I had hopes of more snow and ski flying but I guess it is time to admit that winter is over. This means I can get starting working on the hangar again!
The Maule is back in the air, thanks to Missionary Aviation Repair Center (MARC) in Soldotna. The flight home went great (for the most part) and I plan to put the skis on soon. Maybe before Christmas but with the lack of snow and cold we will see.
After having so much work done at this annual inspection (new crankshaft, new Emergency Locator Transmitter, cleaning up some of the preheater wiring, fixing the auto pilot… the list goes on and on) we decided to do a “return to service” flight before I headed across the wilds of Alaska. Everything checked out and the trip home was uneventful, well almost…
Mechanically things went great. The weather was, well the weather was typical, it was difficult. I was able to get on top of a fog layer that had all of South Central Alaska socked in. It was clear above and the Alaska Range was out and beautiful. The Interior was covered by a thick blanket of weather too and I wasn’t going to be able to get down without picking up a clearance from Anchorage Center.
It took a little back and forth over the radio but I was able to get my clearance and start the process of shooting the instrument approach (RNAV 4L). By this time it was dark (4:15pm) and there was some light snow falling. This is where I really appreciated having the auto pilot issues resolved. I knew that I would pop out under the cloud layer in plenty of time to set up for a normal landing but I was curious about the runway conditions. When I left home the day before the city hadn’t completed the snow removal.
As I entered the holding pattern to descend to the initial approach fix I started picking up ice on the airframe and windshield. I mentioned it to Center and asked if I could expedite my decent to get out of the clouds. They gave me the latitude to do what I needed to get out of the ice. When I popped out of the clouds I could only see out of two 3″ holes in the windshield. The heater/defroster in the Maule is more suited for the tropics than the arctic. No problem, the auto pilot was doing a great job keeping me on the approach and I knew that I could keep it lined up on landing because of the runway edge lighting.
At this point I am remembering again that the runway wasn’t completely cleared when I left the day before and I knew that the ski strip was too soft to land on without skis and I was not sure what I was going to find when I needed to land. I was carrying a little extra speed (70 knots vs 50 knots) because of the ice accumulation and I could only see through what were essentially peep holes. I quickly found out what I was dealing with as I disengaged the auto pilot and started the landing sequence. You guessed it, the runway had not been finished and it appeared to have quite a bit of new snow on it. As I flared to land the runway edge lighting disappeared. It took me a bit to realize that 3′ snow berms were blocking me from seeing the only reference I had to keep moving in a straight line. I could only see two red dots (a portion of the threshold lighting) at the far end of the runway. I was dancing very lightly on the rudder pedals to keep those red lights in the center of the peep holes. My efforts to brake resulted in the tires skidding on the new snow so I had to coast to a stop. Talk about nerve-racking… I got stopped and turned around on the runway and started to taxi back to my parking area. I could only follow my tracks in the snow until the defroster started to overcome the ice on the windshield. When I got out of the airplane my knees were a little wobbly and I finished the prayer that I had been in for quite some time.
If you have seen any of the “reality” shows about Alaska I hope you understand that it is “dramatized for TV.” Life in Alaska is not always as dangerous and edge of your seat suspenseful as it is depicted on TV. However, there are times when real life is exponentially more dramatic than “reality” TV. When I first started flying in Alaska (almost 20 years ago) an older gentleman told me that “the day you fly and are not a little nervous will be your last because overconfidence will kill you.” The converse is also true. “A superior pilot uses his superior judgment to avoid situations that would require the use of his superior skills.” This flight fell somewhere between these two pieces of advice.
As with everything else in life, airplanes need to be repaired and maintained. This is the time of year when I go through both airplanes and fix the small things that broke during the summer, like instrument backlights and a small tear in the headliner. There were several things that had to be fixed when they broke so that I could continue flying, like fuel pumps and steering rods. While the hangar is not complete it still has been asset to maintaining the airplanes. Have you seen the pictures of the great progress? I have benefited from the concrete slab and this coming week I will use the overhead crane beam to take the floats off the Maule and go back to wheels.
Speaking of the Maule, it goes to MARC November 1st for the annual inspection. This year it is going to be a big one. We have to comply with an Airworthiness Directive (AD) that requires that the engine crankshaft be replaced. Apparently there were quality control issues during the forging process and there is a very remote possibility that it may fail in flight without warning. If that were to happen the propellor would most likely depart the aircraft. There is nothing good about that scenario. While an AD is kind of like a recall on your car it differs greatly in that the owner is responsible for the cost not the manufacturer. Thankfully we have found a serviceable crankshaft (read used but still within specs) which will cost much less than the $16,000 list price for a new one. The labor cost for the tear down and replacement will be reduced greatly because there is a team coming from Moody’s aviation training program that will use this as part of their curriculum. As a LeTourneau grad part of me twitches to think that Moody students will be rebuilding my engine. Sorry, couldn’t resit the urge to poke at our longtime rivals…
Other known issues we plan to take care of at this annual is to repair the auto pilot servo. It has been flaky for a while and has a tendency to only do standard rate left hand turns. We will also upgrade the Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) to the newest standard and technology (406 mHZ with internal GPS).
Airplanes are not cheap but they are a very effective tool for ministry here in Alaska. Last week I was able to help another mission agency get some of their people out to visit and encourage some of their staff in a remote village. We are currently coordinating with a church in Fairbanks to get out to a village they have worked in for many years that suffered a horrible tragedy of a double homicide. Once the Maule is back from the annual we will put it on skis and get out to our friends who live in the bush. All of this is possible because of your partnership and God’s provision! If you are interested in ways to help visit our On Going Projects page.