Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Waiting on the FAA

My medical certificate is a special issuance, so I operate under slightly more stringent rules than other pilots. I am supposed to notify the FAA promptly of any change in my condition. It used to be that I would call them up and tell them what happened, they would tell me that I was grounded, and a couple of days letter a certified letter would arrive containing a self addressed stamped envelope and the equivalent of an orange sticky note with an arrow pointing into the envelope saying "insert medical certificate here." I guess that they became afraid of spoofing, and no matter how unlikely it is that someone would call them up and falsely report a disqualifying condition, they insist on a letter. I sent them the letter. I have yet to get a reply, so I do, in fact, still have a medical certificate, even though it is not valid.

But all of that is moot. After the abnormal stress test in September, I stopped exercising, but my joints began to hurt more rather than less. One of my doctors suggested that this was a side effect of one of my medications (a statin), but another refused to let me stop. The problem got worse, so I voted to break the tie and stop.

It didn't help. In fact, it got worse. I could not run, or even climb stairs. I had trouble sleeping, because the pain kept waking me up. My doctor prescribed narcotics and blood tests. Unable to even climb into an airplane, I did not say "I can't take narcotics because I am a pilot." I took them eagerly.

They didn't help much, but the blood tests were way out of whack (think lots of metal in your engine oil analysis), and I got sent to a rheumatologist. It took a week to get an appointment, during which I slept little and hurt more.

Thinking I would have some time on my hands, I bought the new translation of War and Peace. I had promised myself that I would read it when the paperback came out. I took the book to the cashier at one of the big chain stores, and he kind of tried to make fun of me. "Have you been through this before?" he asked.

"Yes, a long time ago, but everyone says that the new translation is great."

"Well, good luck." He did not sound sincere. And I thought it was a cardinal rule of retail to avoid customer ridicule.

As I waited for my card to ring through, I had a sudden memory of the issue of Flying after the downing of KAL007. This was one of the best issues, ever, worth digging up in the library. Peter Garrison wrote about flying his homebuilt Melmoth to Japan, and the contingency of landing in the then-Soviet Union if his single-engine airplane, carrying his wife and son, had trouble over the ocean at night. (You may shiver now.) He did not imagine it going well, but his consolation was that "they wrote better novels." So maybe I would see.

The rheumatologist, a kindly man with a soft touch and a keen eye, took more blood and ordered more tests. He got me to scream with one of his "Does this hurt?" tests. ("I thought you had no foot pain," he said, looking hurt himself.) Better yet, he gave me a cortisone shot, which is supposed to provide some temporary relief.

I hope he's right. Not only will it be good to climb into an airplane; it will be good to have the strength to lift the book and start to read it.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Pilots and Maintenance

John, aka Aviation Mentor, tweeted this morning about some major fines the FAA is proposing for United Air Lines and US Airways for maintenance lapses. Some were egregious, either for the shoddy maintenance practices involved (UAL) or for the fact that the continued to fly a deficient airplane even after the FAA pointed it out to them. Links to the FAA press releases are here.

I don't think that you can put too much blame on the pilots, especially in the 14CFR121 world. Pilot interest in maintenance is as variable as pilot interest in anything else. I have known some who were maintenance aces, and others who refused to do a walk-around.

Once when jumpseating home on SkyWest I sat next to one of my regional airline buddies. Somehow we got to talking about a 1997 incident in which a SkyWest Brasilia had an engine fire followed by a complete loss of hydraulics. The crew made a nice emergency landing at Miramar NAS. I used to use this to illustrate how to behave in a crisis when I was a 14CFR135 (charter) instructor. (The NTSB report is here.)

Todd looked around for a second and got all excited. "Dude!" he exclaimed, "it was this airplane." Todd makes it his business to know the fleet inside out.

But I used to fly gliders with a guy who was a mechanic for SkyWest. "So," I asked him, "do you get a lot of pilots
hanging around in maintenance, poking around the airplanes?"

"No," he replied, "almost never."

That seems like a lost opportunity to me. When I bought my Taylorcraft, I did the first annual (under supervision, of course); after that, I felt like I knew every bolt.

When I was flying King Airs, I looked forward to the major maintenance checks, not because it meant time off, but because it meant I would be able to learn more about the airplanes. I took a digital camera to record what I found.

Here we have the battery, which sits in the right wing near the root. Batteries are crucial for starting turbine engines: a weak battery could lead to low starter RPMs which could lead to a hot start which could lead to bankruptcy. While there is an overwhelming amount of cockpit instrumentation for the electrical system, the battery itself is hidden out of the pilot's view.

Here are the outflow valves from the pressurization system. One is the control valve, the other is the emergency valve. Again, they are hidden behind a big inspection panel with lots of screws, out of sight of even the most meticulous preflight inspection.

And here is the inspection plate for the nacelle tank. This was taken at a remote airport, after a passenger asked about the clear liquid running down the wing.

Maintenance sometimes need to get in there, which is probably obvious given the amount of plumbing on top. To get to the nacelle tank, you remove a large inspection panel; it's been removed in the picture. So, again, no preflight inspection.

