Sunday, August 28, 2005

Why I Fly (chapter 7)

After getting my pilot's license, I wanted to take my family on outings and vacation in the plane. We did get to take one trip down to Lincoln City OR, but shortly after that, our third child arrived.

That meant Sandra, and our kids, and I would not fit in a four-place airplane. I called all over the Puget Sound trying to find a rental with more than four seats. At the time all of six-place planes were multi-engine and I did not have a multi-engine rating (I still don't). And even if I did, the insurance companies would not cover me as I had very little experience. So when we got the plane back in the late 90's, one of my reasons for getting a six-place plane was to be able to use it for family trips.

We've made several hops in the plane, but never a big trip. Finally this summer we got the opportunity, Sandra and I wanted to take a bit of family vacation in Colorado Springs. This was my chance to turn a long drive into a couple of short flights.

From where we live it is about nine hours of flying to get to Colorado Springs. We decided to fly the trip in three legs of three hours each. With no in-flight restroom in the back of the plane, we figured this would be a reasonable duration, and it allowed me to land the plane with plenty of fuel reserve. So the first leg would get us to Nampa ID, the second would get us to Rock Springs WY, and the third would take us to our destination. We further decided to split the trip into two days. Six hours the first day, and then one easy hop the second so we would arrive fairly refreshed.

We took off out about 8:00 am on Saturday, and landed in Nampa and had a very nice lunch with Di and Colby, some friends who used to live in the Seattle area. After refueling us and the airplane we took off and headed for Wyoming. If you have never flown across Southern Idaho and Wyoming in the summer in a small plane, I will strongly recommend against it. This was the most persistently turbulent fight I have ever taken.

About 45 minutes out of Nampa the bouncing around started. Our path took us over Bear Lake. As we neared it became apparent that three hours was too long between restroom breaks. And too long between bouncy ride breaks. So I pointed the plane down hill and landed. The six of us piled out of the plane and headed for the restroom.

The airport "terminal" at Bear Lake consisted of what appeared to be a double wide where the airport manager lives that had been remodeled to section off a small eight by ten room and one restroom – adequate for making a phone call and relieving any physiological strains. Outside the winter spring freeze-thaw cycle had not been kind to the blacktop that covered the ramp. The airport manager had been attempting to patch the crumbling surface with a batch of concrete. These areas had the meagerest of markings to prevent them from being walked on
one had only a sawhorse set over the top. To our four-year, this meant nothing. Having been separated from age four by many scores of years, the airport manager did not grasp the deficiency of his markings. So instead he took to scolding a forty-pound girl for walking on his freshly dried concrete. Yo, get a grip.

After a short break and some belch-inducing sodas to calm my passengers we were back in the air for the last bit of trip to Rock Springs.

Rock Springs in the 1980’s had a reputation for being the most corrupt city in the US. Our friend from Nampa tells of having played in a band that played Rock Springs. Their first night in town all of their equipment was stolen. Upon our arrival a very kind fireman named Brian greeted us. The firemen at Rock Springs do double duty as line-men, refueling airplanes. Brian was out to our plane as soon as the propeller stopped turning to welcomed us.

The Best Western Outlaw Inn sent a mini-van out the 7 miles to pick us up. Brian directed the van driver, Shawn, out to our plane to help us transfer our luggage. Suffice it to say we got exceptional treatment in the once troubled Rock Springs. Our room was just outside the pool, which gave Sandra and the kids an opportunity to get some extercise after a day of sitting. Meanwhile I reviewed the flight plan for the next morning.

When flying IFR, airways are given Minimum Enroute Altitudes or MEAs. These MEAs provide two things, at least 2,000 feet of clearance above any obstacle within four miles of the airway, and line of sight radio navigation reception. In Wyoming amidst the Rocky Mountains, the lowest of these airway MEAs is 10,000 feet. Since eastbound aircraft are to fly at odd-thousand altitudes this would put my plane at 11,000 feet. There were several other airways that would have shortened our trip but each would have put the plane and passengers above altitudes at which they operate well. So I selected airways that would keep my plane, it's passengers, and the pilot (me!) comfortable.

Wanting to arrive in Colorado Springs before the seasonal afternoon thunderstorms, we got an early start. As we were climbing up to our assigned altitude we were given a new routing by the controllers. Along with this routing, we were also assigned a new 13,000-foot cruise altitude. According to the FAA, flying above 12,500 feet for more than 30 minutes requires oxygen, and I had none. I began to negotiate with the controllers to avoid the oxygen thin altitudes.

