Do you ever wonder what you would do, if push came to shove and you had to make a decision that could be silly or could save your life? Small decisions are made all of the time.. in aviation and in life. I think in aviation the importance of seemingly small decisions goes up exponentially because we really are not designed to fly. I've read of CFIs telling their students "the plane wants to kill you". While I'm glad my CFI didn't take that approach with me, it is important to remember flying has a lot of risk.. if you manage that risk successfully, you'll be OK. If you manage the risk unsuccessfully, you or your pocket book may not be so OK after all. This is one situation that happened recently where I made a decision that I consider good, in spite of feeling silly about it at the time, as least I am here to talk about it :)
I was headed out to practice again... I did my preflight and pulled out the plane... started up and did the initial brake check. When I did the brake check the left brake felt strange.. the pedal pushed forward at a weird angle. I shifted in my seat and moved my feet about, thinking I was just sitting strange, or maybe it was the sandals I was wearing. Tried another brake check, the plane stopped, but the braking action didn't feel equal. Hmmm... I had checked the brake lines in my preflight inspection, there was no fluid on the lines. I wondered if I was just being over sensitive. I kept the RPM low, let off the brakes slowly, then back on. No, that left pedal just didn't feel right.
I sighed. I've brought planes back for slightly more than normal RPM drops and other minor things .. the A&P always says its fine. I didn't want to delay my flight. I didn't want to look like a silly woman. But.... I told myself to think through it logically. I could go ahead and taxi to run up and see if the braking action improved in the process (by magic?!). But if the brake failed that would not be a good place for a brake failure. I thought about it some more, OK, what happens if a brake fails... well, the place I would find out would be on landing, and if one brake failed on landing, that would be a tough situation to handle. The thought ran through my mind .. "accident caused by student pilot not taking appropriate corrective action when noticing unequal braking action". Well, I certainly didn't want to be in an NTSB report, or make the evening news.
I still didn't want to believe the brake was bad.. but I didn't want to make the news. So, I decided on a course of action, I would taxi the plane very slowly to the area in front of the mechanic's hangar, shut it down and have him check it out and tell me its OK. Before I moved the plane I decided what I would do if braking completely failed in the process (shut down the engine immediately and aim the plane for a fence). I also planned out a route that would have me taking right turns only so I wouldn't be relying on the left pedal to assist. That's what I did.. on the slow roll to the hangar I kept pumping the brakes, that left brake just felt slightly wrong. So I shut the plane down and brought the A&P over.
He jumped into the plane, checked the pedals and said it was fine. But then he paused and pumped the brakes again... he looked thoughtful. He then said the left brake was soft. No problem he said, he would bleed the brake line and everything would be fine. He went to get the kit to bleed the lines and I waited. When he came back I asked if they had worked on the brakes on that plane recently.. normally the only way air gets into brake lines is through maintenance and the brakes should be bled whenever fluid or pads are replaced. He said they hadn't. But no mind, he'd bleed the brakes and off I could go. He bent down to work on the brake line and said "Uh oh, nope. This line is leaking."
That surprised me, I checked the line for fluid before I started up. But he was right, the leak was happening further up the brake line and instead of dripping down the line, it dripped onto the faring along the strut and slowly dripped down the inside of the faring. The bottom of the faring was sticky and damp with the red brake fluid. "Good catch," he said. The fix for this would take longer. So I pulled the plane back to its parking spot, buttoned it up and returned the key. Not flying that day, but glad that I did what I did. If I hadn't made the decisions I did, I would have found out on landing exactly how bad that brake was, probably with disastrous results.
Good catch indeed.