When Things Go Bump In The Night 

Howard Deevers 


Is it true that when you are flying at night your airplane makes strange noises? When in IMC you hear things that you didn’t hear only a few minutes ago when in the clear. The airplane is probably just fine, but our senses are in a higher state, so we do think we hear things that we didn’t notice before.

When flying IFR and we experience vacuum pump failure, it should be treated as an emergency. Vacuum pump failure in IMC is a leading cause of loss of control. Never treat it lightly. The vacuum pump may be working well, but the instruments themselves can be old and not working correctly. How do we recognize these things?

My first vacuum pump failure happened in VFR conditions while taking a test flight in an airplane that I was interested in buying. The owner of the Cherokee was in the right seat. We were on downwind for landing, and I noticed the attitude indicator (AI) starting to get lazy. I glanced at the vacuum gauge and it was on zero! The owner of the plane had not noticed that even though the instrument was on his side of the panel. Of course we landed safely, since we were in the pattern, and he promised to install a new vacuum pump. I did buy the plane and flew it many hours, even IFR, but that vacuum pump lasted only about 400 hours.

A couple of years ago, on an IFR flight from Moline to Akron/Canton, the vacuum failed in flight. I had made an IFR departure from Moline and was on top of the clouds at 10000 feet when I noticed the plane wanting to turn left. A quick scan showed the vacuum gauge at zero! I was glad that it had not failed while on climb out of Moline. I advised ATC that I had vacuum failure, but did not declare an emergency since I was on top in visual conditions. Of course, when earning our instrument rating, we must fly partial panel, and in the check ride demonstrate partial panel ability, too. But how much do we actually practice that after the check ride?

I decided to test my partial panel skills, and experimented with the auto pilot. The auto pilot gets its information from the DG and AI. If I set the DG to the compass heading, and put the heading bug on that, it would hold that course for me. Then any change in course or heading needed another correction. That worked OK for awhile, then I looked at my iPad for some information. Only 15 seconds had passed when I looked up to see that I was almost 15 degrees off course. This was going to be tedious, so I checked weather at nearby airports. South Bend was clear, so I diverted to South Bend, IN to see if I could get repairs. Two hours later I had a new vacuum pump and was back on my way to Ohio.

There are electronic attitude indicators and they can replace the vacuum driven instruments. With all of the new “glass panels,” vacuum instruments are slowly going out of fashion, but you need to train on those instruments as well. They may have battery backup, but complete electrical failure could be an emergency and render your electronic instruments useless, unless they have good battery backup, but don’t count on that.

when things go bump in the night



One hundred years ago, pilots had none of these luxuries. No gyro instruments, no ATC, no radio, no iPads, not even a sectional or reliable map. The US Mail service had established Air Mail from New York to Cleveland, and on to Chicago. Now they wanted to complete the Air Mail from Chicago to San Francisco. Pilots flew in open cockpit bi-wing airplanes with only visual references, mostly following railroad tracks.

The route from Chicago west was to Omaha, then Cheyenne, Salt Lake City, Reno and then San Francisco. With none of the things that we take for granted, they flew in all weather: snow, fog, rain, icing, and wind. They tried to follow the railroad tracks, and at some times were only 20 to 50 feet above the ground. Unfortunately, many pilots lost their lives trying to deliver the mail. Crossing the mountains in snow storms must have been a daunting task, and I would not even try it with everything we have available today. Their airplanes were not very reliable either. Pilots often had to make off airport landings in farmers fields or on a road, if there was a road. They were true pioneers, and their efforts blazed the trails in aviation that we use today.

Aviation improvements were slow to come. Airports were not paved, and there were no lights or beacons. Gradually improvements did come, but it was too late for many pilots. By the end of the 1920’s, the US Mail service was contracted to commercial carriers, and the US Air Mail no longer needed pilots.
Today, when we hear those strange noises at night, we have all kinds of help available to us. GPS, radar, our iPads, ATC communications, paved runways with lights, and we have much better training. Unfortunately, pilots still lose control of their planes and fly into mountains or the ground.

Your ARIZONA PILOTS ASSOCIATION has safety seminars somewhere in the state every month. You may learn something that will keep you from hitting the ground. Fred Gibbs is presenting the GAARMS program at several locations in Arizona this year. He will present 7 fatal accidents in Arizona and discuss what went wrong and how it might have been prevented. Don’t miss it. Find a location on the APA web site, and don’t forget to “Bring your wingman.”

us air mail 100 years ago 

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