The Caravan is sick, has a cold or Corona virus, or something. Symptoms? Metal in the oil. (considered bad, potentially fatal if not addressed)
So the old girl had a doctors appointment in Arkansas first thing Monday morning. Not a problem. fly jumpers all weekend, then head off for the 2.5 hour flight to Pocahontas Arkansas. We even got done a little early on Sunday so the pilot could make most of the flight in daytime. (not as scary I guess)
But no, “I’ll leave first thing in the morning” he says. I pointed out that the weather along the route was fine at that very moment, and even though the weather was supposed to be “OK” in the morning why not just go now? Why not? Well dear reader, if you are at all familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs it says humans have some very basic things that they need in life. Things like, food, safety, friends, esteem and self actualization. That is the needs list for normal people. Pilots and skydivers have a different list. It’s shorter. Beer, women and aircraft. In no particular order.
Our hero already had a plane to fly and it wasn’t Miller Time so can you guess what need he wanted to fill? Yep. “Momma always says, womens is the devil”
So instead of getting when the getting was good our fair haired put off takeoff until tghe next morning. What difference could it possibly make?
To say I was grouchy about the pilot’s decision would be an understatment.
Luckily my runway drains quickly so by late afternoon there was a strip of grass that was dry enough to use. When the pilot finally showed up (GRRRRR!) I walked him out to the runway and showed him exactly where to start his run and where to head for. (my runway is very wide so a guy can get a little lost in it)
The pilot loaded up the plane with his overnight bag and a cute blonde and fired up. I decided to park myself halfway down the runway a shoot some video. You never know when something interesting is going to happen.
Somebody wasn’t paying attention when I told him what part of the runway to use.
Last week, (month? year? Things all run together for me this time of year) our jump plane had a chip detector light come on in flight. A chip detector is a small engine probe that can detect any metal that show up in the engine oil. It looks like a small spark plug and can detect even the tiniest amounts of metal in the oil.
There is supposed to be metal in the engine, NOT in the oil! Metal in the engine oil in an indication that something in the engine is coming apart. See: bad. The engine might continue to run for years or seconds. No way to know. But when that RBL (really bad light) comes on in a multi million dollar airplane full of squishy bodies the prudent pilot puts her on the ground, fast! The jumpers? They left the pilot to deal with the problem alone. That’s one of the advantages of being a skydiver.
” Anything I can do to help? No? Ok, well . . . See ya later. Good luck!”
So we got the Caravan on the ground and sent for the calvary. The man coming to the rescue in this case is Jorge “Horhay” Mechanic extrordonaire. We unbuttoned the plane and pulled the chip detector dreading what we might see.
We were hoping for a loose wire or something. What we really didn’t want to see was what Jorge called an “afro” An “Afro” in a chip detector that is full of metal and is generally considered “bad”
“We don’t likes bad, do we precious?”
We pulled the plug with baited breath and . . . . . nothing. Whew! Well, not exactly nothing. when I looked really close I could see just the smallest of black lines on the the plug.
There was just one tiny little hair of metal on the end of the plug. Matel. Bummer. But at least it wasn’t an afro. We reassembled the plane and ran the engine on the ground for 10 minutes and didn’t get another chip detector light so we test flew it. Still no light. The metal was probably just some tiny random sliver of metal that somehow worked it’s way loose after all these years. Probably.
So we filled the Caravan full of squishy bodies again the next day and hoped for the best.
As I briefly mentioned in my last post, a good friend of mine is going to attempt to make 300 skydives in 24 hours to raise money for Parkinson’s Disease. Of course you’re asking yourself “how is that possible?” Well, it’s because he is only going to 2000 feet on each jump, that’s how. Now if leaping from a perfectly good airplane every 3-4 minutes for 24 straight hours (and yes, there is a large part of those hours where the sun is noticeably absent i.e dark or “night” if you will) isn’t impressive enough, Kevin (that’s his name you see) lost the use of his left arm in a snowmobile accident 4 years ago so he will be doing this amazing feat with the use of only one arm! That’s right, 300 skydives, in 24 hours, from 2000 feet, half of them in the dark, with only one arm.
