How I’ve Tried to Kill Myself Flying Airplanes … and What I Have Learned as a Result


Posted on Dec 14, 2020 by Bill Frank

THERE IS AN OLD AVIATION adage that there are old pilots and bold pilots but no old, bold pilots. There is a ring of truth in that saying. I now qualify as old, but when younger (and ignorant) I was at times certainly bold. Fortunately, after almost 50 years of flying airplanes, I’ve learned a thing or two and more than a few times, that learning nearly killed me, and worse … others. Without claiming any special wisdom, I’d like to share some of my bad decisions, with the obvious intention of sharing something that may prevent others from making some of those same mistakes. As with reading accident reports, our nature is to deny that we would ever make those mistakes, until we do. Keep an open mind and avoid learning the hard way.

Number 1 – “Fuelishness”

The flight was a trip home to Cleveland, Mississippi, (KRNV) from the Houston area (KIWS). Flight time at 15,000 feet in my Cessna 340 would be approximately two hours, expecting to arrive around 10 p.m. This occurred during the 1980s and weather forecasting was not as accurate as it is with today’s computer generated modeling. At my destination, and in the surrounding area, weather was going to be VFR until fog was expected early the following morning.

Not wanting to pay the exorbitant prices for fuel in the Houston area (probably a whopping $1.50 a gallon), I planned for three hours of fuel and landing with a comfortable hour of reserve; more than legal, given the forecast weather. My wife and I departed later than expected, anticipating a new arrival time of midnight. It was a clear, moonless night. Despite some vectoring around the Houston TCA (later class B), we had a bit of a tailwind en route and fuel did not appear to be an issue.

En route Flight Advisory Service was closed for the night so nearing my destination I checked weather with Jackson Approach, as well as Memphis Center. The report was not good – widespread low visibility and low ceilings due to mist and fog. Definitely not what I was expecting. As I descended, I could see ground lights below me in the area of the airport and elected to proceed with the VOR A approach, at that time the only one available. In the time it took me to begin the approach the fog had thickened and ceilings lowered. I proceeded with the missed approach, contacted Memphis Center and when asked to “say intentions,” I had none. After wasting 20 minutes on an approach that I had no chance of completing, I wasted another ten minutes deciding where to divert to. The decision was ultimately made to proceed to Memphis, 30 minutes away with 30 minutes of estimated fuel left.

The only smart decision I made that night was to declare a fuel emergency. It was midnight and Memphis was landing FedEx on runway 27. As I was coming from the south, I was vectored onto the ILS for runway 36R. I was given weather of ceiling 200 feet and visibility of half a mile. I kept the autopilot coupled and vaguely remember seeing approach lighting allowing further descent. Seconds later I saw the runway centerline lighting, clicked the autopilot off, flared and landed with a distinct “thud.” The fuel gages read zero. Shaking, I managed to taxi to the FBO and shutdown.

The following morning, I asked that the aircraft be topped off with fuel. When I arrived at the FBO and signed the fuel slip, I was horrified. Doing some quick math, I realized that I had landed with about three gallons of gas left in each main tank. A missed approach would have resulted in the death of myself, my wife and possibly others on the ground. A very sobering experience.

What I learned:

The only time you can have too much fuel is when you are on fire. Always carry as much fuel as weight and balance will allow.

You can be legal and still run out of fuel. With the data linked weather available today this wouldn’t have happened. Use all available resources.

Always plan an alternate and never hesitate to divert.

Avoid getting sucked in to trying to complete the mission. I wanted to sleep in my own bed that night and both my wife and I had to be at work the next day. “Get-home-itis” is a very strong motivator for making poor decisions.

Never hesitate to declare an emergency. Doing so saved my life by allowing priority handling to an approach that was not in use that night. Had I been given vectors for the 27 ILS, I would not be writing this article.

Number 2 – A Rookie with a Problem and No Plan

It was 1979 and I was just handed my temporary IFR certificate. Anxious to put it to use I planned a trip the following weekend from Columbus, Ohio, (KCMH) to Boyne Mountain, Michigan, (KBFA) via the Litchfield VOR to avoid the Detroit TCA. There would be three of us on board for the day ski trip. The aircraft was a brand-new, single-engine Rockwell Commander 114, complete with a cassette tape player, which soon played a part in this story. The weather that day was widespread IFR with ceilings of 800-1,000 feet, well within my new-found capabilities … or so I thought.

