On Cancelling a Flight

Sometimes, things just aren’t meant to be. And no, I’m not talking about relationships. I had to cancel my first night training flight in over a year due to a number of factors, but mainly due to an INOP defrost/heater system. Most pilots who fly in the lower mainland are used to cancelling flights due to weather, but its far less often that cancellations occur due to aircraft deficiencies. I’m hoping I look back on this post as a reminder that it’s better to cancel a flight and stay on the ground than to try to push through unsafe or sometimes just unfavorable or distracting conditions.

I had eagerly made arrangements to get in a training flight on a relatively clear evening, sitting in a roughly two week period of fog, cloud and rain. Part of this included leaving work earlier than normal and battling the rush hour mayhem that is the Massey Tunnel traffic at 5:00 PM. I think this itself contributed a level of fatigue and stress that I don’t normally carry with me on my typical weekend leisure flights. But nonetheless the fact that this flight would be a dual instruction flight (meaning there would be another competent pilot on-board) and I would be capitalizing on a great night to fly made the process well worth it in my mind.

Once at the flying school, everything went fairly well from the walk-around up to the engine start. I was using an airplane I hadn’t flown before (a basic Piper Warrior) since I assumed it was basically the same as the Cherokee and a different Warrior II I had flown before. It was shortly after the prop was turning that the various gremlins that ultimately lead to the cancellation of the flight began rearing their ugly heads. Firstly, either the intercom or the radio had an issue that caused there to be a constant amount of static coming through the headphones. Adjusting the squelch knobs on either didn’t solve the problem. No problem though, just one little thing to ignore. Next, once starting the taxi, I found myself constantly catching my toes on the bar above the brakes, and the seat would keep sliding back on the rail. The seat was also mounted quite a bit higher than in the Cherokee I’m used to flying, so my headset kept hitting the sun visor and other parts of the roof. No big deal though, obviously some adjustment would be required to keep the seat from sliding but the other items shouldn’t be major issues. The deal breaker came later during the run-up. No amount of wiping the windows outside and inside would keep the moisture from forming almost instantly, turning the dark airport scene outside into a blur of blue, red and white lights. With the heater and defogger on max, nothing appeared to be happening, and I couldn’t detect even a breeze of air coming out of the defrost vents. I brought up the RPM, wondering if you just needed to add some power for it to become effective, but nothing seemed to push any air out of the dash vents. We fumbled with various controls for a while, looking for an elusive blower switch or wrongly configured vent setting, but after about 10 minutes of fruitless searching and rifling though the POH I ultimately made the call to head back to the parking.

Initially I felt pretty stupid for cancelling a flight for something as simple as a malfunctioning defroster, but my attitude started changing on the drive home. I figured something in the engine compartment must have fallen ajar or come loose in the month or so that the plane had been sitting outside, but in any case the exact cause wasn’t the important thing. Clearly, flying with a fogged windshield was not an option, so while that alone grounded the flight, there were more factors that I decided I should consider for next time. I had assumed that flying the Warrior would be pretty much the same as flying the Cherokee I’m used to, but the little differences actually added up to have a cumulative effect. The radio static was unpredictable and only something I found out after starting the engine. I noticed the seat position was a bit off when I had previously checked out the aircraft, but since I didn’t have my headset on and had the seat slid back, I didn’t notice the awkwardness it caused until I was in the airplane taxiing with the seat slid up. The defroster of course wouldn’t be noticeable until the engine was started, but it also quite likely wouldn’t have been needed for a flight during the day. All that being said, I think the smarter thing to do would have been to fly the Warrior around during the day, getting used to its various subtle differences, before jumping into a night flight. Having logged zero official night hours and about three hours of instrument at night over a year ago (can’t log hours as both without the night rating), I should have gotten into an aircraft I was already comfortable with before attempting to fly in the night environment.

Take-away reminders for myself:

  • Don’t do a flight if you’re already stressed and/or fatigued for outside factors (IMSAFE).
  • The first time you fly a new airplane should be during the daytime in good VFR conditions.
  • When checking out an aircraft to use for training or rental, actually sit inside and adjust the seat, get comfy, put on the headset, fire up the avionics, etc. to check for things that you might otherwise not notice until you’re about to fly.
  • Obviously, don’t let small issues distract you from flying the plane, but remember that enough small issues can cause you to lose focus on what’s important.