Trust your instincts : your very own, built-in Master Warning system
Nearly 30 years ago while suffering from sinusitis, I had been on a few days’ sick leave. The lessons I learned, from a premature return to my airline flight duties as a B737 Captain were well worthwhile : and well worth sharing. Sometimes, things just don’t feel quite right …
This is the fourth article in a planned occasional series, sharing some most memorable and treasured experiences. This one is also from my own career : We do plan to feature other, highly esteemed pilot friends and colleagues, who are only too willing to share their collective aviation experience. The crucial lessons that we learned along the way are just as valid today. They contribute, in no small way, to that intangible but essential quality known in aviation as ‘airmanship’.
After about 5 days off duty, I telephoned Australian Airlines’ crewing department and advised that I was fit for reserve duty ‘tomorrow’. The response, “Great, DJ, but it’s not reserve duty anymore: It’s a Melbourne-Sydney return (MEL-SYD-MEL), early tomorrow morning.”
In the middle of a course of antibiotics, I returned to our kitchen to help my wife prepare dinner and promptly sliced my thumb, instead of an onion! Four hours later, with a freshly-stitched and bandaged thumb, I rang crewing back and advised I was back on sick leave for one more day, feeling well able to commence a 2-day trip on the following morning.
Two mornings later, while I was driving out to Melbourne Airport, I realised that I’d forgotten to pack my anti-biotic tablets. ‘Oh well, it’s only a 2-day trip – bad luck‘, I thought.
After parking and making my way to the MEL terminal, I signed on and prepared to flight plan our first day’s flying: Melbourne-Adelaide-Alice Springs-Darwin (MEL-ADL-ASP-DRW). As I reached in my jacket pocket for my reading glasses, I realised that I’d left them at home, too. ‘Oh we’ll, we’re only flying 6 sectors over the 2 days and only one is at night‘, I reasoned. ‘I do have my second, tinted pair of sunglasses and my first officer can fly the last leg: I’ll just crank up my cockpit lighting!’
We completed and filed the flight plan, headed for the gate, to pre-flight our B737-300; we even managed to push back on time – a minor miracle of logistics, I always thought!
After some time after take-off, well-established in the climb, we both became aware of a somewhat disconcerting irregular and intermittent noise that seemed to emanate from outside and under the nose of the aircraft. I thought it sounded ‘mechanical‘, like the ground engineer’s access panel for the headphone socket; my FO thought it sounded more like some sort of odd electronic signal, coming from the cockpit aural warning speaker, situated on the side of the centre pedestal, between us, by his left knee. We couldn’t resolve the issue, either way. It certainly didn’t seem serious and we wrote it up in the aircraft technical log, for the engineers in ADL to assess.
After arrival and engine shut-down in ADL, my first question to the receiving engineer after he plugged in, was whether or not the access panel was open on arrival. It wasn’t, so we started exploring other possible causes of the unusual sound we had experienced. In the middle of that discussion, he asked us to confirm our fuel uplift for the next sector to Alice Springs. I gave him the figure from memory, without first confirming from our flight plan.
The penny dropped as we were completing our cockpit preparation, while our passengers were still boarding: I had given the engineer the wrong fuel figure. 8.00 tonnes, not 11.0, as planned. There were no weather considerations, but we had planned to carry Mount ISA, in Queensland, the then nearest alternate aerodrome, as Alice has just one usable runway. Many experienced pilots take this precaution, in such circumstances: it widens the options. I asked the FO to radio our company and request the refuellers back to top us up to 11.0 tonnes.
The first officer seemed reluctant to do so; I asked again. He said, “We’ll be delayed”. I replied, “I don’t care, I want the fuel“. He kept pushing: “But 8.00 tonnes is legal.” “But is it safe?”, I asked. He kept on resisting my request to call the company. We needed a circuit breaker.
I said, “Just give me a minute: I want to meditate.” “You want to WHAT?”, he asked. “I want to meditate.” I closed my eyes briefly, ignoring him and everything else, while I re-capped the day’s progress, so far. I’d left my tablets and my glasses at home, We still had the noise issue, unresolved by the engineers – and – I’d caused the wrong fuel figure to be loaded. After about 30 seconds, I opened my eyes and looked at my watch. It wasn’t even 0900 hrs.
The B737 Master Warning light would not have been any clearer than the instinctive message I had received: I turned to my FO and asked of him, “How many events does it take to create a decent incident, or even an accident?” “Oh, say 5-7?”
“That’s right”, I said, “We are already up to 4: Do you want to try for 5, or 6? I’m not enjoying today, so far. Now, are you familiar with the term, ‘Command Decision’?” “Yes, of course”, he said. “Well mate, this is one of them. Now please – call the company – I want that fuel.” We had to wait ages for the tanker to return and we finally departed about 17 minutes late, self-chastened, but feeling much more comfortable. The paperwork could wait until later. (The unusual ‘noise’ issue was never actually resolved by the engineers – but neither did it re-occur on the subsequent 2 sectors.)
The leg above the Simpson Desert to Alice Springs was clear and as beautiful as ever and we commenced our descent into Alice.
This is absolutely true: As we passed through 7000 ft at about 25nm out and still at 300kts IAS, the Tower controller called us and asked, “What’s your fuel endurance (fuel remaining, expressed in minutes), right now?” My FO responded (- we had plenty of fuel to hold and/or to divert to ISA). “Oh, that’s good”, replied the controller, “Because we have a disabled aircraft on the runway, right now.”
The expression on my FO’s face was incredulous. “How did you know that was going to happen“, he asked, “Because you did know, didn’t you?” I replied, “No, I couldn’t have known that a Piper Navaho light twin was going to blow a main gear tyre on landing, but the signs were there, that something along those lines was bound to happen. They just stood out, like that Master Warning red light can.”
We had to hold above Alice Springs for about 50 minutes, so we took the opportunity to do some scenic flying around Alice and the famed McDonnell Ranges in the ‘red centre’, while engineers worked to remove the disabled Navaho from the runway, so we could land. A rival company’s B727, behind us and still well south of Alice, didn’t have any extra fuel to hold and had to return to Adelaide.
On shut-down, the company Traffic Officer boarded and she commented, “We saw the ‘delayed-departure-Captain-wanted-more-fuel’ report in the computer and wondered, ‘What’s he want more fuel for? There’s not a cloud in the sky! Then, we learned about the runway being closed. How did you know that was going to happen, because it hadn’t, at the time of your departure?”
There was nothing concrete that had warned me of that impending event.
I didn’t need it: My instincts had arced up, after I had recognised the way in which the pattern of our day was unfolding. I was far from comfortable, so I insisted on recovering the situation with something that you can never have too much of: Fuel (- unless, of course, you are on fire!) Our original, flight-planned fuel figure was well researched, as it turned out.
The clear message is: ‘Learn to trust your instincts‘. They are an invaluable and innate Master Warning System: Something we were all born with. They cost nothing and they do work.
Sometimes, things just don’t feel quite right … it may well be that they’re not.
You can practise developing them further, by applying them as a cross-check of your more conscious thought processes, such as when ordering from a restaurant menu. (How many times have you had an initial instinctive impulse to order a dish, ignored it and then lived to regret it?)
The other great and obvious take-out for me, from this day, was ‘do not return to flying duties (or any critical work) from sick leave, until you have fully recovered‘.
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