August 31, 2012
On my hot, frustrating, ride in to work today*, I was thinking about the similarities between motorcycling and flying, which I often do. Both require attention to detail, good traffic scanning and knucklehead-anticipation skills, decent manual dexterity, good decision-making, and the list goes on. Both, also, are so inherently enjoyable, that it's easy to get complacent and let your guard down. For some reason, this lead me to think it would be a good idea to write a 'safety article' on the topic. I guess even if no one else reads this or gets anything from it, it's a good exercise for me, so here goes.
Granted, I haven't flown in almost 5 years, but after going for the ride with Em on her birthday, the bug has bitten again, and the venom is strong. I'm ramping up to get back into it, so a lot of the concepts are running through my head as I review regulations, airplane characteristics, route planning, risk management, etc.
For this particular think session, I was mulling over the IM SAFE mnemonic intended as a pilot's pre-flight self-checklist. Before conducting a flight (or motorcycle ride, or really anything remotely hazardous) a pilot should evaluate for:
Most of those are pretty self-explanatory, but I'll run through them. Regarding Illness, a pilot's medical certificate is only as valid as his or her health at that given moment, so any illness which would disqualify you on the day of your exam also disqualifies you today. And I don't personally ride my motorcycle if my head is funky-ill. It's just not worth it. And yes, the standards are a little lower to drive a car, but I'll pull the plug there, too, in extreme cases.
Medication is similar to illness. In the case of flying, some medications (OTC or prescription) are head-wigging no-nos in the eyes of the FAA. And if I can't fly a plane on it, I won't ride a bike on it.
Stress is a major distraction and also clouds judgement - this is not news. In the words of Groundhog Day Bill Murray, "Don't drive angry!" This is a bit of a tricky one, because in many cases a good flight, ride, drive, etc., can actually help reduce stress, but you need to think it through first and if that's your goal, make sure to plan a flight/ride route/etc. with less traffic, workload, rules, and higher odds of fun. If you find yourself yelling "JACKASS!" to people who can't hear you and/or don't care, it might be a better call to turn around and go for a run, hit a punching bag, or blow some stuff up on a video game instead.
Alcohol is obvious but needs saying. The FAA limit is 0.04 B.A.C and NO consumption in the previous 8 hours. When I got my license, I called my wife and she headed out to the airport to help celebrate - I was going to take her for a ride. It was a Saturday and it happened to be one of the days the cozy, friendly Campbell Airport regulars were hanging out in the main hangar with potluck food, games, and, yes, beer. Someone offered me a congratulatory beer, and without thinking, I took the first sip and immediately realized I was grounded for the day. When the missus and the dog showed up for their ride, I had to break the bad news to them. Though the legal limits with regard to riding a motorcycle are considerably less stringent, my personal limits are very similar (and have been even before I started flying). Generally, 99.9% of the time, I don't drink AT ALL if I'm going to be riding. The 0.1% of the time covers cases where I've had drinks a few hours earlier, but am damned certain I'm beyond the "one drink per hour" common guideline for a body processing alcohol. I should be just as stringent when it comes to driving a car, and I have raised my standards quite a bit since Emily has come along, but I'd be lying if I said I was.
Fatigue, similar to stress, can be a tough one to self-assess, but the ill-effects can be just as dangerous as any of the other hazards. There's the phenomenon of "Get-there-itis," in flying, riding, driving, etc., which makes us take stupid risks in order to get to the fun or get home to our own beds just THAT MUCH SOONER. Is it better to push through and get a good night's sleep at home, or wait it out in an airport/rest stop/barn getting crappy sleep now? As a (once and future?) marathoner, I'm keenly aware of my idiot ability to push my body beyond any sense of 'reasonable expectations.' That's not intended as a brag, but as a confession. Older and hopefully wiser, I feel no shame in pulling over for a 20 minute cat-nap on the long, frequent drives to my folks. Luckily I haven't been in many flying situations where I felt compelled to "get there" when tired, but it needs to be assessed every time. Similarly, if I've had a really crappy night's sleep, I'll keep the bike parked at home. I'll still have to drive to work, but again, every activity has its own levels of acceptable risk. In this case, again, the bar is set lower when I'm surrounded by a steel cage - whether it should be or not is another matter.
