conducting vfr flight in instrument conditions

I was at an uncontrolled airport the other day conducting an IFR cross country training flight. We had arrived at this airport less than an hour prior and since I have watched 3 airplanes land. 2 I listened arrive to the airport over the CTAF making traffic calls from their respective cardinal directions. At no point did I get the feeling they were inbound on the single instrument approach serving the airport. I felt very strongly they were VFR in what I considered to be barely VFR in the class Golf airspace that served the airport.

I thought about it for a few minutes, and resolved that VFR could be accomplished as long as the aircraft were clear of the clouds. Could.

Fast forward to now. I’m in my airplane again, aircraft fueled with low lead, me fueled with turkey and cheese. Next to my airplane on the ramp is an empty 172. While conducting our pre taxi briefs and checklists two men board the 172 and begin to taxi. I didn’t hear a taxi call. I didn’t hear a call for IFR clearance on the RCO frequency for the closest approach facility. About 5 minutes later I hear them call CTAF with “departing runway XX south”.

Current conditions are VV001 and 1SM or less. I’m estimating these because ASOS was OTS, however the closest airport was reporting similar conditions. Sitting in my aircraft on the ramp, I was unable to see completely across the airfield. After departing we were IMC by 150 feet and breaking through the top at almost 700 feet.

Checking in with departure and no 172 on frequency there.

I haven’t stopped thinking about this since it happened. What possesses people to do such stupid things? Why were airplanes using this uncontrolled field for VFR flight operations in such poor visibility? Not just one, but multiple aircraft had come and gone during conditions that I barely feel comfortable departing IFR in while in a single engine piston aircraft.

Cloud clearance requirements are there for a reason. Maneuvering low level in low visibility isn’t smart. Spatial disorientation is real and it will kill you. Being conservative isn’t just for politicians. Statistics aren’t just numbers, they’re people that are no longer alive because of being unable to make good judgement calls, or not being able to identify and stop the error chain.

Stay safe people.

one engine inoperative


One engine inoperative flight refers to the aerodynamically intriguing event of an engine failure while flying a multi engine airplane. A topic of much discussion among instructors and students, an event that is practiced and drilled just as much.

During training flights we routinely simulate engine failures and practice the sequence of events for trouble-shooting, shutdown, and securing of an inoperative engine. At altitude, we even fully shut down and feather the simulated failure. This is to train the student in the complete procedure and help them gain confidence in the aircraft flying single engine.

Recently I was on such a training flight, doing the exact aforementioned procedure. Using techniques of the sneaky demeanor, I shut off the fuel supply to the left engine. Directing my student to a new heading to fly, I waited eagerly for the ‘surprise’. As predicted the left engine stops producing power, and starts producing drag. Just as taught, the student started a script of checklist and call outs. Announcing the engine failure and working to trouble-shoot the failure, deciding that it was better to shut down and secure it. Shortly after the failure, the engine is feathered and shut down. Instead of the propeller spinning with drag, it sits quietly posed defunct. So far all is routine on this flight.

I pose the question to the student “Now what would you do?”
“Fly to the closest airport and declare an emergency.”

I couldn’t have expected that would be exactly what I would have to do.

Once we were finished with the simulation of failure, I instructed the student to restart the engine and we could continue with other practice. After attempting the restart of the engine, the propeller sat there quietly still, defiant of our command. I stared at it thinking that it couldn’t possibly be sitting still, rebellious to our wishes for it to roar back to life. For the first time in my life I had the realization of only one engine keeping me aloft.

I had practiced and drilled this as a student myself, I have flown countless times single engine as an instructor, yet to this point it was all simulated. I realized at that moment that I never really payed any attention to the single operating engine while these simulations were carried out. I always just expected and assumed that if there were any problems with it, I could just restart the opposite engine I simulated failed. I didn’t have that luxury any more.

Of the many things my father taught me, one that I remember and try to implement is perspective. The same event or thought or opinion is a thousand times different from a different perspective. Keeping that in mind I have a new found perspective on this ‘simulation’.

