SOMETIMES I DON'T KNOW EVERYTHING - 25 April 2013
Moonset on Midway Island - North Pacific Ocean
Interesting title, huh? I'm sure some of the young aviators I fly with can't believe I'm making such a statement. Well, it's true. It is absolutely true.
I have mentioned flying our little Beech 1900 all the way from the Continental United States to the Hawaiian Islands a few times. I found out that I don't know everything on one of our returns from Hawaii. Here is the challenge in this particular situation for this particular aircraft: there is simply not enough fuel capacity on the Beech 1900 to fly from the closest point in the Continental United States to the Big Island of Hawaii and still meet all the reserve fuel rules. For those who don't know, reserve fuel rules pertain to the fuel you're supposed to have onboard the aircraft after you get to your destination. You do not fly 2,000+ miles to plan to arrive overhead with no fuel. You have to carry extra fuel. Since it's more than 2,000 miles from the California Coast to the Big Island, our little airplane can't carry enough fuel.
Some of you are probably wondering, "How do you get there, then?" That's easy - through Alaska. Yup, the shortest legs take you up the West Coast into Alaska, then out on to the Aleutians to Adak, AK. Next, you fly the 1,400 miles from there to Midway Atoll straight south. Finally, you turn back east for the last thousand mile leg to Hawaii. Simple! Starting in New Mexico where we live, it's a six or seven day adventure if the weather cooperates. As we all know, weather in Alaska does not cooperate. That's a blessing and a curse in this story.
A couple of years ago, when returning from Hawaii via Midway, we decided to save a day on our return leg. Normally, with just a little head wind and a little adverse weather at the destination, we would have to return using the reverse of the route we took to get to Hawaii--i.e., through Adak, AK. Anyone that's been to Adak for longer than pit stop knows it’s not an easy place to live. The wind is constantly howling, there are very few civilized resources left on the island after the US Navy left in the 90's, and the weather is completely unpredictable. You know those epic storms in the reality series “Deadliest Catch”? That’s Adak. To make things even more interesting for aviators, the runway orientation and the surrounding mountainous terrain make the best departure path the opposite of your arrival path. If the winds are blowing, like they always seem to be, that awesome headwind you had on landing will turn into a nightmare Take Off and Landing Data (TOLD) tailwind on the way out. This means you’re stuck if there are the usual heavy winds.
By the way - god bless the folks who suffer the elements in places like Adak. Most of us have no idea what real challenge is unless you hear a few of their stories.
But back to this story:
To say we were motivated to bypass Adak, or Cold Bay, or any of the other remote airports out on the Aleutians is an understatement. If the weather cooperated, we wanted to try for Anchorage, 2200 miles away from Midway. Most of you are now thinking, "Wait a second. Why can you make Midway to Anchorage in one hop if you couldn't fly from the West Coast to Hawaii?" There are a couple of reasons. First is the possibility of a tail-wind most of the way from the West Coast--that would be zero chance. And, because of the Great Circle route of flying the curve of the globe, we had good diverts along the way. The Great Circle route took us right past all those remote airports on the Aleutians if our fuel burn didn’t work out right. Finally, Anchorage is a populated location with many potential diverts allowing us to plan a much smaller fuel reserve.
Since this was going to be such an epic flight, all three pilots onboard did their own flight planning and weather research independently. If you hadn't guessed, it's not the easiest thing in the world to get good wind data in the middle of the North Pacific. Working with a couple of weather professionals back home and out in Hawaii, we had a good feel for the weather by take-off time. All was a go in the end. The weather in Anchorage was cooperating with no low ceilings and minimal snow. And, we had our requisite 10 kt tailwind most of the way.
This was a nine and a half hour flight. For our little airplane, that's gigantic. Not worthy of a record - it wasn't even my longest - but still epic for this little airplane. In the end, I think we thought of every possibility except one thing: what long duration Alaska cold temps at cruising altitude would do to our little New Mexico based airplane. After almost 10 hours of flying, closely monitoring the weather, tweaking the throttles to fly optimally, and the premature elation of actually having it all work out, our left main showed unsafe when we lowered the gear on final.
