A Dangerous Flight

6am Packing to Box

It is hard to describe how great it was to open this Tupperware bento box at a mile above and a few miles south of Pittsburgh. The challenging times we’ve been through have made me sensitive to the cardboard I am usually willing to shovel in as I cross the country. After four hours of flying those strawberries were mind-altering.

But the bagel is getting ahead of things. (Although since I am ahead of things I should point out that Nell’s banana bread is an excellent breakfast to *start* a long flight on.)

As mentioned on these pages before, one of the books that Adam and I read when we were learning to fly was The Killing Zone. The author had studied the data from many (maybe it was all) aircraft accidents in the NTSB database. He focused on the data about the pilot’s total number of hours and concluded that there was a sweet spot, or a sour spot, for fatal accidents which sat between one hundred hours and three hundred fifty hours. At the time that we read it I think we each had about thirty hours. To me, three hundred fifty seemed impossibly far away. I believed it, though. The general idea that before a hundred hours you were still a student pilot and super focused on not making a mistake, and that after another two hundred fifty after you were a student you would slowly accrue the wisdom necessary to make good, life-saving decisions. We both endeavored to be vigilant during our dangerous two and a half centuries.

But there were some outliers that bothered me. One in particular was a Civil Air Patrol crew (two pilots) in a Cessna 172 on a routine night flight over Las Vegas. Between them the two pilots had over 20,000 hours of flight time. The weather was gorgeous and clear. The plane had the same technologically advanced instrument panel that was in my plane (the Garmin G1000 pair of big screens). They flew directly into a mountain, fifteen feet from the top of the ridge (eerily similar to the Carole Lombard accident). The moving map on the MFD has terrain shading, so when I am in a basin like Las Vegas or Los Angeles, I have it turned on. If you are below a piece of terrain it is shaded bright red.

Whenever I read these reports I am always studying them asking, “How do I know this wouldn’t happen to me?” With that accident, and a few others with high time pilots, I had no idea because I couldn’t figure out how they had made a mistake with so much experience.

Adam looked at more of the data and said that recent time in type probably made more of a difference than the author of The Killing Zone wanted to examine. It made all of the data shades of grey instead of his neat black-and-white “Do Not Relax in This Time Period.” 

And I am certain Adam is right. When I haven’t flown in a couple weeks there are a lot of actions which are no longer automatic. When I was flying the DA40 two hundred hours a year I could drop it from the pattern right onto the numbers at most of the runways in Southern California that I frequented. Frequenting them is the key because you can fly the airplane by the numbers (nailing 85 knots on the approach over the fence, for instance), but at some point you are looking out the window and feeling how the plane is moving in relation to the ground. If I don’t fly for three weeks, my estimates for those situations start to drift too much for me to be comfortable and I go back to strict by-the-numbers flying until I feel good again. 

That’s true for all sorts of things related to a flight. In the single-engine plane there was a time to switch the fuel feed from right tank to left and back again every thirty minutes. It was very automatic if I had been flying a lot, and I relied on the timer I always had running otherwise. 

For almost every flight these little differences are meaningless. There is no danger inherent in missing the tank swap by a few minutes or refusing a “One Romeo Delta, can you make a short approach?” query. The problem would show up if something went wrong. When John Denver died off the shores of Monterey he was in an experimental Cunard-wing plane he had just purchased. His recent time in planes in general had been impinged by his alcohol abuse and his doctor’s insistence that he not fly while he was still struggling with it. He loved to fly. If he had a hundred hours in type in the past ninety days, would the act of swapping the fuel tanks have been fatal? I suspect it wouldn’t have been, even if it did require a pair of pliers. I’m not sure he took off on the fullest tank, which is something you would have checked automatically if you were flying a few times a week.