So here we are, flying around with one engine inoperative, running the same checklist over multiple times to ensure no pilot error occurred. It appears none has, and now the event is playing out in my head. The scenario I have been taught, and have been teaching, is playing out like déjà vu.

“…inbound from the east, one engine inoperative and declaring an emergency.”

Wow. Just typing the words as I said them gives me goosebumps. That one word gives me chills.

The landing was smooth, and overall uneventful. It was quite a feeling once I got out of the airplane. I have replayed this event in my head over and over again. I learned from this experience, where I thought I had learned all to know.


Pay closer attention to the single operating engine while simulating a failure. Have a plan for what to do once you clear the runway, and where you’re going to taxi and park. Don’t come to a full stop before you’ve taxied to the parking spot. Work that out with tower, they’ll pretty much let you do whatever you want.

airline transport pilot

disclaimer: I wrote this entry entirely from my Blackberry while on a trip, so if there are gross gramatical errors, I apologize.

Seems like an eternity since I’ve started flight training, yet here I am years later still training. I guess a pilots life is defined by it, maybe one day I’ll get use to it.

Even after giving hundreds of checkrides I myself still get nervous. At no point in anyones career is it fun to be put under a microscope. Especially when it involves such a skill that you excersice with great pride in performing flawlessly. To have someone observe and ridicule or rejoice of your abilities, makes for a very stressfull day. I don’t think you will ever feel as truly exposed and vulnerable about your job than when on a check ride.

The stress to perform, the stress to impress or do a good job, or even to just pass, is immense. No matter where you go, or who you will be checked by, they will likely have years of experince in excess of ten fold your own. They will squint funny when you exclaim an incorrect detail, or smile when you are perplexed by a question they’ve asked hundred of applicants just the same as you. I know because I do it. It is this behind the scenes detail of repitition that I fear and loathe.

If this event was good for anything it was definitely a wonderful regaining and refreshing of a perspective I haven’t had in a while. If you knew the reputations and the rumors of my check rides you would understand as do I, the stress I create. Nothing of purpose or intent towards the applicant, I’m not malicious as I am thorough and strict.

On the morning of my checkride, I woke from an uneasy and uncomfortable sleep. The clock barely moved past 2 AM as I stared in bewilderment at it. I had the feeling of a young child on the morning of Christmas. I wanted it not to be 2 AM but rather closer to noon. Done with my check ride and hopefully newly printed certificate in hand. Yet no matter how strong my will power for time changing telekenisis, it was a fruitless labor.

The hours grinded by, marked by shifting in bed relentlessly and checking the time. It was like torture and my brain joined in the treatment. I envisioned my checkride, going over every detail I could possibly think of, yet my brain focused on the dismal outcome it pretended would occur. Apparently my mind had little faith in my abilities and decided to show me pictures of my pathetic failure. I envisioned not even get to the runway for takeoff, failing, and the ridicule I would receive. It had been on my mind for days, yet this early morning was an all out assault on my ego and conscious self image. How could I walk around doing my job so strict and composed if I had failed to even pass a check ride of my own? Oh how they would cackle with revenged pleasure. This torturous thought plagued me and stole a night of sleep.

When I finally ended the clock watching, it was 5 AM. My alarm wasn’t set to alert me for another hour, but I was done pretending I had any ability to sleep anymore. Almost automatically I prepared myself for the day. Completing my morning routine without so much a thought on what I was doing, yet almost entirely on what was about to be. It’s perhaps a miracle I didn’t arrive to the examiner with a half shaven beard, missing shirt buttons and my pants unzipped. Then again, maybe I did.

