Saturday, November 30, 2013

Another One Bites the Dust...

                                          Photo by Andrew Milligan


EC135T2 Police Helicopter Crashes Through Roof of NightClub

Rescuers worked through the night and into Saturday morning to rescue an unknown number of people trapped inside a Scottish pub after a police helicopter crashed through its roof during a packed concert, causing numerous casualties.
Police said early Saturday 32 people were taken to hospitals across Glasgow after the incident at The Clutha pub in the city center. No fatalities had been reported.
"We are working hard to recover people still inside the building and we will make further details available when we have them," Dep. Chief Constable Rose Fitzpatrick said in a statement.
She said police and air-safety investigators have begun inquiries, but that it is too early to say why the Eurocopter EC135 T2 helicopter — carrying two police officers and a civilian pilot — came down.
Authorities said they had made contact with people still inside The Clutha, where a ska band was performing when the helicopter came down. Search and rescue dogs were on the scene, along with more than 100 firefighters.

Witnesses spoke of people streaming out of the building covered in blood, with gashes and other injuries.
"Given an incident of this scale we must all prepare ourselves for the likelihood of fatalities," Scotland's leader, Alex Salmond, said on his official Twitter account.
The crash Friday at around 10:30 p.m. local time sent dozens of patrons fleeing through a cloud of dust.
Asst. Chief Officer Lewis Ramsay with the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service said teams — including 125 firefighters on the scene — were working to stabilize the building and get people out.

As dawn broke, firefighters clambered on to the collapsed roof and pulled tarps over the wreckage of the helicopter. There was no word on the fate of those aboard.
Grace MacLean, who was inside the pub at the time, said she heard a "whoosh" noise and then saw smoke.
"The band were laughing, and we were all joking that the band had made the roof come down," she told the BBC. "They carried on playing, and then it started to come down more, and someone started screaming, and then the whole pub just filled with dust. You couldn't see anything, you couldn't breathe."
Retired firefighter Edward Waltham said he ran into the pub to help rescuers, and found on man covered in dust and apparently badly injured.
"My initial reaction for him from my experience was to try not to move him because he had been in a crush situation," Waltham told BBC News. "But as we were lying there other people were literally being pulled out of the pub and more or less thrown on top of us. "People formed a human chain to help pass unconscious people out of the pub so that "inch by inch, we could get the people out," said Labour Party spokesman Jim Murphy, who was in the area when the helicopter came down.
"The helicopter was inside the pub. It's a mess. I could only get a yard or two inside. I helped carry people out," Murphy told Sky News. "I saw a pile of people clambering out of the pub in the dust. No smoke, no fire, just a huge amount of dust."

The twin-engined Eurocopter is widely used by police and ambulance services.

In 2007, a Eurocopter EC135 T2 crashed in southern England. The pilot and his wife were unhurt, but the aircraft was badly damaged. Britain's Air Accidents Investigation Branch said there had been a failure of the autotrim system which maintains the aircraft's position. The agency recommended changes to correct the problem.

Reported by the Associated Press at NPR.org

Coincidentally, I was making an approach in a single engine helicopter recently (the one in the story was a twin-engine aircraft), and as I approached the over-water helipad I sized up the available forced-landing areas (if my one motor had quit - we would have been "forced to land" to an area - for all intents and purposes - between our feet. I asked the medic, "how strong do you think the ER roof is?" 

"It's pretty strong, I see people walking on it." 

"Do you think it would support this helicopter?"


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Unsung Heroes...

Bobby Mordenti showed up at the hangar today, looking no worse for the wear. Amazing, considering what happened to him a few weeks ago. He was standing on a ladder, waxing the tail boom of  his aircraft, and fell. The ladder made a racket - thank-goodness - and the firefighter-medics here at the base went to see what was going on. One of them began treatment and the other came running inside to get more stuff and call for help. Bobby was out-cold on the concrete, with a plate-sized circle of blood coming from the split in his head.


