1000 Hours

A couple weeks ago I received an email congratulating me on 1000 hours flying with Mission Aviation Fellowship accident free. I received this commendation with mixed feelings. While I’ve worked hard over the last several years to fly safely, I’ve often felt that accomplishing that goal was a crazy mix of skill, caution, luck, Divine intervention, and excellent training. I’m honored to have reached this goal, but I look forward to the next flight and worry.

I’m not worried that I’ll decide not to be safe. I worry that I’ll let my guard down. I worry that I’ll start being just a little bit lazy. I worry that I’ll start to forget the lessons I’ve learned over the last 1000 hours.

So as an exercise of reminding myself, and as a way to share some hard earned lessons as a bush pilot, here is a list guidelines to remember.

  1. Take more fuel. You’ll never regret leaving behind that one bag to have another 20 minutes of fuel on board.
  2. Have about 3x more outs than you think you need.
  3. You can push fuel reserves, daylight, or weather, but never more one.
  4. Terrain is always closer than you think it is, unless you’re looking at it, then it’s farther away.
  5. If you can’t see due to low visibility, don’t go.
  6. If you think you can see in low visibility, you actually can’t, so don’t go.
  7. If can see, try it.
  8. Marginal weather in the mountains is really IFR weather.
  9. You can never check your airplane for damage too much.
  10. If something isn’t right, but you don’t know what, turn around and go home. Better to figure out what it was safe on the ground than on an accident report.
  11. Fridays are for mistakes. If it’s Friday you’re probably tired. Quit as soon as you catch yourself screwing up little things.
  12. Always fly a stable approach. This will be the hardest at your home base.
  13. Practice your emergency procedures, but do it safely. Touch drills are best.
  14. Passengers don’t know half of the danger they are in. Educate them if they can handle it, assure them if they can’t.
  15. Take-off performance isn’t a joke. Know your aircraft performance numbers for your altitude and add lots of margin.

What are some rules of thumb that you use?

Unexpected

My weather flying is so much less scientific than in other countries. In the modern world pilots look at high and low pressure charts, consider winds aloft, check temperature and dew point spreads, and even understand what to expect as the barometer rises and falls. Me? I look outside and decide if I can see that hill. If I can, then it’s worth taking off.

Often tropical weather changes rapidly with isolated storms. Thankfully, those isolated storms are rarely embedded here in Papua. If there’s a bad storm, one to avoid, usually it’s clear for miles and miles around it.

One day I departed on a longer flight leg than normal. I was headed all the way to Sentani, an hour north and east of my home airport in Wamena. Enroute to Sentani there were several isolated storms, and I worked my way around them quite easily.

After dropping my passengers off and getting loaded back up for our return flight, I started up, got cleared for departure and left Sentani behind. I wanted to get home before things got much worse.

sigwx_201705160600

This map spans nearly 3000 miles and is the best source of weather we have.

Once I was airborne, I found the weather had moved. I’d expected that, and confirmation was comforting. To get around the storms I initially headed almost due west. 40 miles later I rounded the end of the worse of the storms and found myself 12,000′ above the jungle with about a hundred miles visibility. There were a couple more smaller storms building on my route but they looked pretty insignificant compared to the huge one I’d just circumnavigated with tops only at ¬†an estimated 18,000′ to 20,000′ or so.

I had a couple options for how to deal with the smaller storms in my path. I opted for shooting straight between them over some lower clouds connecting them. I set my course, switched on the auto-pilot and took those few minutes to do some monthly instrument checks.

A few moments later I’d finished my task and re-evaluated my situation. I was on course to slide between the two building clouds, but I realized that I’d be passing through the very tops of the clouds between them. This didn’t concern me at all. In hindsight, it really should have.

I hadn’t even entered the first cloud when the updraft began. As soon as I felt that, I knew I might be in for a ride. I killed the auto-pilot and reduced power. Seconds later it hit. As the misty swirls engulfed my plane, what felt like a huge ocean swell washed over my place rocking it’s nose up and dropping one wing. I flew on instinct. Power back. Maintain pitch attitude. Accept altitude deviations. The hits kept coming. My vision tunneled in on the instruments as the grey clouds around the plane tossed me about in my seat.

It lasted about 20-30 seconds. But even that felt too long. Out the other side of the clouds I popped, and again I had a beautiful few. Miles and miles of jungle stretched out ahead with blue sky and a few puffy white clouds along the way between me and the mountains nearly a hundred miles away.

As the plane droned on as if nothing had happened, I pondered how I could have missed the possibility of that turbulence. All the signs were there. A rapidly building cloud at 12,000′ between two known storms. Isolated storms building and moving through the area. I just hadn’t been thinking about it clearly. Perhaps I was tired. Perhaps the altitude was affecting my thinking process. Whatever it was, it was a cheap lesson for me. Don’t mess with storms. When they say in training to stay 20 miles away from a known storm, they mean it. Keep clear and arrive alive.

Have you been surprised by the weather? What events can you think of that contributed to you being surprised like that?

Watch “Departure from Holuwon, a back country airstrip in Papua, Indonesia.” on YouTube

Who’s in Charge Here, Anyway – Flying Magazine Article

Here’s a cool article to follow up my thoughts from yesterday.

Sky Kings: Who’s in Charge Here, Anyway? | Flying Magazine