At the beginning of November, together with my wife Kamila, we’ve spend a wonderful couple of days in Malta, a beautiful blue archipelago in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.
In fact it was already our second trip there. I met Kamila in Malta in 2010 while on holiday; it’s there where we fell in love and although we lived in two different countries at the time we eventually married and moved together to Brussels where we currently live.
The key moment during both our stays in Malta was a pleasure flight over the Maltese islands (the two main are Malta and Gozo). The first time around it was my attempt to impress Kamila and win over her heart. We documented it on her blog. This time we wanted to see the islands again from above and return to those fond memories, but frankly for me the aim was the same; to keep on impressing my lovely wife so that she loves me even more.
However, we didn’t expect that this time things would turn out a bit more complicated that during our previous adventure.
Before the trip I researched a bit the Internet for flight training organisations active in Malta in order to see what aeroplanes we could rent for our flight. I am currently mostly flying on Piper Warrior aircraft so I was looking for such a machine to rent, and in fact I was lucky to find one. There was a Piper Warrior Diesel with the European Pilot Academy.
The next day after our arrival we were at the European Pilot Academy office waiting for my initial check-out ride and then a solo rental for our flight. The check-out ride is a standard procedure for most flight training organisations where you want to rent an aircraft; it consist of a flight with an instructor who will check your aptitude to fly the given aircraft and familiarise you with the local airport environment and regulations. My check ride was scheduled between 13.00 and 15.00 local time and the rental between 15.30 and 17.30 with the sunset at 17.05. Although I have a night righting that allows me to fly in the night, I hadn’t done any night flying for more than a year which meant I had to be back to the airport before the night settles in at 17.35.
It’s here were things started to get interesting…but let’s start from the beginning. Our departure airport was Luqa International (LMML), the only airport on Malta. It’s a relatively busy international airport with two perpendicularly crossing runways; runway 13-31 destined for large aircraft flying according to the Instrument Flight Rules and runway 05-23 destined for small aircraft flying according to Visual Flight Rules. The funny thing is: Malta as a country is so small that it fits entirely the airport Control Zone (CTR) with a diameter of 20 Nautical Miles and the flight around the islands doesn’t take more than 30 minutes. Unfortunately, on the planned day of our flight, runway 13-31 was closed due to maintenance and all commercial airline flights and light airplanes were using the same single runway. The resulting congestion created a long, over one hour delay for my check-out flight.
After return from the flight I quickly picked up Kamila who was waiting in the school lounge for the last 3 hours and headed with her back to the airport apron where our Piper was waiting for us. It was 16.15, we had 50 minutes to the sunset and the ensuing darkness, I had to set up my Gopro and navigation equipment, complete the pre-flight inspection and run the aircraft checks. Finally, I was also faced with uncertainly about the time of departure; I could legitimately expect a holding time of 15-20 minutes before departure, due to arriving and departing airliners.
I started to be sceptical about our flight, but I continued to prepare for it feeling obliged to take Kamila up after her protracted wait at the flight school. I felt that I was starting to rush things. Then Kamila asked me to explain the functioning of the life jackets that we were obliged to wear since our flight was mostly over water. However, as I was in a hurry and unfamiliar with their functioning I started to struggle with them….I was angry. This was the moment that I decided to stop, and make a difficult decision to abort our flight. I felt bad for Kamilla, but I also knew that rushing the flight, in an unfamiliar aircraft and an unfamiliar airport, close to the sunset without a currency in night flight with an alternate airport in Sicily 40 NM away over open see was not a good idea. If for whatever reason, the Maltese airport was closed before our return, was I ready to make a 40NM flight in darkness to Sicili?
I humbly explained the circumstances to Kamila and she agreed. We decided to postpone our flight to another day. When the day came we were at the airport at 10.00 am ready for the flight. I started performing my flight checks and since this was to be the first flight for the day for the aircraft I proceeded to sample the fuel from the tanks to ascertain whether there wasn’t any contamination in the form of water or any other foreign objects collected at the bottom of the tanks. I’ve done this procedure hundreds of time before. Sometimes I did indeed find water or other contaminants; however after drawing a few samples they were always gone. This time I took five fuel samples and I kept on seeing some specs of black dirt floating in the fuel.
It was so unusual that my mind started playing tricks on me, and I heard a voice saying that surely these specs must be coming from the fuel sampler itself, which must have been dirty already before. However, as the other part of me kept insisting to remain vigilant I asked the school office to clean the fuel sampler and I re-checked the fuel quality again. Yes, this time there were less black specs in the fuel, but where these from the fuel or might they still be from a dirty sampler? I needed an absolutely clean sampler. With the school’s flight instructor we managed to get hold of a clean transparent jam-jar. This would do; we sampled the fuel together, and yeah, the specs were still there thus the fuel was definitely contaminated, which meant a no-go for flying. The contamination of the fuel could block the fuel flow to the engine and result in the engine stopping in mid-flight. No, we definitely didn’t want to risk that. The aircraft had to be checked by the mechanics. Eager to fly we decided to wait. Unfortunately, as one hour wait turned into three hour wait without any defined end to it we were forced to call it quits for the day.
We were not going to give up as yet though. Thanks to the great staff at European Pilot Academy we managed to squeeze some flight time the following morning on the day of our departure from Malta. Since this was our last chance it had to work this time…and it worked! The aircraft was re-checked and repaired, the weather was excellent and so thus we took off into blue Maltese sky to commemorate our first flight. It was a perfect flight and the testimony is these beautiful photos taken by Kamila.
I also learned a lot as a pilot thanks to this experience. Flying is a great passion to share with your loved ones; however safety must be always put first, even if you really want to fly, sometimes you must be ready to give it up. Even at the sake of disappointing others. I am really blessed that Kamila understands this well and respected my decisions as a pilot in command.
The second important lesson is to never take things for granted. Even if you’ve done something for hundreds of times, even if others tell you it is ok, always stick to the aviation rules and if in doubt re-check, evaluate, and ask for help someone more competent. Last but not least, anticipate what might not go according to plan and be prepared for such an eventuality before you take off.