Would you speak up if something on the aircraft just didn’t feel right?
By Diana Stratfold
As a part of the IF rating we are taught to ignore body sensations and believe the eyes when flying on instruments. At other times, when flying with a visible horizon, the eyes cannot see what the other senses can detect.
In my 20s, I flew a Baron around the Pilbara area, where most of the flying was short 20-minute hops, so not much time for assessing abnormalities.
One night after landing and putting aircraft to bed, the owner could see I was not myself and asked what the problem was.
‘Something is wrong with the right engine,’ I responded.
‘I don’t know, something is just not right.’
This conversation went on with me unable to offer any evidence of anything being amiss.
The owner, the 2 other pilots, operation controller and I all trooped out the aircraft in the fading light, dropped the cowling and peered at the engine in question. All agreed it looked normal – no leaking oil or fuel, no cracks.
One of the other pilots started the suspect engine and we both stared at the gauges, all indicating within normal range.
‘So, are you satisfied?’ the owner asked me.
‘No, something is not right.’ However, I was beginning to doubt myself.
The decision was made to ground the aircraft and get an engineer up from Perth to look at the engine. That was a big call as we operated only 3 aircraft, which were heavily utilised at peak times, and the cost of the engineer call-out was about $7000.
I don’t believe they took me seriously and there was a lot of ribbing about me making hard work and expense for everyone for an aircraft recently back from its 100-hour inspection – all based on a feeling. I think the reason for the decision was based more on if it was known a pilot had questions about the safety of an aircraft and this was not investigated, we would lose the mining transfer contract.
‘Are there any issues you have with this one?’ another pilot semi-joked with an undertone of sarcasm as we got in the company car – older than me – to head back to the accommodation.
The next day, after completing the morning’s flying (on the remaining 2 aircraft), the owner bounded over to me, beaming euphorically and shook my hand. ‘The engineer says the fuel line was holding on by a quarter of a turn. Not admitting anything but it was unlikely to have been put back on properly at the hundred. A couple more flights at the most and it would have been completely off.’
In retrospect, I believe I heard a change in the usual engine tone. It was subtle enough that I could not articulate the problem, but enough to feel in my gut there was an issue that required attention.
I have learnt that my skill is picking up when something is not right, but sadly not working out what the problem is. Later, working at a larger company with onsite engineers, many times I told an engineer, ‘There is something wrong with x, or something wrong in y area.’
Sometimes it has only been a minor thing and highly unlikely to have caused any effect on the flight, but at other times, the issue would have ruined someone’s day if gone undetected.
When flying the same aircraft day in, day out, subtle changes may be picked up by the senses but it may not be possible to identify them at the time. You might hear a change in the wind over the aircraft, smell a mild acrid scent, feel a change in the engine vibration through the seat or see something that is off – take notice.
Lesson learnt: Trust your instinct when it does not feel right. Work out later what ‘it’ was.