I got to the airport just over an hour ahead of the time I was to meet the examiner. I knew this examiner well, not in a personal friendship manner, but merely professionally. He had completed an earlier check for my muti engine instructor rating and countless checks for my students. I know what he likes, what he hates, and how to keep him relatively happy. In reality I don’t think he’s ever happy, just degrees of how unhappy he is, and you hope he isn’t when you are scheduled to meet him. He is the perfect example of old world aviators. His balding hair is mostly unkempt and ragged, in place of grey is wrinkled proof of experience and stress. His thick glasses rest heavily on his face and he frequently adjusts them as they must be uncomfortable. Everytime he moves them he squints his eyes as if he now can’t see the floor in front of him. His short stature is accented with his overweight belly. He walks with a slight limp from an injured knee. He carries a milk box crate, holding his headset and documents for todays flight. This primitive flight bag is also used as his step stool to board the aircraft.

His experience is only surpassed by his age. Regardless of truth, its commonly believed he has flown anything and everything that was ever created for the purpose of flight. His legacy stems from an in flight emergency in a fleet Seminole at our airport. Details are blurry but somewhere in flight a propeller seperates from the engine. As if giving up its responsibilities mid-flight, it left an engine shuddering like an earth quake. Without the balance of two blades the vibration will ultimately end the life of the still operating engine. Within moments the vibration is so fierce it removes the engine from almost all its mounts and half ejects the block from the underside of the nacelle. This is problematic for a flying airplane. If you think assymetrical drag is bad with a windmilling propeller, imagine if you can, the drag created from an entire engine dangling beneath the aircraft. As if a Cliffhanger cameo was happening right then, the engine lingered by what must have been a thread. The aircraft was under control but they struggled to ease it down for landing. Once in the traffic pattern to land, they extended the landing gear. This proved to be the near fatal decision of the day. Introducing even more drag to the situation, airspeed became a hot commodity they had little of to spare. In the base to final turn the airplane was no longer able to sustain flight and began to lose directional control. No matter what input for heading control was commanded, the aircraft lethargically declined to perform. This resulted in a predictable roll over towards the half ejected engine. Due either to extreme luck, precise decision making and aircraft control the aircraft struck trees in what is retold by many to be nearly an inverted attitude.

Examiner and applicant walked away.
reference: I was sent a link to the NTSB report for this incident. Something I very well should have done on my own! Thanks Charles.

Now you know the stigma and lore of one of the oldest and most experienced pilot examiners in my area. How could you not tremble with fear at the idea of trying to impress him? Before you even introduce his attitude and demeanor, this tale strikes fear in anyone set to spend time with him for an evaluation.

We sat down at the table after a short exchange of paperwork confirmations. The adrenaline is now flowing with intense vigor. My heart rate has at least doubled. After a few minutes it will subside, but I’ve just been amped by a Niagra sized rush of the best drug ever created. All this excitement and I haven’t even stepped foot in an airplane.

The actual oral consisted entirely of systems of the aircraft. A subject I regularly test of applicants and to be frank, if I didn’t get this one right I probably would have quit my job. As I should have. Luckily, I apparently know the systems of the Piper Seminole. Better than I should if I could brag.

This portion of the exam was much shorter than expected. Cruising through questions with ease, we progressed quickly to discussion of the flight. In a short while I was out preflighting the aircraft.

It was during my preflight that I gave myself a heart attack. One of the many preflight duties includes ensuring the aircraft will fly in the we’ll known ‘envelope’. I had calculated this days prior based on a typical aircraft and planned to adjust it as neccessary the day of the flight. In my haste of the morning, not only did I not update it, I didn’t even check the position of the center of gravity to ensure its position was kosher. Well. It wasn’t. Not by a little, but a lot.

I swore out loud.

How could I have made this stupid mistake? I have done this thousands of times. Just looking at the number that was calculated I could see it was clearly out of range. Yet in my blind thoughtless work, I missed it. Complacency. It could have hurt a lot had that gone unchecked. I was angry I let myself make such a blatent error, yet I was glad that I not only caught it, but had made a mistake prior to the flight. Perhaps superstition, but there will always be at least one thing wrong with evey flight. Its inevitable. I was happy to get it out of the way early and without my examiner privvy to it.

