March 23, 2012
Turbulence will make any airplane ride less enjoyable. Usually it’s just a minor annoyance and of little concern to frequent flyers. But when the severity increases, even seasoned travelers can become white-knuckle passengers.
When we describe turbulence in a PIREP (Pilot Report), we use four levels of severity: light, moderate, severe and extreme. Chapter 7 of the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) has a table that precisely defines these levels (including the slight difference between “turbulence” and “chop” for reporting purposes). Reading the definitions, you realize that most turbulence you’ve encountered has been light or moderate. The definition for severe turbulence includes the sentence: “Aircraft may be momentarily out of control.” Extreme turbulence is defined as “turbulence in which the aircraft is violently tossed about and is practically impossible to control. It may cause structural damage.” That’s getting pretty serious, and it’s unlikely you’d encounter severe or extreme turbulence in clear air. It’s within a mature thunderstorm cell where they become more likely, and that’s why we avoid those storms like the plague.
I well remember my worst ride and my only encounter with extreme turbulence: a night flight on November 11, 1995, Dulles to Albany in a British Aerospace J-32, a 19-seat turboprop that was built like a tank. Right after takeoff from Runway 19L, Dulles Departure control gave us a right-hand turn to 330° and a climb to 7,000 feet. As I rolled out of the turn, our weather radar became filled with red (red=severe, probably a level 4 or 5 cell). At first both of us on the flight deck questioned what we were seeing, and wondered if we had a faulty radar. Surely the controller wouldn’t direct us right into a cell.
But then all hell broke loose. Our altitude was changing +/- 1500 feet and the airspeed fluctuated wildly, going from stickshaker (stall) to Vmo (max operating speed, the red line) and back several times. You really don’t want to be operating above the red line. Beyond this speed the manufacturer does not guarantee that the plane will stay in one piece.
When we approached Vmo, I would try to reduce the speed by gently raising the nose and also reducing the power; when we approached stall, I lowered the nose to maintain airspeed. To avoid overstressing the wings and tail, I tried to be as gentle as I could with these control inputs, to keep the g-load at a minimum.
Throughout all this, the plane was shaking so violently that I finally told Tom, the Captain on this flight, “you have the power” while I used both hands on the control wheel. I couldn’t read the instruments, and could only keep a vague sense of our pitch and bank attitude from the artificial horizon. I remember very well my thoughts at the time: (1) Don’t go inverted and (2) I hope it doesn’t get worse. The extreme turbulence lasted probably less than three minutes (though it seemed much longer), and for the next 45 minutes we were in continuous moderate and occasionally severe turbulence. Tom made a few PAs to the passengers in an effort to assure them that everything was under control, but I’m sure some of them thought this was the end. I would have, if I had been in back. Sitting up front, we at least had the benefit of knowing what was going on, and had some (albeit small) feeling of control.
We assessed the situation once we knew we were out of the worst of it, and found that the plane wouldn’t pressurize — which made us wonder just how much the aircraft’s pressure vessel had been compromised. This meant that we couldn’t go above 10,000 feet, and our first inclination was to return to Dulles. But the airport had closed as soon as the weather hit them, minutes after we took off. To return would mean penetrating that same storm again, which was out of the question. We looked into other divert airports, but nothing sounded good in the weather reports. State College, Pennsylvania, was nearby, but a Continental Express plane had just made a go-around there, reporting gusts to 50 knots during the approach.
So, after conferring with our dispatcher, we continued on to Albany . The turbulence abated north of Binghamton. When we shut down at Albany, the passengers didn’t move, and many of them had that 1000-yard stare. We both came into the cabin to talk to anyone who cared to vent or ask questions. After the passengers had gone, we made an entry in the logbook about the pressurization and the encounter with extreme turbulence. That write-up would require an inspection of the airframe before the plane was returned to service the next day.
Once we got to the hotel for our layover, we were both so keyed up we knew we wouldn’t be able to sleep for a while. Though I’m not much of a drinker, I probably could have used one that night. But our layover was less than 12 hours, so we settled for a pizza and couple of soft drinks, and sat in Tom’s room discussing how we had gotten in this situation and what we could have done differently. We came to the realization that no retelling of this event could adequately convey the feeling of being in an airplane that was nearly uncontrollable. You can believe that I will never knowingly penetrate a red cell. Deviate 200 miles to the west? No problem.
September 1, 2011
With Hurricane Irene safely behind us, I thought I’d share a story from my pre-airline days, about one of my scariest experiences as a pilot.
