Cheap doesn’t al­ways mean cheer­ful

Try­ing to save money by learn­ing to fly on a bar­gain club air­craft taught one pilot some valu­able lessons he hadn’t ex­pected

Pilot - - ILAFFT - By Anon

Many years and fly­ing time ago, my qual­i­fy­ing cross-coun­try flight — an 150nm trip with two land­ings, then back to base — turned out to be a much broader air­man­ship les­son than an­tic­i­pated.

Hav­ing done the ma­jor­ity of my flight train­ing on an RAF Univer­sity Air Squadron, with well-main­tained Grob Tu­tors, my post-grad­u­a­tion bud­get def­i­nitely could not stretch to such lux­ury. In­stead, I opted to fin­ish off my PPL fly­ing a club Cessna 150. This came at a bar­gain price, even with the de­cid­edly more ‘vin­tage’ feel than I was used to, and a con­stant boot­ful of rud­der to off­set the bent fuse­lage!

I’d been to the lan­d­away air­fields and done all the prep, so when the day rolled around on a per­fect CAVOK morn­ing, the in­struc­tor signed me off to start the trip. If I didn’t go to­day, I never would.

From the out­set the lit­tle old aero­plane brought some chal­lenges. The al­ter­na­tor wouldn’t charge at all at taxy­ing revs, the red warn­ing light stay­ing on. Also, In or­der to have enough fuel for the trip, I’d need full tanks. Un­for­tu­nately, the plane had a de­ferred fault with the fuel vent­ing sys­tem, mean­ing that the fuel would drip out down to the three-quar­ter level whilst on the ground. The only thing for it was to fill up and make a quick de­par­ture be­fore los­ing fuel or battery charge.

I set­tled down into the nav­i­ga­tion on the first leg. All was now well: great weather and it looked like I was a few min­utes ahead — I could even see the first air­field al­ready. I ra­dioed the air­field, let­ting them know I had “field in sight” and set up for a down­wind join. The Tower said they couldn’t see me though, and I couldn’t hear the mi­cro­lights in the cir­cuit on fre­quency.

It took a few more sec­onds and then the penny dropped: in my haste to de­part, I was not where I thought I was. In fact, I was at a mi­cro­light air­field a few miles from the in­tended des­ti­na­tion. I made my apolo­gies be­fore join­ing the cor­rect cir­cuit and bounc­ing down the run­way in use, still with more fuel than I was used to in the air­craft.

Pre­sent­ing my PPL XC form to the on-duty FISO, he an­no­tated ‘Ex­cel­lent’ in the Air­man­ship sec­tion, which made me won­der ex­actly how bad things had to get in or­der to re­ceive an ‘Un­sat­is­fac­tory’! Get­ting back in the air­craft, I set off for the sec­ond air­field and climbed away on the cor­rect nav track. Car­ry­ing out a FREDA check, I no­ticed the al­ter­na­tor light was still on. This usu­ally went away once air­borne, and cer­tainly was some­thing I’d never seen on the Tu­tor. Shortly after this I be­came a lot more con­cerned: I could smell burn­ing in the cock­pit and si­mul­ta­ne­ously be­came aware of heat on my knee. Con­vinced I was fac­ing an elec­tri­cal fire, I was puz­zled to see no CBS tripped, but the al­ter­na­tor warn­ing light still on. I shut down the mas­ter switch and ven­ti­lated the cabin, keep­ing the air­craft fly­ing but los­ing my ba­sic ser­vice from the LARS unit and the ra­dio nav equip­ment (battery GPS was well out of the bud­get then).

I de­cided to try to min­imise the elec­tri­cal load and run on battery only. It worked — the burn­ing smell dis­ap­peared but I knew I wouldn’t have long un­til I lost the ra­dio and flaps on the battery power. Paus­ing for a mo­ment, I was about to con­tact the con­troller when I sud­denly re­alised I had no idea where I was! Us­ing all my ca­pac­ity to di­ag­nose the fault, I had flown an odd head­ing, not helped by a rapidly wind­ing­down DI. This was no time for “tem­po­rar­ily un­sure of po­si­tion”, I ad­mit­ted I was lost, and the con­troller had clearly been try­ing to reach me dur­ing the elec­tri­cal trou­ble. To my shock, he in­formed me I was half a mile in­side con­trolled airspace and gave me a head­ing to fly out. Things were not go­ing well.

With help from the con­troller, I found a ground fea­ture to take me right to the sec­ond air­field. I just about man­aged to get a flap se­lec­tion and weak ra­dio call out be­fore the battery went com­pletely flat as I tax­ied in. I was de­lighted to be back on the ground, and the air­field FISO seemed pretty in­dif­fer­ent as I ex­plained the back­ground to my muted ra­dio calls. An­other ‘Ex­cel­lent’ for air­man­ship, ap­par­ently.

Calling the club CFI, he wasn’t en­tirely sur­prised, and flew out an­other (bet­ter con­di­tion) air­craft for me to fin­ish off the fi­nal qual­i­fy­ing cross-coun­try leg.

So, what had I learned from this cat­a­logue of er­rors? If there was one over­ar­ch­ing is­sue, it was the false econ­omy of cheap train­ing air­craft. I’d tried to do the train­ing for as lit­tle ex­pense as pos­si­ble, but had sac­ri­ficed air­craft re­li­a­bil­ity. While the many mi­nor snags would not have been an is­sue to a more ex­pe­ri­enced pilot, as a novice the cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect can be over­whelm­ing. Even when trained and pre­pared for in­di­vid­ual prob­lems, they add to the al­ready high work­load. Re­al­is­ti­cally, al­though this was an air­wor­thy air­craft for the cir­cuit flights it usu­ally did, it was re­ally not up to the job for cross-coun­try train­ing.

I could have been more thor­ough on my fault di­ag­no­sis. My tech­ni­cal knowl­edge wasn’t great at the time and I’d con­vinced my­self I had a cock­pit fire — a well drilled emer­gency from UAS days. The com­bined burn­ing smell from a slip­ping al­ter­na­tor belt and heat (ac­tu­ally from the sun as I changed head­ing, I later re­alised) were con­vinc­ing enough. With bet­ter knowl­edge of the type, or look­ing fur­ther in to the de­fects, I might have re­alised the sit­u­a­tion wasn’t as se­ri­ous as I’d thought and been able to fo­cus on other things.

The avi­ate, nav­i­gate, com­mu­ni­cate process had worked, but only just. In my rush to de­part, in or­der to keep my fuel, I’d set my­self up for a ba­sic nav­i­ga­tion er­ror. Later, al­though I’d kept the air­craft fly­ing (in it­self no easy feat on that old thing), I’d lost sit­u­a­tional aware­ness and the abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate ef­fec­tively. How­ever, by ad­mit­ting things were go­ing wrong to ATC early on, I’d pos­si­bly saved my­self fur­ther trou­ble in the form of a more se­ri­ous airspace in­cur­sion.

It prob­a­bly won’t sur­prise you that, after that ex­pe­ri­ence, I took on a sec­ond job and flew the best club air­craft in the fleet for my (suc­cess­ful) skills test!

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