Logistics were a bear trying to get the airplane home, but my wife loaded me up for a ride to Smoketown, PA. The plan was simply to inspect the paint work and perform a thorough pre-flight inspection before flying it home. Bev is a real trooper, and would drive back home on her own.
We figured since it was a beautiful day, maybe Charles and Delores, Bev’s mom and Dad, would enjoy a car ride up toward the Lancaster area. It is beautiful up there, and it might be nice for them to get out before this crushing cold gets any worse. They were happy to come along, so we loaded up the van and picked them up around 9:30; arriving in Smoketown around 11:00 am.
It was windy and cold by the time we arrived. I opted not to stop for lunch with the family, but to get dropped off and moving as soon as I could. I’ve done this kind of thing enough to know that I might need all the daylight available to make adjustments if things didn’t go smoothly. Who knows, I might find paint flaws or similar issues.
Charles and I looked over the general paint work with Kendall, the paint shop manager, as soon as we arrived. I paid him for the stainless fasteners I added to the work, and returned Charles to the car so those guys could head out for lunch. The airplane looked like someone had spent hours waxing it that morning, yet it was only paint and clear coat I was looking at. There were a few drips and over-sprays noted, which were cleaned up on the spot. Wow does it look fine!
I walked across the field as my wife pulled out, to pay Dutchland Aviation for a replacement windshield they installed in the midst of this project. Insurance covered the skinning work with them, but the windshield started cracking about a year after the extensive interior work was completed by Airtex (a separate project – equally complex). I’m sure the windshield was due to improper reinstallation that is now set right. Dennis is the A&P / owner over at Dutchland and coordinated the work with the paint shop up to this point. He and I have good history dating back to the successful refinishing of my Warrior II about 10 years back.
With my wife and in-laws at lunch, I returned to the heated hangar and got started on my extensive pre-flight. There were no obvious discrepancies noted, so I added a quart of oil to the left engine before Kendall and I pulled it out for my departure.
Preparing to fly
I acknowledge that with everything working right, the art of flying a light twin into and out of a narrow short strip on a cold windy day with gusting crosswinds is a feat that should be well within my experience. It should be fun, and no drama should be expected. On the other hand, the first flight after major maintenance should have you tightening your seat belt just a little more, and doing your pre-flights with a jaundiced eye. One should be prepared for the unexpected, and I was.
From the pictures I’ve included before (I have others if you are interested), you could see that all the control surfaces had been removed; re-skinned; and re-installed. Pretty extensive work had been done that would warrant a very careful post maintenance flight. I have experience driven rules for that, and apply those rules even to post-flights after simple oil changes. I’ve learned these lessons by experience, and we all know that experience is a series of non-fatal mistakes.
Items of special consideration in pre-flight:
– Flaps: play; direction and travel with respect to the yoke; related hardware and safeties
– Ailerons: play; direction and travel with respect to the yoke; related hardware and safeties
– Stabilator: play; direction and travel with respect to the yoke; related hardware and safeties
– Rudder: play; related hardware and safeties
– Static ports: open and free of paint
– Pitot Tube: open and free of paint
– Cowl Flaps: integrity and play
– Fuel vents, doors, caps
Prior to being pummeled by hail and deciding on a repair shop at Smoketown, my personal minimums included landing at runways no less than 3000′. I wanted to hedge my bets at being able to secure a failed engine in a light twin and continue flying or have a place to land. While hangar flying, I have endured several discussions on the topic where folks were trying to convince me that routinely using 2500′ strips was perfectly safe. I wasn’t buying it.
My personal case-in-point was wanting to use College Park Airport (north of DC) to commute to work over there while working for PHI. I look at the houses and the development in general that surrounds this airport. It offers very few options for landing should an engine fail, and looking at performance numbers for the PA30 revealed unappealing start/stop distances. I came to the conclusion that the risk was too high when you consider an engine failure at the worst possible time. I extrapolated that consideration into my then-policy of only landing at runways 3000′ or greater. This policy worked for my first four years of twin ownership, allowing me to amass about 700 hours in the bird.
Re-evaluated Personal Minimums
In the middle of June, 2014, I accepted a job with Piedmont Airlines and planned to go to Charlotte for two months of Dash-8 training. I needed an oil change in my PA30 before I left, so I needed to move the airplane from the hanger up north (33N) to the hangar down south (KGED). The shop I use is south, but I learned that the ramp work in front of my hangar would prevent it’s use for a few days. Note that the airplane is never sitting outside unless traveling. Ever. Not ever. Never.
Que the series of storms coming south of the north hangar and focused eerily on my south hangar – with my beautiful PA30 sitting neatly outside – just yards from the protection of a steel hangar roof. The storm comes through and catches me outside on one of the very few days the aircraft is actually out there. The insurance company shows up and does a fantastic job of backing me up. Several aircraft at Georgetown were affected, and the agent confirmed several other airports were hit as well. Just not the one where my airplane was the day before.