So, here were are in the few months “after the pandemic.” The map of the entire country was slowly turning from red to orange, getting some yellow and a reassuring amount of green. The plane needed to have its annual inspection completed and my favorite mechanic is in a shop down in Ft. Worth, Texas. (I have hopes that they will send him north to Norwood to get their shop up there in shape.) Eleven hours of flying would get me there, probably with an overnight. The past six weeks I have been tied up with various professional and family obligations, and I hadn’t been out to the airport at all. Even without those distractions, the pandemic meant that instead of my usual almost-two-hundred hours of flying in the year I had only done fifty-five. 

ForeFlight track of the IFR hops

At twenty-seven hundred hours I am far, far out of The Killing Zone. But this is very little time-in-type in the last ninety days. In fact, I had only flown 1.7 hours in the last ninety days by the time I made it back to the plane. In the eyes of the FAA I was not legal for carrying passengers since I hadn’t landed three times in the last ninety days. I had no nighttime or IFR currency. I wouldn’t have wanted to get in a plane with me. But there I was, carefully, carefully pre-flighting the airplane. The line crew came out and checked the air pressure in the tires (low) while I checked the oil (perfect), and drained the tanks of enough fuel to confirm there was no water in them. I wiggled all the control surfaces, checked every screw and bolt I could inspect visually and hopped in. I put a little over an hour hopping from Norwood to South Central State and then to Portsmouth. Decent landings at all, but a particularly nice one on my return to Norwood. 

The next day I did a pseudo-instrument training session. If I were really worried about my instrument skills I would schedule time with an instructor and I’d do an IPC, an Instrument Proficiency Check. Since I can do that in a simulator if I want I might do that in July just to check out the local flight school. The nice thing about doing a bunch of approaches in a simulator is that you aren’t burning any fuel and there’s no time between completing one approach and starting the next. For my little IFR spin I filed and flew from Norwood to Lawrence, then filed and flew from Lawrence to Worcester. I had planned to file and fly from there to Westover (KCEF), but got distracted as I was researching the airport (Massachusetts’ longest runway! my area’s cheapest fuel!) and missed the NOTAM (NOtice To AirMen) that it was closed for the day. But I got to fly the missed approach out of KORH and start the hold, so that was good. (ForeFlight has a new feature where they let you draw a hold anywhere on your route and they will show you the proper entry to it. I’ll be trying that in the near future.)

Norwood, MA

So Tuesday morning at 7:30am found me sitting in trusty N972RD, glad that I had a couple days of flying in and had seen that the machine was as flawless as usual, just the pilot was a little rusty. As usual for a long flight, I had been watching the weather. The first named storm of the season had just killed a few people on the coast of Texas and its remains were sputtering out over the panhandle and parts of the south. There was a front moving across Ohio, reaching down into Pennsylvania, but it was due to skim past the night before my departure. It should be VFR (Visual Flight Rules) for the entire twelve hours of flying (there was a little headwind predicted).

Ah, weather predictions. That’s why I have my instrument rating. The storm stalled out over the Appalachian range, exhausted of most of its energy but still dropping some rain. I *had* flied an instrument flight plan to depart Norwood and get to my first fuel stop (Allegheny County), since there was a little fog bank hovering over the airport. But as I pre-flighted (one more time, never can peek at the bolts too often), the wind blew the fog out to sea, so I departed with a flight following code but no instrument clearance.

Taping for Information

This is how I wind up navigating these large areas of mostly-light precipitation. I have my direct route to my destination, so I know my general desired direction through. ForeFlight downloads the weather constantly from my little ADS-B weather box (the Stratus 2e), and color-codes airports which are reporting their weather. Green means they are VFR, blue means they are nearly VFR, and red (none on this map) means they are IFR, so the clouds or visibility must be pretty low. (There is also a pink for low-IFR, which means the clouds are down below or at the minimus for the instrument approach to the airport. I just ignore those airports entire.) 

When I tap on an airport which is showing its flight category (here I have tapped on Sullivan County International), it tells me the sky conditions over the airport. So I know that about ten minutes ahead of me and a little to the right there are a few clouds at 3,900 above the ground and then an overcast layer at 6,000 feet above the ground. Sullivan is at 1,400 feet above sea level, so I know that if I am flying at 6,500 I should scoot right through in open sky. Which I did.

