Go With The Flow

In the early 1980s we were flying Shorts Brothers SD-30 aircraft in scheduled passenger service. This was “back in the Day” when there were commuter airlines who did the job of what we now refer to as the regional airlines. The commuters were much smaller, powered by turbo-prop engines, and carried thirty to forty passengers. The “Shorts” was a rather ugly, box-like contraption with very narrow high camber wings. It looked like a huge bumblebee! 

About mid-point in our long day of flying between Burlington, Albany, LaGuardia, and White Plains, NY we had a surprise. The weather was light IFR and the sun had set about forty-five minutes prior to our clearance for take-off from the Westchester County Airport’s runway 34. Our destination was again LaGuardia, about thirty-five minutes block to block. The load manifest showed that we carried twenty-five passengers, about thirty bags, and no freight. Our fuel was planned so we could use Kennedy for our alternate.

Being a bit on the heavy side we selected and confirmed flaps 10 for our take-off. The airplane accelerated normally, the F.O. Andy called “V1” then ‘Rotate” and off we went. “Positive rate, gear up”, Andy selected the landing gear lever to up and the in- transit lights went out. I had to trim the nose down a bit and immediately noticed that our rate of climb was rather dismal at best. I was sure that both engines were running normally, the props were at max, and the wheels were up. Then I saw that the flaps were almost fully extended although the selector was still where we had set for take-off.

As we limped along, I said “Andy, move the flap selector fully down and then back up to O. The flaps did not move. For some reason they had continued to extend and were now stuck. “Westchester Tower, we have an emergency we will fly a closed pattern maintaining visual with runway 34 and return to land”. “Andy, watch my airspeed, don’t let me get below 98 Kts which was our VMC, advise the passengers we’re going to return to land the Flight Attendant will know what to do. We staggered up to about seven hundred feet, stayed below the clouds, and stayed as close as possible to the airport, they turned the runway lights up to bright without being asked. It was a relief to hear the tires chirp as we touched down. We ended up spending that night at White Plains, NY. They gave each of us a complementary toothbrush!

If only I had checked the flap position indicator again as we taxied into position for take-off.

Do you ever use flows? Very often a flow is a more convenient method to accomplish operational tasks in an orderly fashion when you can’t pick up and read a checklist. Flows also work very well to re-confirm actions which you have already accomplished with the use of a checklist. However, a flow should never take the place of ultimately using the appropriate checklist. That’s the only time you can, and should, state “Checklist is complete”.

Frequently aviation companies will have “standardized flows” which are memorized by their flight crews. These memorized flows are not the same as memorized emergency action items such as for an engine failure or fire. The flows used in routine operations might be for example before take-off,  after landing, or engine shut down at the gate. All to be followed by the completion of the appropriate written checklist.

Then there are acronyms. These are not unlike flows, the first one that comes to mind for many of us would be GUMPS. Gas, Undercarriage, Mixture, Props, Seatbelts. That one may be slightly different depending on the user. The purpose is to check the significant action items of perhaps two or more sections of the checklist. For example, the checklist might call for a check of the fuel tank selected G) in the Descent Checklist and landing gear down (U) in the Final Check list. After the Descent, Before Landing, and Final checklists have been completed and you’re in your final landing approach you confirm the major checklist actions are done with the GUMPS check. Very much like the final walk around the airplane just prior to getting to go and fly.

Anyone can use flows, they can be mandatory, recommended, or an individual preference. The flow can be one last check for free and full flight control movement, lights on, transponder on, compass check to confirm the proper runway. That’s a before take-off flow not a written down checklist.

After my experience at Westchester County Airport that night so long ago I have used this before take-off flow in every airplane I’ve flown:

Controls are free and full, mixture is full rich (or as appropriate), Props are set to max, fuel checks (quantity and boost pumps on), WING CONFIGURATION SET FOR TAKE-OFF (visual check if possible).

Fly Smart and Be SAFE,

Jim Leavitt