When he limped out to the aircraft he boarded without much of any words. We strapped in and I had a feeling wash over me that I hadn’t felt for a long while. A strange nervousness blended with confidence and stress. A focus ensues that reassures my body and brain of what I’m about to do. I have visualized over and over this moment and the moments to come. If I were ever prepared for anything, it was this event.

I began my work that I had so many times done before and instructed. Its always glorious when a flight instructor gets to do, and not watch. We spend 90% of our time watching, coaching, and teaching. Very few times do I get to demonstrate or even fly myself. So this check ride is fun because I’m in the hot seat making it happen. That alone fills me with a sense of purpose and ability. Quickly and efficiently getting the airplane ready for taxi, we leave the parking spot destined for a runway.

Performing the required checks and briefs of emergency actions, we move for the runway. This is it. The sun has risen halfway to high noon and the heat is following. Waiting for takeoff clearance is like watching someone eat a hearty meal while you druel and starve in wonderment of what it must taste like. Watching the previuos aircraft roar to a full speed gallop towards the sky. Anxious to take that leap as well, they make us wait, as if to punish my child like eagerness. This moment makes me know I chose the right profession. I am madly in love with my mistress, aviation.

“Seminole four three one six uniform, runway two-niner left, cleared for take-off”

“Runway two-niner left, cleared for takeoff, one six uniform, good morning”

My glee was surely felt through the radio and in the control tower. I expect no complementary return of politeness. I just feel like sharing that I’m excited to fly and everyone needs to know it.

Shortly after takeoff, the left engine grew quiet and showed signs of giving up. Controlling the airplane first, I started a sequence almost as memorized and easily recalled at a moments notice as the pledge of allegiance.

Mixtures, props, throttles, flaps up, gear up, identify failure, verify failure, feather dead engine prop, mixture cutoff dead engine, cowl flap closed, alternator off, magnetos off, fuel pump off, fuel selector off.

Before I could perform the feathering the engine awakens from its momentary slumber and I have finished the first of many simulated engine failures for the day. Before the end of this flight the engine will have been ‘failed’ in every conceivable scenario deemed critical. One will end in a complete shutdown and feathering to show my competence and lack of fear(I guess) of flying with only a single engine to keep us aloft.

Overall the flight was begnign. I struggled many times to hear and understand the commands of my examiner. He showed frustrations in having to repeat and clarify what he wanted me to perform. However I was relentless in seeking clarification. A miscommunication of expectations is never good, and the applicant is always the one to blame for lack of understanding the examiner. An excuse I have heard personally many times on check rides, and one I refuse to be subjected to myself.

With little to no commentary from my examiner, I knew he must be somewhat happy with my performance. He made no substantial comments, and just commanded items next to be completed. By the end of the flight I began feeling I had done what I should have, when I should have. Some mistakes had been made that were corrected quickly- none so much outside the boundaries of the requirements. All had gone as planned.

So now my certificate holds three levels of pilot capabilities. Private pilot for seaplanes, commercial pilot for single engine airplaned, and the fresh minted airline transport pilot for multi engine airplanes. It is unlikely that I will ever add another level or class to this. I have reached the top.

Now if only we could get this industry turned around, furloughed men and women back to work, and the natural flow to resume. I can’t wait for the opportunity to continue my never ending aviation education in the form of different airplanes, locales, and duties.

"two zero victor landing 18!"


This has happened four times. To me.

The first time it happened I hadn't been a flight instructor for two weeks. I was doing touch and go landing practice at an airport just north of Vero. Shortly after take off, the airplane began running rough and lost power. I think I had somewhere around 350 hours of flight time then. This was a pretty monumental test of my ability two weeks into the job. I remember it vividly.

