I attended an FAA safety seminar last weekend about engine failures, and it has me thinking about my personal experiences.
I experienced my only engine failure to date shortly after a night takeoff, which in my opinion is the absolute the worst time to lose confidence in your engine.
I was a relatively new student pilot and still several months away from my checkride. My instructor and I had just departed on a night cross-country flight. I was at the controls, climbing out of 1,500 feet AGL just a few miles from the airport when the engine stuttered. My instructor didn’t notice the engine’s hesitation. My attention went to the tachometer. It slid downward a second time. The plane pulled. This time she noticed. I was keenly aware that we were engulfed in a black, night sky. A highway below contained considerable traffic so wasn’t an option. If we had to put the plane down into the blackness, there would be no telling where we’d end up. There was no way to know what was inside that abyss –– farm equipment, livestock, fences, water. All were dismal landing environments.
It’s been a long, hot summer here in Austin. We’ve had more than 50 days of temperatures hitting 100 degrees or higher. As I’m not particularly fond of flying in excessive heat, I grounded myself for much of the summer. But today’s high of (only) 90+ degrees seemed like a good time to go flying and reset my currency in preparation for the upcoming cooler flying season.
After a methodical preflight, however, I did one final check of Foreflight radar just before starting the engine and was dismayed to see brand new thunderstorm cells popping up throughout the area. These new cells were tracking directly toward my planned route.
It would have been easy to go. It’s easy to feel pressured to make a go decision after so much time has been invested in the flight. I certainly felt that mental tug toward a poor decision today. I found myself trying to justify a go decision. Maybe I could beat the storms? Or I could route between them? Both were poor decisions, I concluded, and I started the humbling process of shutting down the airplane, packing my headset and sectional chart and securing the plane before driving home.
I’m grateful for the instructors over the years who stressed to me the importance of always being willing to walk away from a flight. One mental trick I use is to assume the flight will be a no-go all the way up to the completion of the Before Takeoff checklist. This way, both the airplane and the conditions need to convince me of their airworthiness. NTSB accident and incident reports are full of pilots who became too invested in their flight and continued on into poor weather or with unairworthy equipment. Mature pilots will resist that powerful temptation to fly when conditions or aircraft tell them to go home.
I’ve been flying more to build time and prepare for instrument training. This week we flew to Llano and met some guys who were waiting as a mechanic replaced a magneto on their Maule. We also met Larry Snyder of the Ercoupe Owners Club, who had flown in from Arkansas for lunch. After a stop in Fredericksburg, we headed back to Austin and encountered some moderate turbulence west of the city, resulting in a PIREP. Foreflight continues to be an amazing tool for managing flight plans and other details.
August is a great time to leave Texas. For pilots especially, summer presents unique challenges. High temperatures and humidity contribute to bumpier, often less enjoyable flights. These conditions also diminish aircraft performance, resulting in longer takeoff and landing distances and reduced fuel efficiency.
Of course, these issues aren’t particularly difficult to deal with. Perhaps the hardest part for me is the time spent on a smoldering airport tarmac for pre- and post-flight operations.
In Austin especially, the months of August and September are not kind to Midwesterners.
For these reasons I was anxious to escape with Lauren to California. Sonoma County is a good destination for anyone seeking chilled air. We decide that before setting out on a fast and furious tour of areas wineries, we’ll kick-off the trip by logging some local flight time in Napa. It would be our first experience in flying out-of-state since I earned my pilot certificate in 2012. Continue reading “Flying Sonoma and Napa Valleys”