Houston We Have A Problem

Sitting at my computer wrapping up for the day I grab a quick weather brief and start mentally paging out the iPhone programming information and paging in the flying an airplane libraries. I’m the safety pilot today for a friend at the club.

Every instrument rated pilot needs to fly, within the preceding six months, six approaches, a hold and tracking a course. The last is the easiest, I’m not even sure how you could fly an IFR flight plan without satisfying it.

On the flip-side, it’s pretty unusual to have to fly a hold during a normal flight. However, the requirement to fly a single one every six months is easily satisfied as it can be done anywhere. Just ask ATC for a hold occasionally and note it in the logbook. This isn’t to say I have managed to get this right… Perhaps I should say that in principle it’s easily satisfied…

Flying six approaches gets a bit harder. Just flying six times during a six month period is hard for some people and most of the time, even if there is weather in the area, the conditions are such that you fly a visual approach into the destination airport. So people end up having a pilot friend ride along with them so that they can wear a sight limiting device. These devices, as the name implies, limit the pilot to only being able to see things within the cockpit. They are basically a giant baseball cap, typically referred to as a ‘hood’. With the safety pilot looking out the window, the pilot can fly practice approaches to satisfy their needs.

Today I’m going to fly with a friend who needs four approaches to remain current, so I pack my flight bag and head upstairs, hearing my phone ringing as I walk up.

“Hey Steve”

“Rich, I screwed up and left my wallet at work and I don’t have enough gas to get to the airport. Can you come rescue me?”

I drive to the gas station, pay for the gas and off we go to the airport.

It’s Steve’s flight, so I generally stay quiet. He’s the slowest pre-flight I’ve ever seen. A typical pre-flight should take 5 minutes or so, but his takes closer to 30. Eventually we get in the plane and are ready to start the engine.

“Clear Prop”

The engine starts cleanly and he does a check of everything inside the cockpit. The attitude indicator (AI) is slow to erect.

The AI is an gyroscopically driven instrument that tells the pilot the orientation of the aircraft if they are in a cloud or otherwise don’t have a view of the horizon. For a few days there have been reports that it is showing signs of impending failure. We start the timer on the clock and it takes a full four minutes before it’s fully erect. We’ll note that with the maintenance officer after the flight.

There is a bunch of construction at the airport. Two runways are closed. As are several taxiways. We pull to the edge of the taxiway and get instructions to drive a couple miles down the road to the end of the biggest runway at the joint. About halfway down we decide this is silly and request an intersection departure. This will allow us to take off part of the way down the runway. We still have more than 4000 feet of usable space. More space, in fact, than we would have if we had used the closed runway.

We take off, climb to 2000 feet and I take the controls so Steve can put his hood on. He takes the controls back and I mostly sit and enjoy the view.

We fly for a few minutes and I notice that he’s got us in a 20 degree bank away from the direction we need to be heading. At the same time, he notices that the heading indicator is spinning when he’s expecting it to be static.

We abandon the training flight and start to work the problem. The heading indicator and the AI are both gyro instruments powered by a vacuum pump. We check the vacuum and find an indication in the green.

Now we are in straight and level flight and check the AI. It’s indicating a 10 degree turn to the right. The heading indicator is static. So, it looks like it’s the AI that has failed. I reach into my bag of junk and find an old sheet of paper. The paper gets folded in half and jammed on the adjustment knob for the AI, thus blocking the AI from view. Problem solved.

With that distraction out of the way we turn around, fly back home and make the call to our maintenance office letting him know the plane is down.

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