Monday 20 May 2013 21:18 UTC
A strictly Anonymous Forum designed to allow you to share those moments in flying that caused you concern. No names, no pack drill. You can post without registering a username. Existing registered users can log out to post if they wish
As a training captain in a fast growing company operating several fleets of small to large-cabin business jets almost every tour was spent with either a newly hired FO or someone upgrading to captain. I'd been doing it for several years so was accustomed to the workload but on this day a combination of pressure from the Company (that I was well equipped for and inclined to resist), changing alpine weather, last light and a new FO all combined to bring about an.......... interesting day.
A February morning saw us at Luton checking the weather for our destination, Samedan (Engadin LSZS). At 5600' elevation, in a valley and daylight/VFR only going there in a reasonably fast aircraft can be challenging but I had been there many times and had briefed my new FO comprehensively the day before. It was clear though that the weather was not co-operating that morning and I told the Company that it was unlikely we'd be collecting our passengers that day, a decision they accepted. That was until the passenger (a fractional/part owner of the aircraft) got wind of it and then the phone calls started. Every few minutes my phone would ring and I'd be told how the passenger had seen an aircraft take off or land and he wanted to know why we weren't on our way. As is often the case he failed or refused to understand that we could not take off with the weather we were being given or that some local pilots either knew the terrain well enough to fly below cloud along the valleys or (it was rumoured) chose to ignore the rules. Never ceases to amaze me that some wealthy people will accept the advice of professionals in their business dealings but when it comes to those of us who keep them alive think they know better. Anyway, I digress.
After discussion we agreed that we would go, take a look from above the solid cloud deck and having proven our point continue to Milan where the passengers would meet us, having driven down by road. Sure enough that's how it went but upon landing in Linate we were met by a very flustered handling agent who had also been the recipient of multiple phone calls. The difference between him and me was that I could simply point at the rules and say "No" whereas he was often threatened with the loss of his job so as you can imagine he was somewhat fired up and as an italian that was a sight to behold. According to him the passenger was not coming to Milan but was on the way to Bolzano, about 150 miles away, and we had to get there sharpish. The Company confirmed this so we fuelled up for that flight with enough tankered for the next leg back to London. Two minutes before engine start we were told that the passenger hadn't left Samedan at all and in fact was still there and still complaining that other aircraft were landing! Clearly he was going to sit on his **** like a petulant child until someone came and collected him.
By this time daylight, or more accurately the loss of it, was becoming a factor. We calculated that we could go and IF (a big 'if') the weather permitted land, collect the passengers and leave with 30 minutes to spare. All well and good, right? Well, yes if you're not operating out of a country known for its somewhat laid back attitude to people in a hurry and from an airport where a) the taxi to the threshold takes at least ten minutes and b) the national carrier is always allowed to jump the queue. On this day they weren't too bad though and we arrived over Samedan with enough light to get in and out. Well, apart from the still solid cloud deck that is. Now what we should have done is said "Same as before" and gone back to Milan for dinner but we decided to really show willing by flying a couple of orbits, just so nobody could accuse us of not trying. As we did so the fast changing mountain weather did just that and as we watched over just a few minutes the cloud dissipated. Bugger. Oh well, we'd briefed for it, the conditions were safe and legal so we started our approach and as we descended into the valley the bloody cloud closed in over the top of us even quicker than it had cleared. I was well aware that mountain weather could be fickle and had the charts up front and centre showing the low-level escape route down a valley but even so it was a little unnerving. It became somewhat more so when the FO chose that moment to lose her nerve and start yelling "There's a mountain my side!". Well, yes. That happens in a valley.
Given that the fast forming cloud would make a missed approach illegal (we would have to remain VMC but couldn't do that and climb out of the valley) I decided that the safest course was to continue the approach and land which only led to further outbursts from my colleague. In short I was a single pilot operation but with the added load of a somewhat upset co-pilot, not ideal and had me wondering just why she had really left her last job (I was one of her interviewers and vaguely recalled some story about illness). As we neared the runway though she relaxed and by the time we'd taxied in and shut down I was wondering if I hadn't imagined the whole thing. A conversation convinced me that she was back in the saddle and I left her to add some fuel while I loaded the passengers and baggage all the time being told by the handling agent "You have to go, we are closing the airfield". No pressure then, eh? Even quicker than it had appeared the cloud dissipated and after a team talk we agreed that we could go.
Engines started we taxied out to several reminders from the tower that last light was 10....8....5.... minutes away. Thanks lads, why not fire a few warning shots over our heads just to make it clear we're not wanted, eh? Cleared to line up and the last of the before takeoff checks completed then, bing! On came the 'Baggage Door Unsafe' annunciator. Now, we knew that the microswitch on that door was faulty. In fact we were carrying it as a known defect in accordance with the MEL so we'd each been double checking that it was locked after loading and although we'd done so this time we took a few seconds to assure ourselves that we had. After that brief delay we re-ran the before takeoff checklist and started our roll.
