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The fragile relationship between avionics shops and aircraft owners is sometimes stressed at the end of a project. That’s partly because some owners have unrealistic expectations, assuming the aircraft will be released right after a flight test.
On the other hand, shops create stress for themselves when they overpromise and offer the impression that work on the aircraft is finished when in reality, it might still require testing, tweaking and more work following the flight test.
You can avoid this stress, while increasing safety, by approaching the delivery process with the proper mindset. This includes crafting your own delivery checklists of items to look for before, during and after the shake-down flights with the new equipment. You can also make the delivery process easier by studying how to operate the new equipment, working closely with the shop during the project and not scheduling important trips until you are certain everything works the way it should.
You can plan the delivery process early. Good shops will gather pilot guides and training material for the new equipment and offer them to the customer well in advance of delivering the aircraft. This is a productive way to pass the time while the aircraft is down. The goal is to become familiar with the equipment’s operation so you can effectively and safely fly the aircraft on the test flight. You’ll find that some pilot guides are more concise than others. Your early studying might present a challenge, since you won’t have the real equipment to work with as you follow along with the manual. Manufacturers such as Garmin, for example, recognize this and supplement the GTN-series navigator manual with a training CD. We think the operating manual for the Aspen EFD1000 display is well-written, presenting real-world flight scenarios, while covering system functionality in detail. Garmin presents similar scenarios in their manuals.
Next on the checklist should be the timing of the delivery. If you can avoid it, don’t retrieve the aircraft from the shop—especially when the delivery requires a flight test—when you are short on time. Shop schedules vary, but most shops won’t want to begin flight testing late in the afternoon, in case there are repair issues that need to be addressed. Remember, a flight test is just that—a test of the equipment.
There’s no guarantee that you will fly the aircraft home that day. You’ll set yourself up for disappointment if you expect otherwise, and you’ll be pleased if you can take it home that day. If the shop performs thorough ground testing, there should be few, if any, problems to address once they pull the trigger on a fly-off.
Plan on performing the flight test during day VFR conditions. Many shops have stringent requirements written into their Repair Station manual, which covers the conditions for which they can conduct maintenance flying. You might need to make an honest assessment of your currency. If the aircraft was down for weeks or months, are you confident that your skills are sharp enough to handle the workload that tags along with maintenance flying? The technician you are flying with will be well aware—and apprehensive—of this additional risk. Consider logging some takeoffs and landings before carrying the technician as a passenger.
Your delivery checklist should include a solid plan for obtaining quality avionics training. Most avionics shops aren’t in the flight training business. The better shops have people on staff who have exceptional product knowledge and know how to operate the equipment in the real world. These people often mentor the customer and will likely fly shotgun on the flight test. But this doesn’t make them flight instructors, and it doesn’t make them responsible for training customers.
If you don’t feel you are up to the task of flying the aircraft after major avionics work—particularly on a maintenance flight test—we think the best option is to put your piloting pride aside and hire someone to take your place. Don’t forget, however, to address an insurance issues that might come into play with someone else piloting your aircraft. Remember, too that a maintenance flight-test is not to be considered a training flight.
You should craft your own walkaround and cockpit preflight checklist to accomplish as you prepare to fly. Approach this with a skeptical mind-set, especially if there was maintenance work accomplished in addition to the avionics work. The exterior walk-around should have you looking for properly secured cowlings, inspection plates and any securing hardware that might be missing or loose. Turn on all of the exterior lighting—systems that are easily missed during a walk-around but susceptible to failure after a large teardown. While you’re at it, check the stall warning horn.
Pay particular attention to the pitot tube and static ports. If there was pitot and static system testing that took place, it’s not uncommon for technicians to tape the ports to pressurize the static system. Hasty techs forget to remove the tape. Since the aircraft has probably been sitting for a while, look hard at fuel samples—and fuel quantity.
Since the shop likely performed sizeable amounts of ground running, don’t assume the tanks have the liberal amounts of fuel they had when you dropped the aircraft off. One technician we spoke with had a chilling tale of dealing with fuel exhaustion on a flight test—and with a frazzled owner who swore he had enough when he dropped the aircraft at the shop.
Paperwork is an important and sizeable part of major retrofits. Ask the shop to go over all of the paperwork they revised and produced in support of the installation. This should include updated weight and balance reports, equipment list revisions, flight manual supplements, FAA 337 paperwork and updates to pilot operating manuals. Make sure the aircraft registration, flight manual and airworthiness certifi cate are in the aircraft.
Your cockpit checklist should include testing critical items. The first area you might look at is the circuit breaker panel and bus-tie configuration. A circuit breaker may be the only way to remove power from a new system and you should know exactly where it is. Speaking of power and electrics, check that the fi re extinguisher is in the aircraft. This and other cabin accessories are often removed for storage during the installation.
