Last Week in the Forums: Check ride and alternator failures

A thread on VR this week about the alternator light is another example of why I’m doing this. In the R22 POH, the alternator light emergency procedure gets just a paragraph and is pretty straightforward: alternator switch off, non-essential equipment off, alternator switch on. Land as soon as practical if the light remains illuminated.

The thread on the forums this week started with a cracked drive belt, but moved into a discussion about the mechanical reasons the alternator light might become illuminated the grief that could cause you. In the POH, the primary concern is loss of electrical power, which would cause a failure of the governor and tachometer, and no way of regulating your MR RPMs. Even without an alternator, the battery should have 10-15 minutes of reserve power, allowing you to follow the procedure for landing as soon as practical (go to the nearest airport where repairs can be made). What isn’t in the POH is the risk of a loose alternator belt flying around the engine compartment. Once freed from the pulleys, it can become entangled in the drive belts, leading to their failure and an emergency autorotation. This is exactly what happened in a September 2007 accident. In this case, the first indication of a problem was the sound of the alternator belt breaking, followed by RPM instability. However, one of the posts on the VR thread suggested a scenario where an alternator light could indicate a failing alternator or alternator bearing, leading to failure of the belt itself. Even if the drive belts aren’t damaged, the belt that came loose in the 2007 accident contacted the oil cooler and lines. Conclusion? Consider making an emergency landing if the alternator light illuminates, and figure the problem out on the ground rather than in the air.

The other thread that was really interesting was about a pilot who failed his commercial ride. Basically, his instructor filled the tanks on the helicopter while the pilot was doing his ground portion of the check ride. He didn’t recalculate the W&B for the actual fuel load, and ended up 16 lbs over MGW. Shitty way to learn a lesson, but props to this guy for posting is story. I wonder if there’s an inherent complacency toward fuel because we do it so casually for our cars (except in Oregon and New Jersey!). Planning your fuel load is the first important step, but what got the pilot on his check ride was confirming what went in. Where I trained, we did the fueling ourselves, but I’ve been to plenty of airports where you touch down to refuel, and a truck comes bounding over to you. These guys aren’t going to attach the same importance you are of putting on exactly what you tell them. This job would be easier if you could always trust your fuel gauges or had a dipstick for exactly determining your fuel load. If you have the R22 weight and balance calculator and a smart phone with an Excel application (like Grid Magic), you can recalculate your fuel load right after you finish fueling.

A bigger problem that I’ve seen is not testing fuel for water or debris. Flying out of the same airport, you get to trusting your fuel source. Out in the real world–where you’re going to be flying from different locations, maybe getting fuel from barrels cached in the woods of North BFE–having a well entrained habit of always checking your sump might be a good idea. Since I learned to fly airplanes at an airport with a fuel service, I got into that habit. But another good reason is that things change, and you don’t always realize the implications. While working on my instrument rating, I started seeing rust particles popping up in the sump. This was after months of not having any indication of a problem. Turns out, the pump on the fuel truck was switched out while the original was being serviced, and that was the source.

Here’s another good one. Before you pulled the helicopter out of the hanger this morning, you checked the sumps and it looked good. It’s 10 degrees C outside and snowed last night, so you’re happy this will be a quick refuel–just 3 gallons. You drive the fuel truck from the tank out to the ramp, pick up the nozzle, pop it in the tank, and get your fuel. You know the truck is topped off every night, and you’ve never had debris or water come out of this tank. So, is there a good reason to check the sumps again? Anybody make a guess. Bueller? Bueller?

On an unrelated note, a couple of weeks ago, N74607, my favorite of all the R22 Beta IIs that I’ve flown, met it’s end in the Owyhee mountains. No injuries, and maybe it’ll fly again.

Emergency Procedures: Bloody Mess or Packed to Go?

