Let’s make it home

Richard L. Watson


A few days ago a pilot I know died in a fiery crash doing what he loved best, an Angel Flight returning home alone after taking a sick kid for medical treatment.  He crashed at his home airport about ½ mile from the runway about 9:30 at night shortly after reporting some kind of problem with the plane to ATC.  It may have been foggy.  His family waiting at the airport heard the impact, but didn’t realize what happened until the emergency vehicles arrived.  I am NOT going to analyze what went wrong, because I don’t know any details and what I have already stated may not be accurate. 

 I am going to take a look at some of the risks that we take flying our planes.  I have taken a lot of risks in my 58 years.  I lived and traveled on boats, both sail and power, private and commercial for over 23 years.  I have been through more storms at sea than I can count, including through the eye of a near hurricane strength tropical storm in a 27 year old wooden sailboat.  That was the peak experience of both Betsy and myself.  I have worn out a pile of motorcycles and traveled and lived in some pretty rough places. I don’t do any of those things anymore, partly because going to sea is just too much work and I am bored with it and partly because I am not nearly as brave as I used to be.  I used to think it great fun to go to sea in a whole gale and it was. Now I think it is somewhat nuts.  

I am glad I have done all of those things, because they have been incredible experiences.  Betsy has been with me through most of them and the shared danger has tied us together in a way that few couples will ever experience.  We are both still here because we each had the necessary skills to survive extreme conditions. She is not so brave anymore either.  When I was younger, I couldn’t understand how people got less brave as they got older.  It wasn’t going to happen to me. Well, I was sure wrong about that.  Maybe, after a while, you realize how many close calls you have had and decide that you maybe  should not push it so hard.  Maybe it is judgement, but not really.  There is no way I would want to not have had those experiences.  They made me who I am.  Too many people spend their lives with no risk, or at least no perceived risk and miss some fantastic life changing experiences.  

 Well, how does all of this fit into flying.  I am getting there.  When I first began flying about 10 years ago, I liked to fly low. I don’t fly low anymore.  In fact, I generally don’t fly below 2000 ft. above ground level even over a good emergency strip like a beach.  I like at least 5000 ft. above hostile terrain and more when possible.  Why is that?  I haven’t had an engine failure in my 2200 hours (not much experience compared with my nautical hours, or compared to many pilots I know).  Not much experience compared to a lot of pilots who crashed for that matter.  

 Well in that little bit of time, I have had a vapor lock resulting in a loss of about 75 percent power for a vertical loss of 3000 ft.  I have had a stuck valve in flight and one on the ground.  Those experiences made me realize that I had had valves stick before for a few seconds at a time, but had not recognized the symptoms.  I had an engine FULL of metal that had to be rebuilt.  Found that one on the ground too.  I don’t know how many hours I flew with that engine that was tearing itself to pieces.  Well, that is why I like to have some distance between my plane and the ground.  

 I don’t fly at night and I am not an instrument pilot and don’t intend to become an instrument pilot.  Why is that.  Well, I think it is prudent risk management.  I don’t have to get anywhere ever with the plane, I just use it for pleasure.  I make several long trips a year, mostly out west to the mountain states, but if we don’t get to our destination one day, we will get there the next or the next.  It seems that the more we travel with the plane, the less important it becomes to make that day’s destination if we divert for weather.  That is probably good.  I have several friends who are aircraft mechanics and pilots. They avoid single engine IFR and single engine night flying like the plague.  I am a pretty good mechanic and deeply involved in the maintenance and improvement of my planes.  I don’t trust them either.  

 In day VFR (Visual Flight Rules) conditions in a light single, if you have an electrical failure, or a radio failure or a flight instrument failure it is a total non-event.  In fact, it is a total non-event if anything at all goes wrong with the plane except engine, flight surface controls or airframe integrity.  The plane will still fly just fine and you can continue to a safe landing place with basic pilotage.  Even if you have total engine failure, the plane still flies and in most cases, if you have some altitude to buy time and distance, you can find a place to land reasonably safely.  You can probably even handle some modes of failure of the flight controls.  The outlook is much worse at night, worse still in instrument weather conditions and incredibly worse in instrument weather conditions at night.  That is an enormous increase in risk to get somewhere you don’t have to get to.  

 It is easy to fly partial panel with an instructor sitting next to you, if the vacuum system or some of the gyros fail.  The easiest part is that the instructor covers the failed instrument or instruments.  In the real world, they will probably fail slowly and you HAVE TO NOTICE that they have failed and WHICH ONES ARE LYING.  That is a whole different ball of wax. When they fail with the instructor in the plane, you have just been expecting it and have prepared your brain to deal with it, it is not a surprise.  Well, that is just one of the problems.  You can also lose power, or electricity for the radios, or both at the same time. How many people replace the batteries before they will no longer start the engine.  Many planes are flying around with batteries near the end of their useful life.  I know mine do.  I don’t replace them early.  This means that an engine or alternator/generator/regulator failure will also result VERY shortly in total electrical failure.  Now, if it is night instrument meteorological conditions, this is a very bad situation.  You can’t talk and you can’t navigate.  A flashlight and a handheld radio may save the day, or it may not.  Is the risk worth it to get some where you don’t have to get.  

 Flying at night in a single engine plane is beautiful.  It sure will get ugly, if the engine quits.  Is it worth the risk. I bet that pilots who are full time mechanics don’t fly much at night. The ones I know don’t.  They know how many things can fail and how often they do. 

 The risk ratchets up considerably in rental planes.  You never really know the condition of the plane you are flying.  If you own the plane, or fly a plane professionally and fly it a lot, that is different.  The average renter has no idea, the condition of the plane he is flying.  It doesn’t matter if the plane gets great maintenance.  The last pilot who flew it may have not squawked a problem.  He may not have even realized the plane had a problem.  Think about that when you take off into night flight, or night IMC in a plane you don’t really know. Most of us that own planes, own OLD planes with OLD engines that have been rebuilt many times.  Most of the accessories are OLD and have been rebuilt many times.  We fix things in planes that we throw away in cars because plane parts are so incredibly expensive to replace with new.  This does NOT increase safety. On the other hand, there have been so many bad NEW crankshafts and other parts from both Lycoming and Continental that sometimes old may be better.  We are not flying super reliable turboprop planes with two engines, or at least two electrical systems and two vacuum systems.  We are flying old piston singles without redundant anything.  

 Lets be careful.  We don’t want to lose anymore friends.  Well, these have been some not too organized thoughts from somebody who is not as brave as he used to be.  Let’s have fun flying, but let’s make sure we get home to our families, even if that means we get home the next day.  


Richard L. Watson