If the aircraft is equipped with an autopilot and electric pitch trim system, follow the manufacturer’s procedures for preflighting the system. These procedures should include servo disconnect, proper pitch trim movement and correct control surface drive. Make a methodical sweep from one side of the panel to the next, checking instrument panel and cabin lighting, testing annunciator lamps, while becoming familiar with newly installed switches and controls. Power up the avionics and look for system warning messages that may point to failing data ports and databus errors. These errors indicate communication problems between interfaced equipment. You might be able to check for valid and accurate Mode C altitude reporting, if the transponder displays pressure altitude.
For the flight test, the tech likely has a plan for testing the interface. A maintenance flight test should preclude with a briefing that establishes who is going to do what tasks during the test. Let the technician evaluate the equipment and push the buttons while you manage the aircraft and watch for traffic. In general, flying a few instrument procedures along with reasonable amounts of cruise flight should be sufficient to test the entire suite. You’ll be testing comm radio performance, navigation system accuracy, autopilot coupling, heading system accuracy and other items that are spelled out by a given manufacturer’s testing procedures. Experienced techs know what to look for.
When you make arrangements to pay your bill, keep in mind that money matters can be one of the biggest source of stress between shop and customer. This can be avoided with good communication If the shop presented you with payment terms that include payment upon delivery of aircraft, it’s expected that you show up with payment. As much comradery that may exist between you and your shop, don’t forget that the shop is still there to make a living. Deal with the financial part of the work before the flight testing so it doesn’t distract from the delivery process. Last, flying behind a retrofitted panel could be like flying a different aircraft. Be ready to overcome a learning curve before you tackle complex missions.
This article appeared in the Novemebr 2012 issue of Aviation Consumer magazine.
Legally, 14 CFR §91.123 says, When a pilot is uncertain of an ATC clearance, that pilot shall immediately request clarification from ATC. Seems easy enough, but under pressure of time, heavy weather and busy controllers we are tempted to assume that ATC knows its intentions and to accept a clearance as given. Egregious errors appear quickly, subtle ones less so.
In developing this article I asked perhaps a hundred IFR pilots, “Have you ever been given an unflyable clearance and if so how did you re- solve it?” Only a few could recount a truly unflyable clearance, which I take to mean cannot be physically flown, is illegal or dangerous. More common were cases of flyable but illogical, inconvenient and even dangerous clearances.
I was occupying the right seat in a Cessna 421 on an IFR Angel Flight. The owner in the left seat was an experienced, savvy pilot. This was good because I had never been in a 421 before.
ATC cleared us to an intersection short of our destination. I was unconcerned because I think of flying at 110 knots, not 160. Surely ATC knew we needed further clearance, but no, in a heartbeat we reached our clearance limit with no place to go next. We had fallen off the end of the IFR earth.
The rules say to hold at a clearance limit, but the pilot flew beyond it on his present heading while he scrambled to get further clearance. I was sure that ATC was doing a little scrambling of their own. Soon we received further clearance and were on our way, but this event was handled poorly by ATC, the pilot and me—who should have spoken up sooner.
Another pilot said he was cleared to the Vero Beach (VRB) VOR, but there was just one problem. The VOR’s name had very recently been changed to the Treasure VOR with a new identifier, TRV. His G1000 knew this but neither he nor ATC’s clearance machine did. When he entered VRB into the flight plan, the G1000 refused it. Before nagging ATC, he used the MFD cursor to scroll up to what used to be VRB and found the error. He added wryly, “No point in looking foolish to ATC if you can avoid it.”
I found several similar instances of intersections issued that no longer existed. The controllers had been giving out the deleted intersection for so long that they erred through force of habit.
Controllers are almost always, but not invariably, cooperative. One controller insisted a pilot accept an over-water clearance that the pilot refused several times. In exasperation, he declared an emergency. The controller responded, “Say the nature of your emergency.” “Your clearance.” came the frustrated reply.
Another pilot was being vectored for an ILS approach. He was told to fly a southeasterly heading when the localizer was northeast. It turned out that the controller was vectoring him for an ILS at another airport. The pilot did not catch the error, but I did because I anticipated a northeasterly heading. Maintaining situational awareness tells you where you are and about what heading you can expect next.
I had a similar disappointment when given an incorrect vector away from an ILS localizer. I queried the controller but he didn’t want to be bothered and switched us to tower. I joined the localized anyway, called tower and no one said a word.
Unflyable clearances can also be the work of automation accepted without question. For example, several web-based flight planners will take you from Palm Beach County (KLNA) right over the top of Palm Beach International (KPBI) to join V3 northbound. It looks nice, but ATC will never permit you into the inner ring of the Class C to join an airway. Instead, you will be vectored around the Class C to join the airway north of the airport.