The "E" is really the thing I was hung up thinking about this morning. When I learned the mnemonic, I learned it as "Everything Else," and took it as a bit of a cop-out to just fill out the acronym. What I realized this morning, though, is that "E" needs more consideration and respect. "E" could stand for "Eyes." Do I have my contacts in or glasses on? If I've driven to the airport, the odds are exceptionally high, but, do I have spares? What if I rub my eye and lose a contact in flight? Do I have my glasses as backup and/or an extra set of contacts? Do I have sunglasses in case glare gets obnoxious? Or am I simply having a "bad eye day?" It may be tied to Illness, Medication, Alcohol, or Fatigue, but it happens, and even in the lower-bar case of the bike, I've skipped a ride 'just because' my eyes were 'tired.'
A google search for "IM SAFE" turned up another thing "E" could stand for, "Eating." I don't know about others, but when I haven't eaten, I get CRABBY. And anxious. And focused on little else besides food. Whether seen as an Illness, Stress, Fatigue, or entirely its own thing, this is a real concern. It's not as much of a risk on the bike as in the air, but it's a good call to pack a Snickers, granola bar, etc. on any but the most local trips.
"E" could also stand for "E.S.P." Strictly speaking, I don't believe in premonition, but I DO believe in self-fulfilling prophecies. I try to listen and at least chalk it up as one Strike** if something in the back of my mind is asking me "Are you sure you should be doing this?"
Edit: Marty Burian chimed in with "Emotion," which I'd heard before but forgotten. Similar to Stress and yet still its own animal. Good call.
I'm sure there are other things "E" could/should stand for. I'm open to suggestions. We all have to set our own limits with regard to the activities we undertake, this is just a glimpse at the things I try to keep in mind every time I buckle in, swing a leg over, strap on a snowboard, step into the water skis, etc.
* This lead me to come up with Mark Murphy's Laws of Motorcycling: If it's above 90F, you will catch all red lights, trains, and construction and will not even be detected by traffic sensors. Corollary: If you have one of those magical 'all-green-lights' days, it's probably below 40F and you wouldn't mind an occasional stop.
** In my flight training, a few instructors and articles have mentioned the 3 Strikes "rule." I though I'd written about it before, but I can't find anything on it. Maybe it was a podcast. Basically, if you have 3 minor things go 'wrong' in your pre-flight/ride/whatever, you should strongly consider calling it a day. This could be as simple as a) leaving your headset in the car b) hitting your head on the wing, and then c) blanking on a commonly used radio frequency. In the case of a motorcycle ride, especially a commute, it could be things like a) running late b) having to go back in the house for something, and c) realizing your'e on fumes and need to stop for gas right away. The idea is less about superstition, and more about your head not being in the right place if these 'little things' are creeping in. Though a 'bad feeling' isn't tangible, I count it as a strike and double-check that my head is cob-web free.
August 22, 2012
Emily's 6th Birthday
A.K.A. "A brief (heh) description of the 6th birthday of the luckiest kid (and dad) ever."
I woke up briefly to Amy saying goodbye as she had to leave wicked early (5:30-ish) for an odd day at work. She was reminding me to kiss Em and say happy birthday for her, call her later, etc. I fell back asleep.
I woke up about 45 minutes later, still well ahead of my alarm, to the rustling of the kid snuggling in next to me. She was kissing my face a lot. I said, "Hey!" faking annoyed. When she stopped and said, "What?!?!?" I smiled and said, "Happy Birthday!" That was the start of our 15.5 hour day together.
We both settled back in to 'sleep' some more, but not long after she very casually said, "Um, who are these presents for?" Though she'd gotten her major haul on Sunday before her party, Mom had kept a couple in reserve for her actual birthday and had set them on her pillows. I said, "Who says they're presents?" "They're WRAPPED." The "Duh!" was implied. She inspected them for name tags. There were none. "Oh," I said, "Well, I don't know who they're for," and I rolled over and snuggled back in. After another couple moments she asked, "Do you think they're for me?" I let her off the hook by saying she should unwrap them and find out. Before she did, she asked one more time, "Really?"
