Monday, July 02, 2007

The problem with learning from experience is the test comes before the lesson.

Insurance companies rule the aviation industry. As an example, in the 12 years I've had a pilot’s license, I've not had an accident resulting in any damage -- knock on wood. Admittedly I've had one declared emergency, and one near miss (and why is it a near miss? I was nearly hit!). I have accumulated an instrument rating, a complex endorsement, a high performance endorsement, spin training, advanced maneuvering and upset recovery training, a commercial license, and a multi-engine license, and am most of the way through my instructor license. I have also accumulated over 600 hours of flight time.

My commercial license allows me to charge people for rides in the plane. To get this license, I must have completed 250 hours of flight time. But the insurance company requires that I have 500, or double that amount of time, to be insurable. To get a multi-engine license (ME), I must have been trained by a federally certified instructor, and get his or her approval to sit for the test. Then I must be orally reviewed by a federally designated examiner. Once that is complete, I must also fly with the examiner so he can review my ability to operate the aircraft systems, under duress. With his or her approval I can have my multi-engine license. But then the insurance requires I fly the plane for an additional 8 hours with an instructor before I can fly it alone. To act as a co-pilot of a multi-engine charter flight, the insurance company requires 1,200 hours of time!

This is where today’s story starts. I have had my ME for a bit less than a year, and I simply have not made the time to acquire the time required to satisfy the insurance company, so Sunday morning I made plans to go bore some holes in the sky. I met my instructor with his favorite white chocolate mocha at the airport.

I prepped the flight school's Piper Seneca and we climbed aboard. We marked things off the check list in preparation for take off, and ran the plane down the runway to the south. After lift-off we climbed clear of the runway, retracted the gear, set the plane to climb at 120 mph, and performed the climb-out checklist. I turned right continued my climb on the crosswind leg, and exited the pattern toward the opposite side of the Puget Sound. Upon reaching 3,000 feet, I pulled the power back to 23 inches of manifold pressure and slowed the propellers down to 2,300 rpm. This is a good setting for cruise. The nose lowered towards the horizon and the plane accelerated up to about 150 mph, and I pointed the plane towards Port Townsend.

The nacelles that enclose the Seneca's engines open from either side and hinge in the middle. This allows for excellent access to the engines during preflight. However, the latches that hold the panels closed are notoriously finicky. As a final step after securing these latches, most pilots give the panels a good firm pat to make sure the are really latched. As the plane settled into cruise I had completed the cruise check list, closing the cowl flaps and turning off the fuel boost pumps. As an additional step, I scanned outside the airplane, with particular attention on the nacelle panels.

To no great surprise, the outer panel on the left engine appeared to have come open. But it was oddly opened. The front corner along the center hinge, nearest the propeller was open about two inches. As I looked at it, aside from being open, it seemed open wrong. And for a fleeting moment I wondered how, at 150 mph 3,000 feet above the waters of the Puget Sound, could it possibly be opened right? Being a master of the obvious, I pointed to the engine and said to my instructor, "That doesn't look good."

We quickly agreed that going back to the airport was the right thing to do. I banked the plane into a 180 degree turn, and contacted the tower. "Paine Tower, Seneca one six two niner two, we are returning to the airport for a full-stop landing," I said in my best pilot-in-command-radio-voice.

The controller in the tower responded "Seneca one six two niner two, make right base for runway one six right, report the ferry dock. Do you require assistance?"

Wow, "assistance." I didn't think I sounded stressed, how did he know? My instructor was urging me to slow the airplane down to 105 mph to reduce the aerodynamic forces on the panel that were clawing to peel the gap wider. I keyed the microphone and said "We’re doing OK." I was impressed with the controller. He had several other planes he was working, and we had just departed his airspace. But at hearing we were coming back, he rightly guessed that something unusual was occurring, and offered extra assistance. I briefly considered asking for runway one-one, which was straight ahead, but decided no, since the controller had several planes in motion, and my clearance was already in place. I didn't want to throw any curves in to the process as long as things were flowing. Plus runway one-six-right is twice as long.

The next plane to report in was north of me, or to my left, and requested to land on runway one-one, straight in front of me. Since I was headed to the left to join the right base leg, to allow new plane to land on one-one meant he would have to pass in front of me from left to right while I turned to the left behind him. The controller, still sensing something was amiss, refused the new request and assigned the new airplane to land on runway one-six-right with land and hold short instructions, thus preventing the other plane from passing in-front of my path. The controller then turned his attention back to me, gave me the current wind conditions as three-zero-zero at eight, and offered me a straight in approach to runway one-one, a much simpler path for me to fly.

With the winds coming 300 degrees, and me landing on a runway heading of 110 degrees, that meant they winds were blowing from nearly directly behind me, just off my left side. At 8 knots they were below my personal 10 knot tailwind landing limit. So I accepted the clearance.

We landed and turned off the runway into Regal’s parking area where we secured the plane’s engines and examined the open panel. Much to our surprise the finicky latches were still secure. But the forward hinge on the panel had failed and all left holding the front corner of the access panel down was a grounding strap. At this discovery my instructor and I agreed we were done flying for the day.

Even though I only got to log .5 hours of flying, I was once again struck by the lessons of the day. First was the ingenuity of the Piper engineers. The grounding strap could have been installed anywhere along the center-line of the cowl, but by placing it on the front of the panel, when the hinge failed, the grounding strap acted as a backup to hold against the 150mph wind. If the rear hinge had failed, no strap would have been necessary as the wind would have been pressing the trailing edge of the panel down. Second I was impressed again by the situational awareness demonstrated by the Paine Tower controllers. He knew something was up, and cleared a straight path for me without me even asking, all the while presenting me with current information that would aid me in making a decision. Third, I was impressed by the importance of knowing the equipment. There are a lot of things going on in the airplane, and the checklist is there to help us. It is important to run the checklist to keep track of all those things, but it is also important to know your equipment. Knowing to the latches are finicky, led me to visually verify them in cruise, and that resulted in me seeing the related failure.

Never let the plane take you anywhere your head has not already been.
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