Bobby has been a "wrench" for longer than some of his pilots have been alive. When speaking with him, a sense of camaraderie develops quickly. Hangar talking is good stuff - a pilot who asks questions and listens can learn something. Decades ago, Bobby sailed his boat to Charleston, South Carolina for a job as the mechanic for an EMS helicopter there; the Medical University of South Carolina's MeducareAir. When he was getting tied up at the dock, a kid working at the marina named Jess Perry helped him. They struck up a friendship, and Jess ended up going to Embry-Riddle and getting his Airframe and Powerplant certificate.

Jess was in Savannah maintaining a BK-117 when I showed up in 2000, after fleeing a Pennsylvania winter. We worked together four years. For years after I left, I would call and ask his advice about this or that happening with a helicopter, and he never complained or griped - he just kept giving up the gouge.  Jess spent twenty or so years himself as the LifeStar-Savannah mechanic, and did a wonderful job keeping a great ship in the air.

Jess now lives a "normal" life working for Gulfstream. I can't say that I blame him. A HEMS mechanic's life is grinding. They are on-call 24 hours a day, with perhaps one or two weekends off a month; by that I mean away from the base with the pager turned off. For the privilege of having a day off, they are usually responsible to cover another mechanic's base so that guy or gal can have a day off - it reminds me of the old HEMS pilot's "Chinese Vacation." If the helicopter god's are angry, and both ships break, there is hell to pay.

I don't know how they do it, these "knuckle-busting" trouble-shooting quiet-professionals. They have to get the aircraft exactly right every time or else, in the face of constant pressure for more in-service time. Now days scheduled-maintenance has to be performed during the hours when flight requests are least likely - this is when most humans are sleeping - and this mid-night labor often occurs out in the open on an exposed helipad; by flashlight. And guys still sign up to do it. When vendors had hospitals as customers, this wasn't how things were done. Maintenance was understood to be part of aviation, and it was done as required and when required - rarely in the middle of the night by a single mechanic out in the open. What kind of signal do we send to mechanics about their value to the organization when we treat them with so little regard? When we make a job so distasteful that the best and brightest, like Jess Perry, leave the workspace, what does that leave us with? How deep into the labor pool will we have to dip before we scrape the bottom?

With the advent of community-based operations, the aviation-services-vendors have become their own worst customers, demanding things that, in the past, would not have flown. And the mechanics have suffered.

I wonder why we don't make more of a fuss about the guys (and gals?) who keep our butts alive by providing us safe aircraft to fly. We have our professional organizations, and they recognize the Nurse or Medic or Pilot "of the year" but never have I seen a mechanic's face in a trade publication being honored for the huge part they play in a successful HEMS enterprise. Maybe it's time for AMMA. The Air Medical Mechanics Association... What the hell? All the other groups have their alphabet clubs.

They are kind of like bass players or drummers in a rock-star band. We couldn't do this business without them, but they toil in the background, unseen, unheard, and largely unappreciated. They receive polite applause, because it's obligatory. But they are never recognized for being the absolute rock-solid foundation upon which safe aviation operations stand. When Omniflight Helicopter's owners decided to do away with their own ability to fix helicopters - it spelled the end of the company.

Maybe times are changing.

There is a new breed of mechanic coming along now, and they are too smart and too cool to stay in the shadows. One is a young fellow named John Janiszewski. John decided to highlight the fact that "wrenches" are indeed "rock stars" and created a company selling Aircraft Mechanic Shirts (and other cool stuff).

                                         Photo from http://www.aircraftmechanicshirts.com/
                                         Property of John Janiszewski

He creates shirts and other items that make clear how much we need a good mechanic to fly sick people - indeed to fly at all. On top of this, John is a working HEMS mechanic, maintaining a helicopter on the line. When you go to Johns online "store" be sure and check out his blog post about using social media to enhance your business. I did, and it makes perfect sense. He is a real guy, with a bunch of real good products, and you can actually speak with him.

For a neat little video about John and his company, click here!

That young man's going places...

And maybe - thanks to people like John - and his products - we can bring  bring  mechanics out of the background - to the front of the stage. Like the rock stars they are!

                               Photo courtesy of Mike Harrington. Flight Engineer, Crew Chief,
                               Helicopter Mechanic!

safe flights...

Sunday, November 10, 2013

What if?

Dennis was excited.