She played with her Create-a-Monster Monster High doll kit for a bit, but it wasn't long before she asked, "When are we going flying?" I had wanted to surprise her on her birthday by taking her to the airport and going flying for her first time in a small airplane. But since Mommy couldn't be there, she wanted to tell her the night before, which we did. Now we had about two hours of anticipation to kill before we even left the house. She said a couple times that, though she was excited, she was a little scared. I told her it was OK to be a little scared but that it was safe and fun and reminded her how much she loves roller coasters, which can also be scary.
After getting dressed in a new pretty dress (her, not me), having a very light breakfast (didn't want a lot of potential puke fuel), taking care of the pets, and checking a few last minute things regarding the flying portion of the day, we headed out, still about a half hour earlier than I had planned to. Did I mention she was excited? I was too. For some dumb reason(s), it's been nearly 5 years since I've last flown. Don't ask.
We had a slow but pretty uneventful drive to Westosha Airport (5K6). To demonstrate her concept of time, when Em asked how long it would take to get there and I said about half an hour, she complained, "THAT'S LONGER THAN TO GET TO GRANDMA AND PAPA'S!!!" My folks are six hours away. Once we got there, she did let me know that it hadn't taken quite as long as she expected.
As we walked up to the clubhouse (she liked that it was a club and asked if she could join when she's older), she told me again that she was a little scared and I could tell in the car that she was a little nervous. I reminded her that we wouldn't be doing it if it wasn't safe and that at any time she could say she wanted to land and we'd be all done. That seemed good enough. We had a lot of time to kill, so we checked out the clubhouse and she was quite interested in the flight simulator setup.
We eventually walked out to the plane, a Cessna 172P, and as she checked out the various seats, I did one of the most thorough, checklist-in-hand, pre-flight evaluations I've ever done - maybe second only to my PPL checkride. As she sat in the pilot's seat and watched the yoke move around, I showed her how the elevator and ailerons moved in relation and told her what they did.
She eventually got out and I warned her about the propeller, showed her how you climb up on the wing to check/add gas, and checked out the control surfaces from outside.
We hung out a little bit more as one of the club's 152s came around and landed. I had a hunch that's where our CFI, Greg was. We looked at the plane a little more as the 152 refueled and taxied back to the clubhouse and eventually we ambled back there as well.
Greg had indeed been in the 152 with what appeared to be a new club member getting checked out. I kept Em quiet and out of the way as they wrapped up their debrief. Once they were done, Greg came over and I introduced him and Emily. We had a good pre-flight talk where we discussed our goals. MY goal, despite really wanting some stick time myself, was to have Emily up front, interested, and happy. I worried that if I were up front, trying to pay attention to flying the plane and getting instruction after a five year break, she would get bored in back. I also was dubious about my ability to judge her state of mind were she back there. Greg agreed and we had a discussion of how we would handle emergency egress should we need to do that - unpleasant but necessary to think about.
We then talked about what we wanted to see. I suggested we fly over my workplace. It's a large community near another local airport, Campbell (C81), so it's easy to find/see and Em's been there enough to have some connection to it. Greg thought that sounded pretty good and also suggested a large local corn maze that happens to be Girl Scout themed this year. I discarded the idea of flying over our house since it is out of the way, would be hard to point out to her, and is also in the controlled airspace around Waukegan Regional (UGN). That wouldn't preclude us from asking permission or flying over the top, but really, I wanted to keep this first flight simple and short enough that Em wouldn't get bored.
We got out to the plane a little ahead of Greg and I got Em set up and buckled in. I then got the headsets plugged in and set up, which Em wanted to put on right away despite the intercom not even being powered up yet. Greg and I removed the gust lock, tie downs, and cowl and pitot tube covers as I did one more cursory walk-around. After a tricky stuck seat which I feared was going to ground the flight, I was loaded in back (for the first time ever!), buckled and jacked in with the video camera rolling.
