May 23, 2010

Biennial Flight Review - A Review of 2 Years of Mistakes

On May 3rd 2008, I finally achieved the goal I had been dreaming about since I was very young, I became a pilot. It was a rainy day at Arlington Municipal Airport just north of Seattle, Wa. My flight examiner was Neil Karman, we went through the oral exam and then went outside to check the weather. My first decision as a de-facto rated pilot was the go/no go decision to fly; "Lets Fly!", I said, and we got the tow pilot and my trusty trainer, a Blanik L-13, and we were dodging clouds in no time. 3 flights later I was set free as a rated glider pilot.

Fast forward two years and now it's time for my Biennial Flight Review. The actual BFR was straightforward; with 200 hours in the last 2 years my stick and rudder skills are sharp, I'm current on my FARs, and flying at the local airport I knew every inch of the pattern and runway. What I have found more valuable was a review of all the stupid mistakes I have made in the last 2 years that have eaten into the acceptable safety margin I like to maintain. Below are the top 3 (or should I say bottom 3) mistakes I have made. Sadly there are many more than 3, but by stepping up and acknowledging all of them to myself I have recognized a few aspects of my flying that need to be kept in-check and identified situations and thought patters I need to be aware of.

When flying someplace new, question your level of comfort and confidence.

I had 3 flights under my belt flying out of California City, Ca, my longest just short of 200km, but I still hadn't done my planned out and return flight for my silver badge. Feeling anxious to get it out of the way, I took a tow on March 27th. With consistent thermals to 5000' agl near the airport I felt comfortable to push towards the mountains. Why not? I had gone cross country at 2500' agl flying out of Arlington and been successful, what can prevent me from repeating that success here? Before not too long I got low and had to back track to get a climb, again up to 5500' agl I pushed north, undeterred, into higher terrain on the other side of a ridge. A short glider later, and after lots of sink, I was below the required glider to get back over the ridge, and I was in the middle of nowhere! I was targeting a landout field on my PDA that I had never seen nor had conformation that it was landable. When I arrived at the spot, which was a 500' long dirt area on the side of the highway, I discovered a truck was parked right in the middle. I found a few thermals to give him time to move along and for me to make a run at going over the ridge. My attempts didn't work and I begrudgingly returned to land on the side of the highway. I should note that this was way first landout. The gider and myself were unhurt and I was quickly picked up by my crew; quickly because I had only made it 20 miles. At this point, if you were counting my mistakes on you fingers and toes, you would have both shoes off. Fundamentally, what really got me in trouble was a strong desire to achieve my goal coupled with a rational for my in-flight decisions based on a lot of experience from a completely different soaring site. Not everything transfers from site to site. Always question your own decisions! Here is the flight.

Don't ever outsource in-flight decisions to someone outside the cockpit.

Reading this one it is difficult to imagine a situation where this would ever happen, yet it has happened to me and it almost ended very poorly; in fact it's the closest I have come to crashing my glider. I was flying the practice day of Region 12 last year and I had identified a pilot who I knew was very good, and my plan was to flollow him around the course and try to learn as much as I could. I would go where he went, leave when he left, and thermal with him; taking notes the whole time. Well at the start I was a little lower that he was and he was soon off leaving me in the dust, I had set a minimum altitude from which I would leave the start gate and at that point I was below that altitude. I tried to find a better thermal but in the process fell lower. There was a lot of internal pressure to leave so that I could execute my plan, how could I complete the task if I didn't follow this other pilot around? So, I left the start gate well below my minimum altitude and spear chucked into a field 10 miles further on. I committed to land way too late, failed to see the power lines running across the field, failed to notice how long the grass was, and failed to notice the nicer fields 1 mile behind me. I finally picked up the power line on short final, luckily they were not a factor, but no off field landing story should ever use the expression, 'luckily'. Once I touched down I caught a wingtip in the grass and ground looped. I thought for sure the boom was coming off but it didn't and glider and pilot once again escaped damage. All because I delegated my success of the flight outside the cockpit. Check the flight here.

Know the point of no return.

This one has happened to me a few times, most notably early in this flight. Out on course there were amazing Cu's popping, but not in the direction I usually leave the Tehachapi Valley. There were more to the west in an area that is very far out of the way and only has was very non desirable land-out option. I got as high as a I could and made a B-line straigh for the clouds. About 10 miles into that glide, when I realized the clouds were out of reach I should have turned to the east to make my escape, but I didn't, I had made my decision and a was fat, dumb, and happy. About 5 more miles and I could have made an escape to better terrain and much better landing options, but again i had made my decision, the clouds were still there and they were getting better, but at this point I should have realized they were out of reach If I were to maintain escape options. I had crossed the point of return and hadn't yet noticed. It was just a little further on that I realized I was going to have to make it work if I wanted to escape the valley, so I got down low and close into the rocks and finally got the thermal I was looking for. I should have never been in the situation in the first place; low, in a valley with only one very poor land-out option, and no escape routs.

So that's the short list of the mistakes I have made in the last 2 years of flying. Soaring is challenging and dangerous, that's why I like it, but there is no reason to make it any more dangerous that it needs to be. If you asses your mistakes and understand how events transpired you're more likely to fill your bag of experience before you bag of luck runs out!

Keep flying, and making good decisions,
Michael 'BK'

1 comment:

  1. Hello Michael,

    great post and blog, keep on sharing!
    I am a paraglider pilot about the same experience level (200 hours) and learning curve (3 years) and the mistakes I have made are remarkably similar. It mostly boils down to pushing yourself too hard AND not sticking to the golden rules. False confidence is your No. 1 enemy.

    Just a piece of advice: don't underestimate the challenges with a PG. For example although it looks like you can spot land anywhere, you can't or it could hurt a lot.

    I am really looking forward to the transition to flying sailplanes, I am about to begin training next week! Curious how it will expand the XC horizon.