This was going to be his first ever patient-loaded instrument flight in the beautiful helicopter he had recently been hired to fly. As his base had just stepped up to instrument-flight-rules (IFR) capability, everyone was still learning - but he felt confident in his ability to get the aircraft, crew, and patient to their destination under IFR as the sole pilot. He had just completed an IFR flight from his base in Charleston to this little hospital in Sumter, using the precision lateral and vertical guidance provided by the instrument-landing-system  (ILS) at Shaw Air Force Base, conveniently situated near the hospital. After breaking out of the clouds on the glide slope, he had cancelled his instrument clearance and proceeded under visual-flight-rules (VFR- able to see out the windows) the short distance to the hospital. With the only IFR helicopter in the region, Dennis understood that business was going to pick up when weather conditions went down and prevented the VFR helicopters in the area from flying.

The medical crew was down in the hospital picking up the patient, a 54 year old man who needed to go the heart hospital in Columbia to have his pipes cleaned. Years of a fat-rich southern diet had slathered deposits all over his heart's supply tubes; the ones that, in a healthy person allow a flow of blood to provide oxygen and energy to the heart's muscle tissues.

The flight-assignment was ready-made for an IFR-capable helicopter. While the ceiling was low at 800 feet above the ground;, underneath visibility was excellent at more than six miles. The temperature was sixty degrees Fahrenheit, so icing would not be a factor at the planned altitude of 4000 feet. The atmosphere was stable, with no convective activity observed or forecast. Winds aloft would not create turbulence, and none was forecast.

Dennis' training had been typical for his industry. His employer had a training program that met with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requirements, while not being extraordinarily expensive. The HEMS industry is relatively low-paying, and has high turnover, so a large part of any operator's budget is spent on initial training. Training first focuses on operating a "normal" aircraft in visual conditions both day and night, then deals with emergency situations and aircraft malfunctions. Once the new pilot has mastered the aircraft and can deal with malfunctions, he or she is given some time to gain operating experience and learn on-the-job. After six months or so; if the program operates under IFR, the new pilot's instrument-flight training takes place. Pilots are taught how to plan and prepare for flight under Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC) in a time-compressed situation. Steps that might take a few hours are distilled down to what can be accomplished in about fifteen minutes, allowing a launch within twenty-five or thirty.

The "E" in "HEMS" is for Emergency. The clock is ticking.

A laminated flow-chart is often used as a checklist to make sure that no planning-steps gets missed, like fuel required, primary and alternate destination-weather requirements versus current and forecast conditions; and notices-to-airmen about the condition of the departure, destination, and alternate airports and their instrument landing equipment. Plan complete, the pilot normally calls a flight service station and files the proposed flight plan. With the plan on file, the next step is determining how the actual clearance from Air Traffic Control will be obtained. If the location allows communication with ATC by radio, that method can be used. If not, a clearance to enter controlled airspace under IFR can be obtained over the phone, which means ATC saves the airspace around the departure location for the exclusive IFR use of  the departing aircraft until it can be picked up on radar, positively identified, and have any needed changes to routing or altitude transmitted and received. Because phone clearances tie up vast sections of airspace, their life is limited, with a "clearance-void" if not off (the departure airport or heliport) within ten minutes or so.

Dennis' crew walked up the ramp, and with the help of the hospital's security guard, they loaded the patient into the back of the aircraft. Dennis stood back and made sure that the doors were closed correctly, verified that no seat-belts or straps were hanging out, checked the latches all the way around the aircraft, he even dropped down and looked underneath for leaks or anything amiss. Then he strapped in, his mind miles ahead of the aircraft. He knew that, like marriage, IFR is easier to get into than out of. An aircraft departing visual conditions for flight in the clouds goes from being able to see out the window and what's coming to being "blind." Once in the clouds, a transition back to visual conditions often requires a descent, and places the aircraft near hard things like towers, buildings, terrain, and even other aircraft flying visually and not under air traffic control. While going into the clouds can occur almost anywhere, getting out of them safely is a different story.