One thing I didn't properly brief Em on was how long the pre-flight checks and taxiing can seem to take, so from the moment Greg buckled in, she was ready for us to leap off the ground. Another thing I HAD briefed her about, but she had a hard time controlling, was not talking too much, especially during take-off and landing. When she heard her own voice over the intercom headset, she immediately went into singing diva mode. It was pretty darn cute.
Finally, after back-taxiing and the run-up check, Greg asked for thumbs-up all around, Em reached back for my hand, we turned down Runway 21 into a calm and direct headwind, and rolled on the speed. About a third of the way down the runway, we were airborne. I asked Em how she was doing and she was so busy taking in the view of the ground falling away out the window that she could barely answer. But I could see enough of the smile on her face to know she was loving it. She had her face pressed to the window the whole time and I pointed out big things she could recognize like the Wilmot ski hill, the 'Tonka Trucks' in the quarries below us, and off in the distance, "The Big Smoke/Cloud Factory," our names for the smokestack at the Pleasant Prairie coal power station, and another dubious landmark, the Zion Nuclear Power Station right by Mommy's train stop. On the way south-south-east to Campbell, we flew over the Fox River/Chain O'Lakes and I pointed out a couple boats that were stirring up wakes.
Soon enough, we were over my workplace and Greg turned a couple slow orbits while I snapped pictures, narrated a brief history of the place, pointed out landmarks like my office, the "SBF" lettered in the hedges on a hillside, and the lake path that Em and I had walked a couple weeks ago when she had joined me at work.
One piloting habit which I had noticed was still alive and well after my 5 year hiatus was looking out for traffic. Even as I was playing tour guide, I found myself taking time to scan the sky for potential collisions. However, despite being a perfectly beautiful day, we never did see another plane. Speaking of the weather, we did hit a few convective bumps in the sky but we'd prepared Em for them and she didn't seem nervous about them at all.
After a second pass of my work, we headed off generally back towards Westosha and I tried to spot other things to point out to Em, but there's not a lot distinctive out that way. I thought about overflying my aunt and uncle's house, which she's been to a lot, but again, I didn't want to push the first flight too long - got to leave 'em wanting more. I did spot a few choice locations were people had cut pretty good motocross/ATV trails in the woods, but sadly I didn't have a GPS in hand to mark them for investigation on my WR250R. :D
Before long, we were orbiting the Richardson's corn maze commemorating The Girl Scouts this year. Em thought it was cool, but I could tell her interest was waning. Luckily, the maze it pretty much on the 45 for pattern entry for Runway 21, so soon enough, we were descending into the pattern. I pointed out the airport to her and then reminded her to be quiet from that point until we were back on the ground. I reached for her hand again and she gently squeezed mine back.
As we were lined up on final, I had her scooch up as much as she could in her seat to see the runway over the dash of the plane. As Greg flared for landing, though, she turned back to her side window and watched the main left tire kiss the ground. We rolled out onto the taxiway and I asked what she thought. I think words were beyond her at that point.
After we parked and tied down the plane, unloaded ALL of our stuff, and I paid Greg for his time, we were walking back to the car when I told Em that I don't think she has ANY clue how lucky of a kid she is. Seriously. She took umbrage with that. As much umbrage as a 6 year old can take. She smiled and hit me as she might a boy she had a crush on.
Since it was her birthday, I went out of my way to find a McDonald's with a playland for lunch as requested (we were both pretty hungry by the time we landed). The kid who hardly eats at all ate all 6 of her McNuggets - flying really takes it out of you. She met another 6 year old on the playground and they had fun together. She mentioned it was her birthday. To everyone. Eventually we headed off to my very awesome/flexible job. After getting a birthday McFlurry, of course. She got more birthday wishes and even a card at my office. She was good and watched cartoons and rode her scooter in the parking lot as I worked for the afternoon - this was really the only time we were apart all day - still within 100' of each other.