We had just taken off runway 8, probably around 200-300 feet above the ground when it happened. I said a very nervous "my controls!". I turned the plane around and re landed on the runway we just departed on. This plane gave power back after the initial power loss, which will prove to be the case with each. The engine never really 'fails' it just temporarily loses power. However when you fly a single engine airplane and the only thing keeping you in the air starts to sound unhappy, the effects are very scary.

The second time it happened wasn't much time after the first. About two months later I experienced this again, but this time it was in the traffic pattern in Vero. I was with a student practicing touch and go landings (I should avoid this huh?) on the small runway. We were upwind of the runway at about 700 feet, my student was just starting his crosswind turn when the engine shuddered and lost power. We were in a much better position than previously. We had altitude and the airplane was nearly pointed at the airport. Easy peasy.

The third time it happened was almost exactly 2 years after the first. It's incredible the way experience shows you the way. This time it happened at nearly 1200 feet. We had just departed from Vero and were climbing out to the practice area for some maneuvers. I took controls, informed tower that we were returning to the airport, and landed without incident. I knew the scenario, I knew the engine wouldn't completely lose power, I knew we were ok.

The last time it happened was just a short while ago.

It was more complex and time critical than any of my previous attempts.

I was on a night flight with a student. We had to complete 16 landings and fly for a little over three hours. It was going to be a long flight. We took off from Vero and after a few touch and go landings we departed to the north. In an effort to make the flight not feel like a three hour flight, we did a few landings at random airports along the way. In hindsight, I'm very happy that this didn't happen at one airport in particular.

There is an airport just to the south-east of where our evening stay was. We did a few landings here; short runway, water on one end of the runway, and congested buildings and houses on the other end. This story would read much differently if this had happened here.

Anyways, I'm getting a little ADD'ish. Focus.

We went to Titusville for some touch and go landings(hrmm). One thing to know about Titusville, they have quite possibly the largest fleet of helicopters for a flight school. The airspace is always buzzing with helicopters, day or night. This evening was no different. When we first arrived there were 2-3 helicopters in the traffic pattern. No problem, we joined the traffic pattern and began our work. Since I had to do 16 landings I was just interested in getting them over with as quickly as possible.

I think we had done 2-3 landings when it finally happened. Promptly after a touch and go at or around 100-200 feet the engine shuddered, began running rough and lost power. This was a new place for me. I have almost 2000 hours of flight experience, yet only 150 hours at night. Night time alone adds a dimension of difficulty, yet an overcast layer of clouds blocked the moonlight. It was dark.

"My controls"

I immediately idled the engine power and pushed the nose down to look in front of the plane. All I really noticed ahead of the airplane were the red lights telling me where the end of the runway is. I didn't have enough runway ahead to stop the airplane safely. I looked to my right and saw another runway with plenty of distance for me to be able to stop the airplane. I hesitated for a moment. Taxiing across that runway was a helicopter. Here I was at night, trying to re land an airplane over a helicopter. If this were a movie, John Woo would be the director and this next part would happen in slow motion with explosions in the background.

I looked back in front of the airplane again to be sure there was no way I could possibly just land straight ahead. Oh no. Those red lights just got a lot closer. I wanted to say something on the radio to warn the helicopter to move his butt off the runway. My mouth wasn't ready to speak yet. My brain power had been diverted to my hands and feet flying an airplane. I made the turn to the crossing runway, which was 90 degrees from the runway I took off from(departed an east runway, landed on the south runway).

"two zero victor landing 18!"

It was an excellent landing. Intense focus and adrenaline really make for great landings.

I taxied clear of the runway and stopped and ensured my students were still breathing. I have to say, every single student that was sitting in the left seat when these four events occurred, really took it well. As a flight instructor you always hear horror stories of students that will lock up on the controls, panic, or puke. Those are three things you never want a student to do. All my students just sat back, didn't say a word and watched it all unfold.

I knew what happened was more than likely fouled spark plugs, and I knew that the likeliness of it happening again that night was extremely rare. However I was not comfortable leaping back into the air at night to possibly have to attempt this again.