This is his 4th event of this kind and his 2nd after the accident and it is an impressive thing to watch. The high performance takeoff of the lightly loaded PAC 750XL is impressive and the climb to 2000 feet takes only 45 seconds or so. Then Kevin jumps out, deploys his parachute almost immediately and spirals down to the ground where he (hopefully) lands right in front of his crew who help him switch parachutes for a freshly packed one and hop into the same plane he just jumped out of which beat him to the ground and is waiting for him.
You might have picked up on another interesting aspect of this little event. If Kevin is making 300 jumps out of the same plane doesn’t that mean that someone (a pilot perhaps?) have to make 300 takeoffs and landings? Why yes dear reader, it does. And guess who the lucky pilot is that gets to have his rear end glued into the seat for this epic undertaking? That’s right, me. OK, there is another pilot who will be helping me by giving me breaks because let’s face it flying for 24 hours straight would be just a little bit dangerous. I know, I know, Kevin will be jumping for the same amount of time, but if he falls asleep on final the parachute still lands, and no fireball.
The whole thing is going to be a test of endurance and teamwork and we start today at 7:00 pm. I can’t wait.
Here’s a link to the story that the local news did. 300 Imperfect Jumps And of course that’s yours truly in the pilot’s seat.
A good friend of mine landed a pretty sweet gig a few years ago making him one of the few people in the world that I’m jealous of. His name is Nick Halseth and every summer he gets to travel around the world as the team leader for the Lucas Oil skydiving demonstration team. The team performs for all kinds of events; drag races, rodeos, 4th of July events, casino openings, and the like. But the days that really turn his crank are when they get to perform at airshows.
Being part of the airshow as one of the performers gives him a unique perspective on the in’s and out’s of how airshows are run and how the pilots work with other to put on a great show. It also gives Nick some fantastic opportunitys to practice other passion which is photography. Not only does he have unlimited access to the flight line but over the years he’s done such a fantastic job he’s become the go to guy when pilots want great air to air shots of them doing cool stuff in their cool planes. Of course to get air to air shots means you have to be in a airplane as well so Nick get’s to ride in some pretty sweet aircraft. “Hey Nick, could you go up in that B-25 and sit in the tail gunner’s position and take pictures of the Thunderbirds while they fly in formation with a P-51 Mustang and an F4U Corsair please?”
Here’s one the video’s he put together from last year’s airshow circuit.
Number one son has been home from his seven month stint with Uncle Sam for all of 3 days, so enough lying around the house, time to get back to work learning how to fly. It’s going to take me a little time to finish my CFI rating, especially since my flight lesson tomorrow is going to be rained out, so until I’m, you know, legal and all, I’m going to keep Connor’s informal flight training going. I started teaching Connor to fly when he was three years old and I had to break in a new engine on one of my Cessna 182 jump planes. That first intensive lesson consisted him sitting on my lap and steering for three hours. Actually he only steered for fifteen minutes before falling fast asleep, leaving me to finish the break in session all by myself. Whimp. I mean come on, do your part son, don’t make me do all the work. And to make matters worse the first thing the little dickens did when I set him down on the ramp after we landed was throw up. OK, that part was pretty funny. That was sixteen years ago. Today I needed to move another Cessna 182 jump plane from one airport to another and once again I brought my little buddy along. Only this time he did all the flying. We started off with a real life soft field takeoff from a soggy grass strip, followed by a 60 mile cross country trip where we practiced slow flight, steep turns, radio procedures, (he needs a lot of work there) and cross wind landings. He parked the plane on almost the exact spot he threw up on all those years ago. I think I’ll make a pilot out of him yet.
