Trees and the 7 P’s

Ever fallen face first through a cloud?  It’s not as nice as it sounds, in fact it stings.  It was December of 2004 and it was typical to Brisbane, being very hot and humid.  I finally convinced nine of my mates to join me in jumping out of a plane from 14,000 feet (one of my mates, JD, took a few beers one night to be convinced to join us all and his jump video shows that his nervousness was never quite overcome until he stepped outside over four kilometres up).  What better way to test out my new pilots licence than to fly myself and three of the boys down to where we were to jump; a little resort airstrip called Kooralbyn, which was about 20-minutes flying south of Archerfield in Brisbane.

As the rest of the crew jumped in cars and started the 90-minute drive down to meet us there, I quickly planned the flight there and back, expecting no refuel facilities available at Kooralbyn.  Hindsight at the time told me I should have thought of a plan a few days before, as the hot weather (which causes an increase in fuel burn and lower flight performance) mixed with a pot hole filled airstrip meant there was not a lot of weight left to spare to carry the required fuel, not to mention four 19-year old males and their gear.  Fortunately, the flight was short so the fuel uplift would be minimal anyway.  All aircraft have a maximum take off weight, which if you overload weight beyond this figure you degrade flight performance, risk long term damage to the airframe, which in extreme circumstances can be catastrophic, i.e. your wings snap off mid flight.    The maximum take off weight for this four seat aircraft I was taking down to Kooralbyn was 1,043 kilograms.  When you take out the weight of the aircraft, 660kg, and the four of us with gear, about 350kg, you find that you have around 33kg remaining to take in fuel.  Considering this old duck burnt 34 litres an hour, I had an interesting equation on my hands

With the confidence of a rock star and the strong desire to get to our destination in time for the jump, I ordered the amount of fuel we could fit and got all my passengers strapped down.  After the usual safety brief to my excitable passengers, we took off and headed south.  The flight down was awesome; beautiful weather, friends in tow, and the picturesque airstrip coming into view.  I could see my mates who travelled by car had already arrived and were standing next to the terminal looking sky high at our arrival.  I made sure I put on my most professional landing, buttering the runway with my wheels, then I taxied into the parking area and shut down the aircraft.  As I did this, I had a moment of introspection.  I was so excited on the way down that I didn’t do a fuel log or the navigation checks that I should have, which resulted in missing a critical step; leaning the fuel mixture in cruise.  There’s a red lever next to the throttle that controls the amount of fuel you put into the engine.  It is fully forward, or rich, on take off and landing to maximise the fuel to the engine, yet it should be leaned (or fuel into the engine reduced) so that your fuel burn is more efficient when in cruise.  This I didn’t do.  The mixture was on rich the whole way down and the precious fuel I had was sucked faster than it should’ve been.  Add to this no refuel facility at the time and a nervous spike shot through my stomach.  Never mind, I’ve got a sky dive to do and I’m first up.

Jumping from 14,000 feet is the most awesome adrenaline rush I’d had to date.  My tandem instructor pulled the chute open just as we hit cloud, which stung my face like a slap from a high school sweetheart.  We landed safely on our feet and walked over to the waiting fellas who were still to jump, their anxious smiles replacing their brazenness from earlier that morning.  The day went to plan and everyone jumped, although some hesitated!  We stayed the night at the resort and I planned to depart after breakfast the next morning.

Waking to another hot and beautiful day, we all got our gear together and headed for the aircraft.  I checked the tanks and wondered for the first time ever if I had enough.  There was no AVGAS in sight so I thought that with the pothole filled strip and being so hot it’s probably good to have a lower weight, I’ll just make sure that I lean the mixture this time.  Performing all required checks then lining up on the runway, I looked at the trees at the end of the strip.  There was no wind to help me get in the air faster and the heat lowered the performance of the aircraft.  I decided to perform a short field take off and so pushed the throttle to full power with brakes on, did my full power checks, then released the brakes.  Chugging down the runway, the trees were getting closer.  I saw my required speed come up so I raised the nose and pointed to the heavens.  At about thirty feet the hum of the engine was replaced with BEEEEEEEEEEP.  My passengers none the wiser, I had just received a stall warning and if I was to pull the control column anymore in an effort to further raise the nose I would lose the required speed needed to stay airborne which would’ve resulted in meeting the ground quickly.  The desire to pull up and away from the trees ahead was almost uncontrollable, yet I did what I was trained and lowered the nose toward the trees to regain airspeed.  Flying off the feel of this old duck, I felt the speed getting to where it should be and our altitude starting to increase as we cleared the trees.  “What was that noise?” my front seat passenger asked.  “Ah nothing, all good mate.”  We levelled out at our cruise altitude and headed for Archerfield.  This time I leaned out the fuel mix as much as I could and made a point of doing all my checks.  Around twenty miles from the airport, I started to sweat as I glanced at the fuel tank indicators.  The left tank was empty, with not much more in my right tank.  Keeping the fuel mixture as lean as I could up to final approach, I brought the old bird down for a relieving landing and headed for the parking bay.  After shut down and some praise for an epic adventure, I checked the tanks.  Left tank, empty; drier than the Sahara.  Right tank, well, I’m not about to incriminate myself…

As I walked towards my mate’s car, I was kicking myself.  All throughout flight training I’d been told of the 7 P’s and I just broke the mantra I felt that I thought I lived by.  ‘Prior Preparation and Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.’  I felt as though I would have been more prepared to challenge Arnold Schwarzenegger to an arm wrestle.

Having carried the 7P’s in a stronger light after that weekend, I’ve never been in a compromising situation like that since.  In the lead up to space training, the mantra of the 7P’s were part of what kept me motivated….

COMING UP: Achievement and pie in the sky

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