Worth the Travel

Pandemic Pilot

In aviation there is an important focus on ADM. Aeronautical Decision Making. It is the way to answer a question like, “Is it safe to fly from Santa Monica to Catalina today?” and “Can I put all this stuff in the plane with these people and fly over there for lunch?” 

A lot of accidents are the result of incorrect decisions. Not all, because there are some random events, but you can trace accidents back and find a chain of events and decisions that lead from “everything looks fine,” to “oh no.” In case you are curious, ADM is not a science and, from my reading, there is a lot of wiggle room. Making a binary decision like go/no-go for a flight is very complex because you are taking a lot of factors into consideration. But having a framework for what things to consider for a decision and a way to work through the information available to you, a way to be rigorous about making the decision makes a huge difference.

I am not a mechanical person. I like engineering, I like design, I understand simple mechanics in physics and some of the basic structural design work that goes into a building. Aircraft are hugely complex. Engines are nightmarishly complex (which is one reason I like electric motors and we’ve been driving fully-electric for over twenty-five years). So the moment there is a screwdriver in my hand, we’re all in trouble. 

I wrote a whole post about my mechanics, lead by David Seastead, who have been working on our plane for over a decade. 

With our first plane it came with a two-years-of-service-included deal. Looking back, that was outrageous. Whenever there was the slightest hiccup or cough I trundled down to the south ramp at Santa Monica’s airport and they rolled it into the shop to take a look at things. If I had been paying for that myself I would have given up after the first year. (We chased an issue with the right-tank fuel sensor that eventually required a Diamond technician to fly out from the factory in Ontario, remove the wing, and replace the sensor. The o-ring on the fuel filler cap had gone bad and rainwater was getting in.)

When the magneto went bad on the first cross-country flight we had it replaced in Albuquerque. As they removed the cowling on the engine they also removed some sort of cover on the nose wheel (I don’t think they had to do that but they hadn’t worked on a DA40 before), and a pile of washers, nuts, and bolts fell onto the hangar floor. They laughed and explained that if you are working on the engine with the bottom half of the cowling on and you drop a washer, that’s where it ends up, so we were looking at a bunch of maintenance work where the fingers working on the heart of the plane were fumbling stuff on a regular basis. When I returned to California I talked to the guy who sold us the plane and we started using a shop the the Long Beach airport for any major service. Eventually that meant that Seastead was the maintenance manager for the plane.

I have had other people work on the plane. I have even had another shop do an annual inspection (two, if you include the one done when I bought the plane). But mostly I am relying on David’s advice, his deep knowledge of Diamond aircraft (including the various different engines that power the Twinstar), and his understanding of my desire to have the plane in nearly perfect shape at all times without driving me out of aviation with the cost.

Eventually the shop in Long Beach was no longer a good fit for Seastead. His skills and experience kept increasing and they were not looking to have a partner in their operation. I see that as a huge loss for them and a managerial mistake. He left. At first he was in a tiny shop in Colorado, which is when I had an annual done elsewhere. I just couldn’t figure out how to get the plane to Colorado and me back to Los Angeles easily enough. But that little shop was not run well and, fortunately, Premier wanted to open a maintenance facility in Texas. So they asked him to open it. I sure hope that he worked out a deal where he is participating in the success of the shop, because he is a goldmine of information about the planes. And he knows how to run a shop.

In the ADM view of this decision, there is a huge weight on the side of “Travel to Texas for Work on the Plane.” Not for an oil change (I recently had one completed at Take Flight Aviation in Orange, NY, they did a fine job), and not to have the reclining seat fixed (done right in Norwood at the shop on the field), but for an annual inspection? I lean toward yes.

I have, of course, tried to convince David that Norwood, Massachusetts would be a great place to bring the family and raise the kids. That’s sort of a hard sell when they were enjoying the paradise of Southern California, the beauty of Colorado, and then the expanse of Texas. “Your son will learn to shovel snow!” is not the selling point you might think it is. I am pretty sure that the shop rates in Texas are a little less than those in New England. I try not to look too closely at the ledger for the aviation costs, except once a year when we make the determination: can we afford to have an airplane? Watching your costs can sometimes mean that you make maintenance decisions based on cost, and I think that can lead to deadly mistakes. But I still think it is less expensive to do two weeks worth of work in Texas than New England.

