Wet and Wild

From The South Ramp --Hank Bruckner
Article from the March 2004 edition of the GACH newsletter

    Getting Wet
    Ditching always lurks in the back of my mind when I fly here; pretty much goes with the territory.  Two recent events, however, brought the idea to the forefront—in bright, flashing neon.  The first, of course, was Bob Justman’s ditching of his RV-8A just off Kaua'i on January 18th, and he has written a gripping narrative of his ordeal (see below).  The second actually didn’t result in a ditching, though might very well have.  Here I’m referring to the PA-31 that was being ferried to the mainland, turned back, and almost made it to the runway at Kahului, Maui on February 18th.

      Press reports indicated that the PA-31 lost power to the right engine due to problems with a fuel pump while he was over 400 miles north en route to California.  Pilot Alan Walls turned around and headed for the nearest runway—Kahului.  The Coast Guard met and escorted him back and videotaped the end of his flight.  That vivid imagery showed the Navajo on final approach, low and beginning what appeared to be the nemesis of multi fliers—the VMC Roll.  He was low enough that the right wing struck the ground at a slight enough angle for the airplane to come to rest upright, though broken. A VMC roll too often results in an inverted dive into the ground and is seldom survivable.  Fortunately, the roughly 2,300 pounds of fuel did not ignite and Alan came out relatively unscathed.

    Press photography of the bent bird showed the right engine was not turning at the time of impact, as the upright blade was unbent.  Interestingly, the right propeller also did not appear to be feathered.  Those of you who fly twins know the effect a windmilling prop has on performance.  When a conventional twin loses an engine (fifty percent of its power), it loses over eighty percent of its performance—and that is with the offending engine feathered, at gross weight, gear and flaps retracted, on a standard day.  When you factor in the extra weight of ferry fuel, he was fortunate indeed to make it all the way to Maui, if not the runway.  The irony, of course, is that he made it over 400 miles on one engine, only to come up a couple of hundred yards short of the runway.

    NTSB investigators have much more to work with in this case since the aircraft came to grief on land—Bob’s RV is on the ocean bottom, under many, many fathoms of water. The NTSB probe will no doubt determine why the right engine wasn’t feathered, as well as why it quit in the first place.
    A few things come to mind.  Those of us who fly twins are used to doing a “feather check” as part of the preflight run up.  The prop levers, usually one at a time, are brought back to the feather détente briefly, and the RPM is supposed to drop accordingly.  However, one is not supposed to allow an RPM drop of more than 300 – 500 RPM (depending on the equipment) during the feather check to avoid overstressing the system.  So, really, you have not tested whether the propeller will actually feather—just whether it is likely to.  Some of you multi types may recall trying to feather an engine during your training, only to have it spin down but not go into feather. In my old Seneca, a windmilling prop created as much drag as both gear and full flaps extended.  Something to consider on your next take off in a twin.

    The single-versus-twin debate has raged for years. You’ve heard or read the arguments against having two engines:  A twin has twice the chance of an engine failure than a single; the other engine only takes you to the scene of your accident; you burn twice the gas but don’t go twice as fast, and so forth.  However, the PA-31 did make it back to shore, whereas the RV-8 didn’t.  I can think of several other instances when a twin lost an engine in flight and made an uneventful, or at least safe, landing with the remaining power plant.

    Bob’s accident highlights, if nothing else, the absolute requirement to wear your life vest if you are flying a single over the water.  You will most likely only have what you have on when you exit the aircraft. Finding, obtaining, and donning a life vest while strapped into your seat in the limited time you have before impact may prove impossible, especially if you are also flying the airplane. Try it sometime on the ground in the airplane you usually fly.  After impact, a life vest under the seat, in a seatback pocket, or in the aft baggage area will be unavailable.  Even if the airplane does not flip over after impact, it will decelerate very, very quickly, and anything loose will be dislodged and wind up somewhere else.  Under favorable circumstances, you or a passenger may be able to get the raft out before the plane sinks, especially if the raft was secured prior to impact and responsibility for it was assigned. 

