Life is a long preparation for something that never happens. – William Butler Yeats
The Irish poet, dramatist, and Nobel laureate William Butler Yeats was not a pilot, but his deft observation certainly applies to those who ply the skies. We train for all kinds of eventualities. We study things that can go wrong. We seek to master the many aspects of the known in order to be prepared for what is unknown, unforeseen, and unpredictable.
Most of the time, that “something” we train for and prepare to handle never happens. Today’s pilots benefit from the many developments in aviation technology and operational know-how. Thanks to those advances, most flights are utterly routine and predictable from the mechanical perspective.
Except for those times when something does happen.
On a bright spring day, I was delighted by the chance to go flying with a friend and former FAA colleague. We did a thorough preflight inspection that revealed nothing amiss, and happily launched my club’s C182 Skylane from its home base for an easy VFR cross-country down the Shenandoah Valley. I can honestly say that neither of us was in the “fat, dumb, and happy” mindset of complacency. We were mindful that the airplane had just completed a long stint in the hangar for annual inspection and repairs. Though it had been flown several times since its return to service, we both knew that sometimes stuff happens in the first few hours after shop work. And, since the number of empty tiedown slots was a strong suggestion of aerial congestion, we chose to fly a course slightly offset from the magenta line and at an altitude slightly off the “cardinal” numbers to reduce our chances of unplanned formation with fellow springtime sky-riders.
Everything was perfectly normal and utterly routine until the moment when, about 40 minutes into the flight, the engine seemed to stumble. “What was that?!” I don’t remember who actually said it, but we both had the thought. It was no more than a second’s worth of hesitation, but it was more than sufficient to silence crew conversation and kick crew concentration into high gear. Instantly we were scanning the gauges for any sign of anomaly or explanation. All indications were normal, but we launched into risk mitigation activities: Adjust power settings and mixture; apply carb heat; gain altitude; determine distance and direction to nearest suitable airport.
With the engine running smoothly once again, we initially opted to continue the flight. But a second, slightly longer hiccup about 10 minutes later abruptly changed the plan. We repeated actions taken the first time, and our growing suspicion of possible carburetor icing seemed confirmed when re-application of carb heat produced the textbook results: a momentary increase in roughness as carb ice melts and moves through the hydrophobic engine.
Even when you know that the initial increase in roughness indicates that the carb heat is doing its job, it’s still a great relief when it smooths out once again. At that point, though, we decided we’d had enough fun and opted to head back to home base. My trusty iPad Mini with its suite of sweet aviation apps was a terrific auxiliary crew member, making it incredibly easy to plot an airport-to-airport course, quickly find the nearest frequency to request VFR flight following, and remain clear of the many airspace and altitude restrictions common to this part of the National Airspace System.
The remainder of the flight was utterly uneventful. Our brief carb ice encounter was a bit of a downer on an otherwise nice flying day, but it was a great reminder of how important it is to be prepared for anything and everything at any time and any place. Know your airplane, know your equipment (including the iPad), and know your crew capabilities (including your own). Better to be prepared for “something that never happens” because when it comes to aviation, “never” is always a bad bet. (FAA Safety Briefing – JulAug 2013)