Sunday, 10 May 2015

Check, check and check again

Checking stuff is important, that’s why we have checklists. I always have to explain to passengers that we will spend maybe a good 5-10 minutes on the ground before getting airborne, making sure that the plane is fit to fly. That doesn’t even include the time you spend doing your walk round.
Today’s flight was a great example of how even the most experienced* pilot needs a humble reminder of how important it is to check stuff.

The first example of this occurred whilst I was still waiting for JES to land. As well as chatting to the flight school owner (in a surprisingly cheerful mood!) I took a moment to glance through the journey log for JES.

A quick aside here, the journey log is a record of all the flights and maintenance that have been done on a plane. It tells you if the plane is legal to fly. You need a check a number of things such as the number of hours left on the engine before it needs maintenance, the various systems need servicing at certain intervals and so on. As the pilot, it is your responsibility to check this before every flight. And occasionally I’ll admit , there probably have been flights where I haven’t. The owner keeps his planes well maintained and legal, so there is a tendency to assume that all is well.

I glance through the journey log, the last page is just two entries of flights, so I skip back to see what else is going on. I’m looking for the “do not fly after….”tag line from the last maintenance entry.  Luckily for me our maintenance guys use a lovely system of printed labels which make the maintenance info stand out from the general “we added oil” stuff.

I see that the engine only has 0.1 left on the Hobbs before it needs looking at, that could be a problem seeing as that is from yesterday and the plane is currently airborne. Another glance tells me that the AME has signed off a 10 hour extension. I’m good to go from that respect.

But….. I also notice there is a date on the sticker as well as an engine hour time. “ do not use after April 2015”. It’s now May. Closer examination reveals it’s the static pitot systems turn for an overhaul. It has actually been done, it is just for some reason it’s buried in a wall of text rather than a nice neat sticker.

Either way the plane is legal. It just took me some time to confirm.

Next occurrence comes on my walkround. The plane isn’t long landed, a solo student. Because the plane has just been flying I concentrate my checks in different areas than I would if it’s the first flight of the day. I assume that the control surfaces are hooked up correctly for example, but I check more carefully for any damage that might have been caused by a hard landing.

It is looking good, no flat spots on the tires, the nosewheel shocks intact. I finish off and climb up to dump the fuel back in the tanks. I secure the cap and get down, realising that I forgot to dip them, Both tanks are below the level that I can visually see the fuel level and a finger just confirms the presence of some fuel somewhere below the tab. The gauges are showing ¾ in one side but less than a third in the other.

Fuel gauges are notoriously unreliable. Sometimes you do get an imbalance like that. If the plane has been doing a lot of circuits in one direction for example.

Now I’m only going to be taking it around the block a few times. I could probably get away without dipping them. But….

Mindful of the fact that I don’t want the accident report to read “despite claiming to have done a visual inspection of fuel levels the left tank ran dry approximately 5 minutes into the flight” I reluctantly grab my dipstick and get up there again.

The problem is, it’s been a month since I flew and I’m out of practice. Stuff just doesn’t flow like it used to. Getting myself seated and belted is a clusterf#ck all of its own. Never the most elegant person, I strap myself in, go to hitch myself forward and realise that I’m pinned by my lap strap and almost stuck. Yeah, I’ve attempted to use the passenger seat belt and unsurprisingly that hasn’t worked out too well.

Fixing the problem necessitates shoving the seat back, opening the door and unclipping myself.
Eventually I get it figured and  carry on, even managing to start the finicky hot engine first time. I get as far as the run up area and the “harnesses and doors” section of my checklist before realising that the passenger door is not latched.

At this point I’m glad that my exaggerated “put your hands on everything as you call it out” checklist method has paid off. I quickly pull the latch shut.

Passengers might find it a bit weird when you lean over them to touch the door and wndow latches on their side, but I bet they’d find suddenly being in a convertible at 500ft off the ground even weirder!

*Yeah I’m not really that much as an experienced pilot really but it sounds so good to say “Oh yeah I’ve got about 130 hours”. No one needs to know that all bar a handful were pre flight test!

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