Things I Might Not Do Again

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I just pulled down from a dusty shelf in my office a plaque awarded to me for an important aviation achievement. It was presented to me personally by none other than famed flight test pilot and Collier Trophy winner Scott Crossfield. More on that in a moment.

The reason I retrieved it relates to something I saw on the evening news last weekend. A Piper Malibu, having landed undamaged on the median or maybe the lanes of the 101 freeway near San Jose, was being towed to a nearby airport. As the camera scrolled the airframe, I thought to myself, hey, that looks just like my friend Chuck Kissner’s old Malibu, the one we flogged across the continent several times with me in the right seat. When I saw the N-number, it sure enough was the same airplane. This is not something you want to see on the evening news. Or at all.

Dredging my memory, I was thinking this was the airplane’s second engine failure. Well no, Chuck informed me by email, it was actually the fifth partial or full failure, at least that we know about. Chuck had three—two turbo hose departures and a fuel pump failure. His then-partner had a broken crankshaft and now this failure. The airplane is an early Malibu and has north of 5500 hours.

Even experienced vicariously via a 15-second news clip, such a development causes one to, shall I say, rethink one’s decisions. Chuck was more whimsical: “Ah, the power of rationalization,” he wrote me, reminding me that even after his mechanical mayhem, he continued to fly the airplane over the Rockies. At night. Sometimes in weather. Sometimes with me along.  

Readers of this blog know that I’m fond of measuring risk numerically so even if the airplane had five failures in 10,000 hours, that’s not what I would call low risk. If you explained this to a non-aviation person about to ascend the airstair into the cabin, would it cause pause? Logically, it should, I suppose. On the other hand, the airplane made it down safely every time.

In addition to being a serial quitter, the airplane had another unnerving habit. Being pressurized, it oil canned a little in the form of a robust bang at random moments. Chuck had warned me about it, but I still nearly soiled myself when it did this over the mountains in weather. At least it was daylight.

The Malibu was—and is—one of the great GA airplanes. Big, fast and comfortable. But Piper was further along with the airframe than Continental was with the engine. The TSIO-520-BE did the job of pressurizing the cabin with a pair of turbos and driving the thing into the flight levels, but it didn’t have much to spare and the early airplanes could be maintenance hogs. What the Malibu really needed was the IO-550 series, but by the time that was available, Piper had switched to the Lycoming TIO-540 for the Mirage.

Chuck is off flying piston airplanes at all now, but I’d still get in that very same airplane for a long trip. But I’m no longer interested in traversing the Rockies or Sierras in weather or at night. I’d still fly night IFR, even in the winter, considering the airplane has boots and handles icing effectively. We did one such trip westbound from Rhode Island to California into the teeth of a winter gale. When the groundspeed drops to 120 knots in a 200-knot airplane, the discussion naturally turns to things made by Pratt & Whitney bolted on to things made by Boeing.

Now, about that plaque. We were awarded it by the National Aeronautic Association for “speed over a recognized course from San Jose … to New York … for Class C-1d, Group 1 on May 4, 1992.” According to the plaque, the trip took 10 hours and 56 minutes for a speed of 234.16 mph. It’s an impressive plaque with a bespoke raised gold seal. I don’t have it hanging up because I don’t have the wall space and because if someone asked about it, I’d have to explain what “vanity record” means.

These so-called city-pair records seemed to be a thing in the early 1990s and may still be, for all I know. But it’s about as significant as the record my personal parachute packer, Kyle, awarded me over the weekend: the most number of skydives without dying. I like that guy. He keeps packing them and I keep unpacking them.

I went to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, where the late Scott Crossfield handed out the awards. What a gracious man. When one of the recipients told Crossfield that he was a personal hero, Crossfield replied: “Well, tonight, you’re mine.” Maybe I’ll withdraw that crack about the vanity record. For a brief, shining moment, the awards made us feel like we were participants in the larger world of aeronautics, even if strutting across the stage for an eye blink.

Crossfield asked me what the unrefueled range of the Malibu was, but damned if I could remember. But I do know it has a hell of a glide ratio.

Comments (16)

Informative, entertaining and amusing. Forget crossword puzzles. Thanks Paul.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | March 4, 2018 3:53 PM    Report this comment

The title of Paul's piece - "Things I Might Not Do Again" - was coincident with a question that a passenger asked me over the weekend: "If you had your life to live over, what would you change?"
Well, in airplanes, nothing. But in other areas.....
An important but overlooked part of the ignorance/hubris of youth is a belief that "there always will be time to 'fix' things." Wrong. Do NOT allow ANY opportunity to sublimate. Successful deposition is elusive.
I've had three engine failures in single-engine airplanes; one at night; none in weather. I know multi-thousand-hour pilots who've never experienced so much as a hiccup from an engine. Gotta love bell curves.

