Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Flight Safety = Fuel Safety

Flight Safety (or Flying Safely) is something we read about continually, talk about often and spend a lot of print space discussing. Why? It IS the essence of flying.  Since pilots continue still make (often stupid) safety mistakes, there’s obviously a good reason to keep it talking about it. With almost 23,000 hours, I still have to remind myself that taking the time now to do it right, always results in saving time (and gray hairs) later.
During one of my flights from KSBA to KJAQ for some avionics tweaking, I got to thinking about the benefits of starting any flight with full tanks.  It’s like my friend and CFII Lee Hughes says: “Why not file IFR on every flight?  Using Foreflight (or another flight planning system) it’s simple, quick and if you need it for weather, you’re ready to go. If you don’t need the IFR flight plan, you can cancel or change it to VFR and there’s no need to give ATC all that info about type, color, equipment as they already have it. It’s kind of like money in the bank.
So I got to thinking, having full fuel tanks is kind of like following Lee’s Golden Rule (always file, regardless of weather) and it’s akin to starting the flight with one of the basic flight safety components completed, removing the need to wonder if I have enough fuel to get to my destination?  Fuel in your tanks means having options. Having options means you’ve thought about various factors that may affect your flight (fuel, weather, aircraft performance and pilot readiness) so you’re able to call the shots and be a proactive rather than a reactive pilot.  
We’ve all done it…not filling up when we had the chance, figuring we can “make it” and nothing’s going to come between me and my destination.  But what if it does?  And how will it sound at the NTSB Hearing?  Probably not very good, if you live to talk about it.  So I got to thinking about the things that I consider when I mull over the “to fuel, or not to fuel” question.  (Now that I write about them, some seem pretty darn trivial when it comes to what’s important in the big picture.)
The trip to KJAQ from KSBA takes me about 1:40 in my Baron, so the round trip should be about 3:20. My fuel range, if I started with full tanks and headed into the wild blue would be dry (by book calculations) at about 4:30. But flying for a straight 4+30 (and who’s got that kind of a bladder anyway?) isn’t what we tend to do. We figure 1 leg is about 1 hour, another :45 and then keep totaling them up, forgetting that an endurance table plans for only 1 takeoff and climb, not the several figured here in my hypothetical scenario.
So with those numbers in mind, I might think it was OK not to fuel up for my return trip from KJAQ and just head home when the maintenance mission is completed.  Or, I might plan to fuel up AFTER the maintenance work is completed, since that means 1 less hot start.  Or does it?  If I fuel at the end of the day I’ve got 2 starts and with dusk coming on, it’s likely I’ll be somewhat pushed to get moving.  All of these factors can lead me into the trap of cutting corners also known as Get-Home-It is.
So why was I spending so much time reviewing the pros and cons of fueling or not fueling?  KJAQ has a good self-fueling facility…why not use it when I first get there and avoid all the “late in the day” pressures and be ready to leave when the radio work is done?  For me, the hassle of self-fueling is mostly one of dragging heavy hoses, keeping hose rash off the leading edge and trying not to splash the fuel from the high pressure hose while holding tightly onto the fuel trigger lever, allowing flow fuel but not to splash out of the filler port. But all these issues will exist whether I fuel now or later.  
Hassle or not, I balance them with the “do I have enough fuel to get home” argument and the pressure to push on vs. the serenity and peace of mind that come with beginning every flight with full tanks.  So after another 20 minutes of talking to myself about the pros and cons of fueling or not fueling, I realize there’s no contest…get out your garden gloves to help you grasp the fuel hose firmly and avoid the smell of 100LL on your hands; pull up the ladder to give you a better angle as you grip on the heavy nozzle, and purchase that peace of mind that comes with having full fuel tanks.
Why do pilots stretch fuel?  Laziness, too cheap to buy it at places that cost more than home, or why bother, I’ve got plenty for my planned (key word: planned) flight?  Does it take too much time, too much hassle?  Obviously none of these reasons have any basis when you realize YOUR LIFE DEPENDS ON IT…why would you do anything but play it safe and FILL UP?  
Unless you have a good reason (like weight and balance) to NOT fill your tank and have carefully planned your fuel stops to allow for the unforeseen, it pays to always have that ace in the hole (lots of fuel), ready just in case you encounter the unexpected.  Then you’ve bought yourself that most precious of all commodities…TIME.  Remember that’s all fuel really is…time.  The more, the better…unless, of course, you’re on fire…and how often is that really a concern? 
Most decisions that are made in haste are bad ones.  Having the luxury of time is the wise pilot’s friend.  Time to go around, time to find another airport when your destination has a broken airplane blocking the only runway, or the fog has moved in to cover the field.  Buy yourself some time and figure you’ve just added more frequent flyer miles for that trip to Hawaii.  You can then smile when you find don’t need it, but have acquired 1 less gray hair by not needing to sweat over it.  And the good news…that fuel will be there for the next flight, so nothing’s been wasted.
So after I’ve considered all these various scenarios, I come to the realization that having full tanks for every takeoff is the best of all worlds. Fuel in the tanks relieves a lot of anxiety and IS a major component of flight safety.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Oxygen for Smart Pilots

