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Alert level 2 is upon us. As if you needed reminding. We know many of you are way ahead of the game in preparing to comply with COVID-19 rules, preparing your aircraft, and preparing yourselves. But a quick look at the information below might just help you with the one thing you may have overlooked.

COVID-19 restrictions still apply

Before you start flying again, be confident you really understand what the government is saying about flying during level 2. Yes, all forms of aviation activity are allowed but only if everyone concerned continues to follow Ministry of Health guidelines.

In a nutshell, those guidelines are: physical distancing of 2m, or 1m in a controlled area (generally where there is some form of entry/exit control), and where 1m cannot be maintained – say, in a small cockpit. You keep records of all those in that space to ensure there’s robust tracking and tracing. Follow the guidelines for personal hygiene at all times.

If you or your passenger have any symptoms of colds or flu, or are at all unwell, do not fly.

Keep careful notes in your daily flight record, and maybe add to it, records of all contact points, ie, refuelling stops. Carry wipes and hand sanitiser to use at touch points, say, during refuelling.

For more information, visit Guidance for aviation activity under COVID-19 Alert Level 2 restrictions.

Covered aeroplane with long grass

It’s all about you

Don’t let your eagerness to be in the air override your good judgement. Ask, am I really safe to fly?

It’s going to be busy up there. You’re going to need every ounce of skill, alertness and physical fitness to make good decisions.

You all know the IMSAFE checklist. Take the time to ask yourself how you’re really feeling, against each point.

Distractions such as worrying about a relative or colleague with COVID-19, stress, and fatigue brought about by unfamiliar and changing tasks, extended working hours and competing priorities, can all increase the risk of errors. Trust the opinions of those closest to you – sometimes they know ‘you’ better than you do.

So, how ready are you?

Currency, you don’t need reminding, is three take-offs and landings within the last 90 days (to carry passengers).

If you’re contemplating VFR night flying, you have to do three night take-offs and landings inside the previous 90 days.

And IFR currency involves three hours instrument time and three instrument approaches in the past 90 days, but check exemption 20/EXE/113 about to be published on the CAA website.

It’s quite possible your currency will have expired during lockdown, but be aware there’ll be many other pilots doing their currency flights at the same time as you. So be patient and don’t all rush together into congested airspace

Curb your enthusiasm and choose the day well for your first flight. Ease your way back into it.

Don’t rush out in marginal weather.  Do some circuits to get back into the swing of things, practice a FLWOP and a precautionary landing (just in case your mechanical preparations haven’t been perfect) and don’t just launch into a 500km cross-country flight.

Currency, as you will also not need reminding, is not competency.

Depending on how long you’ve been earth-bound, it might be worth going up on your first flight with an instructor, or at the very least, another pilot who knows their stuff.

You still have to be competent in the particular aircraft you’re flying; that means being capable of handling unusual situations.

Don’t be frightened or too proud to ask for advice and assistance – we all need it at some point in our flying careers. And this particular situation is new to us all!

Preparing to fly

Be pedantic about your preparation. Be patient, and don’t have overly ambitious expectations at the start. Every now and again, ‘take five’ and ask yourself, ‘what have I missed?’

For those of you climbing back into gliders, paragliders and other Part 149 aircraft, maintain your good preparation practices.

Careful flight planning

The advice is the same with flight planning as it is with every aspect of post-lockdown flying – don’t let your enthusiasm to fly overwhelm proper flight planning. All the usual principles apply.

The season has changed since you last flew. Do a thorough weather check at MetFlight GA(external link), including TAFs and METARs. Combine with your own observations of actual conditions to form the big picture. During lockdown, daylight saving finished. So be aware that civil twilight might sneak up on you.

Consider your personal minimums, your ability, and the limits of your aircraft.

Always check the AIP Supplement, AIP Circulars, and NOTAMs(external link). There’ll be plenty of NOTAMs issued as industry across New Zealand makes up for lost time. That means all those drones which have been grounded as well, will be joining us in the sky.

Checking NOTAMs will be especially important, as Airways bring on services, or not, in a staggered manner, with different services and times. For instance, Queenstown airport has already put out a NOTAM on its reduced capacity.

Consider ice

In general, expect carburettor ice when the outside air temperature is between –10°C and +30°C with high humidity and visible moisture.

It’s most likely, however, between +10°C and +15°, with a relative humidity above 40 percent.

These are precisely the conditions we expect in autumn, so bone up on how to identify carburettor icing, and what to do about it.

For more info, read “Icing” in the March-April 2016 issue of Vector [PDF 2.6 MB].

Preflight

When you’re itching to get in the air again, it takes some self-discipline to carry out a really good preflight.

But take that time, because in addition to your usual thorough going-over, the almost two months of non-operations will have left its mark.

Giving your aircraft a wash first will get rid of accumulated dust and dirt, and that will help you get a really good look at all the exterior surfaces.