After my somewhat disappointing start in my quest to obtain the coveted CFI rating I decided to change flight schools and instructors. I found a well recommended instructor to work with but unfortunately he doesn’t have access to an aircraft with retractable landing gear and according to the FAA you have to have that thingy on the plane you use when you take your check ride. That might make some kind of sense to the powers that be but it adds about $1000 to total price tag. Bummer. Luckily the flight school at the airport down the road has an Arrow I can rent so down I went this morning for to get checked out in the mighty Arrow III. The instructor who worked with me happened to be the same one that soloed my daughter Claire (AKA Super Girl) Why don’t I work on getting my CFI rating with this guy you ask? Because he’s not too comfortable in training a CFI in training because he’s never done one before and doesn’t think I’d be well served. I do appreciate who knows his limitations.
The check out went OK. Once again I had more flight time in the aircraft we were using than the instructor but it had been about 20 years since I’d flown one so it was good to go over things again. We started off by going over the pre-flight quiz that I’d had Connor fill out for me. That’s right, I had my son do my homework for me. OK, we did it together. I was teaching him how to look up all kinds of stuff in a pilot’s operating manual. You know, how to start the damn thing and make it fly, stuff like that. Anyway, we went up, we flew around, we landed a few times and when we were done the plane was still flyable. So now I’m cleared to fly the Arrow all by myself. yay!
Yesterday morning dawned cold and clear. The readout on my car’s dashboard read 27 degrees F as I pulled out of my driveway for the long drive to the big city and the flight school I’d chosen to help me get my CFI rating. Another readout said 6:30AM Ugh. But the cold early Sunday morning drive would be worth it. The weather forecast was good and I’d finally get to start the flying part of my flight instructor training. Crappy weather had grounded me for the last week and I’d been getting just a little bit cranky. When I got to the flight school Leslie (my fellow CFI candidate) had already pre-flighted the Piper Arrow (good boy!) and the line boy was pulling it out of the school’s heated hanger, Nice! No lift killing frost to scrape off, a warm cockpit to climb into, and an easy to start warm engine. A good start! Then I met our flight instructor for the day. He wasn’t the chief instructor we’d been working with so far but on of his younger minions who was carrying a flight bag the size of a steamer trunk. I mean really, who flies with that much crap? We weren’t going to fly more than 20 miles from the airport for crying out loud. Then to make matters worse the first thing he did was to put that monster of a bag into the cargo compartment behind the rear seats. I mean if you’re going to fly with that much (apparently vital) equipment at least have it available. Oh well I didn’t care, it was a beautiful morning and I was going flying.
Then the instructor had to go and spoil my good mood by informing us that instead of working on the flight maneuvers we’d need to perform during our upcoming FAA check ride we’d instead spend out two hours of flight time getting us checked out to fly the mighty 200 horsepower Piper ArrowII. Great. Additionally, seeing that there were two of us it was unlikely that we’d finish up with both of us. More great. He then asked if either us had any Arrow time. Leslie had none and I told him that I had logged about 50 hours flying one, leaving out the fact that I’d flown one from the US to Rome, Italy many years ago. Seeing that Leslie would need more work the instructor elected to put him up front first. It was at this point that I should have elected to stay on the ground and spend the time studying for my written test. Instead I climbed into the back of the tiny plane to observe the teaching methods of the instructor. But as we were taxing to the runway I was wondering if I’d made the right choice. I didn’t know the instructor at all and I knew Leslie was relatively inexperienced. There was no reason for me to be taking the risk of flying with two unknown pilots in a small plane. Stupid.
