19 replies, 1 voice Last updated by rozh 3 months, 1 week ago
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    • #5833

      Jon K
      @jon k

      Congrats!  You are now a commercial pilot!  You just got hired at a scenic tour company with a 91.147 LOA to do scenic flights.  Its your fist day on the job and you already have a married couple you will be taking on a Sunset flight down the beach for their anniversary.  You show up to the airport early, and make sure they don’t put too much fuel in the Cessna 172 you will be flying since you do not know how much your two customers weigh, but you know between the three of you and fuel you will be pushing the max gross of the old 172.  You ask for them to add 5 gallons a side knowing that will give you 30 mins of burn fuel, plus 30 mins reserve, plus whatever else was already left in the tanks (presumably the airplane last landed with at least 30 minutes in the tanks right?).

      You’re two customers show up to the airport just a little late, and now you’ve been waiting in the FBO so long you are really hungry, and need to go to the bathroom, but as soon as they show up they want to get in the plane and catch the sunset, so you walk out to the plane with them and give them a quick safety brief.  They want to sit next to each other for the flight, and despite you asking one of them to sit up front with you for weight and balance, they insist on sitting together, and with no one to back you up with what you are saying, and the fact that the ink on your commercial certificate is barely dry, you concede and let them hop in the back together (they probably weigh 180lbs or less each).

      You complete your checklist, taxi out noting how the airplane feels different with the extra weight in it.  After you takeoff there’s a few little bumps, but the air smooths out climbing through 300′.  You cruise down the beach and catch the beautiful sunset, and are surprised at how fast your ground speed is.  Since they only paid for a 30 minute flight, you turn around just after the sun dips below the horizon and start heading back down the beach to the airport.  As you head back towards the airport, your passengers are asking you questions about flying and the airplane, but you are having trouble hearing them through the intercom.  You examine the audio panel and try to troubleshoot the issue.  Everything appears normal, and the ammeter is indicating just slightly past zero as it always does indicating a slight charge.  As you flick the ammeter, the needle bounces to the negative side, showing a drain on the battery, and now it becomes obvious, your alternator is not working and you have no idea how long it has not been functioning for.

      When things start going wrong…..

      At this point here are the things you do know:

      • your battery is drained to an undetermined level
      • you have at least 30-45 minutes of fuel remaining
      • you have two passengers that are getting agitated and worried because they cannot talk to you
      • you’re 20 miles from the small airport you departed from
      • you have to land at the airport you departed from per the regulations (under scenic tour flights)
      • and the daylight is fading fast

      You take off your headset and yell to your passengers in back that the intercom is not working to talk with them and not to worry, its no big deal.  You are also preoccupied thinking of landing back at the airport with very little daylight as your lights may not work, and you know you need to start turning off some of the lights and electronics to conserve battery power.  You’re not sure if your radio will actually have enough power to turn on the runway lights. You scan the instrument panel and notice the right fuel gauge reads zero, while the left still reads around 8 gallons.  You figure that is just due to the electrical problem you’re experiencing, they both read 10 gallons when last checked prior to takeoff.

      You think of landing at another non-towered airport that you are overflying on your way back to base so you will have more daylight to land in (plus the lights there are on 24/7 instead of pilot controlled), but you legally have to land where you departed from and your new boss won’t be too impressed if you strand his airplane and customers at a different airport.  You decide to continue on to where you originally departed from and fight the headwind back there. You add some power and speed up trying to race the setting sun.

      Now that you’re getting close to the airport and its dusk, you figure since it’s non-towered you’ll just make a tight right base to the runway to save time and land asap. As you setup for the right base entry, you go to set 10 degrees of flaps per usual, and forget that by moving that flap lever you probably just used every last drop of energy left in your battery (oops). The flaps barely move and all you can hear through your headset is a cross between some sort of electric hiss and squeal. You try to click the lights on with no avail and decide to just turn the radios and intercom off to get rid of the awful noise. You try to turn around and tell your passengers you will be landing soon, but they are visibly shaken and its impossible to try and calm them while trying to scream over the noise of the engine.

