We're getting ready to fly to a strip up by Tungsten, on the NWT-Yukon border. The temperature is about -8, but it was much colder overnight. There is frost on the airplane, and the notable thing about it is the size of the ice crystals. Normally a layer of frost looks pretty much like a layer of white fuzz, but this is, even from several metres away, clearly crystalline. I try to remember back to chemistry class for factors influencing the size of crystals. Purity of the solution comes to mind. Is the pure air and water up here causing larger ice crystals? More likely it's a coincidental ideal combination of humidity and temperature in still air. Critical surfaces, plus the nose so we don't get a shower of ice on the windscreen at rotation, cleared, we start up. We've had the engines tented (that means we wrapped and clipped custom-fitted blankets tightly around them) and block heaters plugged in, so the engines start without protest.
We taxi away from parking for the run-up. My new co-worker is flying and I'm only there because the insurance company wants him to have more time on type before he is on his own. He's perfectly competent, however, so I'm just sitting in the right seat staring out the window. He flew out of here yesterday with my chief pilot, so he knows more about the local area than I do.
Suddenly there's a loud BANG on the other side of the fuselage. I swivel my head around to the passenger cabin to see who is kicking the hell out of my airplane, but the mission specialist says, "What was that?!" Turns out that that was a magneto check. I stupidly tell an experienced pilot "you're not supposed to turn them both off at once!" and he assures me that he didn't. It does it again, the left engine emits a huge backfire with the left magneto selected off. "Okay, don't do that again," I say unnecessarily. It's probably one of my worst traits, telling people unnecessary things. And I hate it when they do it to me.
I really don't think this is caused by fouled spark plugs, but it's something maintenance will ask, anyway, so we attempt to clear the problem by leaning that engine out at moderate power, and then reducing power, this time to 1000 RPM and trying again. "BANG!" Rats.
The radio operator calls us from inside. "Is that you making that noise." Gah, you know your airplane is backfiring badly when it's disturbing the guy in the tower.
The engine runs fine with both magnetos selected on, but we have a no go item. It's remarkable how much redundancy there is in the system. It's quite possible that whatever has happened to the left engine right magneto happened yesterday, while new guy was over top of an endless range of 8000' peaks. Each cylinder has two spark plugs, fired by separate magnetos. And if you get right down to it, the engine will run, albeit badly, with one cylinder not firing at all. Plus there is a whole 'nother engine on the other wing, which is capable of getting the airplane home. But all that is designed for things that go wrong after we leave. Before we leave, they all have to be working. We have a no-go item.
It might be a dead magneto, or it could be a broken connection somewhere, a frayed p-lead making contact with ground, mimicking the condition when the mag is turned off. Just before shutdown with the power pulled right to idle, we do one last mag check. No backfire, but the left engine dies when the left engine left mag is selected off. I'm confident that this is not just a spark plug.
Hangar guy is there, still marshalling float planes, boats and motorhomes into the immense WWII hangar for winter storage. We know he's an AME so I go by and ask if he can help. He says he is too busy, and doesn't have any parts anyway. I understand, and wheedle a bit to get him to agree to look at it long enough to give us a diagnosis. There are magneto-related issues that can be fixed in barely more than the time it takes to open and close a cowling. He agrees to look at it. Meanwhile my coworkers are standing in the bed of a pickup truck waving their cellphones around, trying to get service to report on what's going on.
We taxi the airplane over, the cowling comes off and a multi-tester goes on. He quickly confirms that the magneto in question no longer works. He says it's common in the fall when water gets in. We flew yesterday and the engine hasn't been allowed to become wet or reach freezing temperatures since, so his reason is probably wrong, but we trust his diagnosis. I ask him if we can pay for the use of his hangar so our AME can do the work. He says yes, we can work that out. We drive into town, where our chief pilot, having received our texts, is already working on getting an AME in to help.
I go grocery shopping, and then before heading back go to have another look at the Signpost Forest. My hometown must be here somewhere. My cellphone bleeps and it's a text from my chief pilot. "Where are you right now?"
