Monday, December 23, 2013

I only write when I don't fly!

Since my last post, I've flown a good amount.  I did some IFR training, a couple of trips to San Luis Obispo, an intense IFR flight and approach (more below), and even a lesson in a powered hang glider (or, a "trike") in Hawaii!

I now have over 40 hours in the T210, and truth be told, I'm still not feeling altogether comfortable with it. I don't have a good enough handle on aircraft systems or emergency procedures. While the procedures to slow down and not shock-cool the engine are second nature, I still struggle to find the appropriate mixture. And now we have GAMI injectors, I should probably be trying to run lean of peak, but haven't had the brain space to take that on in the air.

Today, I was going to go try to get better at VOR tracking - in my last flight to JAQ and back, I realized how bad my technique had become, and with a little work, got quite a bit better in flight. I think two flights focusing on just that would be a most useful exercise, so I thought I could go do the SNS VOR 13 (it's bright VMC today, and I wouldn't have been foggled), fly a missed with a hold at MARNA, and then track my way over to PXN, and see if I could find KLSN by following a radial.

During preflight checks, I popped open the gear bay doors (which I do sometimes, but not always), and discovered a small amount of fluid collected by the hinge on the door.  Not sure what it was (probably either brake fluid or hydraulic fluid, given the location), but there wasn't that much of it - probably 2 tablespoons total.  Still, I canceled the flight.  If I couldn't figure out what the fluid was, I need to study systems more.  Given my current state of restedness (very good, considering the 8-week-old baby at home, but that's not saying much), could I manage slowing the airplane with only one brake?  How about a gear-up landing?

A couple of months ago, I made a set of decisions that were uncharacteristically bold for me.  My airplane partner and I decided to fly out to Modesto to have the GAMI injectors evaluated. There was a storm coming in, and I wouldn't have even gone, were I solo, but after we talked about it, we decided to go. All the forecasts had the ceilings at about 1600' and we could make it back from Modesto at 1000' if we went the long way around the south end of the hills.

By the time we were coming home, the storm had come in, but I decided that with a 1600' ceiling, I could shoot an approach. So we climbed up to 6000'.  It was challenging just to fly the plane, hold my heading, keep my altitude, but I did it. Then we were given the ILS, which to my memory I flew horribly (looking at the FlightAware track later, it looks much better than it felt).  Almost lost the intercept twice, was low on glideslope twice (my partner had to call it out; thank goodness he was there).  The weather was amended twice on the approach, but frankly I was so busy flying the approach that I have no idea what they said.

I probably should've listened, because we were descending on glideslope through 700, 600, 500 feet and still no runway.  As I glanced over to remind myself of the missed approach procedure (a moment of disbelief flitted through my mind, but I managed to dismiss it as quickly as it appeared), my partner called, "I see it" at 450'.  I shifted my focus, continuing on the descent, and at about 325' I saw it.  DA is 257'.  It was pouring rain, and I made a beautiful landing as I held the airplane off, off, off to not land on the apron.  As we taxied back through the downpour, avoiding the rats that were scurrying about on the taxiway, I felt that what I had just done was dangerous and reckless, and that I'd gotten away with one.

As I look back at the decision chain, I feel I have to cut myself a little bit of a break. I wouldn't have even gone on my own, but I knew I'd have an experienced pilot in the right seat. I certainly wouldn't have tried to come back if there were any indication at all of a 300' ceiling - there simply wasn't, until I was in it.  I'm sure one of those weather reports while on the approach had some indication of it, but by then I was already on the approach - what reason is there (as a non-commercial operator) to not fly the approach to its conclusion?  In my opinion that's actually safer than trying to call an early missed, because it's something standard, that we practice, vs. something off the cuff.

Judgment is a strange thing in aviation.  In recent years I've had to relax my standards just a little bit - otherwise I might never go at all. There seems to always be a reason to not go.  That said, there's a line, and this is why I believe people establish personal minimums.  I need to formalize mine, but today's decision to not go when there was a problem I couldn't fully characterize is a good start.


Ihab Awad said...

The NTSB is cheated of yet another juicy report! Hope you find out what that fluid was!

MKT said...

Did some investigation on Tuesday with my partner. Turns out it was motor oil. He had changed the oil a couple of months ago, and we determined (a) he definitely spilled some when changing the filter (impossible not to), (b) it is possible for spilled oil / overflow to get to the gear door, and it would be on that side, and (c) the fluid was definitely not brake or hydraulic fluid, and none of the brake/hydraulic lines were leaking. Also, it's not a current oil leak, because the level has held almost completely steady since the last change, even through a couple of long/high trips.

So, looks like I was overcautious, but I now have a better understanding of the airplane, which is a win!

Ian Reddoch said...

And as the man said, "Oils well that ends well." A scary victory is a victory nonetheless, and underwear can always be laundered.