      You are already descending through 500 feet now and need to just focus on landing the airplane in pretty dim conditions. With the low lighting, you accidentally overshoot the runway a little bit, and try to tighten your turn to the runway with right rudder all while slowing down to final approach speed. What you are not thinking of is by applying rudder and making just a slight skidding turn all of your fuel is sloshing to the left sides of the tanks, which would be fine if the fuel selector was on both (would be bad if the fuel selector was on the left tank), but lets say you at least remembered to have it on both. More bad news, that funky fuel gauge reading zero in the right tank was actually telling the truth. You’ve been flying now for nearly 30 minutes and despite your thorough preflight, you only sumped the tanks after they fueled the plane, rather than climbing up and sticking them too. The line guy never put the fuel cap back on the right wing when he finished fueling you and it has just been sitting there ever so nicely attached by its short little chain, all the while letting fuel get siphoned out of your right tank due to the low pressure right over the fuel cap.

      So now all of your fuel has sloshed to the left, nothing was in the right tank to slosh inboard to where the fuel pickup line sits in the tank, and the few ounces of gas in the carburetor bowl quickly run out all while you’re in a skidding turn descending through 300′. All of a sudden you hear the stall horn as you feel a bump of turbulence airplane pitches down and to the right (you’ve descended through the low level temperature inversion you climbed up into earlier that made things so smooth. You weren’t able to get the AWOS due to your electrical problem, but the winds are dead calm at the surface and you could even tell you had quite a bit of wind (20 knots or so) that had been on your tail flying up the beach and now would’ve been a headwind for you on landing, but shears to no wind descending through that low level temperature inversion that appears all too often in the evenings after a sunny day.

      Congratulations, you are a brand new commercial pilot, with two passengers you cannot communicate with who are literally scared for their lives, you have just lost 15 knots of airspeed at 300′ agl that has put you into a stall and sharp roll to the right (thanks to that right rudder you had in there), and your engine just rolled back from 1,700 rpm to idle thanks to there being no fuel flowing from the wing to your engine.

      How would you handle all of this? Let’s talk about you could have done to prevent yourself from getting into this scenario from the start of it all. Leave your questions, comments, and recommendations in reply box below. Click on “SUBSCRIBE” in the top left to get updates on solutions your fellow students and CFIs post!

    • #5837

      Jon K
      @jon k

      So how could this have been handled differently?

      Well there’s a number of missed cues our new commercial pilot should have detected, let’s look at a few, and add yours in the comments below!

      First: if you plan on taking customers up, you should be setting their expectations right from the start days earlier.  They have to know that weather can affect their flight and being late may make it not possible to be flying at the time they wanted.  Also, you need to set their expectations of where they will sit in the airplane, what sort of attire to wear, and a brief explanation of what they can expect on the flight.  The fact our new commercial pilot had not had a chance to speak with the passengers by phone prior to their flight to gather things like their weight, etc. was one of the first errors in this flight happened days prior to the flight with that critical missing information and expectations from the passengers.

      Another fix to this scenario would have been to stick to a standard preflight checklist and run it again once in the plane before engine start.  Our pilot did do a thorough preflight using a checklist once, but ordered fuel after that and neglected to stick the tanks after sumping them to confirm the total fuel on board and that the fuel caps were secure.  Reviewing the preflight checklist prior to engine start may have jogged his memory to catch this error.

      Properly briefing his passengers before letting them board could have also solved several other errors.  Explaining weight and balance prior to boarding the plane may have made the passengers more likely to listen to the pilot when something is stated preemptively rather than re actively when passengers try to do something.  People are more likely to comply when you tell them ahead of time not to do something rather than telling them not to do something once they have already begun or set their mind to it.  Taking his time with the passengers to go over more than just the standard “here’s how the door works and here’s how you seatbelts work” could have also been a benefit.  When the intercom failed the passengers had no way to communicate with the pilot and yelling over the engine did not work.  Had he briefed them previously on “in the unlikely event of anything abnormal happening on the flight, keep your seat belts fastened and we will land at the nearest airport, there is nothing that can happen to this airplane that I have not been trained to handle, even if it means landing on the beach instead of an airport, there’s no need to worry, I’ll buy the mai tai’s and we can all get a great view of the sunset relaxing on the sand”.  Giving a briefing like that gives the passenger SOMETHING to do when things obviously start going wrong (that SOMETHING to do is actually DO NOTHING, TOUCH NOTHING, and STFU while I do my job), and that will keep them more calm and be less of a distraction to you.  Adding in a little humor also lightens the situation, while still getting your point across.  Believe it or not, they have no idea how inexperienced you really are, you are THEIR PILOT, you are king.  They will follow your directions and your words will pop back into their minds if and when things do go wrong, make your words count!

      If you absolutely have to verbally communicate with passengers without an intercom, climb to a safe altitude, slow to best glide speed, reduce power to at or near idle, then lean over and talk to them.  At that point the airplane isn’t really that loud with the engine pulled back and the airspeed reduced.

