Be Prepared: An Aviator’s Motto

Last week, I had absolutely perfect flying weather and I decided that I would take a trip to visit a coworker in Raleigh, NC. Since FAR 61.65 (d)(1) requires any pilot applying for an instrument rating to have 50 hours of cross country time as pilot in command, it’s important for pilots to find every opportunity they can to accumulate cross country time. A round trip to Raleigh is 4 hours, offering plenty of opportunity to rack up some hours.

The trip down was mostly uneventful. The trip back offered a number of lessons in managing failed systems and problem solving while airborne.

Excessive fuel consumption

FlightAware flight path, as reported by Washington Center and Potomac Approach.

One of the things about flying an older airplane without any kind of EGT, CHT or fuel flow information is that it’s easy to over-lean or under-lean the airplane for a given altitude and power setting. My aircraft should burn about 14 gallons per hour in flight. When I arrived in Raleigh, I asked that the tanks be filled to tabs, or 18 gallons on each of the mains (I also have two 17 gallon tip tanks). The line personnel overfilled the tanks slightly, but reported adding 29 gallons.

This got my attention in a big way. By my estimate, tabs in my aircraft is 18 gallons and full is 25 for a difference of 7 gallons. If they filled the aircraft to tabs, it would have burned 43 gallons out of the two tanks, or 19.54 gallons per hour. In all reality since they filled the tanks above tabs, it’s likely they burned closer to 16 gallons per hour – still high, but within reason.

Still, departing with unsure fuel consumption information, after a major overhaul to the engine, is never an encouraging sign. I knew I was departing with a minimum of 70 gallons, or 3.3 hours at a 21 gph consumption rate – more than enough for the 2.2 hour flight back to Gaithersburg.

Dead iPad Battery

ForeFlight is always careful to caution pilots to preflight their apps. I had done so before departure in the morning and used the iPad with the Stratus weather component on the way down, so I was sure it was ready to go. Much to my surprise, the battery was completely flat when it came time to fly home.

I figured this would be no matter and I grabbed my cigarette lighter adapter to charge the iPad. Little did I know (and I would find out later) that at full screen brightness on the iPad, later generation iPads cannot be charged. There simply isn’t enough power. Needless to say, I was now without my iPad, and more importantly, without any charts other than the ones I had in the GNS-430W in the panel and the Maryland chart on my iPhone. While I still had the iPad I quickly drew a mini map of the Dulles Class B airspace on my kneeboard, and prepared to make my flight without the assistance of ForeFlight until reaching Virginia and Maryland.

Landing Light Failure

I arrived back in Maryland shortly after sunset. I was behind schedule but it wasn’t a significant matter, because twilight was still enough to let me land in semi-daylight conditions (I hate landing at night). After vectoring around Gaithersburg to allow for other landing traffic, I made my final approach only to discover that my landing light was inoperative.

My airplane, much like other airplanes of it’s type, has a landing light in the cowling under the propeller. This subjects the light to tremendous vibration and shock on landings. They burn out quickly, and today was my lucky day.

Note the landing light just below the propeller in the cowling. The vibrations make it easy for this piece to fail in flight or on landing.

The Fuel Stop

Upon landing I taxied over to the fuel pump and added fuel to the aircraft to do a quick calculation of how much had been consumed. I was amazed to put 21 gallons in the tip tanks after only an hour of flight time; I later learned that the left fuel sump was leaking and probably leaked the whole flight, causing some loss of fuel (5 gallons if my fuel burn of 16 gph is to be believed). The total purchase of fuel was 42 gallons, meaning I put 21 gallons into the main tanks. This means I burned 50 gallons from the main tanks in 3.3 hours of flight, or 15 gallons per hour from the main tanks, a very respectable number.

Lessons Learned

I learned a number of lessons that I will apply to future flights. First, it’s critical to know precisely how much fuel is being consumed. This should be an obvious lesson that is learned early in pilot training, but given that this is the longest flight I’ve taken solo since earning my pilot certificate, it’s the first time I’ve come close to maxing out my fuel tanks. I’ve purchased a JP Instruments Fuel Scan 450 to install in the airplane. I also have a replacement for the inoperative Alcor EGT, to help me lean the airplane appropriately in flight.

Second, it’s critical to preflight applications before starting the airplane. Had I noticed the iPad was discharging during the day or in the office, I could have plugged it in and waited an hour for it to charge up a bit before departing. It’s also critical to know the charging characteristics of a particular device; I will know from now on that a fully bright screen cannot be used while the iPad is charging.

Third, I learned that important systems can fail at any time, as evinced by the landing light. Had it been dark I would still have needed to land, even without the landing light. Being prepared for these kinds of problem is part of being a pilot, even if we never encounter them. But we are sure to encounter them at some point, especially as we fly more and more.