Eventually, we headed for home by way of a park, some shopping, and dinner. We stopped at Gurnee Mills to hit up Sports Authority for shin guards, socks, and soccer cleats - All pink, of course. She starts U6 in a couple weeks. Damn, we should have rolled this in with her birthday gifts. Again, lucky kid. Then we drove to the other end of the mall (!?) and caught a free (the Club card actually does pay for itself) dinner at Rainforest Cafe (after initially wanting to go to Applebee's ???). She told EVERYONE it was her birthday again, so we got prime seating by one of the aquariums and of course they brought her a sundae with a candle and sang to her. And again, she ate a TON.
Since I'd gotten her soccer stuff, I was a bit of a grump and didn't let her get anything from the gift shop, but we did cross the hall and she got a little rubber ball from the Serpent Safari shop. We looked at the lizards, scorpions, and a tarantula which was chewing on a cricket and we pet the large tortoise (they didn't have any of the pythons out) before heading to the car. We had one more quick stop at PetsMart for waxworms for Toadero (where the clerk also sang Happy Birthday to her) before heading home to our very patient and wonderful dogs.
When we got home, I let Em watch two episodes of Jumanji (which she still loves after having watched them ALL at least 3 times) and Birthday Girl FINALLY went to bed around 9:30. As I tucked her in, she did NOT want to let me go. To cap off that we'd spent the WHOLE DAY together, I went to bed then, too. I was so wiped, I never even heard Amy come home. Birthdays are HARD WORK!
Have I ever mentioned how much I love that kid? I do. TONS.
July 30, 2009
Yet again, it's been far too long since I've posted here. Oh well. Blame Twitter and/or Facebook if you must. Quick hit-and-run run-down:
A) Em's great. I love that little girl. Words and photos fall miles short of describing her awesomeness.
B) I ran a marathon in April and I'm supposedly training for the Chicago Marathon in October, but I haven't run in almost 2 full weeks due to a creeping illness which has taken away all of my energy. Need to shake it off soon.
C) I never wrote a proper Illinois Marathon wrap-up. I thought I had one well underway, but all I can find now is my 'notes' file. Here it is:
What went wrong:
Inconsistency in first 10 (and throughout). a) Should have had 1-mile paces. b) park route was slow and passing was impossible c) 2nd half was hillier than expected.
Calf cramp - pre-race stretching? Water/nutrition?
Hip fatigue - stride?
Wind/uphills = mental. 9MPH headwinds on the uphill stretch around Mile 18-19.
Tingling in last 2-3 miles.
What went right:
Tim, Chris, Dennis.
Had gas left to sprint the end.
Weather (other than wind).
The Champaign Country Club mile SUCKED! My slowest mile.
Garmin was good, but it disagrees with reality. It gave me about 0.01 mile extra per course mile. At the end of the race, that added up to over a quarter mile of difference. It's minor, but noteworthy. Also, for whatever reason, my watch time differs from the official chip time but nearly a minute. I'm not sure how to resolve that.
Oh and here, listen to this PODCAST about the Illinois Marathon: 061_2009IllinoisMarathonPodcast.mp3
i) Not ONLY motorcycling related, but everyone who drives should visit The Black Nail Brigade web site and in particular, read The Black Nail Brigade Manifesto. This is no joke. This is not a fashion statement. This is about life and death and the preservation and prevention thereof. Go. Read. Now. I'll wait for you.
ii) Been doing a bit of riding. Not much on the dual sport, but some here and there.
iii) Got waylaid by a minor accident in May when an ignorant woman pulled in front of me. You can search out details in my Flickr photo stream. I am well or at least really close to it, the bike is well, damage insurance has been settled, injusry insurance is still outstanding.
iv) Just bought tickets to the Moto GP races in Indianapolis at the end of August. This will be my first race experience ever, believe it or not - car, motorcycle, whatever. Should be a blast.
E) Computers - I've been burned out on technology lately in part because a seriese of hardware failures have just beaten the crap out of me both at home and at work. But I've lately heard about some interesting projects which have rekindled a bit of a spark. I no particular order of usefulness to my life, examples are: Xen, eyeOS, Evernote (used it before, using it more now), a cheap analog to digital video capture device from Woot!, some stuff with MythTV, and a few other things I've forgotten already. OLPC or something like it for Emily? Anyway, yeah, tech = cool.