The plane needs to move. In the DA40 we were flying about two hundred hours per year. With the new plane we are flying about 170 hours per year, which means we are covering nearly the same miles, just a little faster. I suppose in an ideal world the plane would always be in just the place we need it to be and we would only pay for the hour or two that we needed it for a particular flight. We flew this past summer from Norwood, MA down to Montauk, NY for both a visit to friends and for Nell to make a business meeting. Less than two hours of flight. But for that to be a safe flight the plane needed to have flown in the last two weeks and it needed to be at the Norwood airport for us to use. It would be no good if it were back in Friday Harbor, WA, where we had last used it for a little social flight over to a neighboring island. 

And the pilot needs to fly. If I haven’t flow in the past three weeks I do not feel safe taking up passengers. So I get out to the airport and do some meaningless flight off to Marthas Vineyard for lunch or something like that. Out of nearly two hundred hours of flying perhaps ten to twenty percent are the flights that we really care about, the ones that make the year better. Lately I have been shuttling Dexter back and forth from Cambridge to Ottawa. It’s not that I can’t do that in a car (I have driven it three times now), but it is eight hours of driving and it is two hours of flying.

If Seastead and his team were at Norwood would I find another way to fly twenty or so additional hours in the year? I like to think I would. As a solo flight, it is safer; it is just putting one person (me) at risk. But those hours make all the rest of the flights in the plane less of a risk. When I was in Santa Monica and the shop was only a fifteen minute flight away, I did Angel Flights as often as I could. And I used any excuse to get in the plane and fly somewhere (up to lunch in Camarillo, out to Catalina for the hike, a visit up to the Bay area). The flight hours are important and they are what make me comfortable jumping in the plane for a short hop somewhere when Nell says, “A friend is out on Nantucket…”

And it is important to find the time to wander.

It was a very easy decision in May 2020. We had been trapped on the east coast by the pandemic. I needed to get back to Santa Monica to see Rudy and check in on everything there. The plane needed to have its annual inspection completed before the end of the month, and ultimately I knew that I would feel better if we had the plane on the east coast. So I masked up, suited up (hoodie, sweatpants), had on a face shield, and treated the entire trip as six hours moving through a hot zone laboratory. I survived the trip to Los Angeles and I was so happy to get out of my get-up when I got to the apartment. After a couple days getting to see Rudy and others (distanced), I departed for Fort Worth. 

Weather was not as forecast and instead of going directly I had to maneuver around some thunderstorms. While it may seem like my route was being dictated by weather (it was), the flight from Tucson into Ft. Worth was so exciting. Constant entertainment from the views, the discussion on frequency about various options for avoiding the storms, and the excitement of watching the ETA change on the flight plan. It was rarely bumpy at all, and I think my diversion might have cost me fifteen minutes or so. The most relaxed I was during the entire trip was when I was sitting in the plane. Whenever I was on the ground I was super aware that we knew nothing about this virus, we had no treatment, no vaccine, and it was just scary. After dropping the plane with David I suited back up and got a ride to the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport for my flight back to Logan.

On my return things were just as tense. I picked up the plane and was comfortable enough to be without a mask when I was outdoors and more than ten feet from people, but it was still rather apocalyptic out there. On the return flight to Norwood I stopped in Cleveland for the night. There was a huge parking lot full of cars. The driver taking me to my Holiday Inn Express said, “That’s all the rental cars. They haven’t moved for months. I don’t know what those companies are going to do.” After a fitful night there, I flew on to Rutland, Vermont and popped down to see my parents in Manchester. I was the first person to come down their driveway in three months.

That was a tough one, with a lot of anxiety about the virus. But it was definitely the best way to get the plane east while getting the annual inspection completed. A lot of solo hours in the plane, but afterwards I was definitely a better and sharper pilot. In June of 2021, with two doses of the Pfizer vaccine in me, I repeated the process from the east coast. I flew the plane down (overnight stop at Memphis in a horrible airport hotel), and took a commercial flight home. And then I returned on a commercial flight, spent the night in a hotel (they had a power outage just before I arrived), and flew all the way home in a day. The approach into Norwood was to minimums, sharpening my instrument flying skills. Totally worth it, got the plane ready to bring Dexter to Friday Harbor for the summer.

That brings us to this April. It is not yet time for the annual inspection. But with a larger project looming that we wanted to do separate from the annual inspection, I studied all of these factors and it all added up to the same thing: it was a good time to head halfway across the country to the shop. I am not sure what I will do about the annual inspection in July. My hope is that all of the usual squawks have been taken care of, so it will be my fastest (and therefore least expensive) annual to date on the plane. But will it be worth bringing the plane back to Fort Worth to have the inspection done? That’s a go/no-go that I cannot decide looking that far into the future.

(This four-legged flight is described in a separate blog post.)

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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