Dennis started both engines of the aircraft, and performed the functional checks of the autopilot and other systems. He notified his communications center that he was preparing to depart, and would be talking to and flight-following with ATC;  and that for the duration of the flight the medical crew would handle com-center calls. Because Shaw is so close to the hospital, Dennis was able to call the tower directly and announce his intentions to take off. He asked for his clearance over the radio, holding his pencil over his knee-board upon which was a sheet of paper with the letters C R A F T printed down the left margin, as the mnemonic for "clearance limit, route of flight, altitude enroute, frequency for departure, and transponder squawk code."

"ATC clears Medevac helicopter November 12345 to Columbia Downtown airport via direct. Climb and maintain 2000 feet, expect 4000 feet 10 minutes after departure. Departure frequency will be 1 2 5 point 4. Squawk six five six two. On departure maintain heading 135 degrees to stay clear of the Shaw final approach course,   Shaw winds are 180 degrees at six knots, altimeter two nine eight six. Take-off will be pilot's own risk; area not visible from the tower.  Shaw using runway two two right..."

Dennis read back his clearance, once again verified that the aircraft's systems were normal, checked that the crew and patient were ready, and asked for help, "okay guys clear me all the way around and overhead and here we go."

Once airborne and turned to 135 degrees, Dennis pulled in power for a 1000 foot-per-minute climb at 100 knots airspeed. He had preset the heading and vertical-speed bugs, and when he coupled the autopilot to the flight controls he relaxed his grip but didn't let go completely until making sure that everything was going to work correctly. He felt a gentle movement through the aircraft as the system took over and then moved his hands away from the cyclic and collective, and set his feet on the floor. He had pre-selected 2000 feet as the level-off altitude, and knew that when the aircraft reached that altitude and stopped climbing,  it would accelerate to somewhere between 120 and 130 knots, which was just the speed he was looking for. They flew into the base of the clouds at 1000 feet on the pressure altimeter, so he made a mental note of the fact that the bases were around 800 feet above the ground, in case he had to come back, glancing at the radar altimeter to make sure all the numbers fit.

"Medevac copter 345 - Shaw tower - contact departure, good day sir."

"345, wilco."

Dennis had preset the departure frequency in the radio so all he had to do was press the flip-flop button and he was on the correct freq. He listened for a second to make sure the channel was clear, then transmitted,
"Shaw departure control, this is Medevac 'copter 12345, climbing through one thousand three hundred for two thousand. Heading 135 degrees."

"Medevac 345, Shaw departure; good morning. Climb and maintain four thousand, proceed on course direct Columbia Owens."

Dennis adjusted the target altitude to 4000 feet, and pressed the direct-to button on the Garmin, noted the new course to be flown, then considered whether to use the heading-bug to turn the aircraft or the NAV feature of the autopilot. It was at this instant that disaster struck.

Turbine engines produce incredible amounts of power from relatively small packages, by super-efficiently turning jet fuel into heat-energy. As part of this process, components rotate at extremely high rates, sometimes exceeding 60,000 revolutions per minute. A tremendous amount of heat, as much as nine times the boiling point of water, or  900 degrees centigrade, must be handled by lubrication systems and cooling airflow. As long as oil and air flow as designed, the engine screams contentedly and the rotors keep turning. Interrupt the flow of air or oil however, and a turbine won't go. It was ironic that the patient on this flight had a heart with small channels that were blocked; because the number two engine had the same sort of problem. Only the engine's blockage, caused by the repeated super-heating of lubrication oil and the residue left behind by a phenomenon called coking, wasn't starving a muscle of oxygen - it was starving a bearing of oil. As the lower oil line became more and more clogged over time, the amount of oil flowing to the bearing decreased. It was Dennis' bad luck that the instant when the lack of oil flow caused the bearing to overheat and seize - with a tremendous BANG - occurred when they were in the clouds.

An "occluded" oil line - coking, discovered prior to failure.

A coked bearing... discovered prior to failure.
Photo credit: http://www.bobistheoilguy.com/forums/ubbthreads.php?ubb=showflat&Number=2745290

While Dennis' training had prepared him to deal with an engine failure in visual conditions - when he could see the ground and where he needed to go, at no time had he been trained by his employer to deal with such an emergency while in the clouds. The terms "land as soon as possible" and "land immediately" take on a new flavor when one is in the clouds - and it tastes like copper on the tongue.