    Don’t count on the airplane floating more than a minute. That should be long enough for those near an exit to do so, provided they know where the exit is and how to operate it. It is your legal and moral responsibility as PIC to insure all your passengers get a thorough emergency briefing.  Historically, back seat passengers in four-place singles with a single door have a poor record of getting out after a ditching.

    Both accidents, and all the other ones I can remember around here, have one thing in common.  The Coast Guard will respond quickly, efficiently, and expertly, just as soon as they learn of an aircraft in distress.  Next time you see a Coastie, thank him or her.

    Bob Justman wrote about his experience.  
                 Here it is:

    “Honolulu Center I’m 200 Feet And Ditching!”
                Bob Justman

    “The terrible storms of the past week were over, the turbulent waves of the ocean had subsided, and the skies were blue once again.  I had completed the pre-flight and run-up and was taxiing down the runway in the red and white plane with the checkered tail.  The RV-8 sounded great!  It was going to be a very good day.  I looked forward to getting over to Kauai.  My wife, Honey, had been there for a week keeping a bedside watch over her critically ill grandmother, Sarah, whom she adored.  Sarah was a well-known chanter and “living treasure of Kauai.”  We were told that she did not have much time left and we both wanted to be there for her.

    “Honey patiently waited at the Lihue Air Terminal for me.  There was no Bob at 9 a.m., and no Bob at 9:30 a.m.  She called my son, “When did your father leave the house?  Dane cheerfully replied.  “Yeah mom, dad left over an hour ago.”  “O.K.”, she thought, “maybe he just started talking with some of his buddies at the airport.”  The minutes ticked by.  It was now 10 a.m. and Honey continued to wait until the police officer approached the car and asked, “Are you Mrs. Justman?  Your husband’s plane went down.”

    “Meanwhile a totally different scenario was unfolding 24 miles off of Kauai.  All of a sudden the RV’s engine lost power.  It continued to run but at a very low power setting.  I immediately started to go through my single engine emergency procedures.  I didn’t know how much time I had.  Descending out of 4,500 feet I notified Honolulu Center that I had an emergency and would be ditching.  Center replied, “Squawk 1701 and Ident.  “I tried everything I could think of to regain power.  Nothing worked.  At 1,000 feet MSL I turned the aircraft into the southerly winds, tightened my seat belt and shoulder harness and opened the canopy.  I grabbed my floatation device and portable ELT and set them in my lap.  After I lowered my flaps and trimmed full-up elevator I notified Center at 200 ft that I was ditching now!  At about 60 miles an hour the plane made explosive contact with the water.  The aircraft flipped nose down.  I felt a twisting sensation and the plane came to rest at a 45-degree angle to the surface.  The cockpit was full of water because the windshield had shattered upon impact.  I had no idea how far underwater I was.  Still belted to the aircraft and holding what little breath I had left I tried to open the canopy which had slammed shut trapping me underwater.  I kept trying to pry it open and somehow was finally able to shove it back, unbuckled my seat belt, and ejected myself from the cockpit.  My survival gear had disappeared by this time."

    "Surfacing near the tail of the aircraft I was amazed to hear sound, the lapping of the waves against the side of the aircraft.  There had been no sound underwater.  I glanced at my watch it was 9 a.m. my estimated time of arrival at Lihue terminal.  Within minutes the airplane made a popping sound and then plummeted toward the bottom of the ocean floor.  I assessed the situation and said to myself, “Bob, you’ve gone and done it now.  No floatation device, no ELT, and dark blue clothes----perfect camouflage for a pilot lost at sea.”  However, Coast Guard training always emphasizes positive thinking for survival.  I began to look around for any floating wreckage to make myself more visible.  Locating pieces of white fiberglass from the wheel fairings I turned my back to the waves and prepared to wait for at least an hour or more before I could hope for a rescue or search aircraft to arrive.  The water was about 76 degrees.  I relaxed to save energy in order to stay afloat for a long period of time.  I knew that the ocean could be an unforgiving adversary. "