ADS-B weather and profile view in ForeFlight

ForeFlight has gotten even fancier and has a sectional view of the airspace I am traversing. They showed that there was a twenty minute or so wall of clouds that I was going to have to fly through no matter what altitude I chose. I called up my air traffic controller in Scranton and he gave me an instrument approach clearance to get to my satellite airport outside of Pittsburgh. It was a little complicated for getting to an airport only a few hundred miles away, but I’m sure the computers have a reason for doing that. 

It didn’t matter because fairly quickly the controller understood that I wasn’t that enthusiastic about flying through the rain (it’s noisy and distracting, not dangerous, just a little annoying). So he started vectoring me through the green parts (light precipitation) and avoiding all of the yellow (moderate precipitation). Two Romeo Delta got a little plane wash, I did an hour inside the ping pong ball of IMC, and the controller got to play his video game of “steer the little virtual airplane around these heavier radar returns.” 

Of course, the amazing thing about being inside the remains of the storm, and then getting to exit it, is that feeling of redemption, of release, at the end. In the image from my MFD with the NextRAD image of the storm you can see AVP, the Scranton airport where my controller is, and that he has managed to steer me away from all of the moderate precipitation except for the one last little bit. That was five minutes of slightly heavier than the light rain cleaning the canopy. Then I came out into the area north of Pittsburgh, which was wet from a night of rain, and I got to fly a real instrument approach onto runway two-eight.

After my regulation seventeen minute nap and a well-watched re-fueling of the plane (a charter jet captain talked to me about the diesel engines while we waited for the fuel truck), I was back in the air. I was peckish, but I had peanut M&Ms on approach, so it was not a hunger that distracted me. 

But I was so happy to start eating my grapes, strawberries, and smoked salmon bagel. That was a delight. I had snagged a cup of ice at the FBO and I had my Coke decanted and chilled. 

I climbed above the cloud layer and it took nearly an hour to work through my lunch, between calls to air traffic, changing frequencies, deviating around build-ups, and rearranging my seat area. I had told Nell that I might not make it all the way to Memphis before I stopped for fuel, but I hummed on through the sky. 

Getting into Memphis was exciting because there were a lot of FedEx flights. Just a pile. Going in and out. And KMEM is a large airport. There are three really long parallel runways and then a smaller crossing runway. I asked about using the crossing runway at the end of the airport, since it didn’t intersect the long runways and seemed like it would keep me out of the big airplane traffic. The approach controller said, “When the FedEx planes are launching the tower closes that runway so that FedEx can use it as a taxiway.” Sure, that makes sense, it’s sort of their airport anyway.

As I was approaching the airport a Southwest pilot complained that they had just hit the wake turbulence of the heavy FedEx jet in front of them. The pilot said it was a big enough bump to kick off the autopilot, which for a 737 must be significant. I was watching very carefully what planes I was following to the field.

The FBO was very pleasant and I sat for a little bit trying to figure out the timing of my arrival to Ft. Worth. It was a three hour flight from Memphis. I might be able to press on, but what would it get me? There were no flights out that night, I’d have to get a hotel room near the Dallas-Forth Worth airport (more expensive than Memphis). I was too tired to figure out a real plan, which was a sign that I shouldn’t get back in the plane.

Worse than that, though, was that without my usual companion allow for adventure, I just defaulted to “get me to the nearest hotel as quickly as possible.” That’s not always the best plan, even if it is the cheapest. The best example of Nell’s eye for an alternate plan was in Wichita, Kansas where I would have just gotten the crew car, headed to the Texas Roadhouse, and had yet another burger there, as I have done in the past. Nell poked around a little while I was dealing with the plane and that meant that I got to see the Guardian of the Plains, had a very nice walk along the river, and saw some architecture. A much better lunch stop.