F) Pets: Harrison died back in November. Not sure if I ever posted that. Also, a few months back we got fish. Now we have a TON of them. And a snail. I love watching them.
G) Flying. Have done NONE in a long, LONG time. Doesn't even look like I'll make it to Oshkosh this year. A bummer, but oh well. *sigh*
Ok, I'm running out of steam on this latest hit-and-run. As I always say, I'll try not to be such a stranger. Yeah, right.
April 21, 2008
AOPA Town Meeting Tuesday April 22, 2008
FYI, I plan on attending the AOPA Town Meeting with President Phil Boyer in Arlington Heights, IL on Tuesday, April 22, 2008. If any of youse guys are going to be there, send me an e-mail or let me know via twitter, username: Oblivion.
The Chicago Aviation Meetup Group is trying to meet and greet at the event, though I haven't seen specific plans yet. If you're local and haven't joined, look into it.
Hope to see you tomorrow!
October 04, 2007
Night Flight Debrief
The other night, I went for my first night flight in a while. The flight was uneventful in the good way, but while Monday Morning Quarterbacking it since then, I've come up with a few decisions that might not have been the wisest. They strike me as the kind of things that taken one at a time are/were no big deal, but easily could have become links in an 'accident chain.' If you're not familiar, the "accident chain" is a concept that is oft-used in hangar-talk discussions regarding aviation accidents/incidents. The theory is that a crash is seldom/never an isolated event - there is a traceable chain of events that directly leads to the smoking hole in the ground. If the pilot(s) can break a link anywhere in that chain, the results are much less grim, so it goes.
Lets take a look at a chain of events that lead to a perfectly safe and happy flight and question what may have gone wrong and what may have gone right. This is a long narrative, so I'll bold the main points.
First off, the initial leg of the flight was 54.6nm from Westosha Airport in Wilmot, WI (5K6) to West Bend Municipal Airport in, you guessed it, West Bend, WI (KETB). I departed about 6:45 P.M. I didn't much 'plan' the trip, since it's a trip I'd made 3 previous times (albeit during the day). I mean I got my weather briefing, checked for NOTAMs (Notices to Airmen about airport/runway/airspace closures, unlit towers, radio frequency changes, navaids out of service, etc.), ran a weight and balance check, estimated my fuel needs (I had a good margin of safety there) and had my current charts and A/FD with me. But up until half hour before I launched I wasn't sure of my destination since my passenger wasn't sure if he could join me. So I wasn't as fully immersed in the route as I have been in the past nor as I would be if en route to a new airport. I did not, as is my usual practice, list out the frequencies I'd need in the order I'd need them - not only for my destination airport, but for airports/facilities along the way. I relied on the chart (which I had at least marked up with a route line and circles around the freqs), a bit on memory, and the fact that, technically speaking, I didn't NEED to talk to anyone on the flight.
So here's Potential Accident Link #1. I put myself in a situation that, by itself was 'not a big deal,' but overall set me up to be behind the airplane, as they say, if something 'eventful' had happened. I HAD all of the information, but my cockpit was not organized for optimum efficiency.
I picked out KETB in the darkness with the help of the ADF, VOR, and GPS (yeah, I was being a bit sarcastic when I dialed them all in :) ), announced my entry on the 45 to Runway 24, made a standard pattern and landed with no worries. The winds were calm, so I moved over to Runway 31 to take advantage of more length and better lighting (I had considered making a straight-in approach to 31 on my initial landing but opted for the standard pattern and the comfort it provides) and did 2 more take-offs and full-stop landings. I made my first base turn WAY too soon and ended up about 500' high when I crossed the fence, so I opted to go around on that one. I adjusted from there and the landings were pretty smooth.
