Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, October 21, 2008

True Confessions

NASA reports are good for your certificate, as well as the air safety system

If aviation in the United States was a religion, its confessional would be the Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS). Pilots, air traffic controllers and other people involved in aviation are encouraged to send reports to ASRS when they’re involved in, or observe, a situation in which aviation safety might have been compromised. These reports are often called NASA reports because they’re submitted to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
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Caps Off!
In Scottsdale, Ariz., in May 2006, a flight instructor and two flight-instructor candidates decided to top off a Piper PA28 Cherokee so they wouldn’t have to refuel later at another airport. In his report, the instructor explained that “subconsciously, in an effort to save time, I believe I left the fuel caps partially open, in the expectation that the fuel truck would shortly arrive.” The instructor was distracted by a discussion, and he decided to depart without the extra fuel because 30 minutes had elapsed since the truck had been called.

Shortly after takeoff, an instructor candidate in the back noted that a fuel cap wasn’t secure. The pilot returned to the airport; both fuel caps fell off as the plane entered the traffic pattern. The instructor filed a report because of his concern that when the fuel caps fell, “they would have developed significant energy by the time they reached the surface [and] the airport is located in a densely populated area.”

More often, loose fuel caps create another problem. After conversing with another pilot while refueling his Cessna 180 Skywagon in July 2007, a pilot reported that he failed to adequately secure the fuel caps. Two hours and 22 minutes into his subsequent flight, the engine quit. After a safe, three-point landing in a hard-packed cucumber field, he discovered that the left fuel cap was off and fuel had siphoned out.

If you accidentally clip restricted airspace, should you submit a NASA report?
Who’s In Control?
You needn’t be the strongest pilot aboard an aircraft to be pilot in command, but if you don’t have roles clearly spelled out in advance, it may work out that way.

In February 2005, a prospective buyer wanted to fly a Grumman Cheetah to his mechanic for a prepurchase inspection. The owner “allowed him to fly as pilot in command if I flew with him to assist.” On departure from the owner’s airport, the buyer became disoriented and began a turn in the wrong direction. Later, at the nontowered destination, he entered a downwind for the north runway but announced on the radio that he was downwind for the south runway. The owner corrected the buyer both times.

The buyer’s first approach was too fast and too high; he went around. On his next approach, the airspeed fluctuated by as much as 15 knots and the aircraft came within five knots of a stall, according to the owner’s report. When the buyer started to pull back on the yoke to avoid landing short, the owner told him to add power. The buyer then ballooned over the numbers, lost control of the airplane and drifted to a grassy area to the side of the runway.

The owner told the buyer to go around. When the buyer didn’t respond, the owner added full power and grabbed the controls. The buyer, who was stronger, grabbed the controls back and turned the ignition off. The engine quit, the airplane settled and they slowed to a stop in shrubs (with no injuries). The owner conceded that they should have discussed the positive exchange of controls and handling of possible outcomes before the flight.

In August 2005, an instructor and student doing pattern work at an airport began to enter clouds. The instructor tried to take control of the Cessna 172 to level off, telling the student three times that she had the airplane. Her larger, stronger student apparently froze on the controls; by the time the instructor “wrestled” the plane from him, they “were deep into solid IMC.” The instructor climbed to avoid terrain and obstructions, and radioed the tower to report the situation and request vectors. The instructor was able to land safely at the home airport. In the future, the instructor reported, students will be made to understand, “when I say I have the aircraft, it means they must let go.”

Turn On, Tune In & Look Out!
A radio isn’t required at nontowered airports, but it can be a great safety accessory when used properly. A careful scan outside the cockpit, however, is always essential when conditions permit.

In August 2007, the pilot of a Piper PA38 Tomahawk returned to a nontowered airport in Tracy, Calif., after takeoff to search for an unidentified item believed to have been left behind. After landing, the pilot realized he was sitting on the “lost” item. The engine was restarted and the pretakeoff checklist was run again. The pilot announced a departure on runway 30, rolled onto the runway and accelerated for takeoff. Just after the Tomahawk rotated, a Cessna taking off on runway 7 passed in front from left to right. During the climb out, it was discovered that the Tomahawk’s radio wasn’t on.

This event was attributed to “being sloppy and hurried in going through the prestart checklist. The ‘lost item’ got me out of synch, having to turn around and land again,” the pilot reported. His flying had mostly been in airplanes where the radios were left on and canceled by the master switch. This was his third flight in the Tomahawk, where the radios were a separate checklist item, he noted.

In April 2007, a Cessna 172 departed Melbourne International Airport in Florida with the radio on. Its ATP/CFI-qualified pilot later decided to make some practice landings at Merritt Island, a nontowered airport. He had checked the NOTAMs for Melbourne before the flight, but not for Merritt Island. Unfortunately, the Merritt Island radio frequency had changed since the most recent printing of the local aeronautical chart. The 172 pilot made calls in the pattern on downwind, base and final—all on the wrong frequency—before landing on runway 29. Only then was a Cessna 152 observed rolling out in the opposite direction. Both aircraft moved to the right and passed each other near the 3,601-foot runway’s midpoint. The 152 pilot said he didn’t see the 172 until after touchdown because he was practicing an emergency landing.

If you file an ASRS report because you made a mistake, odds are you’ll know what it is you need to do to keep from repeating the unsafe event. So do it, and accept the gratitude of those of us who may learn from your “true confessions,” just as you may learn from ours.


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