I worked out a deal with the controllers that would put me just 500 feet higher than planned, so I continued my climb to my new assigned altitude of 11,500 feet. By now we were climbing over a thin overcast layer of clouds.

Around 10,500 feet, there was an abrupt and loud BANG. The plane seemed to lurch to the side, the engine coughed and sputtered, and then returned to normal operation.

I quickly scanned the instrument panel looking for something that would indicate our condition and what had just occurred. Airspeed 90mph, altitude 10,500 and climbing, heading fine, manifold pressure fine, RPM fine – all indications were that the plane was generating plenty of thrust to continue the flight. I looked outside the airplane to identify a suitable spot to land the plane if things got worse; the clouds below greeted my search. I knew from my flight planning that below them lie the freeway. That would work.

My scan continued, oil pressure in the green arc, oil temperature in the green, cylinder head temperature in the green, both tanks still full of fuel, fuel flow in the green arc. And then I saw it. Blinking on the left side of the panel was the warning "BATTERY 11.9" and then confirmed against the amp meter indicating a discharge. My alternator had stopped generating power.

I radioed the controller, advised him of our situation, and requested priority handling to the nearest airport – Rock Springs, 20 miles behind us. We were given an immediate left turn back direct to the airport, and a descent down to 10,000 feet. The controller clarified our situation, yes we were no longer generating electricity, and I risked losing radio contact with the controller. I tuned my handheld back-up to the controller’s frequency, and advised the controller that in the event of total electrical loss, I would be switching to my handheld, and that I may be off frequency for a moment while I switched. The controller responded in a way to indicate he was glad I had a back-up radio. I began to turn off electrical systems I would not need to preserve my battery. Pitot heat off, com radio 2 off, nav radio 2 off, lights off, beacon off. By the time I was done, only the Garmin 430, turn and bank indicator, and intercom were drawing power.

During this process of shutting things off, I was also thinking through scenarios that could have occurred. Clearly the alternator was no longer working and the initial bang indicated something had broken under the cowl. Was it as simple as a belt? Could the alternator have come apart? Could the drive pulley separated from the crankshaft? Was there any side-effect damage caused by what ever broke? I began a regular rescan of the instruments in an attempt to detect any changes that would indicate there was more damage than I initially isolated.

I put Sandra and kids on the intercom to explain to them what was going on. Each had several questions; first on the list was "Will we die?"

Not if I can help it. I will do everything within my power to keep us safe.

"Will the engine stop?"

I don’t think so, it uses magnitos to make the spark-plugs fire so it does not need the battery.

"What happens if we run out of electricity?"

I have to change radios.

"Will we make it back to the airport?"

I’m pretty sure we will, but if not, there is a lot of freeway and empty road below us we can land on.

The controller asked if I would like to declare and emergency. Oh boy. Is this an emergency? What if everything is ok? Should I declare one? What if it was a catastrophic failure and I’m only seeing the beginning of the trouble. If I say, "No" do I lose special assistance? If I say, "Yes" is there extra paperwork? If I say, "No" is it true the controller will do it for me any way?

I settled on "Yes" just in case. The controller asked "How many souls on board." What? Souls? Like live people? I don’t often fly with dead ones.

I responded "Six." Ahead I could see the airport and I started my descent for the traffic pattern. The wind was coming from behind me, so it made most sense to enter the pattern downwind and make the 180-degree turn landing into the wind. As I came up abeam the end of the runway, another plane started its take off roll. At first I thought it was odd that the pilot would take off in front of a landing plane that had declared an emergency, but as I thought about it I realized that if I did land short of the runway, there would be an air-born spotter that could quickly help locate us. It seemed like a good idea to have an extra set of eyes.

We turned into the wind and landed without event. From the ground, my radio no longer had line-of-sight range to the controller, so I relayed through a passing United Airlines flight to advise the controller I was on the ground.

It turned out our problem was as simple as a failed alternator belt. However a Sunday in Wyoming is not the day to attempt to find an airplane mechanic or an airplane belt – they don’t sell those at NAPA.

Rather than arriving in Colorado Springs late Sunday morning, it took until Monday evening to find parts, get the plane fixed, and make the final flight in.

Time to spare? Go by air.
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