      Note the subtle clues!  Calm wind at the surface after a sunny day is a good indicator that there will be a low level temperature inversion forming, and possible low level windshear.  When you suspect conditions like these exist, climb out and land at a higher airspeed than usual.

      When do you decide to divert?

      For me when things start going wrong the first thing that pops into my mind is “where can I sort out this problem on the ground”?

      When I have several things that start not going my way, it becomes very simple, in my mind the decision is made for me, if I have two problems occur, land ASAP, regardless of how inconvenient.  After detecting an alternator failure, and having passengers on board, and not having much time in that specific airplane, and its getting dark, and I’m not 100% sure of the fuel quantity on board…..the decision is very simple, DIVERT.  You at best have an “abnormal situation” and at worst have a real emergency.  In this sort of situation, landing somewhere else and putting your passengers in an UBER back to the original airport is undeniably your best bet for a positive outcome from the evening.

      Trying to continue back to the original airport and land without lights on the aircraft or lights on the runway turned on, all while scaring the crap out of your passengers for the maximum duration possible will not impress your new boss, your passengers, or the FAA.  Making a safe choice to end a flight that is on a down hill slope is your best bet at this point.

      What else???

      There’s a lot of other things that could have been done differently on this flight….share some of your ideas below!

    • #11845

      Christopher Blythe Bartram

      The one thing I noticed that you could do, is land at another airport. I saw and understand the rule you posted about
      * you have to land at the airport you departed from per the regulations (under scenic tour flights) Also reinforcing your point at your at the end

      However reading that triggered my memory having just read it, per the FARS

      Pilot Authority – you as PIC are directly responsible for, are are the final authority as to the operation of the aircraft, you may deviate from any rule or regulation to the extent needed to deal with any emergency situation to maintain the safety of passengers and the airplane. A written report of any deviations from the FARs should be filled with the FAA only upon request (usually 48hrs to do so if asked).

      This situation would warrant an Emergency situation, and even with scenic flight rules I think they would prefer you and you passengers safe and alive. If the rules were that strict they would be putting you, the passengers and not to mention the plane at risk.

      2nd of all, although you noted that we completed the checklist,before taxing there was no mention of completing the checklist after take-off. Since you made the point to note “After you takeoff there’s a few little bumps, but the air smooths out climbing through 300′. ” There was no real way to know if the bumps were turbulence or even it was if the turbulence could have broken loose the connections between the Alternators. The problem could have perhaps been discovered early and done a turn around and got another plane if spotted early.

      3rd, I’m not too sure if it is the same for planes – however when the Alternator dies in cars the radio dies out instantly, so when the Alternator died in the Plane the sudden loss of Radio traffic would/should’ve tip off the pilot right not just the Intercom not working? I am not 100% sure for planes I attempt to recreate this on X-plane, when the Alternator fails the radio stops. So – the Pilot’s Situation awareness, could have been better.

    • #30843


      Bartram said best. Safety of the passengers and the flight in full comes before anything else. Plop it down and deal with the aftermath while your legs are planted on solid ground.

      After all of that, I would welcome a sit down with any FAA inspector, and have a solid alibi when we brought up any one of the ADM models mentioned in the previous lesson (5P’s, ooda loop, etc).

    • #35444


      I have to agree with the posters before me. Despite this being a Scenic tour flight that is supposed to “take off and land at the same airport” me, the PIC is able to deviate from any rule or regulation in the FAR in the case of an emergency.

      The loss of an alternator, could be considered as an emergency. Especially when it is not known when it was lost so there is no way of knowing how much battery charge you have left.

      I have learned from experience that you cannot trust fuelers to follow what you request of them (I once requested 10gal split between both tanks, but instead for all 20 in one tank…)

      With regards to getting the customers expectations set days in advance of the flight, I personally believe that this is not always possible depending on when they book and who they are booking through… But that being said, upon their arrival at the airport and before being led to the plane, the seating assignment needs to be discussed along with any expectations…

    • #37268


      All the topics that came to my mind have pretty much been covered here, however, something I wanted to touch on is at the very beginning when the passengers refused to sit separately. As PIC everything that happens in the plane is your responsibility, and it is your job to make sure the flight is conducted safely. Just accepting them sitting together seems like a display of Resignation, and the pilot needs to put safety over compliance when faced with a situation like that.