This is a shortcoming of the training provided to many EMS helicopter pilots flying under instrument flight rules in instrument conditions. Emergency procedures - like losing an engine (or both), or control of the fenestron, or a hydraulic boost system - are covered in class and practiced in a traffic pattern at an airport. This is part of the "VFR" training that all pilots receive. If we fly a helicopter IFR in IMC, we need to keep in mind that any of the malfunctions we prepare for in VFR conditions can happen to us while IMC. And we need to have a plan.

A simulator would be the best and safest way to prepare for this. Barring that, scenarios talked out while sitting in the aircraft, putting hands on the switches and knobs and controls that would actually be moved is better than ignoring the possibility that a problem might occur.

But what about Dennis?

He's cool.

The motor that seized blew up when it tried to stop turning from umptity-thousand RPMs all-at-once. The physics weren't right. Pieces of the motor flew off into the atmosphere, right through the engine-compartment cowlings and the rotor system.  Other pieces went right through the engine compartment fire-wall and fragged the good motor, which failed too. Dennis pushed down on the collective with gongs and bells and lights everywhere. And reverted back to his training.

"SHIT... HOLY SHIT!"  Both generators stopped making power, but the aircraft battery powered the panel and allowed him to keep flying by reference to his instruments. He checked the attitude, heading, airspeed -70 knots! 70 knots! -, and finally found the rotor RPM. It was above normal in the yellow range. "Screw it - leave it there," he thought, " I'd rather it be high than low."

The aircraft was making strange noises as it descended - quickly - but it was still flying - and he was still flying it.

"Shaw! 345! Mayday Mayday Mayday! We've lost both engines and are coming down - where's the airport?"

The voice of calm, "345 --- rrrroger,  I've got you sir - you are three quarters of a mile from the approach end of 4 left or 4 right - the airport is directly north of you now. Winds are 180 degrees at 4 knots, you are cleared to land."

"Okay guys, let's get the O's off, okay, the engines are not coming back;" his voice strained as he reached across to cut off fuel to each engine and blew the fire extinguisher bottles, "okay where are we? Okay 70 knots, rotors a little high, okay aircraft's in trim, somebody call the com-center for an ambulance (the medic had been talking to the com-center in one continuous stream of transmission since the first bang) - okay fly north, okay we can do this..."

The autorotation was different than Dennis was used to, he was on instruments instead of looking outside, and it occurred to him that this was a first-ever event. His brain was firing synaptic-contacts at light-speed, and he was thinking well ahead of the aircraft - as in "in a few seconds I am going to have to," as opposed to watching events happen to him."

They fell out of the belly of the clouds with the airport right where it was supposed to be. "YEAH BABY!" Dennis yelled. "Okay guys, seats, belts, doors, sterile cockpit!" When scared, we revert to our training. "We're ready in back!" Indeed the crew had never been so ready for a landing in their life.

Luck is a bitch. And then sometimes she isn't. Dennis rolled his eyes one last time across the instruments, thinking how strange it was to be flying with so many warning and caution lights lit up.

"Okay, we can do this, okay speed's good, okay we've got the runway, okay two hundred, okay one hundred, decel! fifty, okay here's some collective, hold her off, hold her off, level her up, okay cushion cushion cushion."

Dennis had no idea he was doing it, but he was speaking the exact same words that his instructor had spoken to him over and over during his flight training years before. And just as it had worked then, it worked now. The aircraft dropped smoothly onto the asphalt and slid down the runway, making a loud grinding sound that - truth be told - scared the new flight nurse worse than anything that had yet happened.

A fire truck pulled up alongside the right door - water cannon pointed right at them...

Our training should prepare us for real-world situations. Often it doesn't - it meets a requirement or checks a box. In the first Gulf War, I came under attack by missiles while flying from KKMC to Rafha at night under goggles. We fired flares in self-defense. The thought that went through my mind, as I waited for impact, was that I had never in my life seen a flare launched from an aircraft while wearing goggles. As a topic of discussion for your crew, consider how well  your training program prepares you for the different adverse situations you might encounter.

safe flights...

