I Learned About Flying from That: Communication Breakdown

A poorly addressed maintenance issue puts a pilot on high alert.

ILAFFT communication breakdown
The most important attitude for successful communication is the presumption that others can contribute meaningfully to your decision.Barry Ross/BarryRossArt.com

I suspect that the majority of professional pilots encounters their most interesting jobs early in their careers: places where the pay is rotten, the airframes have 70,000 cycles on 50,000 flight hours, and tight finances put everything into a perpetual state of “What’s going to fail next?”

My first flying job was in a Cessna C208B Caravan that was brand-new, under warranty and really nothing more than a big Cessna 172 (albeit with a turbine engine). But that job lasted only four months, until I was working for a multiengine outfit willing to take on a 400-hour newbie — where the aircraft were well out of warranty and maintained by the dispassionate pens of the accountants.

The end result was that I had to manually pump the gear down a few times, declared an emergency once, had one declared for me by ATC (which I only realized when we landed to a convoy of firetrucks) and bounced the tail of a Beech 1900 off the tarmac after a nasty run-in with ice (Flying, April 2015). In between was a great deal of hand-flying (most of our fleet was not equipped with autopilots) and innumerable, exotic oddities.

One of the more interesting days began with an 0430 wake-up call in a time zone an hour ahead of my body clock. After a few cups of coffee and the preflight, we departed from North Dakota to our destination in Gillette, Wyoming, where the weather was deteriorating with snow and low ceilings.

The tower wasn’t open, so we made the obligatory CTAF calls in order to shoo off any adventurous scud runners. We performed a non-precision approach (which went brilliantly). The taxiways and runways were picking up some snow and slush, but it was nothing horribly unusual for an early spring morning in Wyoming.

Gillette was a stop along the way to Denver. We picked up a few passengers, got the fueler out of bed to pump a hundred gallons of jet-A, and contacted the now-open tower for our flight plan to Colorado. Tower had just cracked the blinds, so we opted for the automated ASOS over the typical tower-generated ATIS. Then I made my first officer go kick the tires in the cold slush (like smart captains do) and we were on our way.

Denver was sunny and dry. Our schedule called for an hour wait at DIA before a return along the path we’d just flown. We would be back for our overnight in North Dakota by noon. I retrieved the paperwork, went over the weather, and noted that Gillette tower had reported an inch of wet snow in the notam. This would be a problem because our company manuals prohibited us from landing on runways with over ¾ inch.

Actually, in a mildly ambiguous manner, the manuals gave us an ­allowance for up to 4 inches of “dry snow,” and ¾ inch of “standing ­water or slush.” In a game of which one of these things is not like the other, I decided that wet snow was definitely not the same as dry snow, so it must be categorized as slush.

No problem. I was dialing the number to my dispatcher to get an update on how Gillette was dealing with the issue. I knew they had equipment to clear the runway, and I figured it would largely amount to nothing. That was until I saw the stern-looking gentleman standing by my aircraft, wearing a conspicuous FAA lanyard around his neck. He asked for my ­license and medical certificate, and then informed me that he would be riding along.

Warren Buffet once said: “If a cop follows you for 500 miles, you’re ­going to get a ticket.” Prior to the ­run-in with the fed, I was ­completely satisfied with departing toward ­Gillette under the assurance that they would plow the runway before we arrived (we had plenty of extra fuel to spare anyway), but having a fed on board upped the emotional ante; I ­suddenly found myself carrying a ­pedantic ghost on my shoulder.

As a result, I decided that the ­minor trifle with regard to the wet snow in Gillette now required an immediate (and somewhat unreasonable) resolution: I would not be taking off until the runway had been plowed.

I eventually walked across the ramp to the chief pilot’s office. Immediately upon entering I was accosted: Why was I unwilling to fly to Gillette? Why had I landed there not two hours earlier if I believed that the conditions were unsafe? I eventually had to excuse myself to retrieve the flight paperwork from the morning flight (which, thankfully, I had not thrown out) to prove that the conditions had not existed when we made our early-morning turn through Wyoming.