Nothing but compliments and support from the insurance folks, whose first suggestion for an estimate was Smoketown. There are two paint and repair shops I’m familiar with there, as I’ve used them both previously on my Warrior II projects. Only problem now is the fact that this airport does not meet my personal minimums. Oh Bother.
Smoketown has a narrow 2400′ runway oriented east/west. Landing west (rw28) you have a significant upslope, and that runway is favored. Runway 28 includes a 50′ obstacle on the departure end, adding a bit of spice. The shops I will be working with are located on either side of the runway. Decent open fields are available in both directions, so there are places to put it if I must. I determine that the risk is manageable if I keep the weight down and stand prepared to put it in a field upon the loss of an engine. In actuality – I think I could fly it out, but be ready to land if it still won’t fly after reconfiguring after an engine loss.
What I’ve done here is make a single exception to the 3000′ personal minimum based on specific information. The minimum still stands, and will be a reminder that when I need to use a field such as this, special care must be taken. Get the books out on performance; keep the fuel load light; keep the passengers light; consider winds, temperature, and weather in general.
Personal Test Flight Profile
Being alone on this flight is important. No one goes on post maintenance flight that isn’t a pilot there to help, or a mechanic who needs to observe. Passengers are looking to me to manage their risks for them – and experience has taught me how. If I do need or bring another pilot, I give him or her pre-defined tasks during emergencies as I see fit. Monitoring and calling out blue-line speeds upon loss of an engine at take-off is one example.
Anyone on board should get full take-off briefings, and understand sterile cockpit rules. Be aware that mechanics onboard attempting to trouble-shoot frustrating problems can be a significant distraction. No disrespect there – just fact. The pilot/owner needs to manage those distractions; thus avoiding gear up landings and null responses to emergencies.
Use your checklists extensively, and be annoyingly slow about it. Check things twice and on every test flight if more than one is required.
Hand flying allows valid testing and problem detection in all phases of flight. Leave the autopilot off for the entire test flight, unless that is the focus of the test of course. Hand-fly through all flight configurations and profiles to ensure you know how the airplane is performing at various speeds and configurations.
Tests flights are to be conducted in DAY VFR ONLY. At the outset – I verbalized this to my wife, both shops that I’d only be conducting the test flights with, and anyone else who would listen. The temptation is HUGE to continue if you are almost there at the end of the day. Verbalizing helps control the temptation and keep you honest. Night adds risk. IMC adds lots of risk.
First Departure of the Day
You probably know by now that one flight wasn’t all that was needed – just by the subtitle above, if not the fact that I wrote this long-winded blog about it.
The wind favored runway 28 for this launch, which would have me accelerating uphill with a gusting crosswind and looking at an obstacle of about 50′ at the departure end. Winds were less than 15 knots from my observations. I opted for a left-quartering tailwind, downhill departure with no serious obstacles. I completed the run-up near the departure end of runway 10, accordingly.
Before departure, very excited to have my airplane back and looking fine, I called Beverly and told her I was departing and that I’d call her after landing in Georgetown, Delaware (KGED). I still had a few hours of driving to get other errands accomplished before going on reserve the next day, so I was pleased to have half of the day left to work with. Bev was at lunch with her parents, so she knew she could leave unless she heard back from me.
Calling in the blind, I lined up on the runway; held the brakes; and set 20″ of manifold pressure. The engines howled as I released the brakes and added full power. Takeoff was uneventful – staying in ground effect with the added benefit of gravity on the downhill runway.
Blue line; positive rate; gear up and climb. No issues noted climbing at blue line (105), but as I lower the nose I notice I am unconsciously adding light left aileron to counter a right roll. Not a bunch at this point, but I’ll have to evaluate it further. Set climb power and 130mph on the speed to 3000′ heading south for Georgetown. Lower the nose and let it accelerate.
Houston we have a problem
I’m accelerating and leveling off to evaluate the cruise performance of the airplane after painting. I went in doing about 172 knots, so I should come out doing about the same. I’m also looking to see if the magnetic flux detector (or whatever official name it has) that sets the heading on the Aspen still works, and that the airspeed indicators still give reasonable numbers.
Approaching 170 knots now – that slight right turning tendency has become a wrestling match. I have fully thirty degrees of left aileron in and my arm feels the strain. I realize I have serious control problems. I throttle back to 18″ and the strain is relieved – which means I can control this thing while testing it a bit further. I’ll have to get back on the ground though, to stop Bev from going home.
Accelerating again with 24″ of manifold pressure and 2400 RPMs (high cruise), I once again feel tension and see 30 degrees of left aileron. I clear the airspace to the right and release the controls to see how far this thing wants to go. I wouldn’t call it a snap roll, but if left unattended for just a few seconds more I’d have either been inverted or in a very steep spiral dive. Reduce power and head back to the barn for some tune-ups.
Lowering the flaps and gear gave me all the stability I needed, so I landed and called Beverly in plenty of time. With her and my in-laws returning to the field, I went into conference with the two shops.
Fly safely and plan!!