Uggggh!!! The left main hydraulic pack that pushes the gear down was a little weaker than the right. We didn’t know that. It worked fine in its home environment, but in -50 deg C temps for almost 10 hours, it was too much.
There we were on final to Anchorage International, a heavy Fedex in front, a heavy Korean Air behind, flying in and out of snow squalls, about an hour of total fuel onboard and us with a good nose gear, good right main gear, but no indication for our left main. Oh, yeah - and it was night time, as if all the other stuff wasn't enough.
Let me describe the crew setup. I was sitting in the left seat as the Aircraft Commander for the day--i.e. the man in charge. In the right seat, flying the approach, was our youngest pilot with only about 100 hrs in the airplane. Still, he was very experienced overall with a couple thousand hours in 40 different aircraft. And, our chief pilot was sitting as a passenger with a clear view of the gear indicators reading off the checklist for the emergency procedure.
Alternate extension of the landing gear for King Air aircraft is through a floor pump at my right foot. According to the Tech Order, it could take up to 80 pump throws to build enough pressure for the main landing gear to show safe. That's if everything works perfectly.
When the gear indicated unsafe, I threw my seat back and deployed the pump handle. The chief pilot was right there reading the checklist. The co-pilot continued to fly the approach. I pumped and pumped and pumped. When you are pumping head down like I was, it's very difficult to maintain situational awareness of where we were on approach. After what seemed like an eternity without the left main indicating safe, I glanced up to check where we were. We were approaching Decision Height. I called out "Go Around" so we could solve the problem away from the ground. The co-pilot had just started to move the throttles when the chief pilot yelled out, "We got three green!" The co-pilot responded "Continue, we're landing." See, just when we started to go around, the left main indicated safe. The chief pilot updated the aircraft status with a call when he saw the indicators change. The co-pilot made a call and decided to continue and land. I finished the Before Landing checklist. The landing was uneventful.
Afterwards, we talked about what happened. As you can imagine, there were many things going on at the same time there. Decisions needed to be made in short order to tackle the situation. I’m glad we had another pilot onboard to help us through. There wasn’t anything controversial about our decisions from mission planning right up and through lowering the gear. The most interesting topic was the decision to land versus the command to go-around.
In our situation we had a very experienced crew that had flown extensively together. We knew each other and could trust the other guy’s decision process. One thing we all recognized was not everyone had full situational awareness (SA) all the time. Sometimes, the guy making the commands was not the guy with the most information or best position to make the best decisions. I think that was the situation in our case. As I called for the go-around, I made a decision based on what I knew. But, as the power was about to go up the landing gear situation improved which changed everything. The questions became: was it better to follow the go-around call and take a perfectly good aircraft into the night for another radar pattern? Or, was it better to simply adjust to the situation, use the skills we had, and land?
In assessing this situation, you also have to consider that the Aircraft Commander called the go-around. As far as the USAF was concerned, I was fully responsible for the aircraft and everything associated with it. As they say, my rear was on the line. In some situations, this is a very important nuance: there can only be one guy in charge. My direction should have been the rule. But, in this situation, it doesn't make sense NOT to respect the SA and the skills of other people I’m so used to flying with. In other words, just because I say something as the guy in charge does not mean it’s the way it has to be. I can include other inputs.
So, back to this situation: it really came down to who had the most SA. In this case, I called for the go-around based on what I knew. The circumstances changed almost immediately. Then the person flying, the guy with even more SA, made a change in plans leading us to continue the approach and land uneventfully. Even though he wasn’t the Aircraft Commander, he was the guy flying. No one on the airplane knew more about flying and landing that approach than he did.
What’s the lesson here? Even though you are in charge you may not know everything that is going on. Therefore, your commands may not be the best. It is good to be able to include others in your decision process, allowing for changes to commands as circumstances direct. Of course, the unmentioned circumstances from this situation were a uniquely qualified crew with a close rapport from many missions together. Without that, it would have been much more difficult to adjust to circumstances so quickly.
Hopefully, there are little tidbits in this story all you fliers might learn from. The experience sure taught me a lot.