We loaded up the airplane early in the morning with just enough fuel for my alternate of Traverse City, Michigan, (KTVC). Everyone was excited with the idea of hopping in a private airplane for a day of skiing. We soon departed into the gloom of 800-foot overcast, but within 20 minutes we were on top of the clouds at our cruising altitude of 6,000 feet with an absolute clear, bright, sunny day above the undercast. My friends were suitably impressed, though that would not last.

Somewhere around the Litchfield VOR the alternator field wire loosened and disconnected leaving only battery power. A small yellow light on the far right of the instrument panel, indicating loss of the alternator, dutifully lit up, completely unnoticed by me, the pilot. I was engrossed in conversation with my passengers and listening to music on the cassette player. How cool, indeed. Soon enough the music output began to slur, my first indication that something was amiss. Of course, my initial reaction was that something was wrong with the tape player or the cassette itself, not uncommon in those days. After switching tapes, with no change, I suddenly noticed the “idiot light” on the panel and realized what was happening. Now what?

I mean, how could this happen to me on my very first IFR flight? How unfair! Once I accepted the situation, I surprisingly got down to business. I was very quickly dealing with a total electrical failure. No radio, no transponder, no HSI, no navigation and no plan. I had clouds below me for as far as I could see, which in clear air was probably 100 miles, but limited fuel. It was decision time. How I dealt with this emergency would obviously affect the lives of all of us on board.

I first had to explain to my very nervous passengers that the loss of electrical power would not affect the engine or control of the aircraft. I would navigate by the “wet” compass and find an airport. I knew we were somewhere south of Lansing, Michigan. Figuring that most of the major roads in the area would be running North-South my game plan was to initiate a slow descent on an easterly heading until breaking out below the overcast. The compass would be most accurate on an East-West heading (remember I just finished my IFR rating) and ceilings should be around 1,000 feet AGL. Before you scream “idiot,” remember this was 1979 and cellphone towers didn’t exist. Though Michigan is not known for its Volume 15, Number 9 COPA Pilot | 57 mountains, proceeding north would take me into progressively higher terrain. We began our descent through the clouds. As hoped, we broke out of the clouds about 1,000 feet AGL.

Again, as hoped, we found a four-lane highway and followed it north towards Lansing. I eventually found a large airport with a layout consistent with KLAN and began to line up on the longest runway. Finally, some good news as I saw a bright green light from the tower. I lowered the gear handle, not, of course, expecting green lights and continued the approach. About half a mile from the runway threshold the green light changed to a flashing red light. What now? It finally occurred to me that the landing gear was an ELECTRO-hydraulic system and the gear never lowered. I aborted the landing and flew away from the airport. Now sweating profusely, I asked the front seat passenger to read the emergency checklist for lowering the gear and managed to control the airplane, stay below the clouds all while extending the gear. I returned to the airport, again got a green light, and landed without incident. The field wire was quickly reattached by a mechanic, but we all felt we had enough and returned home.

What I learned:

Monitor your systems, and more importantly, know what your normal readings are. A slightly low oil pressure may be within normal range but be signaling an impending failure. A discharging battery means a failed alternator.

Know where the nearest VFR conditions are. In my case I neglected to brief that and couldn’t ask once I lost all electrical power.

Don’t ever put yourself, and passengers, in a position where you must do a blind descent in IMC conditions. Always have an out. The outcome could easily have been tragic with todays’ proliferation of towers.

Know your systems. I was totally distracted dealing with the total electrical failure, and never considered how the gear worked. As a result, I had a second emergency to deal with in getting the gear down while scud running under a low overcast.

If the radios get quiet for an inordinate amount of time, query ATC, they will probably appreciate the conversation on a slow day.

Number 3 – Hypoxia

I used to fly some freight at night in a twin Cessna 402. The mission that evening was from Columbus, Ohio, to Burlington, Vermont, then on to Buffalo, New York, before returning home. It was winter, so I’ll let you imagine how the weather was. It didn’t matter, my job was to go anyway. The Cessna 402 was equipped with boots, heated props and alcohol for the windshield, nonetheless it was not FIKI certified. It was also unpressurized.

On departing Columbus, I started picking up ice at around 6,000 feet. I queried ATC for a tops report but none was available in my area. I asked for higher, slid my seat back to grab the oxygen cannula from the side pocket, plugged in the cannula, slid the seat back forward and passing 13,000 feet went on oxygen. I ended up at FL190 before I was on top of the clouds and out of icing. It was a good 30 minutes later that things started to get weird. It began with a hilarious exchange with ATC about changing frequencies. The audacity, I thought, of ATC wanting to change frequency when the one I was on was working just fine. Now if I could only find the blasted radio …

Having military training, I had been through the altitude chamber numerous times. One of the things you learn from that experience is to recognize your personal symptoms of hypoxia. My primary symptom was that I got “giddy,” everything was suddenly humorous. Now remember, the pulse oximeter had yet to be invented. A dim lightbulb began to glow in the back of my mind. Something wasn’t right. I regained enough wit about me to realize I was hypoxic. In sliding my seat back and forth, I had chopped my cannula in half, and was receiving no oxygen. No worries I thought as I reached over to the copilots’ side pocket and grabbed for a cannula, but there was nothing. I hazily reasoned that I was now in trouble. No way, I thought, was I going to descend back down into the icing, I would just find another cannula, somewhere. I crawled out of my seat (yep, single pilot) and began unstrapping the cargo behind me.