I taxied over to the ramp and after some chit-chat and briefing, I took off with Drew for his first night flight in a light airplane. We checked out the usual sights up in that area. First we headed east to the lake and Port Washington (Lake Michigan looks like a black hole sucking in all light from the air at night) and checked out the view of Milwaukee. I thought about requesting flight following and doing a tour down the lakefront, but I got a little distracted by noticing the air was getting a little hazy down low by the lake. I called up the ATIS for KMKE, KENW, and KUGN and they were all still reporting clear skies, but the temps were starting to creep a little closer to the dew point which was generally 9 degrees C. What had been a 10 point spread earlier was down to about 5 degrees. Clouds and fog can form when the temperature and dew point converge. I figured I'd still be good to make my return trip, but I didn't want to linger too much longer. From the lake, we headed back west towards Hartford, WI. We were trying to figure out what a string of bright lights was illuminating and settled on the idea that it was a driving range. From there I winged us north over the DnD Farm and with an amazing bit of luck circled the farm just as Dawn and her sisters were getting home from Wal-Mart. Drew saw them pull into the driveway and later they reported seeing us overhead.
This whole time a bit of doubt of maintaining VFR on my return trip was growing in the back of my mind, though the weather briefings I had gotten called for VFR all night. As subtle as it was, I know this introduced a bit of urgency to getting home - a mild case of 'Get-There-Itis' which I'll revisit later. Again, taken by itself, perhaps this was just healthy caution/suspicion but that gentle nagging at the back of the head may distract ma pilot from the primary task of flying the plane. Let's call this Potential Accident Link #2.
I made an uneventful pattern entry and landed back at KETB, dropped Drew off, and waved good bye.
Photo by Drew Domkus - Used under CC - Some rights reserved
I got a bit frazzled by a sudden rush of helicopter training traffic as I set to depart, but I waited my turn and launched without issue. My route home had a bit of a kink in it. As I departed 5K6 earlier, I was informed that our tank was our of fuel at the airport and asked if I could stop off at Burlington, WI (KBUU) to top off on my way back. KBUU is 11.5 nm North-North-West of 5K6 so this diversion was really minor. I'd landed at KBUU once before and had flown over it a few times, so armed with my A/FD I felt confident in going in there at night. I dialed it in on the GPS and VOR (to keep the practice sharp), climbed to 4500, and headed for KBUU. I dialed in KMKE Approach to keep my ears out for other traffic that might be crossing my path. About 5 times I considered requesting Flight Following and as many times I decided I "didn't need it."
No beating around the bush here, that was Potential Accident Link #3. Flight Following is a service offered to VFR pilots (workload permitting and clearly not an issue on this dead-quiet night - I only heard one IFR flight the whole time) to help us keep from running into other airplanes. It's not a guarantee of flight safety, but nothing is. Why I didn't opt to use this service, I still don't know. I'm confident in my radio work and my ability to hold an altitude. I had the frequency dialed in. There was NO GOOD REASON not to use radar separation, especially at night. I just plain bone-headed this one and the only thing I can chalk it up to is poor decision-making brought on by fatigue (perhaps exacerbated by slight hypoxia). At that point I had over 2 flight hours under my belt - that after a full day at work and a motorcycle ride from work to the airport.
So without the extra set of eyes Flight Following would have provided, I ambled towards KBUU. At one point, I heard the controller call me out to a Columbia aircraft which passed ahead of me a few miles, but other than that, no one was around - lucky for me. As I approached KBUU, I dialed in the AWOS at the field to check conditions. The temperature and dew point were both being reported as 10 C. In the back of my head, my worries of fog grumbled a little. The winds were still reported as calm, so to be a good airport neighbor, I landed on Runway 11 - the runway which did not take me over town. It also, conveniently, meant I didn't need to back-taxi to get to the fuel pump. I took some time figuring out the self-service pump, grounding the plane, filling it up, etc. As I was up on the wing strut filling the tanks, I noticed that quite a bit of dew had settled on my wings.
Here is Potential Accident Link #4. Getting fogged out of 5K6, or any other airport in the area was becoming a very real possibility. Visibility was still quite good, but there was no guarantee of that lasting. Even if the fog never came, my sense that I had to "get back home," was growing. That's never good. Since the refueling stop was really a matter of courtesy and club policy, and NOT a matter of safety (I had plenty of gas to get home), it may have been wiser to skip it entirely.
