Nov 27, 2019 – Test Flying N833DF

This blog was written some months ago in anticipation of going flying soon. It was a way for me to re-engage in general aviation, buoy my mood, and motivate myself to hit the books again. We didn’t get back in the air in 2019, but we will very soon.  I’ll get to that….

N833DF was returned to flight about this time last year after replacing the landing gear box bulkheads deep down in each wing. The work spanned 2016 through 2018, and has been adequately discussed in previous blogs. I won’t torture myself by re-living the experience here. Instead, let’s talk about the test plan I put in place for last year’s return, the events that affected how the plan was used, and the lessons I learned along the way. I’m going to need to apply those lessons again very soon when the airplane comes back once more. Note: Very Soon is now defined as friggin’ February, 2020! Couldn’t be helped.

After the structural repair work had been completed in November, 2018, I realized that I’d be flying a light twin again after 26 months of not flying GA at all. I was instrument current and had earned three additional type ratings in that time (B-25, Westwind, and Astra), but had not flown small airplanes in awhile. This meant that I’d be flight testing a seriously deconstructed airplane with no recent experience in type. The post-maintenance return to flight would be a serious endeavor and I was more than a little apprehensive. However, I was incredibly excited to get going again.

As it turned out, the #2 cylinder on the right engine had retired itself during all the downtime, and would prevent me from flying in November and December. It would be January, 2019 now before the first test flight could be taken. That additional delay was rather difficult to swallow. It was not a happy time for me. As most airplane owners know – cost and time estimates in aviation are like weight loss goals for the year – evasive and ever changing.

Mulling over things I cannot control creates stress. To avoid being constantly reminded of the issues with my airplane, I hadn’t been reading the aviation magazines I’d followed for so long. Subscriptions were allowed to lapse and the new issues that arrived were thrown into a pile unread. Successive challenges and delays with the airplane project had taken its toll, and I was frustrated beyond belief. I just didn’t want to think about it.

The rebuilt cylinder was found and installed, and once again it was only the paperwork that was left to complete. I set a date for the first flight in January, 2019 and began to prepare. Opening the books and using the desktop simulator helped me to prepare. Within a few hours I could recite the limitations and emergency procedures and felt comfortable that I could program an approach if need be.

Every system in the airplane had been touched with this work, and anything that was touched could have had a problem introduced into it. I cleaned up the hangar and updated a flight test plan I intended to use to evaluate the landing gear, fuel, engine, propeller, radios, autopilot, and navigation systems. I felt that I was organized and ready to respond to any emergency.

Since I live in Chesapeake City, MD now, I planned to leave around 7am for the 2 hour drive to Delaware Coastal Airport (KGED). Matt and I would then go flying to break in the cylinder and run my test plan to see how everything worked. No pressure. Winds were forecast for clear skies and calm winds at the planned time of flight, though the winds would be big later in the day. We’d fly for an hour or two to ensure everything worked, then I’d be able to drive home triumphant. I’d move the airplane on a subsequent day.

Arriving at the airplane at 8am on the appointed day, I was disappointed to see that there was more to do than paperwork. The remaining odds and ends would take us into the fading light and building winds of a late afternoon January day. I had the choice to defer the flight once again, or go fly a light twin for the first time in 2 years, and one that has been heavily maintained at that. I had waited long enough for this time that I just couldn’t wait another day. I recognized the hazardous attitude at the time, and certainly acknowledge it now. I was primed to get this done!

With only an hour of daylight remaining and the winds now at 25 kts gusting to 36 kts, I loaded Matt in the airplane and started taxiing out. I was under the gun and putting myself under tremendous pressure. Get-there-itis without going anywhere. I realized with the engines running that I hadn’t visually checked the fuel and admitted it right there. This was more of an issue than usual, since I had Matt drain the old fuel and refill only the mains with fresh. They weren’t full. Matt confirmed we had fuel and I took his word for it.

If I shut down now and check it, the day is done and I drive home for 2 hours kicking myself. If you missed it – that would have been the right call. Instead I took Matt’s word for it, shortened the planned test flight, and relied a little on the fuel gauges. We continued with the take-off and I surprised myself with how well I did in the wind after so long. I ignored my well thought out test plan and we flew the cylinder break-in profile in the local area.

I shortened the planned test flight based on less fuel than I’d planned and fading daylight. The good news was that I flew really well in challenging conditions. The test plan I’d put together was generally in my mind, but I left it on the back seat and reduced the testing to only the basics. We flew less than an hour to break in the cylinder, and then did a landing in very high winds. At the very least I got to drive home knowing that I’d be getting my airplane back, and would have all the time in the world to do my testing now.

Lesson Learned: I had waited two years and two months to get my airplane restored and back in service. Myriad delays had utterly sapped my patience over a long period of time, and led me down a path I didn’t want to be on. My skills were strong, but that is no reason for test flying an airplane whose type I hadn’t flown in some time.

Fly safe…..   More to come.

Frank