Accept a preferred route with caution. Canned routes know nothing about malfunctioning facilities. Controllers may catch the error or not. Briefing NOTAMs will inform you of inoperative en route and terminal facilities.
Similarly, a G1000 is unaware of Special Use Airspace or altitudes with respect to its flight plans. It will cut a nice magenta line right through a TFR or a mountain, no problem. Theoretically, ATC will either not give, or will coordinate clearance through, SUA. But it’s always best to ask if it’s hot. It’s up to you to avoid flying at an unsafe altitude if off airways. To be safe, I use the published OROCA or higher.
Some unflyable clearances have blatant flaws, while others have subtle discontinuities. Departures seem ripe for unflyable clearances as in the case where no heading is given after takeoff. Another example is when the pilot is expected to join an airway without ATC specifying an associated fix, or when the pilot is anticipating radar vectors while the controller expects the pilot to fly the departure on his own.
Pilots told me they have been given clearances beyond their fuel range, some required performance or navigation beyond the airplane’s capability, and other clearances had designated inoperative navaids which is another good reason to check NOTAMs.
Controllers today seem to assume that all aircraft have GPS. One pilot was given a clearance direct to an intersection, which was impossible without GPS. She had not filed /G because her GPS was VFR only. Yet the controllers insisted, so she confirmed the GPS heading and distance with ATC and off she went.
Most controllers are not pilots and hence may not be able to recognize an unflyable or illegal clearance. In the end, we are the final arbiters of what is flyable and legal.
A pilot friend flying a Beech Duke was given a clearance for a northwest departure from Vero Beach (KVRB) to Palm Beach International (KPBI), some 60 miles due south. Oops. Adding insult to injury, ATC wanted to send him southeast to SURFN intersection that is way out over the water and would have added another 50 miles to his trip. He told ATC the magic word, unable and ultimately received a clearance he could safely fly.
When we return IFR from the north looking to land at KLNA just south of KPBI, we are usually diverted way to the west to cross the Pahokee VOR. One day I used the time- honored, “Time for a question?” to ask ATC why.
It turns out that PBI has a Letter of Agreement with Miami TRACON not to permit IFR overflights of PBI within its Class C. Hence your illogical clearance may be the result of such an agreement between adjacent facilities. LOAs are not published, but your unreasonable clearance may be the result.
Weather permitting, I cancel IFR and stay with ATC for advisories. Almost always they take us over the top of PBI and straight into LNA.
A perfectly correct clearance can become inconvenient if not unflyable if an amendment is complex and is read to you at machine-gun speed as in congested busy airspace. One professional pilot flying a Beech C-90 in the New York area told me that they had a mad scramble to enter a complex amendment into their equipment, which they made, but that it would have been so much easier to send them to a nearby intersection and then fly on.
The cure for this is to slow the aircraft, ask for a delaying vector or ask the controller to “say again slowly” or say “unable.”
At non-tower airports you can expedite the process by departing VFR (when conditions permit), clearing the pattern and requesting the filed clearance airborne. You will be given a squawk, asked to ident and to remain VFR. Once identified, and given an initial altitude and heading—unless ATC again adds remain VFR you are IFR as ATC has taken responsibility for obstacle clearance and navigation —a full route clearance soon follows. However, in busy airspace ATC may send you to the FSS for the clearance.
There is occasional confusion and even sloppiness in the way, when and why holds are issued. One of my cohorts was issued a hold 85 miles away and far off route—you may query ATC for the reason.
Sometimes controllers delay issuing an EFC time. Without one, if communications are lost, the pilot will not know when to depart the hold.
Several pilots mentioned pop-up holds. The Controller’s Handbook (Section 4-6-1) says that a hold should be issued at least five minutes before the aircraft reaches the holding fix. If the fix is less than that, instructions should be given immediately. Rather unnecessarily it adds that if within the five-minute period, instructions should be given immediately. AIM 5-3-7 (d) adds that pilots should begin reducing speed 3 minutes from the fix so as not to exceed maximum holding airspeed. I bet that many readers have been given holds with only a few minutes warning, especially on approaches.
While the AIM expresses a strong preference for published holds, the Handbook simply notes that most generally used holds are charted.
Read back all clearances carefully and fully. A way out for lost communications is always a factor in any clearance.
The Beech C-90 pilot stressed that the radio is your “lawyer, savior and insurance policy” against a violation because the burden of proof is always on you. Fortunately, most unflyable clearances if not caught result in a violation, not an accident.
A version of this article appeared in the April 2013 issue of IFR Refresher magazine.
I think one of the defense mechanisms we in the aviation industry have developed is the ability to not take ourselves too seriously. By many normal standards, it can be a preposterous business where the leadership roles are populated with wide-eyed dreamers who almost invariably make their money in more mundane enterprises and promptly squander it on their passion.
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