ILAFFT

A LES­SON LEARNED ON A FLIGHT IN UN­FA­MIL­IAR TER­RI­TORY

Flying - - CONTENTS - By Roger Keech

A les­son learned on a flight in un­fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory

Learn­ing to fly is still one of the great­est ad­ven­tures, even in this mod­ern high-tech dig­i­tal era. And the first solo is for most pi­lots the most mem­o­rable flight. I was so eu­phoric when my in­struc­tor climbed out of the Aeronca 7AC and told me to take it once around the pat­tern that I for­got to push the carb heat knob back in af­ter our last land­ing and took off with less than max avail­able power. But with­out a 200-plus-pound in­struc­tor in the back seat, the ea­ger Champ seemed to lit­er­ally leap into the air. Though it was decades ago, I can still re­mem­ber the chill­ing thought af­ter reach­ing pat­tern al­ti­tude that get­ting safely back on the ground, now 1,000 feet be­low, de­pended solely on my newly ac­quired and never-tested skill and judg­ment.

It took an­other 10 months to com­plete the re­quired pri­vate pi­lot dual and solo flight time. Prophet­i­cally, the FAA ex­am­iner who filled out my new cer­tifi­cate told me that I was now li­censed to “learn to fly.” But in the same 10 months, I had mar­ried and taken a low­er­pay­ing job as an en­gi­neer­ing in­struc­tor at Cal Poly State Col­lege (now a state univer­sity). I was putting my bride through col­lege, and rent­ing an air­plane was not in the bud­get.

Since I had grad­u­ated from col­lege be­fore get­ting drafted, the so­lu­tion was to use my GI Bill ben­e­fits to pay for ad­vanced flight train­ing. Work­ing my way up to a com­mer­cial li­cense with in­stru­ment and mul­ti­engine rat­ings kept me in the air, build­ing hours. I ended up with a CFII cer­tifi­cate, which blended well with my new po­si­tion as fac­ulty ad­viser to the school’s Mus­tang Fly­ing Club.

Flight in­struc­tion is the ul­ti­mate teach­ing en­vi­ron­ment. The com­bi­na­tion of eye-mus­cle co­or­di­na­tion and a work­ing, gut-level knowl­edge of the physics of flight makes for a com­plex learn­ing sit­u­a­tion. The chal­lenge was stim­u­lat­ing to the mind, and each stu­dent who com­pleted his or her ticket was a re­ward to the soul. But af­ter tak­ing 25 stu­dents through the pro­gram, even that be­gan to lose its lus­ter.

For­tu­nately, I shared my feel­ings with Rick, a den­tist friend who had just started work­ing with a Baja Cal­i­for­nia med­i­cal mis­sion. On three-day week­ends every other month, they flew 400 miles south of the bor­der to a com­bi­na­tion or­phan­age/clinic to per­form free ser­vices for the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion who had no other med­i­cal op­tions. He in­vited me to go on the next trip af­ter ex­plain­ing that non­air­craft own­ers paid $180 each to help de­fray the ex­pense of travel and lodg­ing.

Of course I ac­cepted. And three

weeks later, on a Thurs­day even­ing, we hopped aboard a south­bound Bo­nanza to the small, un­con­trolled air­port in Corona, Cal­i­for­nia. There, we were met by Car­los, the mis­sion direc­tor, who put us up for the night at his home.

The next morn­ing, we drove to the air­port for break­fast at the small cafe. It was crowded with about two dozen med­i­cal and sup­port per­son­nel in­clud­ing vol­un­teer air­craft own­ers and pi­lots. This was go­ing to be a six-air­craft mis­sion, in­clud­ing four sin­gle-en­gine air­planes and two twins. Since I had a mul­ti­engine rat­ing and the mis­sion’s in­surance re­quired a copi­lot in each twin, I was as­signed the right seat in an older high-time Piper Aztec.

