Thursday, September 4, 2008

Missing the Signs

The last week or so seemed to be a time where I was really helping my students in ways that I might not have predicted. This goes for flying and for my university teaching, too. It's the second week of the semester and I have already given individual help to more students than all of last semester.

In particular, Dennis had learned to flare, and it was time for him to solo. We talked about it after we shut down, and he was a little tired, but I suggested that the paperwork would take long enough for him to perk up. And I was right. By the time I got all the signoffs done he was rarin' to go.

I walked him out to the airplane, he started up, and I walked calmly back to the office. At least that's how I was hoping it looked. I told the airport bums that he was soloing, and we all stood at the window. Dennis stayed still. "Running the checklist," I said. But he stayed put for longer. Was he getting cold feet?

After about 5 minutes, he shut down.

I stuck my hands in my pockets and ambled out to the airplane, wishing I had a blade of hay or something to chew on to make me look nonchalant. Did he get cold feet? Should I make a joke?

"The radios won't come on," he shouted out the window. Oh.

I crawled under the panel and poked around, but made no progress, so we called maintenance, and someone came out and confirmed that the avionics master had failed. (I later found out that other instructors had had trouble with it, but had not told maintenance. I think this is poor airmanship.)

So we scheduled again for an early morning. I was thinking that there would be light winds, a good time to solo. "But," I said, "let me ride around with you a couple of times to make sure nothing happened to your skills overnight."

At morning the windsock was hanging straight down. Perfect! Dennis did his preflight, we started up, and taxied. An open hangar door revealed the nose of a red Stearman, so I taxied while he admired it. A great day to be at the airport. He did the runup and he taxied to the hold short line. "Hold short awaiting landing traffic," the tower said, and we could see the regional jet about three miles out.

"Look how he's manhandling that airplane," I said, "must be a new first officer." The nose was going up and down, there was yaw, there was roll, although the jet appeared to stay on the glideslope. The regionals are still hiring, and there are a lot of inexperienced pilots flying these things. I've written about this before; see Look Who's In the Right Seat.

Dennis and I launched, and I was surprised. He was all over the place! On base, the airspeed was varying by 10 knots either side of the target, and he flew through final, although he recovered to make a decent touchdown. What happened overnight?

"Let me try one," I said. I was all over the place! On base, the airspeed was varying by 9.5 knots (hey, I was a little better) either side of the target, and I flew through final, although I recovered to make a decent touchdown.

"Let's call it quits," I said, and he agreed without hesitation. It was a terrible day to solo.

So what happened? We had missed a couple of big cues. First, was the cloud pictured here, showing some significant shear at altitude; there were multiple shear layers, down to the surface.

The second cue was the RJ. Watching it point all over the sky led me to believe that the pilot was the problem. By contrast, once when I was flying Life Flight I noticed a PIREP (pilot report) of severe icing, reported by an RJ. Severe icing is pretty rare, and since I decided that it was unlikely that a professional jet crew had forgotten to turn on the anti-ice equipment, I treated the report as reliable, and spent a fair amount of time investigating. But that was then; this time, I allowed prejudice to help me reach an easy conclusion.

And I was wrong. It wasn't the pilot, it was the atmosphere. And I missed it.

Prejudice and aviation do not mix.

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