During the majority of my airline flying career, oxygen was a no-brainer.  The O2 mask (which we checked dutifully before every flight, lest we have an explosive decompression which would soon render us unconscious without it) hung behind my head for 15 years in the MD80 I flew and was stowed in a box outboard of my left knee for my last 10 years in the Boeing 757/767. 
Now, enjoying retirement flying in my B55 Baron, I’ve missed the easy availability of a quick shot of “brightener” as I used to call those whiffs, particularly at night, when the instrument panel seemed a bit fuzzy (through the late hour and long durations at a 7000'+ cabin altitudes).  I’d breathe deeply on the oxygen and then, like magic, the panel would come back into focus, my brain would reengage and life seemed so much brighter.
Now, in my elder years, I recall how important those shots of oxygen were and decided if they helped me that much as a younger full-time professional pilot, just think of what that same oxygen would do for an older, occasional leisure pilot who’s got few of those airliner niceties like stretching room, walking areas, lavatories, etc.  Since I try to fly with the precision of my old airline life, why not give myself a helping hand by using oxygen to fortify my skills which are not nearly as sharp as they used to be?
As I thought long and hard about why more pilots don’t use oxygen (when it does such a great job at making you feel better, fly better and eliminates post-flight headaches) it occurred to me that my old mantra of “make it easy for someone to do what you want them to do” was just what I needed to do for myself. Make it easy to don the nasal cannula, get the oxygen flowing and then, last but not least, see the benefits quickly.
With these thoughts in mind, my primary mission during my first Oshkosh Airventure visit this past summer was to talk to the various nose-hose (as we used to call the O2 masks) vendors, seeking to find a 2-4 place oxygen system that would work well for me:  easy to install, easy to use in flight, easy to refill as needed.  I had begun my research several months before and now I was able to see the various systems and talk to the experts.  I ended up with a Precise Flight OXYpack2 - 2 Person Flow Meter Oxygen System With 15 CU. Ft. Cylinder  which interested me for its light weight, ability to be strapped to the back of the passenger seat and ease of donning and use without interfering with ongoing pilot activities like speaking and eating. 
I found that the mustache-style cannula, which allows the oxygen to be conserved and administered through the measured flow meter, was a snap to put on, even in flight with my headset in place.  I merely removed the cannula from the zip pocket on the outside of the oxygen bottle bag, stuffed it under my headset band and then slipped the cannula tubes into my nostrils, allowing the hose to drape over my headset earpieces, down the back of  my head and then over my right shoulder. 
The best part of my purchase was a small oximeter which could tell me instantly when I needed to start using the oxygen and how much it was helping me when I did.  Normal readings are above 95% while below 90% is considered critical (see some good info at http://www.easyoxygen.com.au/oxyge http://www.easyoxygen.com.au/oxygen-saturation-levels-and-what-do-they-mean/n-saturation-levels-and-what-do-they-mean/).

