Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A Screw Loose

After several maintenance-related delays I was able to complete a couple of shakedown flights and we departed Oakland under foggy skies early in the morning on the first of many legs of a trip to ferry an aircraft. Though I have never owned an aircraft and probably never will, I think biggest problem aircraft owners face is maintenance. Sure fuel is expensive and it can be tough to find time to fly and maintain proficency, but it's the nagging maintenance issues that eventually lead most aircraft owners and airplanes to divorce. "You can make anything fly if you have enough money," or so the old saw says, but money alone won't cut it.

Finding a great aircraft mechanic can be tough, but once you find one you should consider yourself blessed. There are a lot of good mechanics out there, but one of the differences between a good mechanic and a great mechanic is that you have to hold the good mechanic's hand, cajole them, remind them, and double-check that what you asked to be done has indeed been done. A good mechanic will keep your plane safe to fly and a great mechanic will treat your plane like it was their own. And I think there are many good mechanics out there who could be or would be great mechanics, but they've been beaten down by too many cheapskate aircraft owners and 30 year old aircraft. Harsh words, I know, but true. Yet even with a great mechanic and plenty of money you'll find that unexpected things happen. Expensive things.

Oakland was reporting instrument conditions for our departure, but the skies were clear just to the east. Some pilots file an IFR-to-VFR-on-top flight plan in these situations. Non-instrument rated pilots either wait for the conditions to improve or attempt to fly just under the clouds in hopes of reaching VFR conditions. If you're not instrument-rated, I recommend waiting rather than scud-running. Not wanting to delay our departure and not being interested in scud-running, I filed an IFR flight plan to Tracy, just to the east.

We departed Oakland, punched into the clouds at 1,000 feet, broke out at 2,200 feet, and were given a turn to the east and a climb to 4000 feet. Reaching 3,000 feet, we were in Class Bravo and being clear of the clouds, I cancelled IFR and changed our VFR destination to an airport over 250 miles to the southeast. We had a nice tailwind, blue skies, and an early start.

Since I'll eventually be acting as pilot-in-command outside the U.S. for part of the trip, I needed a new pilot certificate (pilots in the U.S. are not licensed, they're certificated) with the ICAO-required "English Proficient" designation. This is something I decided to take care of well before I knew that I'd be doing this trip. My first attempt resulted in the FAA sending me a certificate that listed the wrong date for my birthday. It took some doing, but I finally got a corrected version.

I had never held an FCC Restricted Radiotelephone Operator Permit because I've never piloted an aircraft outside the U.S. So I navigated the FCC's website and eventually figured out how to get the permit. Once I knew what I was looking for, it was surprisingly easy to obtain and everything was handled on line. In less than 10 days, I had my permit in hand. The aircraft's owner obtained the FCC radio station license for the aircraft and two more things were checked off my list.

A quick bit of internet shopping before our departure and I was the proud owner of about 30 pounds of navigation charts, terminal procedures, and airport facility directories - enough to cover my route and then some, just in case a diversion is required.

A few days before our departure, the aircraft's owner shipped all the necessary survival equipment for the over-water flights: Life jackets, life raft, GPS personal locator beacon, waterproof hand-held radio, signal flares, and emergency rations. This entailed a bunch more reading and research to be prepared for the unlikely event of a water ditching. Here are some amusing tidbits.

Maintain protection from the elements as much as possible. Keep your clothing on even if it's hot. Rest as much as you can, especially in the hot part of the day. Exercise daily in your limited space by isotonically flexing muscles and wiggling fingers and toes. Be optimistic and keep a sense of humor.

Normally, sharks may investigate your raft and go away without bothering you. Do not dangle hands and/or feet in the water or dispose of raw vomit or body wastes in the water since these may attract and excite sharks. Plastic bag (if possible) vomit and/or body wastes and throw them away from the raft.

But it will be a while before we're "feet wet" - flying over water - because shortly after our first fuel stop, some engine gauges quit working. We'd been flying straight and level for about 5 minutes when I noticed the gauges said the left fuel tank was empty, we had no fuel pressure, no oil pressure, no oil temperature, ...

I glanced out the window at the left engine and it was right where we'd left it, it wasn't on fire, and it was running as smoothly as ever. However, the circuit breaker for the left engine gauges had tripped. We continued on course while I waited for the breaker to cool off, then I tried resetting it. It wouldn't reset and immediately popped back out as soon as I let go.

The best choice was to return to our last stop and hope it would be an easy fix. The mechanics determined the likely cause of the electrical short. I discussed the situation with the aircraft's owner, we devised a repair strategy and everything should be airworthy by tomorrow. Sure we lost a day and a half with this problem, but it would have been a lot longer were it not for Juan and Bruce at Exodus Air Service, who basically dropped what they were doing to troubleshoot my problem.

Ah, the glamour of flying!


Blake said...


Although i'm not that proficient in the way certification of pilots is done in the states. However,

does having an IFR rating automatically allow you to fly VFR Over The Top?

John said...


Student pilots in the U.S. are not allowed to fly over a cloud layer, but private pilots can if they are in VFR conditions (1000' above, 3 mile visibility or better).

An IFR to VFR-on-top clearance is a bit different in that you must be instrument rated. The clearance lets you start out IFR with the idea being that you'll end up on top in VFR conditions and that you'll cancel IFR at that point. The two phrases sound a bit similar, not unlike the phraseology used in the U.S. "position and hold" and "hold your position." Though I'm told that U.S. controllers will soon be using the ICAO standard phraseology "line up and wait" instead of "position and hold."

Shdwcaster said...


Glad Exodus took good care of you. Back in the late '90s, they were the first FBO my dad worked at after he got his A&P ticket. There's a family photo of him, my mom, my three brothers and me all lined up on the Sabreliner they used to service back then.

Sure is a small world sometimes. :)

Hopefully that's the last of your mechanical troubles.