It’s been about 8 years since I took my last Emergency Medical Technician/Wilderness First Aid class, but I bet I could still do a rapid trauma survey (and probably long board a patient) from memory. For those of you who don’t know, the goal of the RTS is to quickly assess a badly injured patient–think unconscious after a car wreck–so you can fix any problem that is going to kill him or get worse if you move him around. The benchmark is to have the patient in the ambulance within 10 minutes of arriving on-scene, and you can’t make that happen if you stop after every step to think about what is next. When I was getting ready to sit for my EMT certification exam, I’d take anybody who’d lay still for a few minutes and practice on them. If I couldn’t find a volunteer, I’d work the dog or the coffee table from head to toe. And I’d go to sleep visualizing each step. It got to the point where doing the RTS was the most natural thing for me, and scenarios that would throw other students off (like doing it in a dark, confined space) didn’t phase me a bit.

The emergency procedures in section 3 of the POH are the same way. Each of them requires prompt action, and an inopportune brain fart can make a bad situation worse. We should all be able to smoothly move through each procedure, even if the cockpit is filled with smoke or there are horns and lights going off around us. So when I was putting my lesson plans together, I thought pretty hard about what would be the best path to making these second nature.

I knew how not to do it. My introduction was while I was flying patterns to practice straight-in autos. On downwind to base, my instructor asked what I’d do if the alternator light came on. I blurted out “Auto?” Up to that point in my training, I’d only indirectly considered the possibility that the helicopter might not always fly perfectly in the course of practicing autos. At that moment, an auto was the only EP on my mind. The response from my instructor drove the point home: “You’d do an auto over a stupid alternator light?” I went home, focused on the EPs for a few hours, and nailed them by the time my EPs ground lesson came around.

From that experience, I learned that the first step in learning those 10 pages in the POH is for the student to know when to expect to start having to recall them. If you’re like me, your helicopter honeymoon is going to last right up until a few weeks before your check ride. There’s so much to learn during your private pilot training, and everything needs its place. And the right place for EPs is pretty early in your training. I know a new instructor who was doing practice autos with a student pilot, rolled off the throttle, and killed the engine. Between the 2 of them, they performed an air restart and were able to land with power. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen whether you’re ready for it or not. That’s why I placed the Emergency Procedures lesson at the beginning of the Pre-Solo section of the PPLH Syllabus. But before a student starts doing the EPs in flight, I think there’s a lot more preparation that’s needed.

This goes back to primacy: learn it the right way the first time, because that first time holds a special place in our brains. Why make the first impression at 500 AGL, when the 20-or-so hour pilot is just getting confident and comfortable in controlling the aircraft during normal flight? I think the first step is making sure the knowledge is there, and that takes a solid ground lesson where the instructor can quiz the student. You also have the luxury of being able to discuss the reasons why the EP is the way it is, and the instructor can correct any mistakes right away. With the Rote and Understanding parts out of the way, you can move on to Application in the cockpit. Why do that at $2++/hr though? Make time to get in a helicopter that isn’t flying–either with or without an instructor–and practice. What would this emergency look like? Where should my hands go? What happens when I lean over to fumble for that circuit breaker? What’s the easiest way to get my vent open without going aerobatic? Yes, you will look retarded doing this alone…best to have an instructor with you so you can share the shame.

Now, the other thing I didn’t fully appreciate was the degree to which an instructor can and should simulate EPs. At the Robinson Safety Course, one of the instructors goes into what he does. He doesn’t go into the specifics to the point where, after listening to him, I’d feel good about taking a student out and trying it. For example, in the EP for an electrical fire, you kill the battery and the alternator. The tachs still function, but the governor and Low Rotor RPM system don’t. According to this guy, the loss of those systems is under-appreciated by most of his students, and he ends up having to point out the degrading RPMs to them. I would have been one of them–during my training, I would simulate flipping the switches, but never actually did it. Sitting here at home, I know what happens and why, but I would have puzzled over those sinking RPMs if it’d happened to me for real.

Onto a related topic. I’ve gotten a good bit of positive feedback on this site so far–all through email and PMs, but nobody’s fully taken advantage of the interactive nature of this site. That’s why I have added and opened up the Emergency Procedures lesson plan for editing. This is a weak one for me, and I think the lesson that I have up is sorely inadequate. So, how did you learn EPs? What precautions do you have in place? How do you simulate EPs?

p.s. After looking at the Emergency Procedures lesson plan, take a look back at this post on VR about fire extinguishers and electrical fires.