I text back, "Sign post forest."
Return text: "I have something to tell you. I'll be there in a few minutes."
I head over to the entrance to the forest -- there are really so many signs that you could go quite a while without seeing someone who was in there with you -- and wait. After the time it would take to walk from somewhere close by, like the grocery store, my imagination starts to wander.
When the chief pilot needs to talk to you in person, that's usually bad. Weary of the usual horror stories of getting in trouble or getting fired, my overactive imagination also manages to summon scenarios where something has happened to the owner, or to someone I know. Before I can come up with a scenario whereby my chief pilot has advance notice of the impending destruction of the planet, a car drives up and it turns out everything is fine, it was just a little complicated to explain via text or a poor cellphone connection.
My company is flying an AME to Whitehorse, with his toolbox and a magneto. His flight gets to Whitehorse at one a.m., so chief pilot is driving out to pick him up. Company is concerned about people driving around alone on the Alaska highway in the middle of the night, so new guy is going too. Chief pilot will fly home and new guy and will drive AME back, arriving tomorrow morning around seven. AME can nap during five hour drive (yes, the nearest airport with scheduled service is five hours away on the Alaska highway) and then fix the magneto before going to bed. I know that sounds pretty horrible, and it is. Get a call in the morning to get on a plane, fly all day and half the night, then ride in a car for the other half of the night and be expected to work before you get to check into a hotel. AMEs don't have legal duty days and they are horribly abused like this all the time. I never begrudge one a scheduled coffee break.
They'll be back tomorrow, but I miss my co-workers already.
On another topic, but in keeping with the title of this blog entry, readers Sarah and Tyler those who read the blog comments to a fascinating video of a pilot's last flight. One of the remarkable things about the video is that it was made in 1984, on video tape, with a video camera that was melted into unrecognizability in the post-crash fire, and then lay in the elements for a full three years before it was discovered. Deputy sheriff Dale Wood reconstructed the film.
The film is linked from this page. Scroll down to "Cessna L-19 Mountain Crash" to download it. It's a large file--took me an hour on hotel wireless--so if you don't have the bandwidth you can watch the short version linked below it. I watched it knowing only that it had been recovered from a fatal crash, but not the cause, so it was interesting watching and speculating. I'll give you a chance to do that before you read my commentary.
At first I assumed it was going to be a continued VFR into IMC story, because that was the context it was posted in, but the clouds seemed few and above the hilltops. They were flying fairly low, but that was for operational reasons. They were inventorying beetle-damaged timber. As they flew closer to treetops and terrain than I like to I winced a few times and wondered if they were going to clip a wingtip and crash that way. Perhaps transmission wires or a cell tower. But it isn't a built up area at all. The scenery is enough to be distracted by, even conveyed by aged videotape. I wondered if perhaps it would be an engine failure with nowhere suitable to glide to. Throughout the video, the terrain is rising subtly and there are some prominent rocky peaks ahead. The visibility is too good to fly into them unless this is a pilot incapacitation scenario. And then I guess it: they're going to try to outclimb terrain and strike the rocks. But no, I'm wrong; the pilot realizes that he can't outclimb the rocks ahead and starts to turn away. Good. But his bank angle is startling. He ignores the first bleat of the stall horn, and the second. The view snaps down to tree trunks and spins in.
Damnit! Don't you think that if at the first sound of the stall horn he had checked the nose forward, levelled the wings and applied full power he could have maintained altitude over those trees, perhaps with a gentle turn? He might not have had much power in reserve, but surely he wasn't flying along that close to terrain with the throttle wide open already. Or perhaps he had applied full throttle already and made the turn on discovering his negligible climb rate. Seems quite late to have started the climb, though. Even at sea level I wouldn't have been expecting a climb rate that would get me comfortably over those peaks from where he started the turn. But his best angle of climb should have been able to keep him over the tops of the trees which I see ahead of him on the second bleat of the horn. Why didn't he level the wings? Shoulda coulda woulda. In other jobs you make a bad mistake and your boss yells at you.