Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Benefit of Time

Greetings. It's been forever since I blogged. A series of work trips and crazy deliverables have kept me very busy... New York (twice), Atlanta, Chicago, San Francisco, Napa, and Philadelphia. Somewhere in there, Husband and I even managed to squeeze in a family trip to North Carolina. Unfortunately, the only trip we flew ourselves on was the North Carolina trip... but on to other topics

We have a joke in our house about "aviation time". From the very beginning of Husband's flight training (he started a while before I did), I remember being confused why he could manage to make a two hour flight lesson take five hours! I knew it took half an hour to drive out to the airport, and half an hour to drive back... And I could understand that there might be a little fluff in there-- hanging out with the flight instructors, etc. But that still leaves at least an hour and a half! It wasn't till I started to fly that I began to understand aviation time. Even so, each of us has to occasionally remind the other... "it's okay, it's aviation time" when it takes forever for the fuel truck to come or to get the books for the plane from the office. So given that we know this lesson well, it's a little surprising that I let myself almost get caught in the trap of aviation time.

Our trip down to North Carolina went smoothly... except for a bit of turbulence. Husband was flying and it was a little tougher for him. We spent the weekend with my family at my parents' place. It was great to see everyone (and meet my newest nephew-- who's not so new anymore!). We did a photo shoot on Saturday that was a ton of fun-- and we got some great photos from it (that you can see here). Sunday we enjoyed some good family time with the kids, went on a hike, that kind of thing. Husband left Sunday afternoon to attend a conference in Phoenix...which meant that I was flying home on my own on Monday.

Monday's weather started a little foggy and cloudy, but improved throughout the morning and was looking good by noon. I had planned to leave around noon to give myself tons of time to get home and settled before leaving on a business trip the next morning. But, I learned that my brother's family was leaving around 1pm, so I thought... why not stay a little later? Then my mom and I started cleaning-- and she was my ride to the airport. Still, I thought, as long as we leave by 1:30. When it got to be 2pm, and we were just getting in the car, I was a little worried, but not too much. The weather was looking good and the trip back is usually shorter than the one going down, we're still ok.

I head out to the plane (my baby!) and with mom's help get all of my stuff loaded in. I do a careful, but quick preflight, and take care of the fuel bill. I start to feel better about things-- I'm later than I wanted, but still have time to make it back to JYO before sunset... and being this late, some of the crosswind there should have died down by the time I land. Mom is already sitting in her car (with our dog, Flyer), watching me prepare to taxi out. I go through the checklist and start the engine. As I do, the tachometer catches my eye... it's spinning all over the place. Then, as my mind says "wait, does it usually do that? i don't remember it doing that before...", it slowly settles on 0.

Uh-oh. I really don't think that's right... but there's no red x. My attention is now totally focused on the inoperative instrument. I feel like my thoughts are going in slow motion. What now? I try flipping the MFD screen on-- this causes all the engine instruments to switch over to the other screen on the G1000. Sometimes this can fix a problem if the system has just gotten confused. No, that doesn't work. So I shut down, sit a second, and go through the startup procedure a second time. Still no luck. Deep breaths, deep breaths. I pull the POH and G1000 manual out and try to think where to look this sort of thing up. I don't find anything in the emergency checklists-- there are no red x's, so it seems the instrument is working, sort of. I next call Husband, and get him started looking online for information. Then I make a series of calls to my flight school and instructors. I have mixed results. But my flight instructor seems to think it may just be a minor problem.

So, I get out of the plane and go to the FBO to see if there's still a mechanic around. It's now around 3:30... and I can almost hear my watch ticking and feel the sun sinking. Turns out the mechanics left at 3pm. But I talk to the owner of the FBO who seems to have a fair amount of experience with planes like ours (172-SP with G1000). He thinks it's a p-lead... Then he stops and asks how many hours I have... I tell him around 175... and he asks if it's in this type of plane. I laugh and say it's all been in this particular plane! He then says that I should be ok to fly with a p-lead; I should be able to listen to the engine and watch the airspeed to keep the engine from red-lining. I think about this... But don't I NEED a tachometer? I study him a little.

I can't be seriously thinking about taking advice from someone I've never met before, who probably isn't an AME. So I call Nathan back, who rightly reminds me (I'm so proud of him for remembering) that a tachometer is required for flight (remember TOMATO-A-FLAMES from flight training?). I also talk to my old instructor who offers that while it's required, if it failed in flight, he wouldn't expect me to have to land immediately- I could continue on to my destination. What to do, what to do. Suddenly, I find myself thinking about aviation time. This is how it happens. It's a little problem... but I don't want to fly illegally or be unsafe. I also really want to get home tonight.

I decide to go and give it another shot and see if I can verify it's the p-lead by doing a mag safety test. To do this, you keep the engine running, and quickly switch the magnetos to the off position and then back to both. If the engine starts to die when they're in the off position, then the connections are as they should be. If not, then the engine will keep running. I'm not good with technical stuff-- but basically, the propeller is designed to start and kick the engine on if it moves (remember the old movies where planes are hand-propped?). But this design prevents this from happening if the magnetos are off-- for safety purposes. Apparently, this same wiring would give me my tachometer reading. (Someone out there may have a better explanation! Feel free to enlighten us.) So I start the engine... and to my relief, the tachometer quickly jumped to an appropriate reading. I sat there a moment and said a short, heartfelt prayer of thanks, and then got down to business. Given that it was now working-- and I had heard from several that it would likely be ok to fly without it (except for the legalities), I felt reasonably safe to give it a shot. I glanced at my watch... it was now after 4 pm. I'd really be pushing nighttime, but I'd be back in familiar territory-- and most importantly-- out of the mountains by the time the sun set. So I quickly got everything set and took off for home.

By about halfway through the flight, I relaxed enough to listen to some music. I appreciated the comfort of flight following with ATC, though I didn't see another plane until I flew under the approach for Dulles. The controller was even going to vector me directly into JYO through the Bravo space, but I decided that given the darkness, I'd better stick with the familiar, so I declined and stayed VFR. Oh-- and the sunset in my 6 was spectacular. My landing was even pretty decent, given that I hadn't done a night landing in quite a while. And those crosswinds had almost died completely.