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.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Bingo Fuel: You are Always on My Mind

#6 of my series Behind the Cockpit Door

If you’re a pilot, you’ve probably heard the term “Bingo Fuel” but may not know how much it’s “always on my mind.”  The term refers to what concerns all pilots, especially those of us who are rationed or carry other than full tanks of fuel.  Many passengers don’t realize that airlines almost NEVER fill their fuel tanks…they take what they need plus reserves and contingency fuel to get them to their destination.  That way, there’s more weight allowed for passengers and cargo.

Bingo fuel is a number, and a sacred one, that I’d write in the margin of my flight plans to indicate how low the fuel could go before I HAD to land or proceed to the alternate airport. I always had in mind my personal minimum fuel that needed to be on board as the wheels touched down at (hopefully) the destination.  Adding to that how much I needed to get to that touchdown spot from the holding pattern gave me that “bingo fuel” number which was carved in stone during the trip planning stage, when the heat of the battle was nowhere to be seen. The difference between the FOD or fuel over destination, calculated by the dispatcher as he prepared our computerized flight plan, and the bingo number I wrote down was how long we could “hang around” or delay until I felt we HAD to leave holding and head for our landing site.   

One afternoon as we departed LAX for IAH (Houston Intercontinental Airport), a trip of some 1275 nm or approximately 3 hours flying time, that difference really got my attention. We were scheduled to arrive in the IAH area with 18.0 (18,000) lbs of fuel.  My bingo fuel was 9.0 (9,000) and so there was a lots to spare…  Usually we need to add fuel, so having extra meant that something was going on which required a call to the dispatcher.  “What’s up” I inquired as I was glad to have the extra fuel, but wondered what was so bad as to cause him to give us almost an hour and a half of holding time? “Unforecast thunderstorms in the area, moving slowing ENE,” he told me.  Ah, the dreaded afternoon thunder bumpers that were the mainstay of Texas spring and summer weather. 

With that information in hand, I’d still kept my Bingo Fuel at 9.0 (6.0 @ touchdown + 3.0 to get there from holding) and looked carefully at the two alternate airports I’d had in my pocket as escape plans: Austin and San Antonio. Our flight into IAH would pass directly between them, so I had some options for landing spots if the bad weather persisted (as it was known to do) and hung around, possibly closing IAH as a destination.

We entered the holding pattern at 32,000 feet, waiting for the airport to reopen. As we moved down in the stack of airplanes awaiting clearance to proceed to IAH, the chatter became less and less as more airplanes reached their bingo fuel number and left for their alternate airport.  We kept a close eye on the fuel gauges, watching our fuel on board decrease from 18.0 pounds down to 17, 16, 15, now 14. I began to be less certain that we had enough to wait it out. We’d be down to 9.0 shortly and would have to leave the holding pattern and go to our alternate.  Finally, like a cliffhanger mystery, just as we’re about to yell “Uncle!” the controller said “You’re cleared to the IAH airport, descent and maintain 10,000 feet, you’re number 1 for the approach.” What had seemed like an excessive fuel load back in LAX 4 hours earlier had now saved us from an expensive diversion allowing us to be the first in line to land when the airport reopened.