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | March 4, 2018 4:03 PM    Report this comment

GA "safety" is a lot like motorcycles. Once you start flying you realize that parts are plastic and beer can aluminum and you're out there in the breeze with the exact minimum of structure around you. Even if you do things 100% right there is a good chance that you might lay it down. That to me is the glory of flying; knowing the risks and still be willing to fly and survive and keep going. I've had a few engine-out "surprises" over the years but yea, we keep flying because the reward is so much better than the risk.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | March 4, 2018 8:34 PM    Report this comment

I admired the man. "Scott Crossfield was one of the most talented pilots ever to touch the controls of an airplane, and his loss is especially poignant because it was so avoidable," said Bruce Landsberg, executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. "Had either party, pilot or controller, simply spoken up about the situation, there's a very good chance he'd be with us today."

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | March 4, 2018 11:05 PM    Report this comment

I'm with you Mark, both on the motorcycle and the airplane. Sometimes I have to wonder if all the screws are torqued down right. Then again, the joy is immeasurable. Most people will never have a clue what they're missing. I love it.

Posted by: Thomas Cooke | March 5, 2018 4:39 AM    Report this comment

"Once you start flying you realize that parts are plastic and beer can aluminum and you're out there in the breeze with the exact minimum of structure around you. Even if you do things 100% right there is a good chance that you might lay it down."

I don't agree with that, especially the last statement. With the rare exception of undetected structural failure (when was the last time an aircraft fell out of the sky due to structural failure that wasn't the result of flying in severe turbulence that could have/should have been avoided), airplanes don't just crash for no reason. If you couldn't put it down in a crosswind or fly into a thunderstorm or icing, or over-stress the aircraft due to aggressive maneuvers, that's entirely up to the pilot. Also, "exact minimum structure" is relative. An engineer will say that it's an efficient structure with suitable safety margins.

I don't know if it's luck or something else, but I've never had a complete engine failure yet. I've had potential engine failures from carb icing and failing fuel pumps, but fortunately I caught all of them and applied appropriate measures to keep the engine running. And I have had some unexpected engine roughness that woke me up, but the engine kept running and producing power.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | March 5, 2018 9:26 AM    Report this comment

"when was the last time an aircraft fell out of the sky due to structural failure that wasn't the result of flying in severe turbulence that could have/should have been avoided"

Spring is already here down south and the large birds are back in the airspace under our Class Bravo. I had 2 "near misses" with them on Thursday so it's still fresh in my mind how fragile our planes really are. The last time someone hit one and then had to put it down quick due to broken structure was a few weeks ago. Poor RV-6....

Hitting critters on motorcycles is equally as bad and equally unavoidable at times.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | March 5, 2018 11:21 AM    Report this comment

This conversation about the inherrent dangers of flying is beginning to remind me of an old assessment of the contributions of team members, in producing a ham & egg breakfast:
The hens are dedicated, but the pigs are committed! ;-)

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | March 5, 2018 12:38 PM    Report this comment

"when was the last time an aircraft fell out of the sky due to structural failure that wasn't the result of flying in severe turbulence that could have/should have been avoided"

Just this year I had six cylinder studs on my left engine #1 cylinder bust off. I didn't fall out of the sky, but, I did shut it down. I suppose I could have fallen out of the sky, but, I really didn't want to. That would not be any fun.

Posted by: Thomas Cooke | March 5, 2018 3:18 PM    Report this comment

Looks like there are two categories of things I won't do again. The first is a situation that could go bad if there were a system failure. The second is a situation that could go bad because of bad decision making. We have a great deal of control over the second, not as much the first.

I remember putting 11.4 gal in an 11 gal fuel tank on a 7AC. Never have come that close again. And, yes the terrain was very inhospitable. This was very easy risk to mitigate. I also remember some wise old sage telling me if you look outside and think, geeze I could be in whole world of hurt if the fan quit turning, then maybe you should have planned to not be in that spot. This is a more difficult risk to mitigate. You have an airplane to travel and get you or your client somewhere quickly. There are those pesky very big swamps with alligators, or those mountains with lots of rocks and gorges, or maybe very cold shark filled water between you and your destination. Now what do you do?