During my recent trip from KJAQ to KSBA at 7500 feet, I was amazed to find my O2 level was down to 90% after only :10-15 at this altitude.  I donned the nasal cannula, turned the bottle all the way on, adjusted the flowmeter to my altitude and settled comfortably to watch the scenery go by.  About :10 later I checked my O2 level and was pleased to see it back at 96%. I had flown similar routes in the daytime for many years and never realized how impaired I actually was while flying at 7,500’ which is technically not an FAA oxygen-mandated altitude.  Imagine what using oxygen will do for my night flights where it's recommended that oxygen be used above 5000 as it improves night vision, which us oldies-but-goodies can certainly do with more of.   My next night flight should be a real eye-opener…pun intended!
So, do yourself and your flying a favor…since none of us are getting any younger, enhance your flying with some easy assistance by using oxygen more often.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Airport Sleuths: Each and Every One of Us

Over my long and checkered airport-using career, I’ve had many occasions to grumble about the poor state of repair at airports I’ve visited from pavement markings to taxiway signs to wandering loose objects (1 steer, 1 saw horse) on the tarmac. Rather than just complain, I’ve made it a habit to be proactive and DO something about it.
The famous comment by JFK at his inaugural speech in 1961 ( “Ask not what your country can do for you but rather ask what you can do for your country”)  set me to thinking about how we, as vitally interested users of our airports could give something back to that real estate we call an airport which supports our passion for flight.  If you think about it, keeping our airports in good conditions is vitally important to all of us.
My oldest memory goes to my night checkout in July of 1969 with my first instructor, Tom Treadwell, at the Gnoss Field (KDVO). Amazingly, my logbook shows no night flights until after I got my private license, but we did an hour’s worth of practice that night, at the Santa Rosa Air Center (O01) an old Navy base airport with no lights, just moonlight.  Chalk up one good memory of having an experienced instructor on board who knew the terrain, making sure my landing light worked and a bright moon-lit night to keep me oriented.  I quickly began to appreciate the value of runway lights and those who maintained them. 
Several months later, I returned to this airport and while talking to the FBO, we heard a local pilot report something like “teeth on the runway” which made no sense. Asking him to “say again,” we got a better explanation:  “Beef on the hoof!” he yelled, and then followed up with “Cattle on the runway!”  Figuring that the mix of cows and airplanes was a recipe for disaster, we sprang into action, called the Airport Manager who I assume located the cow’s owners for a quick round-up. Remembering the night landings I’d made there a few months before, I’d decided to cool my plans for landing there after dark…moon or no moon.
Later, while running my own weekend ground school, I happened to land at Salina, Kansas one night in my N35 Bonanza, trying to beat the approaching thunderstorm.  My partner, a very experienced pilot, had often barked at me for not landing exactly on the centerline. Tonight I was dead on…and thus avoided disaster.   As we rolled out on runway 35, something flashed by me out the pilot’s window which was scary enough to make me taxi back (the runway was 12,300’ long) to take a better look.  To my horror I saw a wooden saw horse now just 20 feet or so left of centerline, used to block off an adjacent closed taxiway, which had been blown out onto the active runway. Had I done my usual “slightly left of centerline” landing…I’d have hit it with my left wing. I quickly reported it to the FSS (where I actually spent that night sleeping in a large armchair, awaiting the passage of that line of thunder bumpers) who issued a NOTAM on the spot.   That memory has served me well for many years, keeping most all of my touchdowns on the centerline, just in case.
As my airline career progressed, I found myself reporting more and more “hazards to aviating,” many of them noticed while sitting in line waiting for take-off.  SFO was particularly prone to quick growing weeds at the approach end of 1R. The signage for the split that n Taxiway Alpha makes into A1 and A2 was sometimes impossible to see due to the grasses fluttering in the breeze, covering the bank of taxi signs.  LAX was another spot where we’d often be asked to hold short of Sierra while taxiing east on Bravo.  One day I noticed there was no “S” marking on B, but only over on the adjacent Charlie taxiway.  On both occasions I gave ground control a heads up when the frequency chatter calmed down enough to explain the problem.
I often fly to KMRY and occasionally land on 28R.  The subsequent taxi often takes me down the centerfield taxiway and on one trip the tower told me to: “Hold short of taxiway Juliet on Bravo” before crossing 28L.  I was westbound and unfortunately the sign for “Juliet” for not visible to an airplane taxiing West as I was, only for those who were eastbound, assumedly heading for the approach ends of 28L or 28R.  Figuring it was important to know just where I was, I taxied just past the intersection, turned the airplane around in a half circle and looked to see if it was indeed Juliet.  Figuring us little guys should have good signage (since we were probably the only ones who ever came Westbound on that piece of concrete), I called the tower and later the Airport Manager to tell them “Juliet” needed another sign on the Westbound side to assist us in seeing just where we were.
You’ve no doubt got many memories of situations you’ve encountered, and hopefully you’ve called and/or written up your share of NASA reports (now renamed ASRS reports at www.asrs.arc.nasa.gov) when you’ve encountered a dangerous situation. The good news is we now have even more resources to help us report problems at our local airports, including www.airnav.com where you can quickly find out who’s responsible for the maintaince of your favorite landing sites. 
Please help the rest of us and be proactive when it comes to reporting situations that need attention. If it’s an issue that needs help from more than what may be available at your local level,  contact Cal Pilots (www.calpilots.org) with as much information as possible ( who, what, where, and when as well as the contact info – yours and theirs) so we can help make sure that the issue gets proper attention. 
Sleuth on, ye California Aviators…we need your eyes, ears, fingers and voice to make sure our airports are there to enjoy for many years to come.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Safety is a Working Heater (or easily assessible warm clothing!)

