Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Lessons Learned Part 2

The Lower 48

Aerobatic training and cross-country trips taught Patty many valuable lessons, including precision flying, the importance of listening to those with more experience and always leaving yourself an out in deteriorating weather conditions.
Lesson #2: Listen
Someone once told me the definition of a “master” is someone who has been through something before you have. Might sound simple, but why reinvent the wheel? No one could possibly know everything, so ask, listen and learn from those who have gone before you.

Cut Bank Municipal Airport is a favorite fuel stop for Alcan flyers coming from the North. It sits at 3,854 feet MSL and can be pretty hot in midsummer. After getting fuel and clearing customs, I drained fuel from the wings of my airplane. I was a little alarmed—why did the fuel smell so strong? I convinced myself it was because of the heat and Alaska is usually relatively cool. Fuel just didn’t have as strong a smell in cooler weather. I tried to crank the engine, but it was harder than usual to start. A wise older gentleman offered advice. He told me the engine was flooded and patiently explained high-altitude starting procedures. I hadn’t leaned the mixture for the higher elevation.

Lesson #3: Pay Attention
Watch out! Density altitude has been written about in every textbook on flying and discussed at every safety briefing for years. Yet why do some pilots ignore the reality that air gets thinner with heat, humidity and altitude? Density altitude is real; take it seriously.

Lesson learned, and I continued east. Section lines, wheat farms, silos and the way people lived were fascinating to me, and I wanted to fly at lower altitudes so I could see it better. Plus, I was used to cruising at about 800 feet AGL in Alaska. But wow, all those power lines and towers—they were something I hadn’t seen in Alaska! And so I kept a really close eye on my sectional chart for obstructions.

Even though I knew it and could teach it, controlled airspace was still mostly theory to me. At some point, I ended up underneath the approach
path to a military runway. I was pretty clueless until a big jolt woke me up. I caught a glimpse of a military jet crossing over and very close to me. Yikes! Another lesson learned. I now knew what all the fuss about airspace and wake turbulence—my G meter showed 5 G’s—was.

Lesson #4: Confess
We all make mistakes and the airspace maze can be confusing, even to a pro. In the early days, when flying a Pitts on cross-country flights, sans radio or compass, I made other mistakes in the traffic pattern and, on occasion, was asked to “call the Tower after landing.” If you’ve made a simple, unintentional mistake at an airport, be humble and apologetic. The Tower personnel generally will be understanding.

My third overnight took me into Minnesota, and I thought Hibbing looked like a good place to stop, if for no other reason than that Bob Dylan was from there. I decided to stick around town and get in some acro practice. On one flight, I rolled inverted and back upright a couple of times, and everything felt good until another half roll to inverted when the controls felt weird. What the...?

I was able to roll upright and found the ailerons to be free, but the elevator was completely jammed. Luckily, the Decathlon has very good trim authority, and I had practiced and taught people to fly with trim alone so I was able to safely land back at Hibbing using trim only as an elevator. Back on the ground, I got out my pocket knife and took off a control panel in the tail. Voilà! I found a big set of keys tangled up in the elevator controls, where they had been hiding for four days.

Lesson #5: Practice
Learn to fly your airplane with only trim. Aerobatic airplanes don’t have bulkheads to protect the flight controls from loose, foreign objects (FOD), so the risk is much greater for something to get stuck in the tail. (The Extra and many other aerobatic airplanes have a small clear plastic window at the bottom rear part of the fuselage—now you know why.) The incident with the keys getting stuck around the Decathlon’s elevator controls was the first of several control jams I’ve had. I hope it doesn’t happen to you, but are you prepared to fly the aircraft by trim only?


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