From my logbook, here are my entries for a flight in November 1985. There is only a small space for remarks, so they’re not detailed. But they’re enough to remind me vividly of that day. These entries are verbatim and therefore cryptic:
11-2 M20C N78959 W09 – McCollum, Kennesaw GA 3.9 hrs w/Paul, Barb. Visit Shavers. LORAN to NC, then VOR; IFR most of time
11-4 M20C N78959 McCollum – Statesville NC 2.0 hrs
Gloomy forecast. Heaviest rain ever!! Engine out @7000’ over Barrett’s Mt due to showers
11-4 M20C N78959 Statesville – LYH 1.3 hrs
Emergency landing @ Statesville, MVFR (thank God!) Try to push on. More showers; Precautionary landing LYH. Stayed @ Holiday Inn
11-5 M20C N78959 LYH-W09 1.3 hrs
Mostly IFR, little rain. Good to be home!!
Paul is a friend since high school days, and I’m surprised he even went with me on this trip, considering another experience we had flying to the Bahamas several years earlier (a story for another time perhaps). Along with his wife, Barb, we set out to Georgia to visit another high school friend and his wife.
It was a nice visit, and when it came time to return home, I checked the weather. Rain in the forecast, but that’s why the FAA invented the Instrument Rating (which I had). So I felt bullet-proof, and filed for the flight home.
The rain that lay ahead turned out to be some of the heaviest I’ve ever encountered, and it caused flooding that ranks as the second worst in Virginia history. (Go here for a list of the ten worst.)
The airplane we flew was an old 1963 Mooney, which belonged to a student of mine. He let me use it for free whenever I wanted; I just paid for gas. The Mooney is a very nice four-seat plane with little room inside — it’s built for speed.
On the November 4th flight from Georgia, we started encountering rain in North Carolina, which got progressively heavier to the point that the plane actually leaked (rain coming in through seams in the roof and dripping on Barb in the back). It got so loud from the sheer volume of water impacting the plane that it was unlike anything I had experienced in an airplane. I felt more like I was on a submarine, and could barely hear the controller over the headset.
Then the engine just stone cold quit.
The absence of the roar of the engine left us in a small (and oh God, it felt small at that moment), leaky vessel at 7,000 feet, in the heaviest rain I had ever seen. Looking back through the fog of time, it would be silly to think that I could accurately describe all of my emotions and thoughts at that moment, but I distinctly remember a couple of things.
I had two competing thoughts that demanded air time in my brain. One was something along the lines of, “Well, you idiot, this is how you get yourself into Flying magazine, and all the pilots reading your story in the Aftermath section will be tsk, tsking about what a bonehead you were for flying into conditions beyond your capability.” The other thought was a sense of overwhelming guilt at putting my trusting friend and his wife in this situation. I kid you not, the guilt feeling was one of my strongest emotions.
I could feel the effect of adrenaline, and I remember consciously thinking that I had to keep it together for my friends’ sake. I looked at Paul, sitting to the right of me, and he was looking wide-eyed back at me. He knew this was serious, but he was taking his cues from me and I tried hard to give the appearance of calm.
All of the above—the thoughts, the looks—were in the first few seconds after the engine quit. I keyed the mike and told the controller “Washington Center, Mooney 959. We’ve had an engine failure”
I had the radio turned way up so that I could hear the controller, and she responded, “Roger 959, what are your intentions?” This struck me as somewhat humorous at the moment, but I thought it best not to share my amusement with Paul. I simply said, “We need to land.”
Of course, we were going to land, whether we needed to or not. The question was, would we survive the landing?
The controller said, “Roger 959, turn right heading 180 degrees, vectors for Barrett’s Mountain. Current weather at the field: 200 foot overcast, visibility one half mile, heavy thunderstorms. Winds …” I can’t remember the specific winds, but I do remember clearly that it was 200 and a half…classic ILS weather minimums. This was the minimum weather to fly an ILS with an engine running. And I was going to attempt it deadstick!
I should mention that the terrain was mountainous, and the Barrett’s Mountain airport sits at 1,030′ MSL (above sea level). It was not a pretty prospect.
Then, halfway through the turn (because what option did I have but to try?), we popped out of the side of tall cumulus buildups and into clear air. I immediately rolled the wings level and stopped my turn; no way I was going back in the clouds. Ahead were more clouds, but there were gaps and I could see the ground. I would take my chances with an off-airport landing that I could see rather than a deadstick to 200 feet that I couldn’t see. (Note: if we had been another half mile west, we would have completed this turn in the clouds and the outcome of this story would likely have been much different.)
