Sunday, 17 November 2013

A harsh lesson learned

So, after last week's XC flight I headed up to the club again today to get some more flying in.  I didn't get to make an attempt on my Silver C as I had planned otherwise I'd be here to brag... unfortunately now I'm coming back with my head hanging in shame.  Read on after the jump to find out what went wrong...
The day turned out to be a fizzer, the amazing flying conditions yesterday caused serious overdevelopment and when I arrived at Cunderdin in the morning the sky was choked with altocumulus and some low stratus off to the west. The forecast was still saying thermals to 6,000 but we were dubious. I elected to fly anyway, may as well take the opportunity to get a bit more airtime in. The Operations manager for our region, who also happens to be one of my instructors, has been impressed with my progress and my flying to date and has asked me to begin working towards an AEF Instructor's rating, and thence move on to Instructing eventually. I still need a few more hours in my logbook, but anticipate being at that stage well before summer's end this season.

I did the daily inspections for the gliders to be flown that day, just the PW-6 and the Jantar that I planned on taking up, but also ran through doing the DI with one of our airworthiness guys on one of the older aluminium gliders , the Pilatus B4, and obtained my DI rating for metal gliders. Once the gliders were towed out and the PW-6 was up for instructional flights, I got the Jantar out onto the runway, and this is where my tale of woe really begins. I'll tell you what happened, and then come back to the chain of events that led up to my first gliding incident.

I was hooked up and ready to tow, and the towplane went all out down Runway 23 into a stiff headwind. The Jantar is pretty light and the ground roll is short, I was off the ground and skimming along a couple of feet above the runway within seconds. The towplane got up a few seconds later and I waited until it climbed above me and I felt the wash pass over the glider so that I was established in low tow, then began to come up. I had the side vent panel on the canopy open and it was making a horrendous noise, enough to be distracting. I took my left hand off the release handle and made to close the window, and as I did my wristwatch entangled the left side canopy release lever. The release handle went through between the watch body and my wrist and it popped open. The left front edge of the canopy lifted slightly and held as I tried to dislodge my wrist from the lever, before I could do so, the wind got under the leading edge of the canopy and blew it off to the right, with my wrist still attached to the lever. My arm was carried over my head to the right and the lever twisted out from my watch strap - and I was faced with the reality that I'd lost the canopy on tow.

Training kicked in at this point and I immediately checked how much runway was ahead, and seeing that I was less than halfway down the strip I pulled the tow release, nosed forwards to maintain 60kts and deployed the spoilers. I was only about 20ft or so up when all this happened, and the above all happened within about 5 seconds, though it seemed like minutes to me. I safely landed on the runway ahead and brought the glider to a standstill before the adrenaline hit me and I vented the longest loudest chain of expletives I've ever let past my lips. The canopy had smashed on the runway, but luckily it hadn't struck the glider and caused any addtional damage.

So, what did I do wrong? The list is comprehensive, and shameful.

My first error was in fitting the canopy. The Jantar Std 2 has a two piece canopy, with a fixed forward section and a removable overhead section to allow ingress/egress. It is held in place by a simple peg in the cockpit frame behind the head and a pair of simple over centre latches, one at each side of the forward edge of the canopy frame. The latches are a simple hook that clasps a fitting on the cockpit frame, and secure by pushing them forward until they click over centre. Now, normally, fitting the canopy is the final thing I do, it is the final point on the preflight CHAOTIC checklist (the final C stands for Controls free and sense correct, Carriage down and locked, and CANOPY DOWN AND SECURE.) On this one occasion however, while I was running through my CHAOTIC, the ground crew offered to fit the canopy for me when I was still on A (for Airbrakes.) I should have declined and continued my checklist as I would usually do, but for reasons unknown to me I absentmindedly said "yes." The canopy was fitted and I continued on my checklist. Now, to this day I have no idea if I latched the canopy down properly when it was fitted - I have no recollection one way or the other, and when I got to the C part of my checklist I remember thinking "Canopy already in place and secure." I did not follow this up with my usual physical check of pressing my knuckles to the canopy and pushing up hard. So, for all I know, I never secured the canopy properly in the first place. The canopy should have held with just the right latch in place, but might not have.

Second thing - I let myself become distracted from the task of flying on tow by the noise coming from the side window. I should have ignored it, especially only a few feet off the deck, and kept my left hand on the tow release handle. It was only an inconvenience, and not a pressing matter.

Thirdly - I was wearing a watch. This is something that I'd never given thought before, as I always wear my watch. It's a big chunky Citizen dive watch/dive computer, that I've had permanently affixed to my wrist since my 21st birthday, 18 years ago. It became entangled in a cockpit fitting, a risk I'd never considered. Talking to other pilots later on, I heard a few stories of similar things occurring, watches catching on spoiler or flap handles, or trim controls, or vent controls, or others. For this reason, some of these pilots don't wear watches when flying, but it's not something any of them had ever discussed before. I don't think I'll be wearing a watch in-flight any more.

In the end, I was lucky to get away with a heavy bruise on my left wrist and a smashed canopy. The airworthiness guys think the canopy is repairable for the short term, but will be butt-ugly and for the long term a new one will have to be made over in South Australia at a cost of around $3,000. It could have been worse. The canopy could have blown straight back and smashed into the tail, which may have caused more extensive damage. Worst, I could have panicked, and ended up losing control and crashing the glider since I was only a few feet above the runway. I have good training to thank for that not occurring.

After all was said and done, the other club members were very supportive. Once I'd calmed down I was regaled with many tales of canopies lost - it is not an uncommon occurrence on older gliders with removable canopies, and even on some newer two-seaters with rear hinged canopies. More importantly, once it was clear that I was settled, they urged me to get straight back into the PW-6 trainer for a couple of solo circuits - just to boost my confidence and make sure I finished the day with a positive. This was a big help, and you can be bloody well sure I went through my pre-flight check with 100% attention on every item.

So, a day that I had big expectations for turned into a minor disaster for me, but I'm lucky to have come out with nothing more than a bruised ego and a dent in my confidence. I'm now looking forward to some good weather in the next few weeks, so I can get back up there and do some more work on my cross country flying!