Proficient Pilot: 3 in 1

April 1, 2010

I marvel at how newspaper columnists develop ideas for numerous columns every month while I have such difficulty coming up with just one.

So it was this month as I scrounged through my file of scribbled notes intended to remind me of possible column ideas. Three caught my attention, but none was sufficient to fill a column. “So,” I said to myself, “use all three.”

One slip of paper simply said, “N707BS,” the registration number of my last airplane, an American Champion 7GCBC Explorer I had purchased as a retirement gift for myself. Some may recall that I sold the airplane because the cost of renting a hangar at my home airport had escalated astronomically. I could no longer justify paying more for a T-shaped aluminum shell than some pay for a Beverly Hills apartment. (Tying down the airplane under the California sun would destroy its fabric covering.)

The purchaser of N707BS lived in Seattle, and I have fond memories of the delivery flight, my last in that airplane. I made more en route stops and excursions than were necessary as I sought to prolong the joy this airplane gave me. This was in 2005. Two years later N707BS came to its final resting place 500 feet beneath the surface of Commencement Bay (the southern end of Puget Sound).

While cruising north of Tacoma, Washington, at 1,500 feet msl, the new owner collided with a Cessna 182A. The Cessna pilot discovered with relief that his airplane was still controllable and landed safely at a nearby airport. The owner of “my” airplane was not quite as fortunate. Having only partial control, he was forced to ditch in the bay. He and his passenger were plucked from the water by the crew of a nearby boat as N707BS sank to the bottom. He was unhurt, but his passenger, his mother, received minor injuries.

The next slip of paper bore the name of someone to whom I shall refer as Lenny. He had been a B–17 command pilot during World War II and was a retired TWA captain. I had flown with him several times when I was a freshly minted Boeing 707 co-pilot. Lenny was an excellent captain, a pilot’s pilot.

Lenny owned and flew a beautiful Beech Model 17 Staggerwing. It was his habit to make wheel landings in the taildragger because it was difficult to see over the biplane’s obtrusive nose during three-point landings. Because he had so much experience with large, round engines, Lenny was asked to make the maiden flight of a 1929 low-wing monoplane with a powerful radial engine for someone who had spent years restoring the antique. The restorer, however, suggested that Lenny make a three-point landing in the monoplane because there was so little clearance between the bottom of the propeller arc and the ground. He feared that it was possible during a hard wheel landing for the main landing gear struts to spread enough to allow the propeller to contact the runway, the result of which could be an end-over-end crash landing.

Lenny took off in the monoplane and apparently had a great time putting the old airplane through its paces. When he returned for landing, though, he reverted to habit and made the same type of landing he had been making in his Staggerwing. Sure enough, the prop struck the runway and the airplane flipped over and onto its back, which dropped Lenny head first onto the runway and killed him.

Although it is wise to develop good habits as we gain experience, we need to recognize that some good habits can turn bad.

The third slip of paper was attached to a letter I received from Tim Kern, a reader who wrote in response to what I had written about engine fires. He commented that when an instructor presents a student with an in-flight emergency, the student knows that the emergency is not real. Other than to demonstrate his competency, he is under no great pressure to resolve the problem. There is no adrenalin flow.

Kern tells about an instructor who believed in more realistic training. Before one flight, the CFI took a match, blew it out, and allowed the smoke to rise into an empty plastic bottle. He repeated this several times until the bottle was filled with smoke. He then smuggled the bottle aboard Kern’s training flight, stealthily opened the bottle while Kern was preoccupied during a maneuver, and then began squeezing out smoke until the student got a whiff and reacted.

When he experienced this, Kern initially thought that his sense of smell was misleading him because the instructor didn’t seem to notice. Finally he asked the CFI if he smelled smoke, and they set about the business of combating what Kern initially was led to believe was a genuine fire. That is my kind of instructor.

CFI Mike Corder wrote to say that he occasionally tests students by telling them to delay turning from base leg to final approach until crossing the extended runway centerline. He does this to determine if they perform safely or tighten their turn into what could lead to a stall-spin accident.

I applaud this kind of reality training and would like to hear from others about similarly creative methods they have heard about, experienced, or devised to improve training.

Many of Barry Schiff’s aviation safety articles have been published by foreign governments and military services. Visit the author’s Web site.