At that point I fully realized I was feeling rushed to get back home (Get-There-Itis in full swing) and I mentally and perhaps verbally told myself to slow down. Seeing the moisture on the wing reminded me that similar moisture could very well condense inside my fuel tanks. After I filled up, I took a moment to collect my thoughts for the last little hop home, let the tanks settle, and sump them to check for any water in the gas - always a good practice after a fill-up, but especially on such a damp night. Taking that breather may have actually broken the chain that I had been building. But I wasn't home yet.
I announced my intentions on the radio and taxied out to hold short of Runway 29 - again to avoid overflying town - and did a full run-up check. Just as I was about to call my departure, another aircraft, a King Air, came on the frequency and announced an 11-Mile final for Runway 11. I immediately noted that was the opposing direction I intended to take off. I immediately spotted the oncoming landing lights and announced that I would hold short of 29 for the landing traffic. Now an 11-mile final, even for a King Air, is a long way out. As I sat there waiting, I went back and forth about 10 times on whether I should have just taken off, or maybe taxied down to the other end of the field and taken off on 11. The GOOD thing is that as I was debating my decision to hold, I had resolved that I would continue to hold - even if it had been a silly, overly cautious decision in the first place. I'm still not certain if my initial decision to wait was the best decision, but I am happy with myself for having stuck with it once made. If this was an error in judgment, it was clearly an error on the side of caution - a Potential Accident Link avoided. Another positive of that part of my adventure was that I realized my long idle-time may have lead to some spark plug fouling or perhaps even carburetor ice. So as the King Air finally touched down and rolled out, I did another full run up which, incidentally, was a bit rough at first but did smooth out.
The hop home was not the end of my story either (though it does end soon, I promise). In the 10 or so miles from KBUU to 5K6 - even with the GPS pointing the way - I got turned around in the dark. I generally have a good sense of direction and know the area well, but fatigue combined with night time visual cues and perhaps some winds aloft conspired to make me think that I was heading southeast when, in fact, I was flying due south. I kept looking for the airport where I expected it to be and couldn't pick it out from the other lights. The runway lights worked when I left, so I assumed my microphone clicks had reactivated them. I thought I was chasing the GPS needle to the left with left turns, but despite my apparent corrections, the indicator kept drifting off course. About 7 miles from home, I finally cross-checked the compass and directional gyro and found I had only corrected to a 150 heading when I was convinced I was flying due east at 90 degrees. The disorientation was brief, but profound. Once I got realigned, the sight picture snapped into place and I entered the pattern and landed without incident (I did have to slip down to the runway a bit, but it's always wiser to be too high than too low at 5K6).
3.0 on the Hobbs. 2.8 at night with 6 full-stop night landings.
The fog I kept fearing never did roll in. But when I got to my bike, it looked like someone had soaked it with a hose.
I still had a damp, cool (51F the bank said) motorcycle ride home. I slept well that night, let me tell you. I think I rolled into the garage at 11:30 p.m.
One final point I'd like to address is the fact that in addition to shunning Flight Following, I never filed a VFR flight plan on this flight. For some reason, I often go back and forth on the practicality of doing that around here. On the one hand, the population is so dense that if I were forced to the ground sooner than anticipated, SOMEONE would see it. Then again, that's not as likely at night. Like Flight Following, there is no good reason not to use the service (especially while it's still free to use). I think I just get lulled into a false sense of security since the flight was relatively short over a known route. I know I've told myself before that I WILL file more flight plans, but yet again I have not seen that through. While that's not directly a link in the potential accident chain, the planning/thought required could help avoid adding a link along the way (see Potential Accident Link #1).
I hope to post some audio from this flight (I haven't checked the recording quality yet), including the "eureka" moment when I realized I was turned around. That should be amusing if not interesting. At the very least, Drew said he's going to make an episode of Dawn and Drew TV out of the footage and photos he shot.
If you have any thoughts on what I should have done differently, I'm open to hearing them. Have I learned what I should from this experience or is there something you see that I've missed? Am I being too hard on myself? Comments are still disabled on this site, but if you e-mail me at oblivion at ratula dot net, or call (206) FEW-EBLO/339-3256, I'll be sure to include them in a future post (unless you don't want me to).
All's well that ends well, especially if you learn from the experience.