Wildlife will have claimed human domains. It’s the wrong time of year for birds’ nests, but check all cavities for other critters who may have taken up lodging, such as bugs in the pitot or static tubes/appertures.

Look for evidence of rats or mice chewing at wires or fabric. And for bird excrement contaminating surfaces or components.

If you haven’t been able to get to your aircraft and fill the tanks, be very aware there could be water in the fuel.

Give the windscreen a good clean – even in a hangar it will have accumulated a film of dust and other matter.

Finally, double check all covers and blanks are removed. And check the tyres are inflated correctly.

Ramp courtesy

In what is expected to be a very busy time at aerodromes, ‘be kind’ at the pumps. Move your aircraft clear of them when you’ve finished filling it up.

Before you start up, check your prop blast won’t affect other aircraft or open hangars.

Changes at the airfield

Be aware of the heightened risk of bird strike.

With the lack of mechanical bird activity, the feathered variety will have settled in and around aerodromes, particularly near the coast.

Bird damage to aircraft

Damage to a Piper PA-31 from a flock of Canada geese in March 2020.

Also be conscious that rabbits and rabbit holes are likely to have become more numerous.

As we emerge from lockdown, long-haired and unkempt, remember there’ll be grass runways in the same condition.

Do a fly-over check before landing on anything that may have been untended for a while. Long grass can turn what should be a standard landing into something else, and you may need to divert to a less ‘thrilling’, but safer strip. Or if you insist on landing, be mindful of possible rocks and rabbit holes hidden in the long grass. Given the airstrip may not have been used for a while, look out for FOD such as fence wire that may have been caught in sheep wool and broken free as the sheep ran across the strip.

Some formerly controlled aerodromes may no longer be controlled, or have reduced hours, as Airways reduces its service. Some might change from control to flight service.

We recommend that if aerodrome user groups haven’t already done so, they get together to identify any new hazards, and assess new risks.

Commercial operations

Review your operation, looking for any new hazards and addressing any new risks, such as lack of recent flying experience. Are there any changes to your standard operating procedures as a result of COVID-19?

It would be worthwhile assessing any proposed operation(s) you contemplate against the requirement of your approved operations specifications.

If you need clarification relating to any part of your operation that may have changed, please contact 04 560 9400 and we can discuss this with you.

Helicopter operations

The advice to helicopter pilots is the same as that for fixed-wing pilots. Over the duration of levels 3 and 4, some skills may have begun to ‘perish’.

These would be especially in areas requiring a certain level of currency and skill – for example, precision lifting, low-level operations, IFR and even night (frost) flying.

Afford yourself the time to get current.

Please consider if your mind is really in the game, or is it in the external issues of finance and health. It’s a really big deal what’s happened to the world. Often our ability to suck it up and carry on can interfere with normal decision-making, and exercising sound judgement.

So take your time, ‘pause’ and genuinely consider what you’re about to do.

Consider adopting more of a risk-based approach. Realise that – no matter how experienced you are – due to the lockdown, there’ll be an increase in risk. You’re not as current as you normally would be, and, similarly, the helicopter has sat inactive for some two months.

Review all aspects of the job, whether it’s private or commercial, and decide on the level of risk. Apply appropriate controls.

If your company has SOPs, review them carefully. Also review the emergency procedures section of the flight manual of the aircraft you intend to launch in.

Take your time checking the weather, NOTAMs and the AIP Supplement.

Equally, don’t rush any aspect of loading – passengers as well as goods. Deliberately slow it down, including paperwork, giving yourself time to think about what you’re doing and the way you’re doing it.

Discuss your intentions with other pilots, and tap into their experience.

Treat the helicopter as if it just emerged from a major rebuild. Discuss anything that crops up during the preflight with your maintenance controller or contractor. Make sure you understand what you can do under your normal pilot preflight privileges, or maintenance approval.

If you’re a training school, or instructor

Flight instruction

Before students go solo, we recommend dual flights practising all the general handling exercises and circuits, including simulated emergencies.

Once students can fly again, consider their return to the air as you would any return after a seven week-long break.

Before they go solo, we recommend dual flights practising all the general handling exercises and circuits, including simulated emergencies.

There's going to be commercial drive to deliver students to flight examiners, but instructors need to be satisfied their students are genuinely exercising good judgement and situational awareness with regard to their decision-making.

Noise control

In terms of aviation noise, the ‘new normal’ of the lockdown has been… silence.

So we’re encouraging instructors to fly neighbourly.

Staggering slot times and training areas may help, as would balancing cross country and air work sessions. An example would perhaps be that the first, third and fifth slot of the day don’t fly over or near urban areas.

There could be a few aircraft up there – LOOK OUT!

Before taking off, approach other aircraft owners – maintaining a two-metre distance of course – to talk about what they, and you, are planning for the day.

Be aware of the desire of all operators to quickly be in the air again, and that everyone will be ‘rusty’.

