Gear Up: On Becoming a Better Pilot

** A DC-4 operated by Buffalo Airways sits in
the snow. As any true Ice Pilots addict
knows, it pays to think ahead and be ready
to adapt to changing conditions as needed.**

Hold on. I know the title is trite. Your enthusiasm for reading further may be at a low point, but hang on for a minute. I mean to persuade you that this is something other than a cliched rehash of admonishments to stabilize your approach.

It is hard to believe that, after flying continuously for 45 years, I might be learning something new. It is hard to comprehend that after rocking along in the same airplane, a Cheyenne turboprop, for 13 years, that there might be some things I could do better. Yet both statements are true.

When you think about it, where does new knowledge come from? I’ve always felt that experience, especially survivable experience, is the best teacher. Certainly early encounters with thunderstorms and ice left a lasting impression and stirred interest in avoidance. Those are the big things.

There are other little things that accrue on the back of the frontal lobe that shape your approach to flying an airplane. A takeoff with a mis-trimmed elevator is done once. A close call on fuel at the destination makes a more conservative flyer out of you. I’ve forgotten to turn the pitot heat on a few times, and twice I was alerted to this fact by staring at an airspeed indicator that read zero. Slowly, over time, each such episode in a pilot’s life adds to the compendium that makes things easier and safer. There is less thrashing about.

The other source for wisdom is reading. For as long as I can remember, I have read Aftermath religiously each month. I'd wonder to myself if I would have found myself in the same predicament as the unfortunate pilot whose actions warranted a 1,500-word column or whether I would have avoided the problem in the first place. Or maybe I could have solved the dilemma successfully in the end. I Learned About Flying From That has been my second stop in this magazine. Many events, some humorous, some downright scary, have left me a bit more contemplative than before. In these cases, I learned not from my mistakes and misadventures, but from those made by other pilots.

The best source of aeronautical knowledge comes from stories told by other pilots. Hangar flying is more interactive and the color commentary much more memorable. How often have you heard a tale that begins, “I know a guy who ...”

Narrative is so compelling, in part because the teller and the listener are bound together by intense interest in the outcome.

The surge in my education has come because, for the first time in my life, I am flying with other pilots. Elite Air of St. Petersburg, Florida, took on this old pilot as a Lear 31 first officer. In this delightful capacity, I studied at the knee of some masters. And I learned a lot.

Some of this knowledge comes from the majestic difference between a Lear and a turboprop. FlightSafety in Atlanta started me on the road to higher consciousness in flying, and much I learned from the folks in Atlanta about the jet has proven very useful in relation to the turboprop. This backdrop augmented my Cheyenne training at SimCom, where I asked experienced instructors about the nuances of an airplane I thought I knew well. I am still learning to master an old friend. In both training environments there was somebody sitting in the seat next to me.

But it has been the Elite Air captains in the Learjet who have encouraged me to be more thoughtful in my flying. Their calm presence and reassuring countenance prompted me to fly better and smarter. Several examples come to mind.

When I landed in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in the Lear, the touchdown was so sweet that I just deployed the thrust reversers and allowed the airplane to slow gradually without touching the brakes. “Use your brakes,” counseled Jason Hepner. “Why?” I asked. “We have plenty of runway and I want to parade down that runway for all 9,000-plus feet so everybody can see what a smooth landing it was.” Jason explained that you’d like to know if the brakes are working and that both are working. A few weeks later a story made the rounds where a private jet departed a runway with a brake failure. I now test those brakes immediately upon touchdown. Its spoilers, brakes and then the TRs (thrust reversers). I would rather know they aren’t working with 8,000 feet of concrete in front of me than find out as the last taxiway sails by. The same goes for the Cheyenne, which is hard to manage when one brake works and the other doesn’t — most airplanes aren’t that much fun in mono-brake configuration, come to think of it.

Once off the runway, I was never very sure about how far to go before getting permission from ground control to taxi. My Lear captains made it very clear: Taxi clear of the runway! This means getting the entire beast beyond the hold short line. Look both ways. Make no assumptions about position — double-check. If in doubt, stop. Sure enough, the next month a story about a runway incursion circulated on the Internet. I was reminded of a mistake I made once at Midway, when I taxied right onto a runway thinking it was a taxiway. The safe-taxi feature of our Garmin 600 in the Cheyenne makes such an error less likely, but I am still more vigilant than I used to be.

My Lear instructors are more precise about nearly everything when compared to my unobserved, uncorrected, single-pilot, turboprop habits. I’ll admit that 150-foot-wide runways make my concentration on the centerline a hit-or-usually-miss affair. These guys insist on putting those stripes between my legs. They also insist on proper speed control, strict glide­slope adherence and precision handling of the airplane with regard to ATC instructions. When they fly the approach, all I ever see is two white and two red right down to the touchdown — on the centerline. I guess this is the part about the wisdom of the stabilized approach, but somehow it seems like much more than that.

Another good habit I have seen is the liberal use of anticipation when it comes to all manner of maneuvers. Anticipated crossing altitudes on the arrival are entered into the FMS prior to takeoff. My captain frequently queries me about best long-range book values for power settings as we are leveling off at our assigned altitude in the mid-40s. There is no waiting to see how it goes, to see if the winds abate, to hope for a change in the destination weather. The mind-set is obvious, and I am reminded of a medical aphorism attributed to Louis Pasteur: “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

Since our turboprop frequents common destinations that are all close to sea level, I have to be reminded by my Lear captains to set the field elevation when managing the pressurization on descent. They have flown everywhere and are constantly thinking about such things. I, in the meantime, have largely sailed on obliviously.

Like many pilots, I am hooked on the Weather Channel. Now I am addicted to Ice Pilots. What I see on the program is exactly what I learn from my Lear captains: Think ahead and, even more importantly, be resilient. These guys know how to adapt. Just watch the Buffalo Airways guys fix an APU. Back home, if the crew's bags won't fit in the luggage compartment because of the passengers' exuberant wardrobe and unrealistic fantasies about the Learjet, take your bags out. You can buy a toothbrush at the destination. When considering an alternate for a destination with sketchy weather, don't just look for solid weather; look for a good fuel price to accompany the sunny skies. Thankfully, we don't see the constant equipment challenges that the Buffalo Boys do in their 60- and 70-year-old airplanes.

Despite having flown for four-plus decades, I still never knew when I was courting danger. If I exited the airplane by the customary portal and no fire trucks were about, I figured I had done all right. I had no information about exactly how close to the lion’s jaws I had flown. At Elite Air, I am learning about being a pro.

Am I getting better? I don’t know. I do know that I am more aware of some of the sloppy things I have been doing while sitting in the left seat of our turboprop, happily staring out the window. With this new awareness, I look forward to getting better — and that’s no cliche.

Dick Karl
Dick KarlAuthor
Dick Karl is a cancer surgeon who appreciates the beauty and science involved in both surgery and flying. Dick’s monthly Gear Up celebrates the human side of flying. He writes about his enthusiasm for both the machines and the people who fly and maintain them.

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