A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

JULY 2005

Departure Distractions

Acceleration on the grass at the Hinton-Entrance airport seems a bit sluggish. The elevation of this strip is 3450'. I quickly decide it's the thin air. I'm not too concerned. My thoughts, daydreams really, are ahead of my present situation. It is late in the afternoon and within two hours I'll be landing in Blue River to stay overnight. I've been flying for four hours today, and the fatigue is catching up. However, with smooth air, this leg should be fairly relaxing.

I'm departing toward the south end, where the terrain drops off to the Athabasca River. When my Cessna 150 clears the trees at the end of the runway, I'll follow the river toward Brule Lake where there is plenty of room in the valley to gain altitude.

After an extraordinarily long takeoff run, the mains break free and I'm airborne. The nose down to gain speed, I briefly note with some concern, the trees are approaching more quickly than they should be, even in this thin mountain air. Raising the electric flaps in increments . from 10 degrees, to 7, then to about 3 or 4 . I coax a bit more speed from the airplane.

I'm vaguely aware of the effect fatigue is having on my thought processes. My eyes are outside the cockpit, while my mind knows they should be scanning the gauges. The realization that everything is not right is being pushed along now by adrenaline.

Checklist. Think . what did I miss? Or is it just this thin air up here at 3500 feet? My eyes find the airspeed indicator. Something between 60 and 65 mph registers. I never climb the 150 at less than 70 and even that is slow. Eighty is more like it. The VSI is in neutral to negative territory. I have to build speed, and fast.

What else? Check carb heat. Yes! There's my problem. It's pulled out! Quickly it's back where it should be, and there is a perceptible increase in the RPM. With it, comes a bit more gentle acceleration.

How could I miss that mandatory checklist item? I'm too busy for the moment to give it much thought, but I've made a mental note to review that. Right now, I've muscled back the fatigue, my mind has cleared, and I'm forcing the airplane's normal parameters into my consciousness, checking them against what I see on the panel. Airspeed now 80, rate of climb at 300 to 400 fpm, ball centered, RPM 2600, oil temperature and pressure in the green. Mixture rich, carb heat off, flaps up, fuel valve on.

There's really not much to miss on a Cessna 150, but omit an item and it can be as deadly as on any more complicated aircraft. That thought on my mind, the trees flash by beneath the gear, and below now is the river valley offering a clear path for my airplane to climb at it's own speed.

I like to think of myself as a very safe, "by the book" pilot. I live by the checklists, from the walkaround to shutdown. So, how could I miss that carb heat item? It's really quite simple. There are two ways to run through a checklist. Do it WITH or WITHOUT distractions. In my case that day, even though I was alone, I was distracted, for it's not just other people that can interfere with the flow of the pre-flight. Being fatigued can certainly cause a problem with my concentration. Also, I was eagerly anticipating the arrival at my destination later in the evening. That day at Hinton, I had both of those distractions working against me.

So here's what happened. After refueling, I did a walkaround, taxied to the end of the strip and went through a detailed run-up. Even though the temperature was still in the high 20's, I selected carb heat as my last run-up item, then brought the throttle back to the stop, checking to be sure the engine would idle with carb heat on. It's good practice to leave it idle like that for at least 5 seconds, before pushing carb heat off again. But at that point, I was thinking one step ahead of myself. Within that short 5 seconds, I was already making a radio call declaring my intentions for the straight out departure. Consequently, I was into the roll with carb heat ON.

Take off is probably the most critical part of any flight. Some pilots would argue that it's the landing. However, they're probably flying something more complicated and less forgiving than a C-150. I've certainly flown my share of tailwheel, larger and smaller airplanes, and I believe there is nothing simpler to land than a 150. But takeoff in any airplane can be deadly, because you rely totally on an engine that must be functioning flawlessly. There is no trading altitude for speed as in landing. There is no opportunity for a go around. And usually, there is no chance to pick an ideal spot to put it down when all is not right.

Pilots must be totally focused on procedure during this very critical transition. Our concentration can not be distracted for any reason right from the time we begin our preflight checklist ritual. As a professional pilot, I request, even demand that my passengers not interrupt me. I read the item, look directly at that gauge or control, and focus on what I see and feel. And I stay focused until the last item is checked, even through the carb heat test. But obviously, sometimes I do get distracted.

Having habituated myself to religious observation of checklists, there is a feeling of great confidence when I advance the throttles and begin the takeoff roll. But vigilance doesn't end there. A check of the RPM confirms full power. The engine gauges need to be monitored shortly into the roll. Are they all in the "green"? Once liftoff is attained, the best climb speed is pegged, and I maintain proper rudder pressures to assure the ball is centered. That alone, can increase speed significantly by reducing the drag of cross control. How is the vertical speed? I monitor the RPM and engine gauges every few seconds. After all, the engine is at full power, the time when damage or failure is most likely to occur. And once again, I pay particular attention to the airspeed indicator, probably the most important instrument I have at this point in time.

Do not take anything for granted in the takeoff phase of your flight. It is an extremely critical time, with many things to be aware of. Almost any one of these items can prove fatal if ignored for whatever reason.

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