Never Again: Post-maintenance surprise

I knew this was often how accident reports began - or ended...

June 1, 2011

Never AgainIt was a nice Texas early fall day in 1992. I had received my private pilot certificate the previous year and had about 75 hours as pilot in command. I thought it would be fun to fly my fiancée down to San Antonio and visit friends there.

My original intent was to pick up the flight school’s Cessna 152, call sign Five-Kilo-Alpha, after work on Friday and return Sunday morning. We planned to take off from Addison Airport around 5 p.m. and land at San Antonio International Airport around nightfall. Things did not go as planned.

The school had lost my reservation and there was no familiar 152 waiting for us, tanks full, keys on the rack. I was told another one was one just coming out of annual, Three-Eight-Hotel. I could have that one, although it was new to me. An hour or so later, it appeared on the ramp, signature still wet in the logbook. I started preflight. I turned on the master and checked the fuel level indication. Oops! No fuel. Call the office, await truck. I completed the rest of the preflight and climbed the struts for a visual check of the fuel level after filling—oops, again—no fuel caps. A hurried search of the hangar revealed two caps.

We had engine start by 7 p.m. I taxied out to Runway 16, received takeoff clearance, and climbed on the runway heading. A call to Dallas Approach, and I had clearance through the Dallas Class B airspace, south over Love Field, and past the skyscrapers downtown as the lights started to come on. As I rotated, one of the radios started to slide out of the rack, and my fiancée pushed it back in.

Level at 5,000 feet and 20 miles south of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport on a heading of 190 degrees, I noticed that the radio reception with Dallas Departure was weak, but just good enough to communicate. We continued to San Antonio, skirting the restricted airspace around Fort Hood. Approaching the Class C airspace around San Antonio, now fully dark at nearly 10 p.m., I couldn’t raise San Antonio Approach unless I circled as close as I could get, under the outer shelf of the Class C ring, and called when facing away from the field. Finally I made contact, got clearance, and made a rapid final approach (120 knots on final) with a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 close behind.

We had a good time in San Antonio, dining on the River Walk. Sunday morning dawned wet and drizzly. The sky was 700 to 800 feet overcast, with light rain; the cloud tops reached to 3,000 feet and extended to 30 miles north, beyond which CAVU reigned all the way to Dallas. With only a fresh private pilot certificate, I was grounded. We waited in the FBO lounge. And waited. And waited.

Around 3 p.m., the ATIS finally stated that the ceiling was 1,100 feet and visibility was five miles. We loaded up the Cessna and took off, along with three or four other VFR airplanes that had also been waiting. At 800 feet agl, we were at the cloud bases again. Not familiar with the area, and without a GPS, I headed north(ish). Trying to keep 500 feet below the clouds put me uncomfortably close to the ground; climbing put me too close to the cloud base, and seeing radio towers ahead on the sectional, I decided this was not safe and started to do a 180 turn to the left.

I made a radio call to ATC to let them know, but I couldn’t get a response with the poor radios. I glanced at the attitude indicator—60 degrees of bank, and a lot of descent—a real-world, honest-to-goodness unusual attitude in IMC! I leveled off in some random direction, somewhat scared. I was a disoriented, low-time VFR pilot in IMC, without a working radio, in Class C airspace, near a large airport. I knew this was often how accident reports began—or ended.

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Finally I raised Approach and got vectors back to the airport, a wiser pilot. An unhappy pilot. A pleased-to-be-on-final-approach pilot. We called our friends, stayed an extra night, and flew home on Southwest the next day.

A week later I flew commercially back to San Antonio, picked up Three-Eight-Hotel, and flew to Addison in the severe-clear Texas autumn skies. Unable to raise Dallas Approach, I flew around the Class B and landed at Addison. A few days later, I was on the ground in the other 152, and I saw Three-Eight-Hotel on approach, with the pilot complaining that he couldn’t hear the tower—and the tower complaining that the pilot wasn’t responding to his calls. I had told the school about the radio issues, and I hadn’t seen bad maintenance from the facility previously.

Get-there-itis caused me to continue the flight with a substandard airplane at night, and again on the way back in conditions I wasn’t ready for. The fact that it was only 15 minutes to clear skies influenced my decision.

My training was good (I got out of a spiral dive essentially on instruments). But my judgment was not. I learned to stay well inside the envelope.

I had never had to face a maintenance issue with an airplane I was flying before. The school’s aircraft were generally well maintained, and I had never seen anything worse than a low tire. The next time I didn’t like something, I would (and did) abandon the trip.

Paul Sergeant, AOPA 4081549, lives in Allen, Texas. He has a commercial pilot certificate with instrument and glider ratings, and has logged 500 hours.