Fly Like Someone is Watching

Complacency can be prevented with a different frame of mind.

pilots discretion
Students know their instructor is watching their every move and the margin for error is tight if they want to earn a recommendation to proceed on to the FAA flight test.iStock

Last summer, I traveled to Scotland on vacation for a week to attend a wedding on the Isle of Skye. I’d hardly consider the first few hours of the trip relaxing. I picked up my rental car in the center of downtown Edinburgh and was instantly tasked with operating a manual transmission from the right seat on the wrong side of the road, and then navigating what seemed like an endless number of four-lane roundabouts to get out of town and on my way toward the city of Inverness. I set my expectations low for the drive, which was basically not to run into anything or get pulled over by the police for doing something stupid. As a bonus, I got honked at countless times and received the international hand gesture of disapproval from surrounding drivers. I made it out of town unscathed, albeit with an elevated heart rate and a death grip on the steering wheel.

I was just starting to relax as I settled into the traffic flow on the main highway when I saw a caution sign that read, “Speed Cameras in Use.” What at first seemed like another stressful element of the drive quickly evolved into just the opposite — there was no alternative than to set the cruise control at the posted speed limit and enjoy the view as we headed north.

During the next few hours droning along on the highway, I did what most people would do knowing a person or piece of technology was monitoring my actions, which is to follow the rules. You might not like Big Brother watching, but why would you drive faster than the speed limit knowing that it would automatically lead to a citation?

While the obvious parallel for pilots is ATC monitoring our flight in controlled airspace, this observer effect can play a bigger role in our everyday flying tasks. It can influence a pilot’s actions and decision-making when they know they are being watched, for better or worse.

During flight training, student pilots do everything by the book as they near the end of their private pilot training curriculum with their CFI. Checklists are methodically completed, with each item verbalized and confirmed on the panel. Intense focus is placed on objective standards, such as maintaining the recommended climb speed within standards or holding altitude within limits while flying straight and level. Students know their instructor is watching their every move and the margin for error is tight if they want to earn a recommendation to proceed on to the FAA flight test.

But once the certificate is earned, we are on our own to fly the airplane however we choose. Because there are so many safety margins built into the environment and equipment we fly, from long runways to engines with an excess of power, there are often no immediate penalties for climbing at a sub-optimum airspeed, or skipping a routine checklist item. I’ve seen it time and again when flying with pilots, years after their check ride, where they seem to kick back and take a more casual approach to flying. Speed and altitude control are loosely managed, and only essential checklist items are completed. Flight controls are handled roughly, and the throttle is operated with large inputs, without consideration for how it affects engine operating temperatures.

This observer effect can influence pilots of all skill levels to various degrees. As an ATP and CFII who should have known better, I found myself falling into this trap several years ago during annual recurrent training in a Cessna Citation flight simulator. One day, while demonstrating steep turns, I could see in the reflection in one of the instruments that the instructor was filling out paperwork at his station and not monitoring the primary flight instruments to grade the quality of the maneuver.

I instantly felt less pressure to hold the airspeed and altitude control to the expected standards, and I flew a sloppy maneuver as a result. I knew there wouldn’t be consequences. It’s human nature — inside we know better, but we often take the shortcut when an opportunity arises, expecting that it won’t adversely affect safety.

The margin for error narrows when flying on an IFR flight plan, with ATC playing the role of the observer to ensure adequate traffic separation. As when driving on a highway with speed cameras, instrument pilots know their every move is being watched and analyzed by both the controller and automated systems, so all aspects of the flight must be kept within standards. For example, when an ATC center facility assigns you a cruise altitude, you have no choice but to maintain that with a high degree of accuracy. Drift off that altitude by more than 200 feet in either direction and the controller’s scope will automatically display an alert, prompting them to investigate.

It’s human nature — inside we know better, but we often take the shortcut when an opportunity arises, expecting that it won’t adversely affect safety.

On the commercial side of things, many airlines and helicopter operators have installed flight data monitoring (FDM) systems in their aircraft to observe pilot actions and collect raw numeric data from each flight. These allow the operators to analyze flight data across their entire fleet to identify and address operational risks before they lead to accidents, and give them the information they need to enhance and improve training when necessary. These systems are quite effective and have been proven to change pilot behavior and promote adherence to standard operating procedures.

General aviation pilots can take advantage of this technology too, thanks to affordable analytics apps from companies like CloudAhoy. This allows you to take a data-driven approach to your flying by offloading flight data from your Garmin G1000 panel or Stratus ADS-B receiver to review after the flight. You can see how well you maintained your altitude on a long cross-country, and even grade how well you flew the localizer and glideslope on an ILS approach. These systems will keep you honest and help you identify weak areas in your flying.

Absolute perfection shouldn’t be the goal either, because this can lead to new distractions and unintended consequences. As a video producer at Sporty’s Pilot Shop, I spend a lot of time flying with high-resolution 4K cameras mounted in the cockpit, shooting video for our online pilot training courses. The advances in camera technology allow us to capture every flight instrument, switch position and flight control movement in crystal-clear detail, enhancing the home study experience for pilots using the course. I carry along extra awareness during these flights to make sure every procedure and flight parameter is performed spot on. But no matter how hard you try to nail every element, a critic could always find an obscure detail to criticize when watching in HD resolution. An astute customer recently wrote in: “Vy in the Cessna 172 is 79 knots, and I saw the pilot in your video flying at 78 knots during the segment on takeoff and climb.”

Sure, that viewer was technically correct, but the reality is you shouldn’t take this concept too far. If all a pilot does is focus attention on holding a climb speed to the exact knot, or flying pattern altitude within 5 feet, other critical items can be overlooked, such as scanning for traffic, monitoring engine gauges or completing checklists.

Whether flying IFR in Class B airspace or VFR over rural farm pastures, approach every flight with the same discipline as if your CFI is sitting in the right seat or ATC is watching your every move. You’ll find that the benefits of avoiding shortcuts in preflight preparation, checklist usage and precise airplane control will help keep your flying skills sharp and your mind as focused as the day you took your check ride.