Friday, December 22, 2006

Tiny Thread

Tuesday morning came early because of a charter flight I agreed to accept only the night before. A recently-soloed student pilot I was to fly with that morning agreed to fly on his own. As for my afternoon instructional flight, the proposed charter schedule was to have me back in the Bay Area by 1pm. I had to be at a nearby airport (read 45 minute drive) by 6:15am, get the aircraft to a Central Valley airport by 7am, and fly three passengers to the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley. As I contemplated this at 5am over my morning espresso, everything seemed to be planned to perfection. And that had me worried.

I arrived at the plane, preflighted it and found it hadn't been fueled in advance. The first, tiny bare thread had appeared, but I resolved to take this in stride. Arrived in the Central Valley with 15 minutes to spare, but the jet center ramp crew was already busy re-fueling two other aircraft and there would be a delay before they could get to us. "Don't pull on that thread!" I said to myself.

The temperatures were near freezing and as the plane sat on the ramp, water began to condense on the airframe. For this aircraft there is an Airworthiness Directive that requires a tactile touch inspection for frost in these conditions, so I borrowed the ramp crew's ladder, did the inspection, and found no frost. Finally the plane was refueled, the passengers were boarded and briefed, and I began the engine start sequence.

Turning on the avionics masters, everything appeared normal at first. Then a loud alert tone sounded and stayed on. I was baffled at first, trying to figure out what was beeping at me. No annunciators, radar altimeter was set properly ... there it is, the autopilot is showing a electric pitch trim failure. Now, how to stop the damned noise? I resolved to turn off avionics bus 1, which powers the autopilot (among other things), then turn it back on. This is the classic software engineer troubleshooting approach (or is it the cave man approach?) - start over and see if it does it again. The tone and the pitch trim failure annunciation return, so I pull the circuit breaker for the autopilot and all is quite again. Guess I'll be hand-flying the whole way. "That bare thread seems to have gotten a bit longer ..."

Finally underway, 25 minutes later than scheduled, the plane glides above the haze of an inversion layer, toward a marvelous golden sunrise. I've programmed a direct course on the GPS and the bleed air heat is finally taking the chill off the cabin temperature. At cruise altitude, I trim the plane, making allowances for a small fuel imbalance. Then I turn off the seatbelt and no-smoking signs, sit back, and enjoy the view with the thumb and fingers of my left hand gently holding the yoke.

If you have to hand-fly a plane, you couldn't ask for better flying weather. With a fingertip grip, I only need to gently push or tug on the yoke to keep the plane pointed southward. It's always amazing to me that only a few grams of pressure is required to keep the plane straight and level. I'm treating my passengers to a super-smooth flight. I turn around briefly and see them in the club seating area, talking, apparently oblivious to my efforts. "Do everything right and no one remembers, make one mistake and no one forgets." I assume they are irritated that we got a late start, then decide to just enjoy the scenery. "Perhaps that little bit of thread hanging is nothing to worry about."

As we arrive in the pattern for the non-towered field, I see that one of my passengers has come forward and he looks worried. "We don't want to land at the airport in town!" I assure him that we are not landing at the wrong airport and ask him to please be seated for landing. He looks skeptical, but goes back to his seat. I clear the power lines just south of the threshold, then grease the big bird on the runway, and taxi to the ramp. After chocking the wheels, I lower the stairway and my passengers scurry away for their meeting. Before they do, we exchange cell phone numbers, just in case, and they promise to return by noon or 12:30. I have an uneasy feeling and begin thinking about that tiny thread ...

The nearby FBO has a small comfortable lounge and there's wireless internet. Sweet! More importantly, the staff is friendly and unassuming. There's a cat sleeping on the sofa, which I find oddly comforting and homey. I check my email, then decide to contact my afternoon student and ask if we can push his lesson back an hour. He's agreeable and I'm a little more at ease with the schedule. So I sit back and delve into the Barry Maitland mystery novel I'm reading.

Around 11:30am, I decide to get the plane unlocked and ready to go. Soon it's 11:45. Then noon. Then 12:30. I consider calling my passengers, but decide it will only annoy them. I resign myself to being the hired help and I call my afternoon student to explain my predicament. He agrees to reschedule for another day and it's clear that the original schedule has now completely unraveled. There's nothing I can do and, after all, I did predict this might happen. So I climb into the cockpit and soon I'm lost again in the mystery I'm reading, having forgotten about the mystery of why my passengers are late. At 1:40pm, my passengers arrive, offer a half-hearted apology for being late, which I accept as graciously as I can, being a professional and all that. By 1:50pm we're climbing northward.

I drop my passengers off and I'm back at the aircraft's home airport by 3:30pm. By the time the plane is back in the hangar and I'm on my way, it's 4pm and the pre-holiday traffic back into the Bay Area has ratcheted up to it's usual, insane level. Threading my VW through the maze of traffic, I feel like a tiny ant inside a giant ant hill. I arrive home just as the sun has set on the shortest day of the year. I'm back home and the best laid plans that came unraveled are behind me.


Anonymous said...

Great story!

Anonymous said...

Would you fly a charter in IFR conditions as a single pilot in an actual minimums approach?

John said...

Hmm ... I'm assuming you're asking if I would have flown this flight with an inoperative autopilot in a single-pilot operation knowing that I might have to hand-fly an approach at the end of the trip down to the minima. If that's the question you were asking, my answer would have been "probably." Since my flight was actually conducted under part 91, there was no requirement for either a second-in-command nor an autopilot. Now if I was going to be in the clouds the entire way and needing to use the on-board radar to avoid heavy precip, that would have been a different story.

Anonymous said...

Hopefully you were being paid for the wait time. For my own planning I figure arriving back home 2 hours later than scheduled on customer round-trip flights. Merry Christmas!

Paul said...


I'm confused, how did you do this flight under Part 91 and get paid?



John said...


Commercial pilots can be paid for their services when they operate an aircraft under part 91 and that operation does not involve common carriage (advertising to the general public that you will carry persons or property for hire).

These sorts of part 91 operations occur every day: An aircraft owned by a corporation transports officials, employees, and guests of that corporation and there is no charge or assessment made directly on the passengers.

I think I threw you off when I said it was a "charter" flight. I was trying to keep it simple.