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Safety Spotlight: Change of plansSafety Spotlight: Change of plans

Flying home safely means staying flexible

Last fall I helped ferry a Navion from Boulder City, Nevada, to Frederick, Maryland. The new owner of the Navion hadn’t flown GA in more than 20 years. Now, with his work life in rhythm, and children launched on successful journeys of their own, he found time and resources to rekindle an old flame: flying.

He attended an AOPA Rusty Pilots seminar, and decided to buy an airplane. He wanted a comfortable traveling airplane with some legs, good useful load, and decent speed—all on a budget. He discovered Navions and sought me out at the AOPA Fly-In at Frederick. Serendipitously, my dad was at the fly-in, and, well, if you express an interest in Navions around my dad, you better have some time on your hands. Sure enough, the rusty pilot was sold on Navions and spent the summer searching for the right airplane. He found it in Boulder City, and reached out to me for help flying it back.

We timed the trip to coincide with a business meeting I had in Las Vegas, which would allow me to fly GA back to Frederick, a much preferred option over airline travel. I had a four-day window before my next trip, which gave us some flexibility on timing. We projected the entire trip to take some 12 flying hours, which we planned to accomplish over two days by flying two three-hour hops each day. We’d overnight somewhere near Wichita. We began watching the weather, and specifically the winds, about a week out.

Our plan was to meet the current owner at the airplane in the afternoon, review logbooks, go through an extensive preflight, and conduct a check flight before launching the following morning. The fall weather out West is typically good, although high winds can create havoc around the mountains. Passing through the Rockies dominated our route planning and timing for the first day. We wanted to do it either in the early morning hours or early evening hours when winds are the lightest.

I have a general posture that when pilot, airplane, and weather align, you fly! When you have a specific mission to accomplish, such as training a student or delivering an airplane, then proactive flexibility—being prepared to go when conditions are optimal—enhances safety. As our departure day neared, it appeared weather and winds were ideal on the day of our scheduled hand-off with the previous owner. I called the rusty pilot and asked him to accelerate the hand-off to the morning so we could depart that afternoon. Although we were perched and ready, the winds in the afternoon grew higher than forecast. We didn’t want to fly at night with an airplane new to us, so we couldn’t wait for the winds to subside and depart later. We decided to launch the following morning. I learned in the U.S. Air Force that flexibility is a key to air power. I’ve learned in GA that flexibility is a key to safety.

We launched at sun up and climbed east through a spectacularly clear Nevada sky toward our first stop, Double Eagle Airport (AEG) near Albuquerque, New Mexico. The new Navion owner/rusty pilot took the left seat. What better way to accomplish his flight review and regain his pilot privileges than flying his own airplane across the country, with no autopilot? He’d hand fly the entire trip. His insurance required 10 hours of dual instruction and 15 landings. We’d accomplish that on our trip, including the landings, if conditions and timing allowed.

About 90 minutes into the first leg we experienced an alternator failure. We were on flight following with Albuquerque Center, alerted them to our problem, and briefed them on our plan to divert into Gallup, New Mexico, some 30 minutes away. We reduced the electrical load to a minimum and arrived in the pattern just as battery power drained, then landed uneventfully. Fortunately, the rusty pilot just happens to be an A&P. The previous owner had supplied him with a box of spare parts, and in it was a spare alternator belt. A couple of hours later, we were back in business and with low forecast winds, resumed our trip and crossed the Rockies.

We altered our route a few more times on the journey because of winds and weather, and we arrived in Frederick within a couple of hours of our pre-trip projection. We actually didn’t stop at any of the fields we’d selected in our preflight planning. The trip was an excellent refresher for a rusty pilot to relearn the importance of flight planning, systems knowledge, and the inherent need for flexibility in GA travel plans. While acquainting himself with all the advances we’ve made in aviation that enable good decision making, he was able to sit for consecutive hours in the left seat, honing his scan and learning the nuances of this—his—airplane.

Go fly. Oh, and if you’re helping a rusty pilot ferry a newly acquired airplane across the country, it’s quite helpful if she or he happens to be an A&P.

Email [email protected]

Richard McSpadden

Executive Director of AOPA Air Safety Institute
Richard McSpadden lead’s AOPA’s ASI, committed to reducing General Aviation mishaps by providing free educational resources and supporting initiatives that improve General Aviation safety and grow the pilot population.

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