(Acknowledgements: Mitcheal Veenstra / AIR FACTS)

“When I finished my PPL training my instructor told me that we start with a full bag of luck and an empty bag of experience; the trick is to fill the bag of experience before you empty the bag of luck. Less than three months later I had occasion to test that maxim.

I’d joined a local flight club and had access to a Cessna 172. A group of local pilots were going for lunch at Brenham, Texas, so I quickly booked the plane, and invited my pilot mentor and a friend who was also completing her private pilot training to join me. The forecast was morning fog at Brenham which was expected to burn off in time for our arrival.

On the way, the clouds built and soon I was facing a shelf of cloud that left me two options: climb and potentially get stuck VFR on top, or descend and ‘scud run’ towards Brenham. Neither of these options sounded good, so I flexed my new PIC privileges and declared we’d set down somewhere this side of the cloud shelf and wait out the weather.

Teague was just a few miles away, so I diverted and flew a straight in approach. To this point all had been easy, but then things got complicated. I had three aboard when I was more used to two, and little differences in CG and handling had me carrying a little extra speed on approach. So, I thought, it’s time for a full flap landing to bring us down. That’s a nice theory, but the extra speed led to a long float and I found myself running out of runway.

I called a go-around, applied full power and pitched for climb as I nursed the flaps back up. Something was wrong though. We were struggling to climb and by now I’d already returned the flap lever all the way up. I glanced at airspeed, then the VSI and it showed a 100 fpm climb. Something was indeed very wrong, and I no longer had enough runway to come to a stop now if I tried to set down again.

I checked the panel: RPM normal, power full, airspeed just OK for climb, but we were not climbing as we should have been. My friend in the right seat quietly said, “Flaps, flaps…” I glanced out of the window and though the lever was fully up, the flaps were still down! I cycled the flap lever but they didn’t budge. Checking the VSI, it still showed only 100 fpm. I searched through the breakers in the still new-to-me club 172 until I found the flap breaker, which had popped.

I reset the breaker, the flap motor started, and the flaps began immediate total retraction, causing the plane to sink as lift was lost due to the flaps coming up too quickly. I caught the lever to stop them, arrested the sink, and slowly nursed them out again. The climb built and we cleared the trees, made pattern altitude, flew a standard pattern and made a normal landing.

On the ground I cycled the flaps several times but couldn’t cause the breaker to pop again. An hour later the cloud shelf broke up and we departed, reaching Brenham without further incident. Our flight back home was also problem-free.

On that flight I borrowed quite heavily from my bag of luck in order to make a deposit in my bag of experience. I found that being the pilot in command can be very lonely in the left seat when things start to go wrong. You don’t make decisions by committee.

From deciding to land at an alternate, to initiating a go around from a bad landing, to finding a successful solution to a flap malfunction, you never let yourself become a passenger; you have to stay the pilot in command. And as we fly, we will have many more opportunities to add to our bag of experience, with hopefully only modest withdrawals from our bag of luck!”

Tony BirthComment