level at 5500 feet, and he was just clearing the south side of the Dallas Class B. He didn’t feel or see he had any issues. Another text a few minutes later showed about the engine gauges: 5200 RPM, CHT at 180 degrees F, Oil Temp at 200 degrees, and Oil Pressure at 50 psi. Those were all normal readings.

I texted him back saying: “Dude, this is LIGHT SPORT!”

A little before nine-thirty in the morning, I left my house and drove out to the airfield where I parked my car at my hangar and walked over to the FBO. Inside, a radio was feeding in traffic calls; I heard him call five miles west and request the active runway: someone else called they were using runway 14 and Scott latched on. Even though I’ve seen plenty of photos of what the CT looks like in flight, I am always curious to see it for myself, so I walked outside and watched him cross the field directly over my head. Banking left, he swung into the downwind and expertly flew the base and final legs, making a gentle landing on one four before turning off on taxiway Bravo and heading for the FBO. I took a couple of cell phone shots of him coming toward me as I looked for any traces of oil in case the repair had not gone as thought. As he spun the airplane around a few feet away, I saw that the bottom quarter of the whole left side was covered in oil. Apparently, the oil had been leaking for a while because it had saturated a piece of white “speed tape” used to cover a gap between the rear fuselage and the lower tail cone and its front end was flopping loose. After Scott shut the airplane down and was unstrapping, I stepped up to his window and said: “Dude, you’ve got oil all down the left side of the airplane!”

“WHAT….?!” He stammered, as he then climbed out. We both took out our cell phones and snapped pictures. Once I got evidence of oil saturating the fuselage, I looked in the oil door to see if I could see where oil was hitting the inner cowling (I could and tried to take a cell phone picture of it that didn’t turn out.) and then popped open the door to the left baggage compartment to find, much to my surprise, the compartment was coated with oil. I momentarily paniced as I realized that the canvas satchel containing the aircraft logs were there and its top had been left unzipped open, calming down as I examined it and saw that the oil hadn’t gotten in. There was a roll of “speed tape” in the compartment that wasn’t exactly in good shape, and I pulled it aside to dry it off and see if it was salvageable. I wiped down what oil I could off the side of the compartment and the oil that had run down the baggage compartment door and collected in a little pool on the bottom of a rim. I had a spare liter of oil in that compartment, so I pulled it out to use on the next step.

Returning to the cowling, I opened the oil door and checked the engine’s oil level on the oil dipstick. Scott grunted as we both saw the stick was completely dry. I added 200 ml and checked again. Still dry. 400 ml more. Still dry. The rest of the liter. That topped it off! I asked Scott where the oil level was when he took off; he answered it was in the middle of the cutout section of the stick, which defines the Min to Max quantity. He thought that meant he took off half a liter low; but a check of the difference between Min and max is .43 liters, so a spot in the middle would mean he took off only .22 liters low. That meant the airplane had shed .78 liters of oil, 26 % of its total oil capacity.

With the oil level temporarily topped off, I started my wounded airplane up and taxied her back to my hangar. Once we had her buttoned up, Scott and I piled into my 2014 Mustang convertible and headed for Covey Trails. Unfortunately, our twenty-minute flight turned into about a two hour road trip for Scott and a four hour road trip for me, though Covey trails was one of the prettiest airparks I had ever seen. Too bad I didn’t get to do a grass field landing there. (Caveat: To anyone who’s thinking about dropping in unannounced, better bring $100 cash with you. That’s their “landing fee” unless one of the residents at the place vouches for you.)

Round 4 Begins

The shop where I had the work done and I conversed fro about a week about how this was now going to get resolved. They first said were coming down on Friday, July 21 but then pushed back to Tuesday the 25th because they were “waiting for parts”. Since no one had been down to examine the airplane and do a preliminary failure analysis, I had questions about what parts they were bringing but didn’t get an answer. I hoped that meant they were bringing everything they needed to completely rebuild the head. While there was every reason to think that the third oil leak was associated with a root cause we hadn’t mitigated or hadn’t identified, there was no guarantee of it. It could be that the continued operation of the engine with a fault had triggered another failure mode. Additionally, while the shop had been stepping up to get me transportation most of the time and take care of the issue, I wasn’t feeling there was any sense of urgency about getting my aircraft back up in the air, especially after I got a note from the mechanic that he was going on vacation on the 27th and started mentioning August 7th as the next date for us to pursue anything. I hadn’t fussed at them much until I got that, but I did then and let them know I was going to pursue “alternative remedies” soon. I wasn’t kidding; I had selected an aviation attorney to go have a conversation with, though going down that road was the vehicle of last resort. I was also talking to a local Rotax certified mechanic to see if he could “get her done”, even if I had to pay him out of my pocket, assuming he would come to Pearland to work.

Thankfully, the business owner for the shop that had done the work stepped in. I got a call from the head mechanic apologizing for the inconvenience (not the first time he had done that) and telling me the owner was flying him and the mechanic down on Wednesday, July 26th to get the airplane up in the air. I was told that no matter what the problem was (and even if something else had gone awry), they would return the aircraft the service. That was a huge relief to me. I personally liked the mechanic and still had confidence in him (though I wasn’t convinced he didn’t have some blind spots—who doesn’t?), so I was happy to hear they appeared to be REALLY stepping up to the bar! It’s when things are going to hell in a handbasket you really see the character of a person or a company; and this one was looking like one I wanted to continue to do business with (though I would reserve final judgement until we actually got a resolution).

They came, they went, and the airplane leaked again…!!! (Part 4 follows)