I think I invented Tetris that day, but somehow managed access to another side pocket. Now what was it that I was looking for? My time of useful consciousness was rapidly running out. It was a “there by the grace of God” moment that I found a cannula. Now if I would have attempted to immediately return to the cockpit, I would not be relating this story. Instead something pushed me to plug it in right there. After I took a few breaths the lights came back on and I was able to get back in my seat. Now fully coherent I had some explaining to do with ATC. They were as grateful to have me back as I was to be back. The landing in Burlington, on an iced over runway, is another story for another time; let’s just say I earned my money that night.

What I learned:

The only answer for hypoxia is an immediate descent. Once you have regained a clear head, you can figure out what went wrong. I was lucky, very lucky, that I survived.

Use the PRICE checklist (as taught by April Gafford of JATO Aviation). I do this check on the 1.5-hour.

P = Check the pressure gauge to determine how much oxygen you have.

R = Regulator. Check the proper setting for how much oxygen flow you are getting, and keep in mind there are different scales for oxysaver cannulas.

I = Index finger, check pulse oxygen.

C = Run the entire length of the cannula checking for leaks, kinks and secure connections.

E = Emergency plan – what are you going to do if you are not getting oxygen?

If you ever have the chance to participate in an altitude chamber course, please take advantage of the opportunity. It is important to learn your initial symptoms of hypoxia.

Number 4 – Normalization of Deviancy

Use of the term “normalization of deviancy” became popular after the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. It was quickly realized that the term had wide ranging application. As an example, I have some personal experience with the term.

I was training with a client in his early G1 Cirrus SR22 (six pack) with analog instrumentation. We planned a full day of training with multiple approaches at several airports. On the first takeoff of the day I noted the fuel flow was a “little” low at 26.5 gph. I checked that mixture and throttle were full forward. The engine was running smoothly and I mentioned to the client that he might want to have it adjusted. We probably did eight approaches that day with a combination of missed approaches and full stop landings. On each takeoff the max fuel flow continued to diminish, and in my mind I continued to normalize the abnormal with all kinds of rationalizations. The engine continued to run normally, until it didn’t. Engine driven fuel pumps are pretty reliable and generally do not fail catastrophically, instead they fail slowly, and this one was talking to me all day.

Our next to last approach was into Mobile Downtown airport (KBFM) in Alabama. We were on the ILS to runway 32 and approaching the Final Approach Fix, power was reduced and T/O flaps selected. Everything appeared normal. As we descended on the glideslope our airspeed started to slow for the given power setting. I bumped up the throttle a bit, but no response. It took a few long seconds to realize that the engine was dead and the prop windmilling. Denial further extended a timely response. I glanced at the altimeter and we were passing through about 600 feet AGL over the water in Mobile bay. I did not feel CAPS was an option at this point and instructed the client to continue. We cleared the breakwater in the flare and came to a stop on the runway. A few feet less of altitude and we would have impacted the rocks, almost certainly with disastrous results.

What I learned:

Know what the normal takeoff fuel flow is for your airplane. Respect it and adjust as necessary to maintain it.

Don’t accept any engine indication that isn’t where it should be.

As an instructor part of my job is keeping up with the “big picture.” I knew the fuel flow was not right, I knew it was getting worse but I normalized the deviation.

It is easy to do, but don’t fall prey to rationalization. I got away with it, barely.

Unfortunately, there are a few more stories I could relate, mostly when I was a young, bold pilot. What has allowed me to become an old, not-so-bold pilot is that I’ve learned from those mistakes and taken them to heart. It is unlikely that you will ever experience the same emergencies, so focus on the “what I learned” portion. I’ve spent the last 20 years of my instructing trying to teach clients how not to kill themselves. It’s great to fly that perfect approach or grease a landing, but it’s how you take on risk management and what you learn from dealing with abnormal situations that allows you to become an old, not-so-bold pilot.

This article was initially published in the OCTOBER 2020 issue of COPA Pilot.

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