Update: to hear the audio record of a pilot having a dual engine failure click here

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Ice Ice Baby!

It's that time of year for ice on and in the aircraft. Last year, we in HEMS crashed a machine due to liquid water (rain) getting into the skyward facing engine air inlet - which was covered by a particulate (dirt) barrier.
As temps dropped throughout the night, the liquid turned to ice. The crew launched on a flight, and the ice underneath the filter broke loose and got sucked into the turbine a short time after takeoff. The ice destroyed the engine and the aircraft did not autorotate successfully.

A warm hangar would have helped...

A special notice about this is here...

While installing inlet covers is a pain, if a hangar is not available, and it is going to rain on your aircraft as the temperatures drop, it may be something to consider. We at this base are going to have to go out and run the aircraft each cold morning to defrost the blades, or suffer a delay upon activation for a ground run and visual check of the rotor blades. If there is frost on the cars in the parking lot, there is frost on the blades...

safe flights...

Friday, November 1, 2013

Fuelish Mistakes...

Complacency and Fuel Don't Mix...

Jet Fuel.

We use it everyday we work, take it largely for granted, and seldom consider how much trouble it has and will continue to cause. Every step of fuel's existence; production, distribution, dispensation, and consumption creates the chance for human factors or human failings to wreak havoc. Mayhem is waiting in the wings. Just when we think we have everything figured out, someone invents a new way to put bad fuel into a good aircraft, or put good fuel where it doesn't belong.  At best a flight is delayed or cancelled, at worst someone gets hurt or an aircraft gets destroyed.

I was doing some research a few years back, and stumbled across an account of a major fuel spill and accompanying lawsuit at a hospital - involving an aviation-services vendor, and the base mechanic. The fuel system at that location had an underground tank. The pump was situated so that people standing outside, especially with a running aircraft nearby, could not hear it. The mechanic fueled the aircraft and forgot to turn the pump off, so the hose remained pressurized, with only the valve in the nozzle to prevent fuel from flowing. Time passed, and the nozzle valve failed, and the pump did it's job and pumped about a thousand gallons of jet fuel all over the ground. The EPA fined the hospital hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the hospital... well, you can figure it out.

You can read about this event here...


A couple of weeks ago, I was fueling an aircraft in South Carolina. The base there has a small "portable" fuel tank sitting near their T-hangar at the nearby airport. This system has a smaller-than-normal nozzle, without the rubber-cap that is commonly used to prevent foreign objects from getting inside. As it was the first time using the system that day, I was required by company policy to both sump the tank - draining a small amount of fuel from the bottom of the tank into a bucket - and also to sample the flow from the nozzle. With my medic and nurse watching (we were talking about something important like women, or beer, or fishing) I dutifully pointed the little nozzle into the bucket and squeezed the handle.

Something "foreign" spat out along with the flow of fuel, and each of us blurted, "what's THAT?"  I let the foam clear and watched a tree-frog climb disgustedly from the fuel bucket and hop off to the showers, or where ever tree frogs go after swimming in jet fuel. If it hadn't been the first fueling of the day, and I hadn't checked the fuel into the bucket, that frog would have gone into our fuel tank...

Another incident similar to this happened to a friend of mine. They were flying from Columbia to Charleston South Carolina in a twin-engine BK-117, with two supply tanks being fed by transfer pumps in main tanks. As they rode along, the pilot noticed that the level in one of the supply tanks was dropping. What-the-hell?

There happened to be nurse sitting up front for this flight, instead of a medic, as it was an empty leg home and the nurses seldom had the chance. She watched with growing dismay as the emergency-procedure checklist was consulted, circuit-breakers were checked, and the main tank level was verified. The pump was "working," but the level in the tank was going down, and at empty an engine was going to quit. They were over a big swamp, and headed to the closest airport with a runway for a single-engine run-on landing. Most twins won't hover on one motor...

Inexplicably, just as they neared the Orangeburg airport, the level began to rise, and soon indicated topped-off.  "Let's go home," they said and flew on to their base. It wasn't until later that the zip-lock bag that someone had dropped into the fuel-tank and missed during final inspections was discovered floating around inside the main tank. When it sloshed up against the inlet hole for the pump, fuel stopped moving. This happened twice to this particular base which is why they knew what to look for.