Ralph, my “cap­tain,” ex­plained that the right en­gine was rather “tired,” burned oil and tended to over­heat in a climb. No prob­lem,

I thought. I had flown my share of older, poorly main­tained air­craft.

Our first leg was from Corona to Mex­i­cali, Mex­ico. We lined up for take­off be­hind the slow­est fixed-gear air­planes. We were the se­cond to last to de­part, and af­ter start­ing our ini­tial climb, Ralph opened our bor­der cross­ing flight plan with the lo­cal FSS. At first, the Aztec per­formed as ex­pected, but by the time we reached 4,500 feet, the right en­gine oil tem­per­a­ture hit the red line. Ralph lev­eled off and re­duced MP to 20 inches on both en­gines. While this slowed us a bit, the right en­gine cooled enough in 10 min­utes to re­sume our climb to 6,500 feet.

We made our “10 min­utes to bor­der” cross­ing re­port to the San Diego FSS as we passed El Cen­tro and headed straight for Mex­i­cali In­ter­na­tional. The tower con­troller was ex­cep­tion­ally pro­fi­cient in bilin­gual ra­dio com­mu­ni­ca­tions and cleared us for the down­wind leg. Look­ing over the air­port en­vi­ron­ment while still in the air, I no­ticed the lack of a taxi­way for the long jet run­way. Ralph joked that the fund­ing for the taxi­way went into some of­fi­cial’s pocket and that “back taxi­ing” was the rule here.

All of the mis­sion pi­lots lined up for the less ex­pen­sive Pe­mex fuel while the pas­sen­gers went into the ter­mi­nal to clear cus­toms and ob­tain visas. Car­los ad­vised us to tip the agents do­ing the pa­per­work $2 each to “grease” the process. I had much to learn about do­ing of­fi­cial busi­ness in Mex­ico.

Back in the Aztec, Ralph went through an ab­bre­vi­ated check­list and called out “clear right.” He hit the starter but noth­ing hap­pened. We pulled the na­celle up­per cowl­ing and a quick check of the sys­tem in­di­cated a burned-out starter mo­tor. A quick check with the lo­cal me­chan­ics in­di­cated that a re­place­ment would have to come from the U.S. side of the bor­der.

Car­los was used to prob­lems like this. The Co­manche B that was part of our group had left on the se­cond leg of our flight about 30 min­utes be­fore the starter fail­ure. Its pi­lot, Ge­orge, was a cer­ti­fied en­gine me­chanic. So, the next plane to leave, a Cessna 182, was to con­tact the Co­manche in the air and re­quest that he re­turn af­ter dis­charg­ing his pas­sen­gers at the clinic. That should get him back in time for an­other trip in case the Aztec was grounded for the rest of the day. Time was crit­i­cal be­cause in Mex­ico, twins can fly at night but sin­gle-en­gine air­craft can­not.

So we waited while the other air­plane re­turned state­side to pick up a re­built starter. The Co­manche made it back first. He had re­ally stretched his fuel re­serves, and it took more than 60 gal­lons to fill the tanks. Car­los then de­cided on our fi­nal course of ac­tion.

Since I had time in a Co­manche 180, I would fly the B model with most of the re­main­ing med­i­cal per­son­nel and Car­los in the right seat to help nav­i­gate. He said if we left im­me­di­ately we would have suf­fi­cient re­main­ing day­light. Ge­orge agreed to stay and help re­pair the Aztec. He re­ported that the weather to the or­phan­age was ceil­ing and vis­i­bil­ity un­lim­ited.

With that pirep, I made the wrong as­sump­tion that I had all of the pre­flight in­for­ma­tion needed and hopped in be­hind a fa­mil­iar set of in­stru­ments and con­trols. The pas­sen­gers boarded, with two smaller den­tal as­sis­tants oc­cu­py­ing the nar­row third row. A call to the tower cleared us for an in­ter­sec­tion take­off to the south. With a 270 hp Ly­coming, I had no doubt that the 3,200 feet avail­able would be more than enough for our needs.