So the answer is it depends. This is where we as PIC earn our pay. Make the right decision and have all the stars align, you did well. Have one little star that is out of alignment, then you may have one of those "I will never do that again" moments. I do remember holding at DEEPO at night in a single engine (turbo prop) at 2500 feet. Yes not comfortable but part of the job of getting the PAX into KACK (Nantucket island) during crummy weather.

To mitigate system failure exposure, manufacturers build in redundant systems. All things being equal, the cost of redundancy increases logarithmically. So our bug basher is more exposed to system failure than the heavy iron but we want to go to the same places. Here we go again with a tough risk-benefit analysis. If you want your flying to be 100% risk free, don't leave the ground. Life is fraught with risk, the only thing that we know for sure is that we aren't getting out of it alive. Use good judgment, and you will live long and prosper, make a big judgment error and life will be much shorter.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | March 6, 2018 1:36 PM    Report this comment

I've had two engine failures in my flying career; neither one preventable, but one that could have been mitigated. It gave me a heavy respect for preventive maintenance and taught me to fix any glitch, no matter how minor it may seem at the time. As Leo said, it also effected my flight planning to stay away from unfriendly territory or suspect weather whenever possible. I am probably more cautious than necessary, but I don't fly for hire, so when in doubt I sit it out. Maybe that removes some of the true joy of flying, but I am willing to accept the trade off. There is still plenty of fun to be had.

With regard to Scott Crossfield, I never had the privilege of meeting him, but he was one of my boyhood heroes. I always felt he didn't get the full credit he deserved because he was not in the astronaut corps so his ability and accomplishments were overshadowed. Still a true hero and role model.

Posted by: John McNamee | March 6, 2018 2:21 PM    Report this comment

Flying is like investing in a stock; first, you look for reasons to buy it (or alternatively go fly) and then once you are committed (i.e. airborne) you look for reasons to sell (i.e. land). We are never happy are we ha ha :-)

Just as you shouldn't fall in love with a particular stock (or at least that's the goal anyway) I don't trust the airplane once it leaves the ground. As "old" pilots say "Always leave yourself an out".
One of the ways I do this is imagine I am walking on 3000 foot long stilts; as you move across the landscape you "walk" from potential landing spot to landing spot, beginning with the climbout from the runway. I have these "holes" memorized for regular fields. The goal is to be spring loaded for a landing spot in case needed, at least below 3500 AGL or so...above that I probably have time to improvise. As much as I love flying airplanes, I just don't trust them; they are only man-made constructions of metal, cloth, and wood and you hope their faults don't become an issue during the brief time you are airborne.

I always heard good things about Scott Crossfield although I never met him. I was really sorry to hear about his accident a few years back.

Posted by: A Richie | March 7, 2018 9:44 AM    Report this comment

Group therapy in aviation. Why just the other day I heard several pilots confess to some of their sometimes adventures indiscretions. I noted them and voice recorded some for future study. One never knows when someone's experience may save a life. Like the 18 hour flight student practicing T&Gs in a C150 that was extended downwind for traffic and instructed to NOT get into "that cloud". Well, he got into "that cloud" catching a nice updraft to 6000 ft then a nicer downdraft, all whilst on full power, down to 800 ft., recovering over the Pacific Ocean, clear of clouds, some 5 miles away from the airport. The control tower made several calls - no response received. Oh well, there's several in the pattern. Meanwhile, the young pilot decides to sight see looking for whales off the coast of California then return to the airport some half hour later. He got a nice reception from the flight school owner. I understand he is still alive and makes his living as a flight instructor.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | March 7, 2018 11:32 AM    Report this comment

Well said about group therapy Dr. Sierra; by the way, did you find any whales?

Posted by: A Richie | March 7, 2018 1:30 PM    Report this comment

Legend has it that he found them.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | March 7, 2018 4:07 PM    Report this comment

Makes one wonder if some aircraft engine installations are just more failure prone. After my engine out in a Mooney M20J with a Lycoming I-360, Paul did some deep investigation into M20J engine failures. It turns out the "bullet proof" IO-360" is more failure prone in the M20J installation. The M20J had higher occurrences in engine failures on take-off, another surprise. Would I purchase another M20J? I don't know. I do have a mission for a faster airplane now and after the recent airline debacle at DFW, my wire is bought in too!

Posted by: DANA NICKERSON | March 8, 2018 4:10 PM    Report this comment

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