Negative habit transfer: Many aircraft have airframe mounted (in addition to the filter built into the engine) fuel filters, and on some aircraft these filters are designed to be drained or purged each day, to allow water out. But not all filters are so designed. In one recent case, a pilot who had  transitioned from a Bell 206 and was used to draining his filter elected to drain the filter on his "new" aircraft. This allowed air to get into a space it shouldn't have, and resulted in an engine flame-out at a high-hover, and significant damage.

Speaking of the Bell 206 and it's filter, there is a sequence of steps used for this purging. I knew a pilot once who decided that the way the steps were written was dumb, because he routinely got fuel all over himself from the pressurized spray hitting the engine compartment deck and splashing up. He decided to change things up, and open the drain valve and then turn on the pump and let it flow. Only he got distracted one day and forgot to close the drain after turning off the pump. On his next flight, he flew from one platform in the Gulf of Mexico to another - thankfully very close - platform, at which an oilfield worker who was waiting for a ride commented on the steady stream of fuel draining from the aircraft as it came in to land...

Dumb. Dumb. Dumb. If the fuel boost-pumps mounted down in the fuel tank hadn't been putting more fuel into the filter housing than the engine was taking out, the engine would have sucked air and quit. Never deviate from an established procedure.

I did some work at a hospital in the mid-west once. I asked the guys there about sumping and sampling the fuel from the hospital's tanks, which were located well away from the dispensation point. "The mechanic takes care of that." I wonder how many times a pilot has taken it for granted that someone else is making sure the fuel going into the aircraft that he or she will soon climb into is actually clean and safe for use.

Day after day, when we take a sample and it comes out clean and bright, we are gradually reassured that our fuel procedures are okay, and if we miss a sample now and then, it won't matter. This is complacency trying to kill you. Perhaps the best scenario is when the base mechanic drives a diesel powered car or truck. Then we know darn well that fuel is regularly being sumped and sampled...

Sumping the aircraft tanks is a pain in the back and knees. Maybe the aircraft didn't fly since yesterday, when you took a sample. All you have to do is rub the mark off the sample jar and change the date... But wait, are you absolutely sure no one tampered with the aircraft? Are you positive no suspended water (in the fuel) has settled to the bottom of the tank? Want to be your life on it?

My current employer requires a letter from anyone we buy fuel from verifying that they comply with established fuel handling procedures. Unfortunately, letter-not-withstanding we don't really know if they have checked the fuel in the truck or tank we are getting fuel from unless we watch them do it, which isn't practical. If they don't have a letter on file, we are required to perform a quality-check on the spot before allowing the fuel into our aircraft. I wonder if anyone has actually done this at an airport - asked for a white bucket and sumped the airport's truck and sampled the hose? Again, it's not really practical in the middle of a patient transport with the crew waiting at the hospital. One thing I always do, letter on file or not, is look the guy in the eye and ask him if HE checked the fuel that day. I want to hear it from his mouth. Draining some fuel from the aircraft after fueling is complete is another option for checking the quality. I have cut a plastic water-bottle in half, wiped it out, and checked the fuel after buying it from a place I deemed sketchy.

We use fuel every day we work, and it's always ok - but there was that time in Savannah when I pumped a mayo jar full of water and mud from the base's filter-vessel. Now that got my attention. I picked up the radio and called us out-of-service. Then I went underneath the BK with another jar.

Once, while flying in Pennsylvania, I slid underneath a backup BK that Keystone (the old Keystone - gone now) had issued us. I went to push up on the little belly-drain plunger. It resisted, because the aircraft had recently been painted, and over-spray got on the plunger. I pushed harder and up the plunger went, and fuel flowed into my coke bottle. Then I relaxed upward pressure on the plunger, and it stayed "in". And fuel continued to flow. There I was laying underneath a helicopter with my finger on the hole in the drain hollering for one of my crew members. The mechanic had to come in and drain the tank and rebuild the drain. It turned out that not one person had sumped the belly of that aircraft since it left the paint shop - and that had been a while.

Complacency and fuel don't mix.

safe flights