Always trust your instinct

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Beechcraft Baron G58
Image: © Beechcraft Corporation

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.

‘What?’

‘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.

7 COMMENTS

  1. I had a similar of sorts, experience with a turbine powered helicopter, the Alouette III, a powerful and capable LUH class of helicopter. One of the Squadron aircraft was a cool starter. The actual numbers are a bit hazy now, but this aircraft was around 50-60 degrees cooler than normal on start. No minimum temp was advised and we were trained, correctly, that turbine over temp on start is bad news. That turbine discs and high heat are not friends. So I felt actually good about this aircraft and it’s cool start. A few weeks later, this helicopter suffered a slow engine cut, in an OGE hover. This was because the combustion chamber injection wheel was partially blocked, the engine was not getting enough fuel to generate the high power demand for the hover, so the RRPM slowly fell away. By the time my pilot friend noticed the slow RRPM decay, he already had applied a lot of collective….it was too late. He was killed in the subsequent crash. The partially blocked injection wheel, was the reason for the cool starts.

  2. I personally find it difficult to believe that a fuel line could be within “a quarter of a turn”from disconnect and not having fuel leaking into the engine bay and onto the ground ,or have I misunderstood what the engineer said to the owner? 🤔😳

  3. Thanks for your story. Had similar experience during my PPL training. On taxi I said “The pedals don’t feel right” … instructor took over and made some turns … “Seems OK” … we kept going to the run up bay and I reiterated my concern. In the run up bay the instructor got out and checked the nose wheel … we promptly headed back to the hanger with a partially deflated tire!

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