    • #38607


      I agree with all the prior post. I would also like to point out that early on the pilot allowed the passengers to set the tone of the flight… They were in a rush to catch the sunset… My experience is anytime things get rushed, things get missed. ie gas caps. They are late and want everything NOW… Had the pilot stopped them right there he may have not had an issue with them sitting where they should, per the wight and balance. Sometimes passengers are like employees. Give them an inch and they go for the whole mile.

    • #41840


      There isn’t much to say here that hasn’t already been covered.
      1) When things snowball, get on the ground. Safety is priority #1.
      2) Don’t let the passengers set the tone.

    • #43264


      Same as most others, PIC, emergency land at that first airport and explain later, FAA isn’t going to bust you for making an emergency landing due to electrical issue. Also, squawk 7700 and it’s on record.

    • #46733


      In reading all the post I agree that what I perceive to be mitigating factors and decision points have been said. One thing that stands out to me is simply knowing your limitations and capabilities. Though he was a commercial pilot he was very low experience with that particular kind of flight, and it appears he may have been overwelled from the get go.

    • #48930


      Losing an alternator around “night time” conditions constitutes an emergency because your generator is now required equipment. However- you land at the field other than your airport of intended landing, you better not tell them you miscalculated fuel. Because if fuel was the second straw in the camels back you ought to have prevented this. I believe you would be having a discretionary battle with the FSDO on this one.

    • #55124


      All items were very well discussed. The bouncing or positively charging ammeter needed to be checked prior to flight by an A & Pmnot just considered as a “usual” occurrence. Expectations including weight should have been clearly discussed prior to arrival. Always stick & sump after fueling. Take control of the pax with a spolite, professional, methodical purpose. Never hurry in aviation, even & especially when the clients are tardy. Seating arrangement is non-negotiable due to safety. Safety briefing needed to include possible, but unlikely, anomalies. Once the flight had too many (more than one) questionable factos that were possibly in the back of the pilot’s mind creating anxiety, there was more likelihood of error & less available mental capacity to respond appropriately. To err on the side of caution by landing at the nearest airport would have disallowed for the other anxiety producing/dangerous situations that evolved. An emergency landing always overrides the regs that may be violated. Additionally, a NASA report may be recommended or not.

    • #61473


      Everyone is rightly discussing the PIC portion of this, which I 100% agree with. I would have, more than likely, diverted as well (at least I hope!). However, a bad situation was made way worse by the fact that the pre-flight was not completed. The PIC should have checked the fuel caps after the aircraft was refueled. At least, had he done this, he would have a.) verified that the caps were installed correctly, and b.) he would have made sure that the fuel was not contaminated. I have seen an incident where a pilot had to receive fuel after his pre-flight, and upon sumping the tanks, the fuel came out clear (two different types of fuel were mixed).

      I also believe that communication with my passengers is absolutely key in a successful flight. I really enjoy taking folks up flying with me, and I am friendly, humorous, but also firm with my expectations. I once took a woman I worked with and her son flying before she had to go away on a long business trip. On the return trip I let her son ride in the front. I was very clear before the flight that if he grabbed the controls or manipulated anything with out my permission, I would have to scoot his seat back due to safety. His mother agreed and after a successful flight (he was able to fly for a few minutes and loved it!) he grabbed the yoke on a long final at 2,000ft. No big deal,his mother told him no, and gave me permission to adjust the seat back. Being firm does not mean being a jerk, but being real with people and not letting them dictate to you where they want to sit or what they want to do on a flight. These are things that should be discussed ahead of time to avoid any grey area, and aggravation from the passengers.

    • #64491


      You can not ignore the fact that he was hungry and had to go to the bathroom before he even went out to the plane. Hunger can be ignored for a bit. That bladder filling up though becomes progressively more uncomfortable until it overshadows everything else. No one makes good decisions when you are crossing your legs and doing the pee-pee dance.

    • #65515


      The pilot in this situation has a serious resignative attitude and seems like he is forgetting the fact that he is PIC and even if he has to disappoint his boss, clients, etc. they would be safe if he had taken a moment to slow down and ensure the flight could be completed safely. Lack of Airmanship was disturbing, particularly as it relates to fuel management and preflight preparation (not checking actual fuel level after the line guys- they make mistakes and aren’t always ppls). The entire flight seems rushed and I would have liked to know he configured a weight and balance to make sure CG is still within limits. Being so far aft is why he got a faster TAS. He could have used a cell phone to text his colleagues to turn on the runway lights if he determined it was safe to return to the airport with the present fuel state. Now that he is likely entering the first stages of a stall (perhaps a spin) to the right, he should try to add power (left turning tendency counteracts the right turn he is about to enter a spin towards. PARE is not really applicable yet because if he gets into a full spin he probably wont recover, deal with the stall first) and pitch DOWN simultaneously. Keep ailerons neutral until stall recovery is ensured. Land if a stable approach can be made, if not go around and try again. File an ASRS (you probably landed less than reserve fuel but this is a good learning experience to be shared). Meet with the company to dicuss policies for late arrivals, seating arrangements, etc to take the stress/burden off yourself. Expect a negative Yelp/Google review.