Company personnel in our operations department were still a bit frothy over the whole “wet snow” episode.

I returned to find the chief pilot reading through company manuals, attempting to come to grips with my interpretation of the “wet snow” rule. I showed her the paperwork, which exonerated my early-morning decision to fly through Gillette, and she informed me that the director of training agreed that wet snow was effectively the same as slush.

Dispatchers eventually contacted Gillette tower, which removed the wet-snow report after the runway had been plowed by operations personnel. We were good to go.

The departure from Denver was routine. We were through FL 180 and crossing the border into Wyoming when we suddenly began to smell a husky, hot aroma. It wasn’t quite smoke, but it was in the same family. I asked my first officer if he smelled it — he did — and then I called the flight attendant; she smelled it as well.

I was not about to fly the remaining hour to Gillette wondering if that acrid smell belied a potential fire. We were flying over Cheyenne, ­Wyoming, where one of our maintenance facilities was located, so the decision to divert was unremarkable.

The approach, however, was distinctive: Winds were gusting well over 40 knots in a direction that limited our landing to the shorter runway. This necessitated a full-flaps landing (we generally landed one notch short of full). On the EMB-120 line of aircraft, the full-flaps speeds gave a narrow boundary between stall and overspeed — especially in gusty winds at max landing weight.

So, I made the precautionary landing while playing a game of gusty brinkmanship between our stick shaker and flaps-limit speed, all while a rather bright-eyed FAA inspector peered silently over my shoulder. Thanking the Pratt & Whitney engineers for the fuel-delivery system aboard the EMB-120 (which prevented abrupt throttle inputs from resulting in compressor stalls), I threw the throttles between idle and max with total abandon.

We managed to make the ground without any ­significant issue, where we deplaned the passengers so maintenance personnel could perform a once-over. The fed asked a few questions regarding the precise nature of our ­decision-making and said that he would be relating good things to the home office about our decision to divert.

It was here that the pats on the back ended. Company personnel in our operations department were still a bit frothy over the whole “wet snow” episode. They apparently concluded that I was in the midst of an unreasonable run with conservatism (due to fear of the FAA) and were clearly skeptical that anything had actually been wrong with our flight.

They pencil-whipped the paperwork (“Ops check good, no defects noted”) and commanded us on our way. I called the chief pilot to tell her that we had, in fact, smelled something unusual (hoping that she might have some weight to throw). She admitted that chief pilots have their own boundaries when she told me that if the mechanics signed it off, I needed to accept the aircraft. Jobs have been lost over the refusal to fly an airplane that maintenance personnel have cleared.

So I briefed my first officer on the issue, telling him that the first sign of any abnormality would result in the second termination of the flight. We did not have to wait long, as we were barely into our preflight duties before the smell returned. The FAA inspector was standing behind me at the cockpit door, and I asked, “Do you smell that?” He said yes and gave a look that only a fed can give, and which you never want to be on the receiving end of. He was unimpressed with the perfunctory maintenance sign-off.

Maintenance personnel returned and did a more ­thorough evaluation. After a few hours, they found an electrical abnormality in the temperature control unit: It was sending erratic signals to the environmental ­system, fluctuating randomly between the selected temperature and full hot. In the full-hot mode, it was overheating and giving off the smell. They replaced the temperature ­control unit, and we finally escaped Cheyenne.

It was only a few decades ago that professional fliers began to admit that flying is inherently a crew affair. Not only is good communication required between pilots but also between everyone in the chain, from flight attendants to ATC, and dispatchers to maintenance personnel. Communication failure is at best confusion, and at worst it is measured in fatalities.

The most important attitude for successful communication is the presumption that others can contribute meaningfully to your decision. Communication does not occur when you assume a totalitarian authority or if you decide that you are dealing with a dolt. Even if the advice is poor, by listening earnestly you open your mind to the recognition of better alternatives. And, ultimately, good flying technique is nothing more than the shouts of 10,000 ghosts of aviation’s past: shouts of lessons learned in bent metal and sometimes blood. Listening is sometimes the easiest — and most effective — way to fly safely.