Leslie lived up to my expectations as a new pilot with clumsy radio calls to the tower and a not very smooth takeoff but it wasn’t all that bad so I sat back and observed. The first thing the instructor had him do was steep turns. A pretty basic maneuver where you roll into a 360 degree turn to the left followed by another to the right. You’re supposed to hold a 45 degree bank the entire time and not gain or loose more than 100 feet. Pretty simple. But Leslie struggled. He pitched up , he pitched down, his speed varied all over the place. In his defense he was flying from the right seat for the first time and if you’ve never done it before it’s kind of like writing left handed. I didn’t care that Leslie wasn’t doing perfect, what I did care about was the fact that the instructor wasn’t monitoring our airspeed very closely. I could see the airspeed indicator clearly from the backseat and watched as we got slower and slower. At one point while still in a steep bank we got so slow that the aircraft started buffeting, (a sign of an imminent stall) and I could tell the instructor had no clue. “How do you not feel that?” I wondered. If we stalled while in a steep turn we’d almost surly go into a spin and seeing that we were only 1500 feet above the ground I didn’t have a ton of faith that the two knuckle heads up front would recover before we made a big smoking hole in the ground. I finally had enough and said “Watch your speed!” over the intercom. The instructor was a little shocked at how slow we’d gotten and admonished Leslie about how we were close to getting into an accelerated stall. I held my tongue but thought “isn’t it the instructors job to keep the student from killing us all?” The rest of the flight was kind of like that. Leslie doing a fair to poor job of flying and the instructor doing the same job of instructing. Thank God we were out of time after the last landing because if we weren’t I was going to get out and walk back. It was that bad.
When we got back the instructor told Leslie that he’d need at least one more flight to be fully checked out and seeing that we were out of time that I’d have to come back another time. Great, so I basically wasted my entire morning for nothing. Well, not for nothing. I did at least cross that instructor off my list of pilots I’ll ever fly with again.
As I mentioned last post I’ve taken it upon myself, after much pressure, to pursue my flight instructor rating so as to help eager young fledglings take wing. Or to put it into layman’s terms, scare myself silly as students with no experience and even less common sense try and see just how hard you have to hit a concrete runway to actually put a dent in it. Should be fun. But before I get to do that I first need to pass two extremely difficult written tests and an even more difficult FAA check ride. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the failure rate for pilots taking the check ride for the first time is right around 80%. Wonderful.
So with starry eyed optimism, a spring in my step, eager anticipation, and an almost childlike giddiness, (note, heavy sarcasm alert) I drove the hour and a half to the flight school to the learning. I’ve been paired up with another student who’s also trying to get his CFI rating named Leslie. Leslie is a twenty something young man from Belize, by way of Virginia, who has dreams of leaving the real world and becoming a professional pilot. He’s already secured a position as a flight instructor in Arizona in order to build up the 1500 hours of flight time required to obtain the coveted Airline Transport Pilot license but he first has to pass his check ride. And in order to pass his check ride he has to practice teaching the flight maneuvers, with an instructor, in an airplane, in the sky. And there’s the problem. Because, you see, Leslie has bad luck when it comes to weather. As I mentioned, Leslie is from Belize but lives in Virginia, and apparently there isn’t a suitable flight school in his area so for some reason he’s chosen to come up to the great white north to do his flight training. I don’t know if they have books about different climates where he comes from but it does have a tendency to get a might cold up here during the part of the year we call winter. Oh, and it snows sometimes too. Leslie told me that when he flew up here to get his multi-engine rating the weather was so bad it took him over a month to get it all done and so far he’s been trying to since December to get his CFI rating. Now that’s bad luck, and unfortunately it’s rubbing off on me because out of the last six days we were scheduled to fly together we’ve flown exactly none due to low clouds. Now, when I say low clouds I mean too low for the instructor, not for me. OK, one or two of those days the base of the clouds was under 1000 feet, not real scary but still too low to practice flight maneuvers. But for the last three days, this morning included, the base of the overcast has been 1500-2000 feet with good visibility. Um, doesn’t it say in the regulations that you need a minimum of 1500 feet in order to do aerobatics? And seeing that all we are doing is practicing simple, non-aerobatic maneuvers like turns around a point and S turns along a road couldn’t we, you know, go flying? Apparently not. Too low the instructor said, too scary. Let’s wait for the perfect day, sometime in June maybe. I may be exaggerating a bit on that last part but I’m starting to see why it’s taken so long for Leslie to get his ratings.