One never-before experienced phenomenon of the lockdown is that we have all, literally, been confined to four walls. Our situational awareness has receded to a small domain. It hasn’t even had regular exposure to the two-dimensional perspective of daily driving. So apart from a few essential service providers, everyone will have the same level – that is, lack – of currency. That includes air traffic controllers.

So the recommendation is eyes wide open and make no assumptions!

Don’t rely on radio calls alone for situational awareness.

That advice does not change if your aircraft is ADS-B compliant.

Make radio calls clear, correct, concise and consistent with standard phraseology. But don’t ‘clutter’ the air with unnecessary calls, or worse, irrelevant chat.

Remember again, to ‘be kind’, be respectful, and display good airmanship.

A host of maintenance

Check if the airframe/engine manufacturer requires any special maintenance following an extended period of non-operations.

Next, check for any outstanding calendar inspection or maintenance requirements that may now be overdue. It won’t be enough to just look at the tech log because some calendar requirements may not have been noted before the aircraft was parked up.

Examples could include two-yearly avionics inspections, ELT battery replacement, four-monthly oil replacement or a review of airworthiness.

As the aircraft owner/operator, make sure you review the airframe/engine logbooks to ensure nothing is missed.

Manufacturer publications will have continued to be updated, despite lockdowns around the world. So make sure your maintenance controller is across whether airworthiness directives, service bulletins, and any changes to instructions for continued airworthiness apply.

Bringing the battery back to life

As you’ll know, a charged battery is a requirement of an airworthy aircraft. So the day before the aircraft first flies, remove the battery and get it recharged by a LAME, Part 145 organisation, or a maintenance approval holder.

Don’t jump start a flat battery. It needs sufficient charge for emergency phases of flight and a jump-started battery takes time to recharge.

It’s not ideal to have high alternator draw during the take-off and climb-out stages, so maybe allow extra time to idle on the ground to recharge before take-off.

A weak battery may be a symptom of a more problematic issue, which is best left for a LAME to deal with.

Unused batteries are typically low on charge if they’ve been sitting unused for a while. So check the electrolyte level. Note that the electrolyte level expands as it’s charged. The battery levels should be adjusted only when the battery is fully charged. If there are any issues, have the battery serviced or replaced with a new one.

Take advantage of the battery being removed for charging and flush out and clean the battery box. Make sure the drain is unclogged and doesn’t leak. A little baking soda will help neutralise any acid residue in the box.

If a split master is available, start on battery initially before turning the alternator switch on, to get the best energy for start from the battery.

Thermal runaway

There is a problem particular to nickel-cadmium (Ni-Cad) batteries, especially during a long start, or when the battery hasn’t been used for a while.

If you have an unusually high temperature reading on your battery, you could have thermal runaway.

During the start, a large drain on the battery occurs and the battery gets warm. Once the engine is started and the generator is recharging the battery, a high current is put back into the battery.

Normally, the current reduces as the charge is built up, but where there’s a temperature imbalance between cells, the current will continue to increase. That leads to an increase in temperature, which in turn leads to a further increase in current, and so on. This is thermal runaway and can lead to the battery exploding.

Again, don’t try to jump start your aircraft if you have a flat battery, as the generator will charge the battery too rapidly.

If you do have a high battery temperature during flight, land as soon as possible and leave the battery alone. It will be some time before it’s safe to handle.

And get your maintainer to sort it out.

Hand-propping

First, a word of caution. Don’t even think about swinging a high-compression engine if you’ve never done it before – it can be really dangerous.

Hand-propping will make the start easier on a starter and the battery.

As a rough guide, simply pull through about four blades (compression strokes). Before hand-propping, however, refer to the aircraft owner’s manual or flight manual.

Aircraft designed for hand-propping have specific procedures to follow. Note the higher the compression or larger the engine, the more difficult and dangerous the process becomes. 

A final reminder – you need a safe partner at the controls – an engineer, a pilot or student pilot.

The good oil

Aircraft owners should definitely engage with their engineer before and during returning their aircraft to an airworthy condition.

For instance, if it’s been a really long non-operational time – even with storage and preservation measures in place – have a LAME replace the oil or possibly hot oil prime the engine. That will of course depend on the length of time the machine hasn’t been operated.

Hot oil priming before starting the engine will mean all bearings and galleries are sufficiently lubricated before start-up. 

While not doing this doesn’t mean there’ll be an engine failure, doing it will reduce the chances of increased wear over the life of the engine.

It might also be wise to give the engine a decent ground run to operating temperature before an oil change and operational check flight.

Pilot maintenance

Refer to Part 43 Appendix A for maintenance that a pilot may be able to carry out.

Appendix A1 and A2 describe specific tasks that may be carried out by a pilot. You will need, however, to be authorised by the operator of the aircraft to perform the maintenance, and to be appropriately trained by a LAME to do so. See rule 43.51(c).

If you want to carry out any maintenance not listed in Appendix A, you’ll need a Certificate of Maintenance Approval issued by the CAA using form 24066/01.

 

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