What happens when the most complex component on the aircraft has problems?
Name withheld by request
This event occurred a number of years ago, and is something I have kept to myself until now.
I began flying in the late 1980s in general aviation, achieving a commercial pilot licence. I few GA aircraft for many years before swapping to recreational aviation. After flying RA-Aus registered aircraft for a period, I was looking for a new challenge and decided to obtain an RA-Aus instructor rating. This was an opportunity to increase my skills, meet others and to do more flying. While I enjoyed the additional flying, I found there were some downsides.
The first was that you flew when your customers wanted to fly, as opposed to private flying, where it was a lot easier to stay on the ground when conditions were less than ideal. In addition, recreational aircraft are more susceptible to turbulence given their low wing loading. I never experienced any direct pressure to fly when I wasn’t comfortable with the conditions, however, I was always cognisant of trying to meet the needs of students in terms of facilitating their flying whenever that was possible.
Some months prior to the day of the event, I had experienced some personal issues. Out of the blue, one of our children had required major surgery. Around the same time, several other upsetting events occurred, including our house being burgled. I took some time out from flying while we got our life as a family back on track, but I had been back into flying now for a few months.
On the day of the flight in question, I was scheduled to fly with a student to an ALA where there was a fly-in planned. The route required us to transit an area where there were no options if a forced landing was required. This was due to controlled airspace boundaries—our aircraft was not equipped with a transponder, and as per RA-Aus requirements, unless the PIC had a current GA flight review, we would have to stick to a route outside controlled airspace.
On the morning of the flight, I checked the weather forecast. The weather looked OK, apart from some turbulence—due to a warm day being expected. The student had sent me his flight plan the day before and everything was in order. For some reason, however, I became more and more anxious about the flight, thinking about the route over inhospitable terrain. What if there was turbulence? What if there was a problem with the engine? These feelings of uncertainty became stronger, to an extent that I seriously began to think about possible excuses I could use to get out of the flight. I knew, however, that the student was looking forward to the flight and had put a great deal of effort in to preparing for it.
After tying myself in knots at home, I finally forced myself to go to the airfield in the hope that it would change how I felt. I never had experienced feelings like this before—what was wrong with me? I had flown the route before, and had many hours in the aircraft we would be flying so I was comfortable with its maintenance history—or should have been. It was only after we took off that I began to feel a little better—not by much though. I think I flicked between looking at the gauges and looking for forced landing fields for most of the flight. Upon nearing the destination, the student wanted to descend, but I kept him high until I knew we could glide in if we had to. On the return I was a little better, but it was only when home base was within gliding distance was I OK.
In the end it was a great day out—not that I enjoyed it, but I really had nothing to worry about. There wasn’t much turbulence and the aircraft performed flawlessly. I never had experienced such a level of anxiety like that—before that day or since. I put it down to the personal issues that I had gone through in the months before creeping up on me. Despite talking to many people about my personal issues at the time they occurred, I was too embarrassed to say anything to anyone on the day of the flight about how I felt—most likely because I subconsciously knew how irrational the thoughts I was having were.
We’re all familiar with the mnemonic IMSAFE—illness, medication, stress, alcohol, fatigue, and eating. I always thought that I would know when I would be too stressed to fly. What I found was I didn’t even think about how my performance was or could be affected due to the level of anxiety I was experiencing. I wonder if I had to take over from the student that day due to an emergency how effective I would have been.
I learned a number of things from this flight:
- Personal issues can compound and sneak up on you—sometimes a while after they occur.
- Stay on the ground if you are not fit to fly—mentally or physically.
- I knew how diligent our maintenance team were, so I should have had more faith in the reliability of the aircraft.
- As an instructor, in whatever aircraft/regulatory regime you fly, ensure you keep up personal practice not only for maintaining skills, but for self-confidence. After that day I reassessed how often I had been able to fly hands-on myself, and found it wasn’t as often as I would have liked. I now set myself a monthly ‘stick time’ target.
- Talk to others. Sometime after the event, I was talking to a colleague who had decided to ground himself on one flight because his head was not in the right space.
I’ve thought a lot about sharing this experience and do so in the hope that others can learn from my story.