Now notice the bits of orange at about 8 o'clock in the picture. When the tank is reassembled, maintenance puts a spot of paint on the bolts. If the bolts are removed, the paint tears away. What you see here is evidence that someone serviced the tank but did not put it back together.

I didn't - couldn't - catch it during the preflight. I have no idea when the maintenance was done, since this was my first flight after a long vacation. For all I know, the airplane had been leaking fuel for the past three weeks, but the first one to notice was my passenger.

The dozens of United pilots who flew around with shop rags in the engine couldn't have noticed, either.


Friday, October 9, 2009

Who is a Pilot?

I met with the cardiologist the other day. Things are looking really good. "And you're doing everything right," she said, meaning diet, exercise, and drugs. "What about stress?" I asked.

"Stress is bad," she said, 'What kind?"

The university is a high-stress environment right now. The local paper has daily stories about friction and potential abuses. The State Board of Education is suggesting that administrations have wide powers to dismiss tenured faculty. The Faculty Senate minutes are "A tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." [Macbeth, Act V] Ugly stuff. You'd think I'd be used to it.

"Maybe you should try an antidepressant," she said, "Some patients have found low doses helpful in stress management."

"You mean SSRIs?" I asked. That's Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, a class of drugs including Prozac.


"I can't take those," I said, "because I am a pilot."

"I can't take those because I am a pilot." That's an odd thing for a guy who just lost his medical to say.

I think that most of us who fly identify ourselves as pilots. It's one of the first things that strangers learn about us, even if we try not to talk about it. Some of us go on to identify ourselves as certain kinds of pilots. This has nothing to do with the certificates we hold. I've seen private pilots who flew like seasoned ATPs, and vice versa.

So, what makes us pilots? It's an outlook on life.

I plan to stay IFR current while I wait for my medical to be reinstated. I might let night currency slip, although it is easy to find a pilot friend to act as pilot in command on a pretty night. (Volunteers are welcome, as long as you are night current.) I've been taking it easy but it's time to find out who needs a BFR, who wants to become a CFI, who wants a mentor for long cross-countries. There will be plenty of flying.

But being a pilot is more than proficiency, which is more than currency. Consider the picture to the right. Here's a Jaguar - a nice car! - parked facing downhill with its wheels pointed away from the curb. Is this driver a pilot?

Perhaps. The only time I every got to drive a Jag was the crew car at Signature at Midway (KMDW). So the right question is what kind of pilot?

One night during the Christmas freight rush a bunch of us were hanging around at UPS in Salt Lake City. We had each flown down in a Seneca, because UPS wanted to have lots of extra "uplift" available for the Christmas rush. This was almost fun: we left home at about 0300 and were either sent someplace on short notice (I once carried a load of hams to KSUN, Hailey, Idaho), or were sent home to sleep and do it again the next day. We saw old friends and made new ones.

There was no place to sit, so we all sat on the floor, abuzz with no sleep and bad coffee. Conversations started and ran out of steam. Some dozed.

Pollux (not his real name, but he had a twin brother whom I would call Castor if he figured in the story) broke the ice.

"I don't want to get an ATP," he stated. We all shook off our sleep and stared at him. His career goal required it.

"Why's that?" someone finally asked.

"It's too much work." I think he meant that getting the ATP was too much work: the written, the training, the flight check, and all that. But I took away another thought.

I told him that he was right: Being an ATP meant much more than flying the ILS with minimal needle deflection. Being an ATP starts when you get out of bed, and note the weather, and smell the air. It meant continually quizzing yourself on airplane systems, practicing emergency procedures, enhancing situational awareness. It meant being aware how impaired you might be the next morning after six beers last night, even though the regulations said that you were legal. It meant analyzing each flight, each action, each approach, each taxi, each fueling, each bit of paperwork. It meant pointing your whole being at reducing every risk so that you could deliver your passengers safely, even elegantly, in difficult conditions.

This applies whether you have the certificate or not: the certificate shows that you have, at one point, demonstrated the ability to be this way. Whether that continues is your business. And you can develop this ability without any certificate at all. Michael Ruhlman describes the life of a chef in the same way in The Making of a Chef. (The kitchen and the cockpit are more closely related than most people realize, but I have to rush home and cook dinner, so that must wait for a later essay.)

There were some mumbles of agreement, then each of us settled back to listening to the white noise in our heads.

So, maybe the Jaguar driver was a pilot. But the Jaguar driver was not an ATP. A true ATP, starting a PT-6 engine on an icy ramp, starts it in feather. Why risk sliding across the ramp while cursing the brakes for suddenly failing? A true ATP doesn't park a nice car facing downhill with the wheels pointed away from the curb.

When Pollux got his first "real" job, he waited until his last student (a concept I can't fathom) passed the checkride, then went out in the woods with a .22 and shot his instructor certificate to pieces.

The only thing I plan to shoot is approaches. Medical certificate or no, I will continue to work on becoming a true ATP.

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