Looking over my left shoulder I looked at the clouds going up to probably over 40,000 feet and extending on a line from the southeast to the northeast as far as I could see. I told Center I was back in VMC (Visual Meteorological Conditions) but I honestly can’t remember anything of what I said. She offered the fact that Statesville, North Carolina was at my 12 o’clock position and 10 miles away.
I’m not sure what my altitude was at this time (although I was still comfortably above the terrain I could see) or if I could have glided all the way to Statesville. I was delighted with the prospect of just picking an open field. Our chances of living had skyrocketed!
Once clear of the rain, the engine began coughing back to life. Throughout this ordeal, the prop had been turning, windmilling in the slipstream (you really have to work at it to get the prop to actually stop without the engine running). Each time the prop turns it causes the magnetos to fire the spark plugs (two sets in each cylinder for redundancy), so the engine is constantly trying to restart in a case like this.
It turns out the reason for the engine failure was the sheer amount of water being ingested. A combustion engine requires intake air to operate, and the heavy rain was displacing the air, so the engine just quit. I might have been able to avoid the failure by selecting “Alternate Air,” which provides a different pathway for air to reach the engine, bypassing the air filter. Alternate Air is usually selected in cases where the air filter ices up, but could well have worked for this case too…I’ll never know.
Anyway, as the water worked its way through the system, the engine was sputtering, and it finally coughed back to life somewhere around 2,000 feet. By the time I was on final approach at Statesville, it was purring as sweet as ever.
Epilog: Somehow I convinced Paul and Barb to get back in the plane and continue home to Leesburg (W09 was the airport identifier for Leesburg then; now it’s JYO). This really is a testament to my persuasive skills, but it still amazes me 26 years later.
I thought we could stay east of the rain, but I was wrong, and once we started encountering rain on the flight out of Statesville, Paul started pointing down, gesturing that he wanted to get on the ground. So I diverted to Lynchburg, Virginia, where we stayed the night. The approach in to Lynchburg was no piece of cake — right down to a 200 foot ceiling and a half mile visibility in rain showers. You can bet I was watching those engine instruments during approach, and I was really glad to be on the ground…again.
March 31, 2011
Washington Dulles International Airport opened in 1962 and serves over a million passengers per month today. But it wasn’t always that way. For the first couple of decades of its existence, Dulles was a virtual ghost town when compared to other major airports in the country.
I clearly remember the time in the mid-1960s when we met my grandfather there after his flight from Texas. The terminal seemed deserted in the middle of the day. Except for the passengers coming in on that plane, and the people meeting them, the only other people there were airport employees.
In the late 1970s, when I was first starting to fly, light airplanes were welcome at the airport. That’s certainly changed. Today a light airplane is somewhat of a nuisance to the controllers, as they have to try to fit them in to the flow of the faster jet traffic. But back then, they were struggling to build their traffic count — the number that justifies their existence. Pilots would come to Dulles to shoot practice ILS approaches or just do touch-and-go’s. Once, in the middle of a nice sunny day, I was flying a closed traffic pattern to Runway 1R, turning base and downwind right over the control tower. Every time I touched down was another tick on their count.
Perhaps the best memory I have of Dulles was the night I had the airport all to myself. It was the summer of 1980 and I was just three years out of college and working a nine-to-five job. One Friday night, I was having trouble falling asleep. Around 3 a.m., after tossing and turning for hours, I decided that this would be a perfect time to go flying.
At the time, I belonged to a flying club that had planes based at Dulles. The planes were parked in an area of the airport called “Southeast Parking,” located about where Terminal A is today. Normally, I’d have to schedule a plane to fly, but I figured that if I found a plane on the ramp at three in the morning, it was a pretty safe bet that no one else had it scheduled.
The plane I picked was a Grumman Tiger, N74026. After completing my preflight walk-around inspection on the dark ramp, I contacted Ground Control for clearance to taxi. Because it was the middle of the night, one controller handled all of the frequencies — Approach, Tower and Ground. I told him that I just wanted to do some pattern work, meaning I wanted to make some landings. He cleared me to taxi to Runway 19L, then gave me a clearance I’ve never heard anytime before or since that night:
“You are cleared to do anything you want, on any runway you want, for as long as you want, until further notice.”
Wow! I felt like I had been handed the keys to the candy store. I flew around that airport for the next hour, doing touch-and-go’s, low approaches and stop-and-go landings to every runway they had. The winds were calm, so I could land on 1R and then climb out, make two left turns and land again on 19R.
