Two striking incidents I witnessed during my early ag aviation career illustrated the hazards of rushing things and the need to adhere to standardized procedures in all phases of flight, from taxi to takeoff to landing. The first occurred while flying a Cessna 188 from a small airport with a fair number of private aircraft.
We had taken a break from the action due to the wind, and while parking the aircraft, we saw a man running out to a Piper Tri-Pacer, quickly untying the tie-down lines and hopping in. A quick takeoff followed a quick start, but not for long. The aircraft returned trailing smoke from the engine only a few minutes later but luckily made it safely to the runway.
The problem was that the pilot had missed removing the engine air intake covers due to the lack of a walkaround. Chalk up one cooked engine.
The second occurred during a local spray clinic where operators could come to calibrate their dispersal systems. As the day’s activities wound down, everyone was getting to depart for their respective home bases. There was a solid squall line to the northwest and headed directly for the airfield, and one pilot was in a particular hurry to get airborne.
Bad decision. In the rush to get home, the pilot had failed to remove the rudder and aileron locks. I have never before or since seen an aircraft so out of control yet in enough of control to make it safely back to terra firma, which he did much to the absolute astonishment of many onlookers, despite a healthy crosswind. I had run over to one of our support vehicles to grab a fire extinguisher in case the outcome was a full-blown crash.
Enter the Checklist
One of the first things a novice aviator is taught is to develop good habits (such as pre-flight walkarounds) that will help keep you out of the doghouse through careless acts, moments of forgetfulness, or just plain oversight. A large part of this process is developing sound decision-making skills to make every flight an enjoyable and productive experience.
Successful aviation also depends on a wide range of learned skills, from aircraft handling to effective communication and navigation. Add to these the additional tasks in ag aviation of effective management of dispersal products and using modern GPS navigation and guidance equipment. You have a growing list of things to manage.
Part of effectively dealing with that growing list lies in the adherence to checklist procedures developed by the aircraft manufacturer. Checklists were developed during Boeing’s flight testing of the Model 299 to become the famed B-17 of WWII fame. After takeoff on a test flight in 1935, the aircraft stalled and fell to the ground, bursting into flames upon impact.
Finding no evidence of mechanical malfunction, the accident investigation team assigned to the crash concluded that “pilot error” was the cause. The pilots had made a simple but fatal mistake with one of the new controls, leaving the elevator and rudder controls locked.
The solution to the problem was simple and effective: develop a pilot’s checklist to ensure critical items were not missed. Today, we can’t imagine flying any aircraft without a checklist, but it was a novel idea at the time of the B-17.
Although it is becoming less and less common (thankfully), many of us have had to transition to an aircraft without a checklist or even without a Flight Manual. In that case, it’s a matter of learning on the job and hoping all goes well in the conversion process. For the most part, though, new ag aircraft come fully documented with procedures and checklists that operators should thoroughly know (and follow).
A Slice of Humble Pie
Then, there is the situation where even a simple oversight can result in a potential incident or accident. I had been asked at the last minute to ferry a Thrush with a recent turbo conversion a short distance from home base to a remote strip. I had a couple thousand hours on type, so I didn’t really give it a second thought. So off I went on a fifteen-minute hop to the new airstrip, which was quite long but also quite narrow.
Setting up on final, I used the same approach speed of 80 mph I use on just about all ag aircraft. Aiming for a wheel landing, I was pretty surprised when I misjudged my round-out altitude, made more than firm contact with the runway, and bounced back in the air.
I elected to go around and try again from the opposite direction, as the wind was calm. The same thing happened, “Boing!” and I was back in the air again.
The problem was twofold, the first which I should have realized. I had been flying off a 150-foot-wide runway for the last month or so, and this new remote strip was 40 feet wide, so when it came to flare, I didn’t compensate for the illusion that I was higher than I was.
The second contributing factor was that the ASI was in knots, not mph, so my actual approach speed was 92 mph, not 80 as I had assumed. Together, the two factors added up to a less-than-ideal landing witnessed by half a dozen other pilots at the new location.
At any rate, I finally got everything figured out, landed safely, and taxied up to the parking area more than a bit red-faced. Looking around the cockpit, I finally noticed a checklist on the left side of the instrument panel.
One of the items under Approach and Landing was Airspeed: 65-70 KIAS. Taking just a bit of time to look at the cockpit instrumentation would have saved me a lot of embarrassment. I could also hear aviation gods dolling out another slice of humble pie while chuckling and asking, “What’s the Big Hurry?”.