I’ve always thought of myself as “flying prepared.”  I’ve got an extra warm jacket, bottled water, blankets and various other types of survival gear in the back of my airplane, plus I’m superstitious about flying in clothing that wouldn’t’ serve me well at a crash site (shorts, sandals, etc.).  

So it was with nary a second thought that I took off one December day for an hour and a half flight from Santa Barbara to Oakland. Climbing up through 5500 feet MSL, I decided that it was time for some heat from my Baron’s nose-mounted Janitrol heater.To fire up the heater (and I mean fire up, as it’s a small gas heater that has its own Hobbs meter to ensure proper inspections are performed in a timely manner),  you first push the cabin air lever “in” half way to be sure there’s air for combustion. Then, switch on the heater so it can mix the air with the fuel and begin its smelly process of warming the cabin.  However, the lever MUST be at least half way pushed in to allow enough air for combustion.  No air, no heat. 

I began the process of turning on the heater by trying to push the air lever all the way in (forward)…and trying to push the air lever…and then realizing that the air lever was stuck and no amount of pushing (either 1-handed, 2-handed or by using my shoe to bang on it) was going to move that frozen lever inwards.   Since that air lever controls the flow of outside air into the cabin, I had been flying  for the past few months with the air lever mostly “off” (pulled out) to regulate the cabin temperature, not needing the heater and preferring instead to just stop the cold air inflow by closing off that infamous lever which was now stuck in the “no air” position.

Fortunately, I had a blanket at hand, but only a thin one that just barely did a sufficient job of keeping my lower extremities warm.  My upper body was now beginning to chill as the OAT plunged toward +5C at 8500 feet.  Thinking about my jacket in the aft baggage, I quickly discarded any thought to trying to get to it and instead put my freezing hands inside the soft lined bag I use to hold my headset. Bagged hands are no substitute for warm gloves, believe me.

I asked ATC for a descent to 4500 MSL as soon as the MEA (minimum enroute altitude) would permit, hoping the temperature would increase as I got to a lower altitude, but no such luck.  It was still around +7C as the cold front was just arriving in the area, turning our balmy weather into a very chilly and windy Friday afternoon.  Landing at OAK, I made a beeline for the FBO where I could park, retrieve my sweater, jacket and gloves to warm up my frozen parts.  

Safety wise, I now realize how much of my time I was spent during the flight worrying about my overly-chilled body.  Thinking back, it’s obvious that the infamous air lever needs to go on my cabin preflight checklist, if only to move it in and out before each flight to ensure it functions properly when I need it. As for warm clothing, having it close at hand, ever if you never use it, is the best insurance possible, to avoid the possibility of an inflight diversion or frost bitten body parts.