For half an hour, there was not another plane to be seen. Then the controller asked me to confine myself to the east runway (1R/19L) because an Air Florida 737 was on a 20-mile final for 1L. (I have no idea what they were doing showing up at that late hour.)
Once Air Florida had landed, I was turned loose again with the same unrestricted clearance. Once I had my fill of yanking and banking the plane, I landed and taxied back to parking. On the taxi in, the controller got chatty and invited me up to the tower to have a cup of coffee and watch the sunrise. I took him up on that, then headed home.
My logbook entry for July 12, 1980, contains this remark: “3 am. Only plane @IAD. Touch and go’s. Visited tower.”
Oh, and my plan worked. After all this, I finally did get sleepy on the drive home.
January 21, 2011
When I first started flying, I bought half interest in a Cherokee 180, N7728N. My partner was a veterinarian who had owned his half for several years already. He only flew on Thursdays, and then only if the weather was beautiful. What a great deal for me — I had the plane available to me six days a week, and we split all the fixed costs (e.g. tie-down fee, insurance, routine maintenance and annual inspection). I put a few hundred hours on that plane in the two years I owned it. Doc flew it less than twenty hours during that time.
When you own a plane or a boat, you feel kind of obligated to use it when you have free time, otherwise you’re just paying for it to sit. I was up in that plane almost every weekend, often just making the hop to the little airport in Front Royal, Virginia, where Jim Coiner, the local mechanic, let me use his washstand to keep my plane shiny.
One of my favorite local airports in those days was Shannon Airport in Fredericksburg, Virginia, named for Sidney Shannon, who was one of the original financial investors in Eastern Airlines. The reason I loved flying into this airport was that it had a great museum. Now I’m going from memory here, but I recall they had about 27 vintage aircraft, going as far back as World War I. What was really remarkable was that all but one of them were actually taken out of the museum and flown from time to time, and it was great to see. Since the days I used to visit the museum, the entire collection has moved and they’ve added an A-7 Corsair and an SR-71. (Check out their web site.)
The planes at Shannon were great, but the best thing about this museum was the curator, Dick Merrill. He flew the mail in the 1920s in open cockpit Pitcairn Mailwings, and was the #2 pilot with Eastern Airlines until his retirement in 1961.
I got a personal tour of the museum with him one day, and I had no idea at the time that I was in the presence of an aviation pioneer. He showed me through the displays of memorabilia in the museum, much of it from his personal exploits. He told me the story of flying a Vultee V1A across the Atlantic in 1936. The plane had the empty spaces in the fuselage and wings filled with over 40,000 ping pong balls to serve as buoyancy aids in case of a water landing.
It was like being in the presence of Lindbergh, and I wish I could go back and tell the 22-year-old me to make the most of this one-on-one time with a living legend. That same day, I also met Jack King, an author who was in the process of writing a biography of Merrill. As Mr. Merrill told me that day, “We need to get this book written. I see the end of the runway coming up.” He passed away a few years later, in 1982. The book, “The Wings of Man: The Legend of Dick Merrill,” came out in 1981, and sits on my bookshelf today. Come to think of it, it’s about time I give it another read.
[Update on 01/24/2011: A sharp reader pointed out to me that the museum in my picture above is located at Richmond International Airport, not Shannon Airport in Fredericksburg (as my original caption indicated). I missed that little fact somehow. Apparently the entire collection was transferred at some point after the death of Sidney Shannon in 1981.]
November 17, 2010
It’s been a long, long time since my first solo flight in an airplane and I still remember the mixed emotions of excitement and fear. Glancing over at the empty right seat during the takeoff roll, I realized what a huge commitment I was about to make. As the plane climbed out, I couldn’t get out of my mind that it was all me! There was no one else to get this plane back on the ground. Pretty exciting. But there was just a tinge of fear, or maybe anxiety is a better word. I wouldn’t have my instructor to fall back on for this one.
Now I’m on a new solo. Being given an opportunity to write a blog for the Air & Space website is pretty exciting. I’ve never had a blog before and I’m looking forward to having this forum to discuss my experiences as an airline pilot.
But there’s more than a little anxiety to go along with this opportunity. I have to question what makes anything I have to say worthy of your attention. Let’s get it out up front that I’m not a recognized aviation authority or expert. I’ve been flying since 1977 and I have experience in both the General Aviation (GA) world and the airline industry. My pilot license shows 5 type ratings and I’m currently flying the Boeing 757 and 767 on both international and domestic flights. I love flying and I hope to share some of that with you in future posts.
Your feedback and questions will help me determine the content of this blog, but for now at least I’ll just pick some areas that I like to talk about and we’ll see how it goes.