Dinner options at The Comfort Inn

So without Nell I wound up in the Comfort Inn. The elevator was disgusting, complete with debris and a sticky floor. As I said to Nell, “It was so horrible that in the morning it was broken.” Walking down from the third floor was not a problem. I asked about the free breakfast and she said, “It’s just basic, not like we used to have.” I assume she meant pre-pandemic. When I walked down in the morning it was just four containers of yogurt and three toaster pastries. The ‘marketplace’ that was open the night before so you could grab, uh, dinner, was closed. So I couldn’t grab my Coke. Fortunately, the FBO helped me out with a vending machine.

Good morning, Memphis

It was a typical, gorgeous early morning departure (7am) out of Memphis and a three hour flight to Ft. Worth. It was meant to be VFR the whole way, but there was a thin layer of clouds over KFTW and it just wouldn’t blow clear or burn off as I approached. The whole Dallas-Fort-Worth area was *really* busy that morning. Just continuous, rapid-fire controllers. When I told them I would need an approach clearance into Meacham they gave it to me without complaint. I got the Sassie-6 arrival into the airspace and I was in sequence with a bunch of business jets heading to a bunch of different satellite airports around Dallas. The course shows them vectoring me around the northern boundary of the Bravo airspace right up until when they put me on the ILS to Runway 16.

I was happy to finally be on the ground and taxied right to the mechanic’s hangar. In twenty minutes I was in a Lyft to DAL and in a few hours I was on a Delta flight toward home. 

About Colin Summers

I am an architect, programmer, private pilot, husband and father. A couple of those I am good at.
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6 Responses to A Dangerous Flight

  1. Doug Wall says:

    Another great post Colin with some really pretty pictures. Noticed you have Glide Advisor activated in ForeFlight. What best glide speed and ratio are you using? Hope to see more posts soon, I really enjoy reading them.

    • 120 on the glide speed, 14 on the glide ratio. This was after a discussion with my CFII and the argument was made that the plane will *never* lose both engines at the same time.Sure. Probably. But if it does, where could I go? Particularly over water I find it calming to see that amoeba *reach* for the shore.

  2. Chris says:

    It’s great to see another post from you, Colin!

    I have a question for you because I respect your thoughtful safety-consciousness (with the above discussion on currency and proficiency being a wonderful case in point). What is your philosophy on autopilot usage? Specifically, how much? As I think you know, I recently upgraded to an autopilot after hand flying everywhere 100% of the time for the last 2200 hours. I have been proud of my hand-flying ability and hate to see it atrophy. But on the other hand, the autopilot reduces fatigue, removes mechanical (hand flying) distractions to help me think strategically en route around weather, and flies approaches so well that it’s almost like magic. I have been seeking a balance between the computer flying the airplane and hand flying. What is your opinion on this topic?

    • An excellent question. I believe there are a bunch of pilots out there who take a dim view of automation and for them, if they didn’t hand fly it, they didn’t really fly it. I am not in that camp. In fact, I believe you lose your proficiency for managing the automation just as you can lose your proficiency in hand flying the plane.

      So I keep both pretty current. On my IFR hop I had fly from Lawrence to Worcester. The rest was autopilot. When I used to do hops in SoCal to stay current I would do a similar thing. First hop was hand flown, the next was the automation, then I switched back for the flight home.

      I believe that sort of double-currency keeps you safest. And I always did the hand flying when I was alone because I believe that the autopilot is mostly smoother than I am (except in turbulence), so for passengers I keep it on as much as I’m allowed.

      • Chris says:

        Thanks for this. Your commentary is very close to my current thinking, both regarding “double-currency” as well as autopilot use with passengers. Especially for instrument approaches. My developing philosophy there is that I will practice approaches by mixing hand-flown procedures with AP-flown approaches, but for actual approaches in actual IMC (especially with actual passengers on board), I think it is worth defaulting to the AP unless there’s a reason I can’t / shouldn’t.

        Thanks! Good stuff.

  3. Mike Blackburn says:

    Great post Colin -Nice to see you back – 18months since the last post! Keep them coming – really enjoy your writing.

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