Well, sorry to be late in getting this out, but we've had an issue with the flaps on the airplane that kept us in Taipei, Taiwan, for an extra day. It was quite an adventure but turned out OK for now. For the initiated, the flaps on an airplane are used to reduce the distance traveled down the runway during takeoff- (adds more lift) and also to reduce the speed of the airplane at touchdown. On the Pilatus PC-12 the flaps are quite large and are set for 15 degrees for takeoff and all the way down to 40 degrees for landing.
Now that the explanation of what flaps are is out of the way, here's the problem... our flaps stopped working. When we taxied out for departure from Taipei, the flap warning light came on and I had to return to parking to check things out. I thought it was possible the flaps had gotten out of synch with each other (i.e. one up one down). This is what the system is designed to detect and prevent. There's a method of checking this out and resetting the warning if everything checked out. In this case, the warning light couldn't be reset no matter what I did. My only choice was to shut down, let the rest of the group fly onto Seoul, Korea, and work out the issues.
we would have to go the rest of the way back to the USA on our own
My first call was to Greg Allen at Epps Aviation in Atlanta. It was 10:00 at night and I couldn't believe he answered the phone but Greg has been fantastic on this trip and I've relied on him numerous times for technical questions. He refreshed my memory on the correct procedure for resetting the flaps and then told me it might be a limit switch or the flaps computer unit that had failed. He started to tell me how to get into the flaps maintenance area by disassembling things and I thought this sounds way too complex for me now. I told him I was probably going to need a service team to help out and I was reeling with thoughts of all the issues I had to deal with now. After a little while of pondering the situation and since it was close to the same time zone in Taipei as Australia, I called the Pilatus support team down there. The contact I had worked with, Val Zimmermann, on the previous issue of the SE Asian Anomaly was on vacation (enjoy mate!). The main office got me contacted with Alasdair Reid, chief engineer for Premiar Aviation, a satellite service center for Pilatus Australia. He's an expert in the flaps on the PC-12 and quickly took me through a number of procedures to try to resolve the issue. We finally decided there was nothing else I could do on my end for the day and I asked him to work out arrangements to send parts and a team up to Taiwan to fix the problem. I told Tracy we were going to have to spend some more time in Taiwan and most likely we would have to go the rest of the way back to the US on our own as the rest of our group was in Seoul and departing for Russia in two days. Another 'feature' of flying in this part of the world is that you need to set up permissions to do just about everything; from taking off to flying over and through airspace, landing, immigration, customs and fueling. Our slot to fly into and through Russia had taken quite a while to get and if we missed it, things would unravel to the point of having to start all over again.
The reality of the situation suddenly sunk in that we just ended our tour with the group and were really on our own thousands of miles and numerous strange countries from our home in Florida with a major aircraft issue. Regardless, there was nothing more to be done except wait for arrangements to me made to fly a service team in to help out.
In the cab on the way back to our hotel I got a call from Alasdair saying he had talked it over with others and they all thought the problem might be something as simple as a stuck limit switch that was preventing the flaps from working. I asked him to fax over some diagrams and instructions for how to manually lower the flaps and check/clean the switches. If this worked, we'd be on our way the next morning (this is what Greg was trying to tell me over the phone but I was too blitzed out to consider it). This sounded really encouraging to me and I set things up so Tracy would wait with our luggage at the hotel- ready to check out and head for the airport if I was successful, and I would go to the airport very early the next day; a Saturday.
