According to a recent study, the elapsed time between the first indications of a hidden fire and the point at which an airliner becomes catastrophically uncontrollable has ranged between seven and 35 minutes. The average time is about 20 minutes. Twenty minutes is a long time, but the bad news is that those occurrences involved airliners. Things happen a good bit faster inside smaller aircraft.
At about 11 AM, just as I arrived to fly an R-22 into a cool blue March sky out of Frederick, Maryland, a pilot proved once again that when you consider all weather phenomena, it is winds which are the cause of many accidents. As I was waiting for the instructor to return with his student and the helicopter, I heard a cacophony of sirens, but I just figured that it was coming from one of the local roads nearby. They weren't.
Believe it or not, the cylinders in aircraft engines have been known to fail. While this doesn't happen every day (thank goodness!) it certainly can't hurt to know what you need to do, or to understand the telltale signs that will tell you your cylinder may not be a "cylinder" anymore.
And I have been taking notes. Over the course of many years I have had the opportunity to watch pilots at work. As an instructor I have seen students of every skill level flying and working the system. In flight simulators I have seen pilots handle problems that we hope we never face in the air. By collecting and grouping these observations, I think I have a fairly good idea of what good piloting is. For most, good piloting is one of those things you have a hard time describing, but you know it when you see it. Well, through prolonged engagement, I have seen the traits that make up skilled piloting ... and the traits that indicate the problems.
It's nearing midnight. A damp fog rolls lazily off the Gulf of Mexico, thick clouds blurring the lines between earth, sea and sky. Lights pierce less than a mile through mist and fog under a 100-foot overcast. Dark silence envelopes the salt marshes of the Florida panhandle. Suddenly an otherworldly shriek shakes the trees and swamp, a wail punctuated with a dull thump, the squawking of birds, then a return to silence. An airplane lay mangled in the steaming marsh, its pilot dead at the controls. Why?
STUFF HAPPENS WHEN WE FLY. Whether that stuff is exciting (like an engine failure), or it's just a distraction (like the failure of a radio), how we react to the event frequently determines whether it becomes a big deal, or an event easily corrected.
I happened to remember the other day while I was driving this experience from my life as a pilot. I was on my way back from an American Bonanza Society (ABS) Service Clinic, where experts on the Beech aircraft line went over my plane with a fine-tooth comb, looking for problems. They poked and prodded, did a retraction test of the landing gear, and found a few problems that needed to be resolved.
Although not yet reflected by a huge wave of incident reports. Regardless, technological distractions are a growing problem and one of the Big 5 accident/incident producers. Recently designed aircraft (like the Cirrus SRV, Diamond's Katana line, their DA-40 and Lancair's 300 and 400) greatly expand the performance envelope made familiar to pilots by Cessna 172s and Piper Archers. They also often offer avionics that are exponentially more capable than those with which many pilots are familiar. It may be ironic, but along with the simplicity of flight and improved situational awareness these packages offer, there is a greater need for care when using and learning to use these systems.
The lack of awareness continues to be a source of problems when aircraft move on the ground. Not too long ago, you would not find runway incursions listed as an accident category, but it is just as easy to get lost on the ground as it is in the air...
Every year it happens. Pilots press on into deteriorating weather conditions. It is the leading cause of fatal accidents among pilots. But some pilots do survive their encounters with the clouds and live to tell about it.