We planned to do our first night flight this week, and try to knock out about half of our required night landings here before the time changes, when you don’t have to stay up so late to get night flight in. John got called away for a work trip, though, so since his dual flights were canceled, that left the plane available for several slots on those days, and he said I could do another solo flight if I wanted. The new factor this time would be that he wouldn’t be at the airport at all. Knowing the power of habit, and that anyone can make a mistake, I’ve always treated my preflights as important and consequential, but even still, you always know in the back of your mind that the instructor has done this already too and made sure that everything is safe. This trip, the preflight wouldn’t just be a formality, and John wouldn’t be there at the field to radio for advice if I got into a tight spot. Of course that made me nervous, but I pulled out my tried and true method of meeting fear with preparedness. In the two days before the flight, I planned a route to fly over a local landmark, decided its (relatively low) risks were still too high for a low-time solo flight, and planned a different route that would just be a quick jaunt out over Athens then back to the pattern for several touch-and-go landings. The night before, I started checking the local aviation forecasts to see if the weather still looked good, and checked every few hours right up until I left for the airport. On the drive to the airport I went through and overcame the butterflies I’ve come to expect when I’m about to take a next step: that feeling that tells me I should call the whole thing off right now.
John has a couple of other students who are signed off for solo flights right now, and one of them had just landed when I arrived at the airport. The engine was still hot. I watched the line crew top off the plane with fuel, preflighted, manhandled the plane over to the startup spot, and climbed inside.
Aside from being my third solo, I was also excited about this flight because I planned, for the first time since my discovery flight, to shoot some video for YouTube. With no one else there to be waiting on me while I fussed with a camera, I could take the time to finally find a good spot to mount a GoPro in the Cheetah (not an easy feat with its highly curved windshield and sliding canopy) and figure out how to set up the wires to capture the headset audio. I got it all set up and started my checklist.
* Seat, check.
* Seatbelts, check.
* Control lock, check.
* Lights, check.
* Prime: hmmm, that didn’t feel quite normal. Let me try that again…no, still didn’t feel normal.
At this point my radar is up.
* Mixture, throttle, carb heat, master switch, check check check check.
* Fuel pump: now why didn’t the fuel pressure needle move?
I turned the fuel pump on and off several times. I could hear it running, but the needle was just stuck at 2.5 PSI. Never went to zero, never went up to 5 where it should have. I tried some mild percussive maintenance (thumping the gauge), but it didn’t budge.
At this point I was pretty sure I was going to call off the flight. With only 16 or 17 hours in this plane (or in any plane for that matter), I don’t know its idiosyncrasies well enough to be taking chances, and John wasn’t around to ask. That gauge never got stuck like that during any previous preflight, and the primer was never so easy to move before. Still, I decided to go ahead and start the engine, if nothing else to see if that made the needle move at all, because it might be useful info to pass along to John. The engine started right up, ran fine, but no movement on the fuel gauge. The other student had flown the plane just minutes before and reported no problems, but it looked like I’d pulled the short straw today. So I shut the engine off, packed the camera back up, chocked the wheels, and stifled my disappointment.
Ever since I decided to learn to fly, I’ve been reading anything aviation-related that I can get my hands on. A common theme in books, magazines and training materials is the mission-focused pilot, who succumbs to external pressure or get-there-itis and makes a fatal mistake to fly when the plane or the weather were trying to tell him not to do it. I’m a pretty mission-focused guy myself, so I’ve been steeling myself for the day I’d have to make the call not to fly because something didn’t feel right. Today, there was no real external pressure, just my own excitement about getting to fly on my own and take some video, so as disappointing as it was, it was pretty easy to say “Not today”. After I’d left the airport and it was too late to fly for the day, we got ahold of the school’s other flight instructor on the phone and he said the gauge probably just had residual pressure from the other student having flown so recently, and if we’d waited 20 minutes it would have worked. That’s probably true. But he also said I made the right call not to fly: “if in doubt, bail out.” I really wish I’d gotten to fly today, and I spent the rest of the day looking up at a clear blue sky, but I also don’t regret for a second canceling the flight. Because after all, I’ve never seen that gauge do that before.