Now imagine trying to work through getting permission to go out onto the ramp at a huge commercial airport on a Saturday morning. Not fluent in Chinese, I was fortunate enough to have Richard Wang and Jack "JJ" Tsai of China Airlines Ground Services helping me. Even though it was the weekend, Richard gave me his mobile number and set things up so I could get access to my airplane at 7:00 am on Saturday. When I arrived, I met with the right people, got a special clearance pass to get me through security, etc. and out onto the ramp. When I got to the airplane I was full of optimism as the 'stuck limit switch' was a common issue. I had to remove a bulkhead panel behind the pilot's seat and gain access to the flap maintenance override switch which would allow me to manually lower the flaps. Once lowered, I could reach the limit switches and see if one was stuck. When I got a look at the switches, my heart sunk a bit as they both appeared to be OK. I pressed them both to see if they were functional and all seemed normal. I cleaned them up anyway and got back into the cockpit to try the reset procedure again. After about ten attempts to reset things I finally gave up, called Alasdair again (on the weekend, amazing support!) and told him he'd have to mobilize a team and come up to fix things for me. As Australia was celebrating a Youth Day for the visit of the Pope, all flights were booked until at least Monday. That meant I probably wouldn't be able to be on my way until Tuesday at the earliest, obviously missing all my slots to fly to and through Russia. I called Tracy to tell her the bad news and then prepared to go back to the hotel and figure things out from there.
Then I had a thought, as long as I had the flaps manually positioned at about 15 degrees anyway...
Then I had a thought, as long as I had the flaps manually positioned at about 15 degrees anyway (the position needed for takeoff and an OK position for landing as well) maybe I could fly the airplane back to the US with the flaps where they were at? I decided to call a couple people who had more experience flying PC-12's than me to see what their opinion was on this idea. First was Scott Ducker, Pilatus salesman for Epps Aviation back in Atlanta (12 time zones away but still at a reasonable 8:30 pm his time). His opinion was that the performance of the airplane would be degraded enough that my speed and range would not be acceptable. Next I talked to Winn Baker, an ex-Delta captain and PC-12 demo pilot. After explaining the problem to him, he said he wouldn't hesitate to fly the airplane back to the US with 0 degrees of flaps (i.e. the flaps fully stowed). This would allow me to have the performance and range I needed to fly the long legs and high altitudes needed to cross Russia and Alaska. The only problem was that the take-off and landing distances would be increased to about double of what the airplane normally used. Though Winn, a much more experienced PC-12 pilot than me, said he felt comfortable with runways less than 3,000-4,000' feet in length even with this flap problem, I felt I needed longer runways as I wasn't as proficient at this technique (that is I'd never done it before!). It was Winns confidence in me and this airplane that helped me to decide this was what I would do.
In making this decision, I had to put away all chances of getting the flaps fixed until I got back to the US. This would mean taking on quite a bit of additional risk for the duration of the flight but I felt it was doable. Faced with delays in getting the team up from Australia, coordinating fixing the airplane at this huge commercial airport as well as trying to get all the overflight permissions redone, I thought flying the airplane without working flaps was the best path to take. I called Tracy back and told her we were 'outta here!' and she jumped on checking out of the hotel and racing 45 minutes over to the airport from downtown Taipei for our departure.
Now I had to try to get us authorized to depart from Taipei and arrive in Seoul. In the US, it would have been one phone call to Flight Service. In Taiwan, I called Richard Wang who graciously set the wheels in motion. While I was waiting in the flight operations office for all the paperwork to be done, suddenly "JJ" came in and a flurry of activity happened. Within minutes I had a flight plan filed, a new authorization for departing Taiwan as well as a new set of General Declarations (paperwork to declare what we had on board and who was traveling to the next location). Tracy showed up in record time and we raced back out to the airplane to toss the luggage in and prepare for departure. "JJ" was with us the whole way and made sure everything was going well. I can't tell you how it felt to know that "JJ" came in on a weekend to help people he barely knew. But his actions speak volumes in how we feel about the people of Taiwan.
Our flight to Seoul and on to Russia has been a little 'hairy' as I've had to get used to flying without flaps (tossing in thunderstorms, heavy rain and instrument approaches to minimums at every airport so far has added to the fun) but, at least we are on our way home. Now we sit in Petropavlosk-Kamchatsky, Russia (a very strange place to be as someone like me who grew up during the Cold War) waiting out some additional clearances, better weather and adjusting to four timezone changes in two days (not to mention the anticipation of the International Date line coming up). The weather outside is rainy, cold and foggy but in my mind I can still see "JJ" standing by his van on the ramp in Taipei waving to us for all he's worth and me waving back. I'll never forget "JJ", Taipei or the Taiwanese people.
This journey really is the experience of a lifetime.
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