    • #69292


      I agree with all on the pilots poor ADM. The use of a cell phone would have been a good idea if there were someone to call at home to light the runway. I ALWAYS carry a handheld Comm with a headset attachment with me in the event of power or radio failure.

    • #69822


      I agree with darn near all the prior replies. My thoughts tandem exactly. Safey First and you are PIC and are responsible for the safe outcome of the flight.

    • #69881


      The story ended with the aircraft being in a stall and in a right bank at 300 AGL. So just give up and die! Resignation is one of the Hazardous Attitudes so never give up and fly the plane all the way into the crash if that’s what it takes. So I’m not sure where the power is set but push that nose down, neutralize the ailerons and push the damn left rudder. NEVER GIVE UP! You might be able to recover enough to have a hard landing but if you don’t try you’ll never know. All the other comments are good because they outline the errors leading up to this which are so many and varied this person should never have been given the keys to a tricycle let alone an aircraft.

    • #70471


      Here are my notes that I took while reading the scenario:

      1) Pilot departs without positive knowledge of fuel amount (“whatever else was already left in the tanks”, “presumably”).
      This per se is already illegal. Boom, he’s a criminal.
      One can’t comply with fuel reserve regulations (91.151) if one didn’t even check the fuel quantity.
      Also, this is a sunset flight – pilot is wrong on the 30-minute reserve requirements: at night, it’s 45 minutes.

      2) Pilot departs hungry and badly in need of the bathroom.
      Violated the IMSAFE mnemonic twice (S=stress, includes bladder stress; E=enough: food, water). Bad.

      3) Failure to assert authority.
      Pilot let the passengers choose weight and balance.
      Passengers are cargo with a mouth. Pilot didn’t have the stage presence to step up to his role. Bad.
      Regulations don’t just give you PIC authority; they give you the duty to assume that authority.
      If you don’t enforce W/B, that’s dereliction of duty.

      4) Pilot fails to assess gravity of alternator loss.
      As soon as there’s an alternator loss and night is imminent, that’s already cause for an emergency.
      You risk losing multiple pieces of legally required night VFR equipment, including a working landing light.
      Continuing without declaring an emergency or deciding it’s an emergency (there’s no operative radio to declare it) is a mistake.

      5) Pilot ignores a great alternate airport.
      That’s a perfect airport, earlier in the day, with continuous lighting. That’s a godsend. Ignored.
      This might be the least forgivable of all the numerous of lapses of judgements in this scenario.

      6) Priority inversion.
      Pilot puts commercial and convenience concerns ahead of safety. Bad.
      Loss of electrical power at night is an emergency and trumps all convenience considerations, and also the air tour FAR requirement to land at the same airport as departure.

      7) Pilot also failed pre-flight duty (“the line guy never put the fuel cap back”).
      Pre-flight checklists require checking that the cap is secure.
      Bad. It’s a step to remember, because some planes have more complex fuel caps that can be installed the wrong way and need to be checked.

      8) Finally: pilot stalling, uncoordinated at 300 AGL.
      First of all, why are you flying uncoordinated in the pattern (“thank to the right rudder”)? Bad. That’s how you spin.
      Since you are that low, you must be on final. You are almost home.
      300 is not great but it’s not terrible: fly the plane. Put that nose down and center the ball.
      As soon as you are coordinated, even if you are not level, fuel will be flowing again, but don’t count on it anyway.
      You should be on a stabilized final anyway, that should allow for a power-off glide, and you are already either over the runway or in the airport environment.
      Put the nose down and gain as much speed as you can. Aim for ground effect. Land the plane.

    • #71950


      The only thing I can add to all of the above is to not factor in any emotional reasons when in the air. Do the correct action and deal with any dissatisfied person ie (customers, Boss, FAA) after you land!!!

      I’ve had a fuel cap stolen before, so I know if I walk away from the airplane I will need to do a quick check.

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