Monday, August 20, 2007

Southern Maine Aviation

I had to be in Boston on Friday for work, so I booked my return flight on Sunday so that I could spend the weekend with my family. My nephew's birthday party went off with an airplane theme, and he was really cute as he watched the little video I made for him.

Since I was going to be in the area, I had planned to get checked out so I could rent airplanes from the airport near my parents' house. I was scheduled for the checkout flight on Sunday morning, but on Saturday afternoon I had some time to kill so I stopped by the airport. Southern Maine Aviation is based in a large hangar on the West Ramp at Sanford Regional Airport (KSFM). When I walked into the hangar, I was confronted with a PBY under restoration, an L39 that was polished like a mirror, a Diamond DA40, and a handful of Cessnas in various states of disassembly.

The guys there were great. There was no apparent work going on, but there were three or four employees hanging around and talking. They decided to take care of the paperwork, since I had dropped by, then asked if I'd like to see the planes. They have a Cessna 172M, the same model as Three Five Romeo, in which I did most of my training. They also have two 172SPs, a 2003 model and a 2004 model. Then there's the Diamond DA40 and a Citabria.

I'd never flown a 172SP. It has 20 more horsepower than any 172 I've flown, and a dual-axis autopilot, and is a really nice plane. It turned out that if I checked out in the SP, then I could rent either the SPs or the M-model. If I checked out in the M model, I would need another checkout to rent the SPs. It was a no-brainer for me.

My dad and I arrived at the airport on time (after the obligatory run through the Dunkin Donuts drive-through) and I met the instructor. We sat down for 2 minutes to talk about different things, then he took me out and I pre-flighted the plane. The instructor suggested that my dad could come in the back seat, but when I did the weight and balance calculations, we were 150 pounds over the maximum gross weight. The instructor said,"You're PIC, but I can tell you that it would be fine."

What a dilemma. My dad has been waiting patiently for FIVE MONTHS to fly with me. He got up early to go to the airport, was standing there with a headset they had loaned him, the instructor (who knew the airplane we were flying) was saying it was safe.... In the end, it was the concept of "PIC" that helped me make the decision. "PIC" is an abbreviation for "pilot in command." The pilot in command is pretty much like the captain of a ship or a commanding officer in the military. The term is defined by FAA regulations as the person who:
  1. Has final authority and responsibility for the operation and safety of the flight;

  2. Has been designated as pilot in command before or during the flight; and

  3. Holds the appropriate category, class, and type rating, if appropriate, for the conduct of the flight.

The instructor was correct -- I was PIC. A student pilot flying the plane with an instructor is NOT pilot in command. A certificated pilot, however, is in most circumstances PIC if he is flying the plane, even when flying with an instructor. In this case, I was PIC, which meant that I had "final . . . responsibility for the . . . safety of the flight." It was a plane I had never flown before, in an area I had never flown in. Although I have flown almost exclusively planes of the same model, this one had some features (engine power, autopilots) that were different than any plane I'd flown. Further, as part of the checkout, we were going to do some basic maneuvers, such as stalls, slips, etc. And now I was being asked to fly the plane while exceeding the maximum gross weight set by the manufaturer and FAA certification. How could I take responsibility for the safety of the flight in those circumstances?

I also thought of what my dad would take away from the experience. He's reading Stick & Rudder and studying while looking forward to maybe taking flying lessons. As I was standing there, I asked myself whether I wanted to take responsibility for anything he would learn from seeing me "bend" the rules.

There was also my personal philosophy regarding flying safety. It can be articulated several different ways. One way to state it is to say that I am committed to always taking the conservative approach in aviation. Another way I have articulated the philosophy is to say that if I have to seriously consider and weigh whether something is safe or appropriate, then I will not do it. I caught myself standing there and thinking, "It's not legal. But the FAA issues permit for overweight ferry flights, which it wouldn't do if it was unsafe. But it's not a good example. But we're not doing any maneuvers that will put a load on the wings." When I caught myself weighing factors back and forth, I knew that I could not make the decision to do it, at least not while staying true to my commitment to always make the conservative decision regarding flying.

There was no way. "Dad," I said, "I think I'd rather take you up after the checkout flight." My dad immediately said, "No problem," and started walking away. I could tell he was disappointed, and it tore at me a little. I was really angry at the instructor for suggesting he could come without first confirming that the flight could be made legally under those circumstances. What is an instructor doing suggesting that rules regarding the safe operation of a flight can be bent and broken? And why couldn't he have not said anything until he had talked it over with me privately, especially since I WAS PIC?

My dad later said that he thought the instructor was testing me to see if I would fly with the plane over gross weight. The disappointing thing about it is that the instructor was not testing me. He graduated from one of the big colleges with an aviation degree, has all of his instructor certificates, etc. In the plane, he told me how when he was in college they would routinely take planes out with several students and full fuel, way over gross. He said they would just burn off fuel before starting any maneuvers. And I've heard bush pilots say that a Piper Super Cub handles best when 500 pounds over certificated maximum gross weight.

The plane might have climbed a little slower, but with that 180 horsepower engine, it would have climbed just fine (it climbed at 1,000 feet per minute with the instructor and me). The air was cool and dry, there was no turbulence and only a light wind. Our maneuvers did not impose any heavy loads on the airframe. And by the time we returned to the airport, we would have burned off 60 pounds of fuel before landing, so been closer to the weight limit (albeit still over). It would almost certainly would have been fine, which made it harder to make the right decision, but I don't doubt that was the right decision.

As things turned out, I did not have the chance to take my dad flying after the checkout flight. We had to meet my mom and sister, then go to my nephew's birthday party, and then I had to catch my flight home. There just wasn't time. But now I'm checked out, and I can go back and take my dad up whenever the weather and our schedules permit. The SPs are NICE planes, and we're going to have a great time when it finally works out. I can't wait.

Other than just wanting to be in a plane with my dad, one of the reasons I can't wait to fly again up there is that the air is SO much clearer in New England. When we were perhaps 1,500' in the air after taking off from the Sanford airport, it seemed like I could see forever. The White Mountains of New Hampshire were off to the right and clearly visible except for Mount Washington, which was making its own weather and covered by a cloud. To the south, just off our nose, was the distant skyline of Boston, also clearly visible from 60 NM (about 70 "regular" miles) away . Between us and Boston, Pease International Tradeport (KPSM) was visible 20 miles away, as well as the City of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Off to the Southwest, the instructor pointed out the Class C airport in Manchester, New Hampshire, 40 miles away. I wondered, if I climbed another 1,000 feet higher, would I be able to see Worcester, Massachusetts, where my brother and sister-in-law live, 85 miles away? We turned to the East. Looking Northeast, there was a hook of land jutting into the Atlantic -- Kennebunkport, where the first President Bush has his house. Further on, Biddeford and then Portland were also visible.

I could see Boston sixty miles away!

Where I live and do most of my flying in the mid-Atlantic, 5 miles of visibility is a decent day, 7 miles is pretty good, and 10-12 miles is terrific. Sometimes in cooler weather, usually at night or the early morning, the visibility can be better, but I have never had visibility like I did at 1,500 feet over Sanford, Maine. It was the most beautiful flight I've had to date, and I really cannot wait to get back up there again. Without that instructor.

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