Monday, July 17, 2006

Broke Brakes & GetThere-itis

On June 17th, Maureen and I had planned to fly to the Tampa North Aeropark to help celebrate my neice's 3rd birthday. The weather was forecast to be typical Florida summertime weather, but not too many thunderstorms. Unfortunately, someone had the Skyhawk reserved for a short flight in the morning, so I had to opt for the Piper Warrior II that I had done all of my instrument training in.

This particular Warrior is deteriorating and it aggravates me because it could be a very nice aircraft. Part of the problem is that the students don't seem to treat it like it was theirs and Sterling's mechanics seem to focus their attention on their charter aircraft and the newer Archer IIIs. This is the only aircraft that has ever failed me. While flying my final stage check for my instrument rating, the alternator died. The plane seems to have some electrical issues. Several years ago, the tail position light was very dim - there was a short somewhere in the system that was draining some of the power from the light. The radios are full of noise from the alternator. When the strobes are on, one of the radios is extremely noisy with squawks that keep time to the blinking of the lights.

There was once a nice, but old GPS in the plane. Unfortunately, someone broke it. I have no idea how one would break a GPS physically, but they did. The faceplate was busted and hanging and for about a year, the plane was flown with an "INOP" affixed to the GPS. There was no hope that the equipment would be fixed, yet it was never removed from the plane. There's also an INOP lightning detector. Why not take it out??? Save an extra 10 pounds!

Anyway, Maureen and I had are plans made and I wanted to get down to Tampa. Somehow we left the house late (AS USUAL) and I had to wait for Maureen to talk on the phone before we loaded up. Preflight indicated that the plane was airworthy. I managed to get her started and checked out the electronics. Everything was fine.

I called for my IFR clearance and then for taxi instructions. The winds favored runway 5, which was good as it would give me a tailwind once I was headed to Tampa. I eased the throttle forward and made my left turn down the ramp. It seemed that the right brake pedal was a bit mushy, so I tried to press it. It went straight to the floor. I had to use full right rudder to keep the plane straight when I used the pedal brakes. Not good. Not good at all. This should have been enough for me to turn around and go back, but I thought I would try the hand brake. Fortunately for me, the hand brake applies both brakes evenly and the plane stopped nice and straight. I made the executive decision to continue the flight, but kept the brake problem in the back of my mind. I didn't mention any of this to Maureen.

The flight was a bit bumpy as we passed in and out of growing cumulous clouds. That didn't bother me, but it definitely had a negative effect on Maureen. I noticed that she wasn't looking too well, so I dumped the newspaper from its bag and handed her the bag just in case she became ill.

There is no instrument approach for Tampa North. Because it is such a narrow runway and because it is surrounded by development, it is a bit tricky to pick it out from the ground clutter. My handheld GPS had me pointed in the right direction, but I just couldn't pick it out. About 8 miles out, approach control told me to switch to advisory and since I had clear enough skies, I canceled IFR. I didn't spot the runway until I passed the southwest end of it off my left wing. Fortunately there was no one in the pattern. There was no way I could dump the altitude and make as slow and soft a landing as I wanted, so I flew the pattern. At 1000' AGL, the temperature in the airplane increased quite a bit. The heat combined with the bumps really gave Maureen fits. Nevertheless, I was completely focused on landing the plane, not on my passenger.

On final, I slowed the approach to 65 knots and I touched down nice, straight and soft. I knew better than to try the foot brakes, so I tested the handbrake three times. The plane was slowing nicely. It would have been able to coast to a stop by the time I reached the end of the runway, so we were in very good shape. Using the handbrake and the rudder without differential braking, I managed to park the plane. Since I knew I had a left brake, I taxiied to the end of the runway and made a left turn to the parking area. Mom was waiting there next to her car. I told Maureen, "Look at how good Mom looks!" As I looked over at Maureen, I could see that she was in tears. She was so close to being sick and the lack of control that she had over her body turned into a severe emotional event. I felt so bad for her....but I had done everything I could to make the flight as smooth as possible. Next time, I'll bring a cooler with some ice and washcloths so she can cool down if needed. We're going to Palm Beach this weekend, so I'll be able to test that then...but only if the brakes work. I'll have the Skyhawk this time, so this will be a much better trip.

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