Learning the hard way
These events happened. That they happened, and I survived, made me a more sober and thoughtful pilot. In these events, never have I learned so much so quickly. This is my confession.
After reading this, the newly minted pilot might say, “Of course, everyone knows that.” Being polite, they might say below their breath, “Bridge, you call yourself a pilot?” then sling off letters of admonition to the editor. In my jet trainer days, after a 300 mph “formation of four pitch-out to land” or night aerobatics in formation with speeds between 300 and 600 knots, one of my colleagues would remark, “Why, even my grandmother could do this. Maybe not yours, Bridge.” I was never offended, because that toss-off was a way of relieving the stress of the thrills and scares of formation aerobatics. A more seasoned aviator might say, reading these stories, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”
In flying, as they say in recovery programs, “One has to do the work.” A written article may make an impression. Far better for learning is deep and concentrated study. Study plus practice is better yet. Then, there’s experience. One can learn from experience. Sadly, a wise man noted, “That always means bad experience.”
I would like to offer you several learnings of this kind. Hopefully, you won’t have to learn this way, and be wiser without suffering the anxiety, embarrassment, and humiliation I experienced. It took me days to develop the courage and honesty to write these words. With my arrogance and ignorance, I could have contributed myself to the IFR Magazine’s “Stupid Flying Tricks.” Thankfully, I have not. Not being arrogant, I have only had to overcome ignorance: hence, these stories.
In our Air Force flying school class, we had to make one solo night cross country. At 42,000 feet in a jet at 600 kts, the night is very black. The engines are a distant thunder. One feels very alone with the unseen presence.
Coming and going on the one hour, fifteen-minute flight, we crossed two ATC centers and set up for instrument approaches at both ends. We all made it but one. This student pilot decided to bring a sack lunch on the return flight. He was a top student pilot, right? He knew the airplane cold—he thought. He might need a snack; that’s what they do in the airlines, right?
The student lost his radio in flight, made several futile calls while traveling ten miles per minute, forgot to squawk 7600, got flustered with all the clutter in his cockpit, delayed his descent and rushed it at 6,000 feet per minute, got more panicky with fruitless calls on his dead radio, forgot to connect his zero-delay lanyard to his parachute, failed to stabilize his approach, got more behind their airplane, skipped his checklists, lost trust in his eyes on instruments, forgot the “black hole effect” of unpopulated terrain with no features, and flew into the ground at 300 mph.
“Aviate, navigate, communicate,” in that order. Always.
Learn the basics
In our mission of forward air control in the 1970s, we launched target-marking missiles while we were protected by the terrain. “Nap-of-the-earth” flying was routine; more than once, I looked up at the top of a saguaro cactus. We knew the trajectory of the white phosphorus rocket and the distance to the target. Not actually seeing our target, “Kentucky windage” was good enough.
My colleague knew “pop-ups” from his fighter-bomber days. He had some 4,000 hours of military and commercial airline time and was highly experienced in jets. Combat jets do 5 or 6 Gs routinely in their yanking and banking. Our surveillance airplanes were not jets; a 2-G pull was close to the limit with the weight and external pods, the use and abuse of the airplane in the late Vietnam War. In the thin, hot air of the Nevada training area, with rocket pods and a co-pilot, he did a pop-up on a target and aimed directly at his fast-closing target. He pulled three or four Gs, and his airplane entered an accelerated stall very close to the ground. They went down and the world is poorer for it.
The ground school lessons of Weather, Weight & Balance, Density Altitude, and Airframe Limitations always apply. Every airplane has them. Learn and Remember the Basics.
In summer of 2017, my wife and I decided to go back into flying after 35 years away from an airplane. I brought in about 1200 military flying hours from the 1970s and 80s in complex, multi-engine aircraft. Most of my flying was in the severe clear of Southern California; we had joked about canceling a flight if we saw “little wispy things” (clouds) on the horizon. Military pilots in those days knew next to nothing about general aviation flying; it was radar control and IFR flight plans all the way to the desert working areas and back. We were confident and rigorous and ATC knew what to expect.
After 25 hours of flight and two turns through ground school, I got the basic Flight Review. All of this recent time was in a Cessna 172, VFR at 4,000 feet or less in the summer, with no icing in sight. I began the journey of learning the modern electronic flight bag (EFB), communication disciplines, and modern airspace. My eyes were opened to the vast improvements in pilot weather analysis over the decades. I learned that general aviation pilots are real aerial citizens, not just distractions to be avoided as they were in my military days.
We settled on a 1995 Beechcraft Bonanza A36. The airplane speaks to the heart. It had room for two or three passengers for Angel Flights across our state, was fast, and IFR capable. It had avionics in the “six-pack” layout which I knew once upon a time, and a GNS 530W radio/nav equipment. It had a heated pitot tube and prop heat, but was definitely not approved for icing conditions. It had an autopilot, but I had never flown with an autopilot.
I was no longer rusty, but I was still ignorant. I knew “about” Northwest weather, but had always avoided it. Where in the jets we could be in and out of the weather in seconds, a single-engine piston would be socked-in for long, stressful minutes. I knew complex aircraft with controllable propellors, fuel-air mixture, and retractable gear; fortunately, I did not have to learn that from scratch.
I have no excuse for the story that follows, other than, “I didn’t know.” My parents taught me that “ignorance is no excuse.” The story is embarrassing and I don’t want to share it, except that it may bring some benefit to another pilot, budding or returning after a long time away. One more thing: now I have personal minimums branded into my being.
