Tuesday, 7 August 2012
The Best Experience
I love navigation exercises. I love the planning that goes into a route before a flight and the attention that has to be paid during a flight. For a CPL you need to have at least 20 solo nav hours. However, if you're going to be an instrument rated CPL, you need at least 50 solo nav hours. I have about 13 of those hours so far that i've built on navs from Stellenbosch to Worcester and George and from Port Elizabeth to Grahamstown, Fort Beaufort, Port Alfred, Jeffreys Bay and East London. On July 5th 2012, I got prepared to do a flight from Port Elizabeth to East London via Queenstown and then East London to Port Elizabeth via Grahamstown. I was flying ZS-PPS, a Cessna 152 with a brand new engine. I took off and climbed initially up to 5500 feet and flew East along the coast until I reached Sundays River mouth. Cape Town East(the center which was controlling me) then cleared me to climb up to my cruising altitude of 7500 feet and report when i'm ready for descent into Queenstown. After being in the air for around an hour and while overhead the town of Alicedale, I noticed a small drop in RPM. This didn't cause me to panic, I was high up, it was cold and I immediately suspected carb ice. The Cessna 152 is equipped with carb heat which I applied and noticed the RPM drop further. This is normal and you just have to wait for the ice to melt and for the RPM to rise again before turning carb heat off. I flew along for 10 more minutes with no improvement. Then, without warning, I lost total engine power. RPM dropped completely and I felt myself being pushed forward due to the rapid deceleration, like being in a car and slamming on brakes. They train us for these situations but the reality is far different. When you lose your engine in training, it's because the instructor pulled the throttle to idle and I never found it to be a very stressful situation because I always knew I had the power there if anything goes wrong. So you do all your checks,troubleshooting and whatnot and then you select a field, tell ATC(Air traffic control) what your intentions are, fly a tight approach and land. I must admit, I did things a little differently. I immediately checked that I hadn't screwed something up but I had been monitoring the engine carefully and knew there was no drop in oil pressure or high temperatures or anything like that. I knew I had fuel and I could see the indicators saying about 75% full. How had I gone from flying along perfectly for an hour to total engine loss? I came to the conclusion that the plane was stuffed and, one way or another, I was landing now. Just then the engine shot to life again at full power for maybe 5 seconds, then died again for 10 seconds. This happened 3 times. I told ATC that i'm heading back to PE and to cancel all further flight plans of mine. I turned around and found two fields near to me should anything happen again. One was Shamwari which was just below me and the other was a grass strip just ahead of me. Then nothing until Port Elizabeth. I had to decide, either land at these airfields right below me or chance it and carry on to PE flying over deserted sand dunes at first followed by a built up city. Neither are the easiest places to try land. I decided to carry on to PE because the engine seemed ok(ish). Overhead the dunes, the engine stopped once more for a few seconds before jumping back to it's ok(ish) state. Then I descended down to 3000 feet near Port Elizabeth Stadium (double the height I usually am at that point). The engine died again and then came back. Port Elizabeth Tower asked how my plane is doing and if i'll need fire trucks. I told them that the engine wasn't going too well and that fire trucks won't be necessary (I was later told that I sounded so calm and just said "Ummm....Nha, no firetrucks at this time." I don't remember feeling that calm). I flew much higher than usual and dropped in to land safely on PE's runway 08. Back in the building, I just had to write down my experience for the mechanics and then I answered some of the questions that the other guys were asking me. Most just wanted to know if I was nervous. I don't think I was. I remember just about shitting myself when it happened but then I came to accept the fact that I might just end up landing on a road or on the beach and that trying to fight that reality would just put me deeper in a deadly situation. Someone told me something that makes a lot of sense though and that is "you now have more experience than a guy with 1000 hours whose never had a problem". After letting this sink in, I realize that might be true. I now know how I will act in a stressful situation. I actually feel lucky. My friends and I always wondered how we would react during a real problem and now that I see how I did, i'm pleased! I would change a few things that day though. Firstly, I would have landed straight away at the nearest field. Carrying on was a little bit stupid but it turned out alright and I learnt that I won't do that again. The second was to call the fire trucks out. If I had lost the engine again and crashed short of the runway, I would want those trucks as close to me as possible when it happened. After all, it's not like I have to pay them. Taxpayers do. All in all, i'm happy how this turned out and i'm happy that it happened to me. I have become a better pilot because of it. Constantly listening to my engine now and monitoring all my systems permanently. However, we won't always be prepared for when something breaks. It turned out that the whole carb on ZS-PPS was broken and was replaced. This wasn't something I could have picked up was happening. I think pilots get into this "I'm immortal" frame of mind and that's what kills them. The pilot that survives is the one who is prepared when things go wrong. I know this probably wasn't the last failure i'll have to deal with. There might be far worse failures i'll have to deal with one day. But i'm going to do my best to make sure they never sneak up on me.