    "I was alone in the middle of the Kauai Channel well known for its deep and seemingly endless underwater trenches.  There was no land in any direction.  I watched as Hawaiian’s Boeing 717s descended on their approach to Lihue.  I spotted a tug towing a barge to the East of my position and hoped they would pass by me.  I realized that the barge was getting smaller and moving away.  It was at that moment that I realized that I was but a mere spec in the universe.  At 9:40 I heard the sound of a helicopter, but couldn’t see it.  Seconds later the Coast Guard helicopter was approaching from the East.  I waved the fiberglass pieces in the air.  The helicopter flew by, and I wasn’t sure if they had seen me.  They had, but needed to jettison fuel in order to bring another person on board.  As the helicopter returned I decided to splash my arms and legs to make sure that they had seen me.  The helicopter descended to hover above the water and fountains of water erupted around me.  I began to swim toward the helicopter but Ronny German, the rescue swimmer, signaled me to stop.  Slipping into the water he swam toward me, held up his hand once again and told me to relax.  Grabbing me from behind he slipped his arm in front of my shoulder and towed me to the rescue basket.  I was hoisted aboard the helicopter.  It was a good feeling to be airborne again.

    “No one wants to experience a scenario such as this.  However, it can be a powerful tool by which to pass on useful information to other pilots who may one day find themselves in similar circumstances.  It is imperative to monitor Honolulu Center while in route.  Declare the emergency and squawk 7700 with them immediately so that they can track your movements on radar.  They were able to track me to 100 feet.  Wear all survival equipment including a personal ELT.  You will never have the time to put these on in a situation like this.  All of one’s energy and actions will be directed towards the emergency situation.  I cannot stress enough the value of survival training especially the water evacuation simulation that is taught every year by the Coast Guard.  If you are underwater things have a different appearance. It is dark and hazy and one can be easily disoriented.  In my case the release for my seat belt had moved position and was not where I expected it to be.  One can lose precious time and air when this happens underwater.  The initial impact of the airplane hitting the water is horrific--like slamming into a cement wall, and I recommend having the canopy shut.   The canopy took the brunt of the impact, which I credit for my survival, and is a testament to the structural integrity of the Van’s design.”

    KHON-2 Story
    When an aircraft ditches in our waters, it stirs media interest.  Jai Cunningham of KHON2 News called me, interested in doing a story on experimental aircraft, in light of Bob’s ditching and Bill Swears’ adventure last November (Bill’s engine quit as he was ferrying his Cozy to the mainland).  Jai’s intent was to learn a bit about experimentals and why folks fly them. I couldn’t think of anyone better to discuss the matter than Willy Schauer, so we arranged to meet at his hangar, and, of course, Willy didn’t disappoint.  Some footage of Linne Holmberg’s RV-4 was also used, and Jai did a nice job in the all-too-short bit that actually aired.  I was sorry they didn’t use the footage of Jai getting into Willy’s Baby Great Lakes.  Jai isn’t big, but that Baby is small!
    Wet and Wild
    This winter has been wetter and wilder than any I can remember.  I’m not referring to total rainfall numbers; rather, the intensity and frequency of the storms that have ravaged the islands.  We even had tornados on O’ahu!  Last winter was challenging, with the fronts passing through every four to six days for a couple of months.  This year, however, the lows seem to have been deeper and the systems more intense.  Long periods of intense rain, low ceilings, mist, and strong winds (generally southerly or westerly) have created some serious challenges to aviating.  Sadly, this weather has once again contributed to the death of a pilot and his crew.

    We will never know for certain why Ron Laubacher’s  Hawai'i  Air Ambulance flight flew into the side of Mauna Kea January 31st, because that information perished with him and his crew, paramedics Mandy Shiraki and Daniel Villiaros.  Their tragic loss resonated with the public because of the nature of their mission as well as each of the crewmembers.  Everyone has a pet theory, but public speculation when an investigation is still underway is not helpful, so I won’t indulge in it.  Weather was almost certainly a factor, though.  It was indeed a dark and stormy night, with heavy rain and even thunderstorms around.  Not weather to be taken lightly.

    Flying is a series of decisions, each often impacting or shaping the next.  Some decisions lead to more choices, others tend to narrow them, sometimes to the point where few or no acceptable choices remain.  The first big choice, of course, is whether to go or not. 

