Monday, March 17, 2014

March 17th, 2014

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

Perhaps it is just me, but it seems that there are fewer and fewer people with positive outlooks these days? I get the impression that every time I ask somebody 'how are things?' or 'how is business?', that I have unwittingly volunteered myself to be their counsellor as they pour out their tales of woe. It is as if I have looked at the instruments in my cockpit, and they are all crying out to me 'something is wrong!'.

It is true that things are tough, but it is also true that there are answers to the challenges... the issue will always be 'are we ready to take the action necessary to resolve our situation?' - even if it means changing course, perhaps even landing somewhere different to our original goal.

As pilots we are trained to 'plan for the worst and hope for the best'. It does not stop there. We continuously take actions that will reduce the risk of the worst and improve the possibility of moving towards the best.

Join me on a cross country flight. Every six minutes we check our Fuel (current level, planned level and actual burn rate); make sure that our Radio is on the correct frequency and make any calls that are necessary; we go over the Engine instruments, making sure that everything is in the 'green zone' and also listen to our engine; we cross check our compass to make sure that we are still going in the right Direction; a quick check of our altimeter for our current Altitude; and then cast an eye over our Airframe to reassure ourselves that everything is as it should be. Even if everything is looking perfectly fine, we still look at where we might land in an emergency! Yes, this is a check that we do EVERY six minutes. It is called the FREDA check for those trained on the Ghana National Pilot Licence. It is primarily about checking all is going well, and giving peace of mind to the crew... On nine hundred and ninety nine out of every thousand checks, all will be well... but then there is that 'one time'. Normally it is just a blip, but then, sometimes that 'one time', is followed by several others... and that is when our training, decision making and skills come forward.

Let us assume, just for instance, that on this particular FREDA check that we find our fuel appears to be going down quicker than expected - and our engine temperatures are rising - just within the acceptable range, but rising. We can choose to ignore the signs and hope for the best - or we can plan for the worst, and hope for the best! 

We have two concerns: 

1. Fuel burn is greater than expected: We can quickly reassess whether our remaining fuel, at the indicated new burn rate, will still take us to the destination - and also work out where we could reach if it won't.

2. We can take action on the engine temperatures: reduce the power setting/engine loading, perhaps trade some height for airflow to cool the engine. We would probably choose to avoid climbing. If our planned route had a essential climbs left along the way, we must consider whether we should choose a different route or even destination.

In this example, we will estimate that we will still will have enough fuel to reach the destination, but instead of having 2 hours reserve, it will drop to just 30 minutes. Our change in engine management has stabilised the temperature, but it is not coming down to where we would like it to be. 

We must make a choice now: a) Land as soon as possible at the nearest available airport, or b) push on and hope for the best. Let us see what happens if we choose b).

We continue, and try to ignore the growing signs of engine unrest around us, we stop checking every 6 minutes, because we don't want to know what is going on... then, we feel a lot of heat on our feet, and notice that the fuel level is dropping much quicker than before. We are no longer in a position to reach an airport. The engine suddenly splutters, the heat on our feet reaches unbearable levels - there is a final squeal from the engine - and... it stops. We will have to land just where we can. The available field is very short and rough - and we rip off the undercarriage, nosing over and destroying the engine and airframe. We find ourselves a little cut and bruised, hanging in our seatbelts - in hostile territory, with little water available and no visible way out of our predicament... but we must also ask 'who got us into this predicament'. Did we not ignore the signs? Our instruments were screaming at us! Let us hope that somebody comes to find us soon...

Now, let us go back in time and take a)...

We immediately divert, but we notice as we continue that the fuel level is dropping even quicker than before - and even with the action we have taken the engine is still getting hotter, albeit slowly. We decide that we must start looking for a place to land - and start hunting the most suitable location to put down. A clear strip, near a water source, and hopefully habitation. We see one, and cross check our instruments, we could go a little bit further safely, we monitor, and decide to move on for another minute; it is still not looking good; we will go back to that relatively safe place to land. If we don't we realise that we will risk damaging the plane itself or landing somewhere less hospitable. Pulling the power back, carrying out our emergency landing checks, we make a controlled, managed and damage free landing in the chosen field. The local people come out and greet us, and quickly organise a team to work with us to ensure that the aircraft is secured. We realise that our mixture setting was wrong, and that accounts for the increased fuel burn and the subsequent engine/heat problems. We are going to spend some time fixing it, and we will need support to move the aircraft by road to the nearest airport - but we are not far from one. Paperwork completed, and inspections carried out, we soon we find ourselves refuelled, and back in the air. We have lost some time, we are a little embarrassed, we are out of pocket, but our aircraft is fully functional and we are ready to face another adventure - because we took the right decisions in a timely manner. We wanted to push on, of course we did, but we realised, and accepted, that it would not be safe to do so - and appropriate action was taken.

Which of the two gave the better outcome? 

In your life, business and relationships, when you can see and feel things are not going as they should, and the instruments, fuel burn and noise tells you 'do something', I can assure you that it is better to take action early on, rather than continuing blindly, hoping that the problems will solve themselves. They rarely do. Instruments (whether aircraft instruments, or those people around you), are there to guide you in your decision making. It is good to heed them - or you just could find yourself in hostile territory, without power, without water, with a broken machine, hoping to be rescued.

Capt. Yaw is Chief Flying Instructor and Chief Engineer at WAASPS, and Pilot/Engineer with Medicine on the Move, Humanitarian Aviation Logistics ( e-mail

1 comment:

  1. I suppose you meant Nine hundred and ninety nine as against "On nine hundred and ninety nine..." there..

    Very inspiring post by the way.