May 14, 2013 Seaplane trip almost has a sad ending

I manage PHIs Energy Management Teams as well as the Network Operations Center staffs, and this Monday morning I was headed to Melbourne, Florida for a GE Technical Users Conference.

I used this opportunity to fly myself down in my Twin Comanche – non-stop both ways. For the trip down, I chose to stop at Winter Haven airport for some seaplane work at John Brown’s seaplane base. Having gotten my rating in January, this would be a good opportunity for me get some cub time on floats. It was also an awful good excuse to buy $5.20 gas instead of $6.82 fuel at Melbourne.

Upon landing at Winter Haven, I went over to the FBO first. There was an experienced and courteous ramp attendant who guided me to my tie-down. I noticed a photographer taking shots of my airplane as I followed the ramp guy, but made no further note of her.

After shutting down the engines, I discovered that the 5.20 fuel was self-serve and across the field. The FBO employee understood my desire to move to that pump and agreed to remove the chocks for me. I maintained eye contact while he did that, and watched him back step clear of my airplane. He and I were on the same wavelength. He was operating safely.

Note that fuel at the FBO was actually reasonable at $5.70, but .50 cents is $50 when you buy 100 gallons. It almost wasn’t worth it.

With the chocks cleared and the ramp guy clear, I prepared for a hot start. Head down; switches set and hand on the left engine starter – I opened the left side window and started to call clear. Many of these moves and procedures are so practiced that I’d have no trouble doing them without thought and with my eyes closed. I do it automatically all the time.

As I called clear and started clearing the area visually – my breath caught in my throat. The Hot prop was armed and could start easily just by pushing on it. My hand was on the starter and applying light pressure in the direction of the start position. That photographer I noticed earlier was now leaning over and on my left propellor. She was leaning into the prop arc so that her head was beneath the high blade. She was trying to talk to me. Trying to ask if taking my picture was ok!

I was dumbfounded. Moving my hand from the switch like a finger from a hot stove, I asked her ‘What the hell are you thinking!! You don’t ever ever ever approach an aircraft propellor – particularly with a pilot sitting at the controls!!” I called out. “What the hell are you thinking!!”.

She apologized, but leaned further into the prop to make her point more clear. I scared myself. I didn’t know what else to say, and just looked at her and waved her away from the airplane further and further.

She had no idea how close to death she actually came. The magnetos were set – engine was hot – and the left engine throttle was full open for the hot start. Had she lost her balance or chosen to lean on the blade at her waist – the engine could have started and she’d be gone. Had I chosen to take a short cut (after being hot and tired from a 5 hour flight) and not followed safety procedures…. she’d be very very dead. I’d be negligent, but directly harmed by her lack of awareness.

I taxiied over; fueled up; and hitched a golf cart ride over to Brown’s from there. I put the incident behind me quickly, but am reminded to slow down and follow procedure every time. You can do the short cuts a thousand times and get away with it. You can forget to do the right thing once and get burned. It is all about minimizing your risk, and taking care of all of those around you.

That was close.