ILAFFT - how a precautionary measure helped to potentially save two lives
I Learned About Flying From That: a student and his instructor make a precautionary landing, discovering afterwards that it was just as well they acted as quickly as they did
It was a cold day in February and after a small layoff waiting for the right weather, I was due a mock PPL test with our deputy CFI, Tim — an intense Welshman. He had taken my first few lessons, several months previously and admonished me for only two things: calling him ‘Sir’ and paying lip service to checks. Upon such things is the rapport between master and apprentice built, and we had a positive relationship.
Checks complete and with the de-mist and heating both on, given the frosty morning, my first task was a short-field takeoff. Keen to impress, I was absorbed in my mental drills. Full power… revs governing, Ts and Ps in the green, release brakes! Airspeed alive… lighten the nosewheel… 52 knots; rotate! Seventy knots, in balance… 200ft AGL, set 77 knots… I was just mentally preparing to turn onto our local departure when my reverie was shattered by an innocent sounding question from Tim: “Was this like that before?”
I looked over at an outstretched finger indicating the carbon monoxide detector, mounted amongst the secondary instruments on the far right-hand panel. You’ll recognize the one, a plastic rectangle with a red disc in the centre — only the red disc was now black. Gulp. I knew it should be red as I’d just become a landlord and took the requirement to install carbon monoxide detectors seriously, enough so to source the very same detector for my tenants. I blinked again. This was the same detector I’d checked five minutes previously and the same aircraft that I knew had an exhaust weld repair a month ago. I must have gasped: “It wasn’t like that before, no!”
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Tim took control immediately and asked me to request a return from ATC. I jumped on the button without considering my words and could have almost died sooner of embarrassment than asphyxiation at my phraseology. Something clumsy about a requirement for an imminent landing being needed. We shut off the cabin heating and opened all the air vents. I was discovering I somehow had the mental capacity to consider the options, although without the vigilant assessor aboard I’d have continued unaware until losing consciousness and inventing a novel method of ploughing up a field somewhere.
ATC offered us the reciprocal runway with a calm wind, which we accepted. Tim improvised a perfect teardrop and a perfect touchdown, told me to open up the canopy and gave me control again. I taxied in, just as I’d done many times before, and shut down. It didn’t register at that moment, but was pointed out later by those of sounder mind exactly how I’d parked: about twenty degrees out of alignment, with the flaps still down. We both felt slightly ruffled by the experience but I was convinced we’d done the right thing. Two attempts later at writing up the defect in the logbook and we knew that we’d done the right thing; neither of us being able to string together even a simple written sentence. Meanwhile, the detector had now returned to its original shade, depriving us of any evidence to corroborate the saga.
Tim and I debriefed, agreeing an enforced day off for both of us, so I was home by lunchtime, twiddling my thumbs. I felt a bit strange, but put that down to the ridiculously early start to defrost both car and aircraft. I was used to the inevitable flight cancellations and tech defects by now, but a comment from a friend put me back on guard: “Are you alright? Your cheeks are burning.” What else to do but consult Google?
Carbon monoxide acts as a tissue asphyxiant that produces hypoxia at both sea level and altitude. It has a 256-times greater affinity for bonding with haemoglobin than oxygen, so it greatly reduces oxygen transport in the body. It is a colourless, odourless gas that should be suspected whenever exhaust odours are detected. Symptoms include nausea, dizziness and a rosy hue that masks an otherwise unhealthy pallor.
I’d heard enough and rang my local GP. He performed a simple blood haemoglobin check that returned a normal result and then proceeded to read me the results of his Google search on the very same thing I’d just taught myself an hour ago. I learned later that Tim (a six-foot three, 100kg, rugby player by the way) had been hospitalized, spending time on the receiving end of a medicinal oxygen cylinder. He called me that evening to see how I was doing. I appreciated the thought and was certainly faring better than him. We later discovered ‘unofficially’ that the cause was a hole in the exhaust manifold on his side. As for the aerial gas-trap; it was exiled to the local engineering hangar for the remainder of that week.
True to form, my recovery period coincided with the only fair days of that week, so I watched a short layoff become a much longer one. Having a consultancy background with experience of safety management on construction sites, I was surprised that the whole incident was brushed off with no further mention or even a reminder of practice or policy on the use of carbon monoxide detectors. I later found there was no club policy and many of the fleet didn’t even have them.
That was the last time I flew without a re-wiring of my own mental SOPs to include regular checks of the CO detector. I still find myself shaking my head in disbelief when reading similar stories in the local paper: last summer, a local family struggled with a barbeque on a wet day and retreated to their garage to complete it. Several were hospitalized and one died. Fast-forward many years and I found myself in charge of a jet with a first officer who had his own version of the same saga. I learned that the incidence of carbon monoxide poisoning had become so frequent that the whole fleet of aircraft was replaced, ostensibly for other reasons… but that was another story.
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