Post Update: After thinking about what I wrote about the decisions my flight instructor has made about not flying in what he considers to be “marginal” conditions I fear that I may have come off as just a bit harsh. Professional pilots and instructors have a duty to their passengers and students to make sound and safe go-no go calls that are in the best interests of safety. Just because they are no skill, non-hack, frady cats, who wouldn’t know good weather if it bit them in the………………..Hmmm. I’m not sure this is going in the direction I intended. I should probably take out my frustrations another way, maybe doing something constructive like studying for the written test. Maybe we can fly tomorrow.
This story about the Challenger disaster can be applied to the go, no go decision making process pilots face every time they fly. When your aircraft is in good shape and it’s a bluebird day, no clouds, no weather, and there’s no place in particular you need to go, there’s no pressure. Fly or don’t, who cares? There are no consequences either way. But the decision gets more difficult when not going has serious ramifications, missing a family event, being late for work, costing the client or your employer lots of money, or being stuck for days in some crappy airport while your wife questions your career in aviation. I know, I know, you should never let outside forces influence your safety of flight decision. Well, welcome to the real world, especially when flying small planes over big oceans. If you wait for perfect conditions you’ll never go. Sorry, but it’s the nature of the beast.
30 Years After Explosion, Challenger Engineer Still Blames Himself
Thirty years ago, as the nation mourned the loss of seven astronauts on the space shuttle Challenger, Bob Ebeling was steeped in his own deep grief.
The night before the launch, Ebeling and four other engineers at NASA contractor Morton Thiokol had tried to stop the launch. Their managers and NASA overruled them.
That night, he told his wife, Darlene, “It’s going to blow up.”
When Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, Ebeling and his colleagues sat stunned in a conference room at Thiokol’s headquarters outside Brigham City, Utah. They watched the spacecraft explode on a giant television screen and they knew exactly what had happened.
“I was one of the few that was really close to the situation,” Ebeling recalls. “Had they listened to me and wait[ed] for a weather change, it might have been a completely different outcome.”
We spoke in the same house, kitchen and living room that we spoke in 30 years ago, when Ebeling didn’t want his name used or his voice recorded. He was afraid he would lose his job.
“I think the truth has to come out,” he says about the decision to speak privately then.
“NASA ruled the launch,” he explains. “They had their mind set on going up and proving to the world they were right and they knew what they were doing. But they didn’t.”
A presidential commission found flaws in the space agency’s decision-making process. But it’s still not clear why NASA was so anxious to launch without delay.
The space shuttle program had an ambitious launch schedule that year and NASA wanted to show it could launch regularly and reliably. President Ronald Reagan was also set to deliver the State of the Union address that evening and reportedly planned to tout the Challenger launch.
Whatever the reason, Ebeling says it didn’t justify the risk.
“There was more than enough [NASA officials and Thiokol managers] there to say, ‘Hey, let’s give it another day or two,’ ” Ebeling recalls. “But no one did.”
Ebeling retired soon after Challenger. He suffered deep depression and has never been able to lift the burden of guilt. In 1986, as he watched that haunting image again on a television screen, he said, “I could have done more. I should have done more.”
He says the same thing today, sitting in a big easy chair in the same living room, his eyes watery and his face grave. The data he and his fellow engineers presented, and their persistent and sometimes angry arguments, weren’t enough to sway Thiokol managers and NASA officials. Ebeling concludes he was inadequate. He didn’t argue the data well enough.
A religious man, this is something he has prayed about for the past 30 years.
“I think that was one of the mistakes that God made,” Ebeling says softly. “He shouldn’t have picked me for the job. But next time I talk to him, I’m gonna ask him, ‘Why me. You picked a loser.’ ”
I reminded him of something his late colleague and friend Roger Boisjoly once told me. Boisjoly was the other Thiokol engineer who spoke anonymously with NPR 30 years ago. He came to believe that he and Ebeling and their colleagues did all they could.
“We were talking to the right people,” Boisjoly told me. “We were talking to the people who had the power to stop that launch.”
“Maybe,” Ebeling says with a weak wave as I leave. “Maybe Roger’s right.”