Wow — what a dif­fer­ence that ex­tra 90 hp made. As we cleared the air­port en­vi­ron­ment and ad­justed the power for a cruise climb, Car­los di­rected me to sim­ply fol­low the dwin­dling Colorado River un­til it emp­tied into the Gulf of Cal­i­for­nia. To me, this was a fly­ing ad­ven­ture of a life­time. Lev­el­ing at 10,500 feet, we con­tin­ued along the east coast of Baja un­til we came to Punta Fi­nal. There, we turned 10 de­grees to the right and aligned with two dry lakes about 50 miles ahead.

It was then, about an hour into our flight, that I be­came con­cerned about how low the sun was get­ting. The sec­tional for the area showed we had an­other 200 miles to go. The Piper’s true-air­speed dial in­di­cated we were do­ing about 185 mph. How much day­light did we have left? It didn’t help when Car­los ex­plained that all of the airstrips be­tween us and our des­ti­na­tion be­longed to the mil­i­tary and we would face ar­rest if we landed on one, even in case of emer­gency. We were out of range for any help by ra­dio, and I started feel­ing guilty. Our quick change in plans had made me the PIC, and I failed to ob­tain an im­por­tant piece of in­for­ma­tion for the safety of this long cross-coun­try leg.

For­tu­nately, my en­gi­neer­ing back­ground sug­gested a so­lu­tion. I asked Car­los to hold a chart plot­ter up­side down along the hor­i­zon­tal por­tion of the in­stru­ment panel while I put the right wingtip un­der the sun and lev­eled our “bird.” I then put a pen­cil in the hole of the pro­trac­tor por­tion and read where its shadow crossed the mark­ings. Car­los thought I had gone nuts, but my crude sex­tant showed that the sun was about 20 de­grees above the hori­zon. I then ex­plained

to my puz­zled pas­sen­gers that with Earth turn­ing at 15 de­grees per hour, we should have about an hour and twenty min­utes left be­fore sun­set.

At our present speed, that would be cut­ting it too close. I didn’t want to chance try­ing to land on a dirt airstrip I’d never seen with­out a chance for a missed ap­proach and a se­cond time around the pat­tern. But we also had the ad­van­tage of be­ing at a rel­a­tively high al­ti­tude — po­ten­tial en­ergy to put to use since our des­ti­na­tion was at 60 feet msl. So I trimmed the nose down slightly and ad­vanced the power to give us a rate of de­scent of 200 fpm and a TAS of 200 mph. That should do it.

In about 20 min­utes, we spot­ted Baja’s I-1 on the Pa­cific coast. I turned early to save a few miles, which al­lowed us to grad­u­ally merge with our ground path to the clinic. In an­other 15 min­utes, Car­los, who had made the flight dozens of times, was able to give me a di­rect bear­ing that would save us an­other few miles.

When we ar­rived over the 40-acre com­pound, we were down to 1,000 feet msl and the sun was kiss­ing the hori­zon. We made it with lit­tle time to spare.

Un­less you have vis­ited the Viz­caino Desert, you can­not ap­pre­ci­ate the lack of twi­light be­tween sun­set and to­tal dark­ness. There are no nearby hills to re­flect the rays of light still stream­ing above ground level. For­tu­nately, our first ap­proach worked, with no trou­ble in judg­ing our crit­i­cal height dur­ing round-out and touch­down. But by the time we had tax­ied to the park­ing area, tied down and walked to the din­ing hall, it was pitch-black out­side.

The con­grat­u­la­tions from the pi­lots inside didn’t keep me from men­tally kick­ing my­self. It was only a week from the win­ter sol­stice — the short­est day of the year — and I had flown al­most 400 miles into un­known ter­ri­tory with a dif­fer­ent set of flight rules and with­out a com­plete brief­ing, which would have in­cluded the lo­cal time of sun­set. Les­son learned!

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