A few days ago Roselyn and I decided to make a snap decision to fly from Moorabbin down to Phillip Island just south-east of Melbourne to visit some friends. Since it was at the last minute the place I normally higher my aircraft from didn’t have any available so I ended up sourcing an old Piper Archer elsewhere.
We arrived to pick up the plane and found that the daily inspection hadn’t been signed off despite the plane being taken up earlier in the morning. After sorting this out I did my normal checks and discovered that one of the fuel tanks was almost bone dry while the other was half full. So much for fuel management by the previous pilot!
We had the plane refueled, drained the tanks and all was OK so in we jumped to head down to Phillip Island. Being an old plane I soon discovered that there were things in it that were, well, old! For example, other than turning the second radio off I couldn’t work out how to actually stop listening to it. This was highly annoying while listening to take-off clearances etc.
Since the plane was so old you could no longer read what half the switches were marked as and the controls felt incredibly loose compared to the 2003 models I was used to flying. Not to mention the fact that our son Timothy jumped in the back and had his headphones ready to plug in only to discover there was nothing to plug into. Oh well, it was only a 30 minute flight.
After run-ups we followed another plane to the holding point and sat and sat and sat waiting for the pilot in front to do his read call. It got to the point where I was wondering if I should turn off my engine while I waited for him to get read! Finally he made his call was given take-off clearance and the tower asked me to immediately follow him (I think that they were a bit frustrated with the pilot’s delay as well).
It just so happened that the plane in front was also headed for Phillip Island. I made the decision to drop my direct flight plan and give the other plane a wide berth and asked my wife to make sure that she kept an I eye on them. I view it that its better to give a pilot that you are a little nervous about lots of room for any mistakes that they or you may make.
We landed at Phillip Island with the help of a useful radio call suggesting the best runway by the scenic helicopter business. It was only my fourth time landing on dirt so I made sure that I was really light on the brakes (didn’t want to skid the plane) and kept the plane moving the whole time to avoid picking up stone with the propeller.
We parked the plane on the grass shut everything down and were picked up by our friends. After a great lunch and afternoon tea we headed back to the airport and I offered to take our friends up for a flight around the island. After checking the aircraft out we climbed, shouted “clear prop”, turned the key and nothing other than a very lame attempt at the engine trying to turn over. I yelled, “clear prop” again and still nothing. I felt like I was in the Mellenium Falcon in the movie Empire Strikes back......just nothing was happening!
We obviously had a flat battery. I ran over to the helicopter guys and asked them if they could jump start me. They asked if the battery was 12 or 24 volts.......hmmmm......I’d better check. Not only that, I’d better check where the battery was actually located (didn’t tell them that)!
Thank goodness for the dustry pilot operating handbook (POH). We often take for granted silly little things like ensuring that the handbook is onboard, we have a current medical and license with us etc but when you need it you’re glad it’s there.
The POH said the battery was 12 volts and located in the back behind the storage area. This is when I remembered that prior to take-off the back panel had been removed and left lose in the storage area. Maybe the previous pilot had trouble with the battery as well and didn’t report it?
Since the plane was 12 volts, one of the helicopter guys drove the car around and we removed the cover off the batter enough so that the terminals were exposed and jump started the plane. The engine roared to life and the ammeter showed a strong positive charge. Yes, a dead battery and there was nothing wrong with the alternator.....all good signs.
This is where it gets a little tricky. I obviously cancelled the joyflight with my friends and very carefully my son and wife climbed onboard. It’s a little nerve racking having a moving prop and loved ones carefully embarking an aircraft. You can never be too careful.
We flew back to Moorabbin without incident other than me being fixated on the ammeter that is. I reported everything that had happened to where I hired the plane from and they were pretty relaxed about everything.
So what did I learn from this experience? The first thing I learnt is that when you fly an old strange aircraft for the first time take a little more time familiarizing yourself with the controls. For example, it was a surprise when the modern transponder didn’t automatically turn on when I powered up. This is the case for every plane I’ve flown.
Secondly, always read out your checks off a checklist. Memory is great but it can fail. Read the checks and physically touch the control/switch to ensure that you have done it. This is how I picked up the transponder being still off at the Moorabbin holding point. PISTAR – T is transponder set to ALT.....hmmmmm......transponder is OFF! Turn transponder ON and set it to ALT.
Thirdly, always check that the POH is onboard. Don’t assume that it’s behind the seat. Check that it’s really there. Make this a part of your checks prior to getting to the run-up bay.
Fourthly, jump starting a plane isn’t hard when you have really helpful people like the chopper guys at Phillip Island. I didn’t have any cash on me at the time but they can be assured that a slab of beer will be coming their way.