I was Pilot Flying and reassuringly the standard calls came on cue from the RH seat in a calm and steady voice. "Thrust set.........airspeeds alive.......70knots.....V1.......rotate....positive climb....". I responded with "Gear Up" and a few seconds afterward as the gear clunked into position and the sytems ran through their logic sequences.................the pressurisation failed. Just, great. Marvellous. Why am I not surprised? Those of you who have flown pressurised aircraft will know that in almost every depressurisation (training) scenario you are expected to at least level off if not set up an emergency descent depending upon the altitude at which the event occurs. On this occasion however we were climbing out from a runway at 5600' elevation in a darkening mountain valley. The runway lights had been switched off just seconds behind us, so keen were the staff to get home, but the narrow valley meant there was to be no 180 turn and land anyway. The minimum Safe Altitude (MSA) was in the region of 15,000 feet so we had to climb. I gave the order, donned my own mask and ensured that the oxygen flow was at 100% with the audio panel set so we could communicate. With no cabin crew to brief and look after the passengers (it was a Citation Bravo and too snug for cabin crew) I asked my FO to manually drop the cabin masks (there is a switch in the cockpit for this) rather than wait for it to happen automatically around 14,000 feet. The ensuing rubber jungle prompted huge amusement in the cabin between the lead passenger and his two female companions, a pair of russian ladies of dubious repute. Oh, alright. They were prostitutes.
We levelled off at 15,000 feet and advised Swiss Radar of our situation. We were not that high, there had been no sudden decompression, nothing was burning and we had been on oxygen from about 8000 feet so relatively speaking were pretty well off. Looking north at the dark Alps then south toward the lights of low, flat Italy it was an easy decision which way to go. Swiss passed us off without much interest to Italian ATC who were well, even less interested. We informed them of our status and asked for descent, as soon as safe to do so, to 10,000 feet. Having considered our request the controller came back with "Youa climba flight level 250". Somewhat surprised I informed him that if forced to do so we would declare a mayday. After further consideration he revised his instruction to "Youa doa waddya youa want". What 'wea wanteda' was a direct track to Milan and descent as soon as the MSA allowed. The voice at the other end suddenly changed to one more efficient and we were cleared accordingly.
The remainder of the flight was uneventful and as luck would have it a Company aircraft, a Falcon 2000 which was to be my next type, was preparing to ferry (empty) to London. The passengers were happy with the free upgrade and we had them on their way and out of our hair in no time at all. The next couple of hours was spent writing up the Tech Log and various safety reports before retiring to the hotel. Much to the Company's disgust I grounded us both the next day (they wanted us to airline elsewhere and collect another aircraft) on the grounds that the trainee pilot had undergone more than enough in one day and should be allowed time to digest and recover.
Looking back on that day, as I do regularly and frequently, I often feel that had I read the script in a CAA publication following an incident or accident I'd be wondering why the crew hadn't cried 'Enough!' but then if I'd been reading it I wouldn't have had ALL the facts. My own debrief was along the following lines. I can honestly say I never allowed commercial pressure to force me into something dangerous or illegal. As a firm believer in CRM I had attended dozens of courses and was aware of commercial pressure and the other pitfalls. I was well aware that new hires would look toward me and the other training captains for their cue as to what was acceptable in this company and always, always made the point that if they ever felt they were being backed into a corner they could call me for back-up. I wasn't bolshie, far from it, the Company even had me down on their 'Guys-That-Can-Do' list but I wasn't going to lose my licence or life for anyone. At every step during that day I/we had carefully considered the next move and had each step occurred in isolation they would have generated nothing more than a raised eyebrow. As it was they came in succession and were not, it has to be said, made easier by some particularly unhelpful dispatchers, air traffic controllers, handling agents and (of course) passengers.
I no longer fly charter but have the same passenger/owners who are very, very safety conscious and so laid back they are positively horizontal. If I even hint at marginal weather they'll postpone to another day. Even so I have noticed that I am now much, much more sensitive to problems mounting up and much quicker to sit back and, as my boss from that time used to say, wind my watch. Take my advice and do the same. Ditch the digital for something with hands and a dial. Nobody will ever know it runs on batteries but as you sit there slowly 'winding' it you'll buy yourself time to consider.
Thanks for a sharing, I enjoyed reading that: a real honest and thought out account of what happened and why.
Love the "winding your watch" time buying exercise, will remember that one.
Thanks for sharing your experience Flintstone.
I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your post, and you are right, sharing knowledge helps!
PPL Student - EGKR
Thank you. I really enjoyed reading that too.
This can be true in so many areas of life. Decision on their own are all reasonable, but when looked at as a whole in series, you probably wouldn't make the ones!
Thanks for sharing this. Commercial pressures have caught me doing things I probably wouldn't have done a few times in the past and I've learnt a lot from them. Thankfully the company I work for has also changed considerably, so there's much less pressures to get things done these days.
In the jungle somewhere...
My Blog: http://indopilot.blogspot.com
That's what we call on the PPL/IR forum being nibbled to death by ducks (as opposed to being chomped by an alligator, you understand.) No single duck actually does you much harm and you are in scarcely a worse position after the duck nibble than before, but...
Oh, and I used to work in a BizJet charter operation where the most ghung ho pilot was the owner and chief pilot.
Not sent from my iPad.
....and the only sound at the end of the flight was the chinking of his spurs as he walked across the apron
That's a great saying which I've heard a couple of times but never remember when needed. My other duck/aviation comment was one my CFI used when debriefing me. "You're like a duck. All calm on the surface but furiously paddling away beneath the surface". Not sure it was a compliment
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