    The Coast Guard uses a risk management decision matrix to assist making that first big decision. Crew capabilities, aircraft capabilities, environmental factors, including weather, are weighed against the mission.  Each factor is numerically weighted, and a result is computed.  At one end of the spectrum, the mission is clearly a go.  As the risk increases, however, the decision is elevated organizationally higher, and beyond a certain value, the mission is clearly not a go. In this calculus, losing the aircraft and/or crew is never an acceptable option.

    We all do some sort of risk management every time we fly.  This time of year especially, weather is a major pre-launch factor.  It can be notoriously difficult to assess accurately, however, when sufficient valid data is either unavailable or at least hard to obtain.  NEXRAD is perhaps one of the most useful tools in determining where the weather is, its relative intensity and movement and can really help you make that first big decision.  It isn’t particularly good, however, for determining ceilings and visibility, and though it may be recent, it isn’t real-time.  And once you’ve started down that runway, you won’t have it at your fingertips (at least not yet for most of us).

    Few of us fly aircraft equipped with weather radar and/or spherics devices such as Stormscope or Strike Finder which track the electrical discharges in lightning, and have to rely heavily on our eyes for in-flight weather avoidance.  Often challenging in daylight when there are clouds and rain and mist around, it can become nigh impossible at night.

    That DG that precesses every few minutes may be slightly annoying in good weather, but it can be a real pain in the brain at night or in bad weather, especially if that attitude indicator is a bit lazy, too.
    When you make that all-important go/no-go decision, be as forthright with yourself as you can and try not to be unduly influenced by the nature of the mission. No matter how compelling the mission, takeoffs truly are optional.  Landings are not.

    TFRs, Again
    The big sigh of relief that followed the reestablishment of the pre-TFR VFR procedures into and out of Honolulu may be short-lived.  The Navy has requested that many of the TFRs around the country be turned into Prohibited Areas.  The first one to hit is FAA Notice of Proposed Rule Making, Docket number 15976.  This one seeks to convert a TFR in Georgia to prohibited airspace.  If successful, similar proposals will be made nationwide, including here.  I’ve been told that the Navy has already asked that the Pearl Harbor TFR become both permanent and prohibited airspace.  You can fight back, though.   Until April 12th, pilots may file comments online at http://dms.dot.gov/ by clicking on "Simple Search" and entering docket number 15976. Written comments should be mailed to: Docket Management System, U.S. Department of Transportation, Room Plaza 401, 400 Seventh St. SW, Washington D.C., 20590-0001. Make sure to include the full docket identification (FAA-2003-15976/Airspace Docket No. 03-AWA-5) at the beginning of written comments.

    If you log onto the site, you can both review other’s comments as well as enter your own.  It’s a good site to bookmark, for next time a rule is proposed that you wish to address.  This is serious stuff.     In the meantime, remember to maintain at least 1,500’ when crossing Ford Island, after obtaining your clearance, of course.

    Ed to Wed
    Our good buddy (and the highest flying GACH member) Ed Lu is getting married May 14 on Maui. Ed’s companion on the ISS, Cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, got married while on orbit.  Ed’s festivities will be much easier to attend, especially for Ed!  Congratulations, Ed and Christine!

    Ed stopped by here a few weeks ago to deliver a speech to folks at UH.  He was introduced by none other than our Governor, Linda Lingle, and he provided some fresh insight into life aboard the International Space Station (ISS).  While discussing future missions, such as to Mars, he made the point that one of the very necessary, if unglamorous, benefits of the ISS is that we gain experience in developing systems that will run reliably for a long time.   Half-way to Mars is not the time or place to discover that one of your systems wasn’t robust enough to last through the mission, especially since you can’t turn around and go back home, and no one can send you up a spare.  The ISS is the perfect place to develop stuff that needs to go the distance, since it is a relatively short trip home if things turn sour.

    If you are interested in Mars, NASA provides daily updates to the workings of both the Spirit and Odyssey rovers on Mars, complete with imagery.  Try http://marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov/home/index.html.

    GA Forum
    The next State DoT Airports Division GA Forum will be March 18th, 1830 – 2100 hrs (6:30 to 9:00 pm) in the Airport Conference Center, 7th floor, Interisland Terminal, at HNL.  Y’all come, now, hear?

Be careful out there.

Cessna 421A.  Low airframe time.  Call Hank @ 836-1031