Thursday, April 12, 2012

We're Out of ice, Captain.

“Pacific 423, Medford Tower, you are cleared for takeoff.

It’s the Captain’s leg and late in the afternoon. Somehow we’ve ended up in Medford, Oregon, picking up a load of unhappy passengers whose day has been spoiled by nasty winter weather and delays on the system.The Captain sets the power and we climb out on course for San Francisco and into the ‘clag’. 

I’m a very new co-pilot with Pacific Airlines and am wary of saying too much or adding any suggestions to the Captain’s style or skill. Co-pilots are on probation for the first year and a bad report from the Left Seat can bring my budding airline career to a swift end.

“Pacific 423, you are cleared to climb to and maintain 11 Thousand. Contact Oakland Center one two seven point seven at Fort Jones. G’day.”

The Martin Four O Four is not a new airplane; it’s a twin-engine DC Three replacement built in the mid-Fifties. It has a very reliable engine and no bad habits like its predecessor, the Martin Two O Two that in its formative years had a nasty habit of losing its wings and falling from the sky with a load of thirty-five passengers and crew. Many of the larger U.S. carriers bought the Martin but have since replaced it with turbo props like the F-27 or kept their Convair 340s while they wait for their Douglas DC 9’s or Boeing 737’s to leap into the jet age.

Over the Siskiyou Mountains we are in clouds at our cruise altitude. The highest elevation below us is about 7,500 feet, but the weather does not make for a smooth ride. There is light turbulence and the Martin has no autopilot; the stewardess moving up and down the single aisle serving drinks causes the only change to our center of gravity, but it keeps us alert.Ice collects on the windshield.

“Let’s have the wing heat and watch the Carb Air Temp,” says the Captain.

 What he means is that I should switch on the wing heaters to melt any ice gathering on the leading edge and monitor the temperature indicators to maintain warm air entering the carburetors. If necessary, I will adjust the Carburetor Heat levers on the control pedestal between us. I must also monitor the cylinder head temperatures to ensure they stay in a normal range. The airplane I flew in the Air Force had the same engines and carburetors and this is a routine task.

The captain’s hands move to the pedestal to adjust the throttle setting. He glances at the Fuel Flow Meters. The fuel flow is increasing as he watches. The BMEP gauges are reflecting a decreasing engine power output. The Carb Air Temp is still decreasing.

“More carb heat” says the Captain. 

The engines are rapidly picking up a heavy load of ice that, if not melted can cause engine failure.I increase the carb heat and that causes a further drop in engine power. I turn on the wing lights and check the wing leading edge. Some ice is forming but not enough to cause a loss of lift. Our only problem is the engines and we don’t seem to have a solution.

There’s an old story about the Luck Bucket and the Experience Bucket:When you start flying, you are given a bucket full of luck. If things go badly and you don’t have a solution, you dip into the Luck Bucket and use some. But you must remember to replace it with experience because when you’re out of luck, all you have left is experience.

Even though the Mixture Control levers are in manual lean, the engine fuel flows continue to increase and like an auto engine, this will flood the engines and they will quit. The Captain and I are searching in the Experience Bucket. His tells him to lean out the engines, make them to backfire and blow out the ice. This is his DC-3 experience. Mine tells me that we must decrease the fuel flow just like my Air Force C-118.We both reach to further reduce the Mixture Control levers at the same time but for a different reason. The effect is the same. The engines do not backfire but the fuel flow decreases and the engines regain power.

A knock on the cockpit door and the stew enters.“We’re out of ice for drinks.”I point to the cockpit window.

“Jane, why don’t you pop outside and get some from off our windshield?”

She gives me a puzzled look and retreats to the cabin.

The captain laughs and breaks the tension.

Later as I wait for the bus outside Pacific’s new Headquarters lugging my Samsonite bag and a heavier bag full of charts and manuals, the Captain pulls up in his new sports car.

“I’m headed south, need a lift?”

“Yeah, thanks.”

Bags aboard, we head south; he’s headed for his Palo Alto Eichler rambler and Scotch, I to my stucco ranch-burger next to Bayshore and a beer. First Year co-pilots take home pay is $395 and it makes more sense for my wife to stay at home, look after the kids and keep a tight budget.

.“Hi honey, I’m home.”

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