We use AVGAS that has an octane rating of 100. Specifically we use 100 low lead. Now even the name is a lie, because this 'low lead' fuel has a lot more lead than your run of the mill unleaded fuel. Lead is an additive that works really well in preventing engine 'knocking' or technically known as detonation. Essentially when an engine burns fuel it is desirable for it to smoothly burn in the precise cycle of the engine. When it instead explodes it creates engine 'knocking' and can seriously damage an engine. Unfortunately lead works the best for this.

Now speaking to aviation, the lead content is there for the same reason. Even though it's considered to be 'low lead' enough exists to create problems. This is exacerbated by Florida's heat and humidity. Warm air is less dense, which creates an excessively rich fuel to air ratio. This means a lot of unburned fuel is left in the cylinders during combustion, this in turn leaves lead deposits in the cylinder. Now if you paid attention in chemistry you would already know that lead doesn't conduct electricity well. SO essentially what happens, over time lead builds up and can get caught in the spark plug. Now most of the time the lead is just ejected from the cylinders by the exhaust valve, but sometimes, when you get REALLY lucky they stay. Even luckier, stuck in the spark plug.

This essentially kills the cylinders power, and an engine is all about balance. When one cylinder stops producing power it really messes with the rest of the engine. This is what causes the shuddering and the engine roughness.

The lessons learned from these four events are very diverse for nearly being the exact same event. Every time this problem presented itself it was due to fouling of spark plugs. I hope one day when the engine actually fails, loses complete power, or just stops, I will be as ready for it as I was with these.

Through it all I learned to be patient, aware and always looking for the next spot to land a disabled airplane.

the Dirkmaat Flu

If you have worked at or attended as a student at FlightSafety, perhaps you've heard of the Dirkmaat Flu.

It hasn't been quite an epidemic as of late, but for a while there it was a real killer. A modern day polio. Maybe even black plague. Some weeks it struck multitudes of the population, seemingly spreading like fire. Other weeks it was tame, possibly in remission. Just when you would think it was all but extinguished it would come right back out of remission and rear its ugly metaphorical head.

Nobody wants to do a stage check with Dirkmaat.

How did we get to this place? What happened along the way to create this symposium of hatred? Who did I offend? Who did I fail that thought it to be unfair? Oh that's it, everyone. Everyone wants to pass. I get it. Nobody really wants to fail. It's not human nature to desire failure. Nobody wants someone else to fail. Nobody really does. If I pass everyone what does that make me? Better? Worse?

I have never wanted anyone to fail. OK. I lied there. But most people I don't want to fail. Honestly.

When I became a check instructor I thought it would be an excellent learning experience for me. Let me tell you what. You think you're nervous going on that commercial check ride? Imagine being responsible for GIVING the check ride! It's now your responsibility to ensure this guy knows what he's talking about, and can fly an airplane without making you feel like you're about to die. You could quite possibly be the last person he flies with before moving onto some job. You could be the last person to say 'He's good' before he rams that Lear jet into a mountain with 5 of his boss' closest friends. You think you got pressure?

I think the mantra of my father to me growing up was "If you're going to do anything, don't do it half-assed." I'm pretty sure growing up I had no idea what "half-assed" meant. I've tried to take that advice to heart. I saw it as a big responsibility accepting the position, and I didn't want to let anyone down(including dear old dad). Now that sounds pretty pathetic I know, but lets be honest. I'm a high school dropout that never went to college and here I am in charge of giving people a license?! This is about as big as I've been yet. This is my only shot at doing it right. I have to do this right, otherwise I have nothing else.

I've really tried to be the best evaluator I could be.

I will admit that I had a rocky start. I took it a little too seriously, or more appropriately too literally. I feel truly sorry for the guys and gals that took those first stage checks. Unfortunately it was a learning process and I had to learn. Just like I had to learn to become a flight instructor, I had to learn to become a successful evaluator. That takes time just like anything else.

I feel like I've hit my groove now.