The following occurred in one day in November 2017. The temperature was about 40 degrees at the airport. Ceilings were at 6,000 feet AGL, with a stratus layer extending to an indeterminate 10,000 feet or so. The clouds extended to the mountains to the east and maybe beyond. The morning flight with the transition CFII covered slow flight and stalls, emergency descents, and landings. There was no instrument work and no introduction to the autopilot (not that it would have mattered to my overloaded mind). The A36 is a fairly fast GA airplane, and one has to adapt to this, as well.
The insurance company asked for a cross country of 100 miles; a flight to the Walla Walla Airport would suffice. The CFII examined the weather and planned the flight. She filed for 9,000 feet, right in the middle of the stratus layer. I did not even pause to ask, “What about the icing level?” Some wisp of a memory recalls her saying, “If we encounter ice, we’ll just fly above it. We see it all the time where I work” (a regional Northwest airline). Exactly how much confidence can one place in one’s climb rate in this airplane, even at max power, when the lift is being saddled with ice, with the gross weight of an airplane is increasing, as well? I was in no position to quibble, being on the far side of information saturation. She was an airline pilot and CFII, right?
We fueled and preflighted. Was one prop blade cooler than the others? Was that important? Hmm… Did we pre-brief PIC duties? Did we plan an emergency engine-out on takeoff? My heart grows cold when I think of all this.
As we taxied out, she programmed the flight plan in the GNS 530W, confirmed and activated it. I had not flown IFR for years, and scantily in the RNAV environment in my recent refresher. I could fly basic maneuvers on instruments, but was not at ease with instrument approach procedures. I hardly knew ForeFlight. I remember looking over my shoulder at the disappearing earth, and we were in the clouds at 6,000 feet. I flew east on vapors and trust, heading north of Mt. Hood toward Walla Walla.
In our climb, I had the leaning procedures for the Continental engine down; “Maybe that’s all I needed to know?” I wondered. But no—with us in the clouds at 7,000 or 8,000 feet, just as you predicted, light rime icing began to appear on our wing leading edge. This was “known icing.” Is this normal? I had never seen this before. What’s happening? The pitot heat and prop heat were on. That cool prop blade in preflight began to press on my mind. I looked over at the instructor; not a blink. The CFII asked for higher, and we were given 11,000 feet. If not out of the weather, what then? 12,000? Higher? We reached 11,000 in the clear, and she put on the autopilot. Exactly what that meant, I did not know. I was flying, but definitely not PIC.
I was thinking slowly. I looked down at the gauges, stable at 145 KIAS, 11,000 feet. Remember Mt. Hood? In my stupor, I looked over at it, shining in the glory of an early dusting of snow. Half consciously, I thought, aren’t those lovely, smooth clouds? I’m feeling chilly. My eyes wandered down to the airspeed indicator. Strange: now 180 KIAS, still at 11,000 feet. Uh, fast is good, but how did that happen? I had not touched the power. I said nothing. A minute later, the gauge reported 100 KIAS and falling, still at 11,000 feet.
“What’s happening?” I asked.
Our CFII announced, “Mountain wave.”
“Oh.” Clearly, I was very unclear.
“I want to retake the airplane, to fly it,” I said, as if that would help.
“Why do you want to do that?”
“I am confused. It will help me clear up.”
“OK.” With that, she gave me the airplane, autopilot still on, still holding the airplane straight and level at 11,000 feet. Then, I committed the basic sin of trying to overpower the airplane with the autopilot engaged. After a few minutes of my futile wrestling, she disconnected it, and I could breathe again.
Then, ATC: “N1234, do you have the airport in sight?”
I did not. The land was all new. My laboring mind was sloppy, as in a first drunk. Climbing through 8,000 feet 20 minutes ago, I had become slowly hypoxic, which, of course, you don’t know when you are hypoxic.
“Head 080, the airport is ahead 20 miles. Descend and maintain 5,000 feet. Contact Tower.”
On our landing, the Walla Walla Tower offered, “1234, here’s a phone number for you to call.” I wrote it down, settled the airplane, washed up, and called.
When I told “Joe” at Seattle Center who was calling, he said, “Hey, thanks for calling. We were all huddled around a scope up here wondering where you were going. ‘He’s going this way. No, that way. The airport’s down there.’ You were 20 miles south of your filed course.”
When I told him I was in a new-to-me airplane and had no clue how to fly a flight plan on autopilot and that I had a CFII, he said, “You okay now?” I reassured him, said I would be flying back to Portland and would file a NASA/Aviation Safety Reporting System report the next day.
“OK. Thanks for calling and have a safe flight home.”
The flight back had the same ride over the mountain waves and was slower overall due to the west winds. But no ice. When we arrived back at home, I flew an RNAV approach through the late afternoon clouds and light rain. The airplane landing lights and my night landing skills stood me well. The next day completed the training with manual gear extension and a back course approach into Salem. The CFII signed me off, we shook hands, and we were done.
We went on to some amazing experiences to be shared elsewhere, but all good. For now, my learnings:
- Devise and meditate on your personal minimums. Religiously. Then grow them, modify them with your increasing competence.
- Don’t fly unless you “own the weather.” Start studying it several days in advance of your flight. There is no excuse to fly into known or knowable icing. Anticipate mountain waves.
- Don’t hurry in transition to a new airplane. You will cut corners that you didn’t know were there. Fly at least ten hours in it, VFR. Learn the pre-flight quirks (like prop heat, in my case).
- Carry an oximeter. If your oxygen saturation drops at 8, 10, or 12,000 feet, it still drops. If it ever drops below 95 percent, carry supplemental oxygen for you and your co-pilot, at least.
- Learn and practice your avionics in VMC. Learn your autopilot, or leave it off.
- Hasten to fill out NASA reports: they will absolve you of most sins and misdemeanors.
- Be grateful for Air Traffic Control. They are the finest people you could ever hope to know.