Ten Truths to Fly By

Some Simple, Some Not So

An old friend was joshing the other day about how I fly my single-engine airplane like it is an airliner. Checklists, procedures, callouts, I do them all. My friend is an airline pilot and I took his remarks as a compliment. I have always thought that if we emulate professional aircrews (to the extent possible) in our light airplanes we’ll both fly them well and fly them more safely. No way we can get the risk down to the airline level no matter how professionally we try to fly, but we can at least make our safety record better. And we don’t have to sit in a terminal for five hours when thunder is heard in the distance.

I’m a list person, so I thought I would make a list of essential elements to the successful completion of a flight. In many cases, lessons are taken from the way that professional crews fly airplanes. This puts our operations beyond what is required under Part 91 of the FARs.

1. PREFLIGHT PLANNING For a lot of flights there’s not a whole lot to do. If the airports are familiar, there’s not much there. If it is a familiar route, it should already be programmed into the GPS. If the weather is good, the complete briefing can be downloaded from DUAT in a short time and the weather and notams can be verified.

A more complicated flight requires more preflight action with the goal being to make the flight as familiar as one that has been flown many times before. That means going over the route, making a plan and integrating that plan into the forecast weather. Every single one of the thousands of violations of the Washington ADIZ and the Camp David restricted area came about because the offending pilot did not make an adequate plan to avoid the affected areas. Sitting at a desk with charts is where the best laid plans are made. The cockpit is a lousy place to make initial plans.

Airline crews fly to a limited number of airports. We can and do use most all the airports in the country. That is why it is important to study new airports, including the approach charts, in advance and be ready for anything that is different. Short runways and/or high density altitudes need a good and conservative plan. Using 2.2 times the takeoff roll in the POH and 160 percent of the landing distance as a minimum runway length builds margins into any departure and arrival. And, in airplanes we live by margins.

Another important thing is to fully integrate the airplane’s navigational system into the plan. Most everyone is flying an airplane with GPS and that means to always fly with a flight plan in the GPS.

2. FLY IFR ALL THE TIME If a pilot is instrument rated and the airplane is equipped for IFR, it is a sheer waste of money to not file and fly IFR on every flight. The educational value is humongous and by far outweighs the few extra miles that might be flown. Likewise, it is an excellent plan to fly an instrument approach at the end of every flight. Then all flights will be nearly alike, with weather the only variable.

3. DON’T LEAVE PARKING UNTIL READY Those who fly in the Northeast know full well that the routes to and from another airport might not be the same. The stored GPS route thus can’t be reversed for the flight home. If the clearance is a strange one, record it carefully, then store it correctly in the GPS, then call ready to taxi. Some pilots just put the first waypoint in to get started, and then load the rest of the flight once en route. That can work so long as reaching that first waypoint leaves enough time for programming, but in-flight programming is heads-down work and can be a distraction. Also, it is useful to check a new route before taxiing. Any confusion is best eliminated before the airplane moves.

4. ALWAYS FLY WITH A CREW OF TWO We can’t really do that but we can divide things up with the autopilot. Treat the autopilot as the pilot flying and then play the role of the pilot not flying. Do all the verbal callouts. If you have passengers, explain that you will be doing this. Also, politely tell them to hush and that after takeoff you’ll tell them when chatting can begin and that it will again be banned some time before landing.

Using an autopilot properly requires full understanding. Before takeoff, make the decision about when the autopilot will be activated and make certain everything is set for it to smoothly take over and fly like you want it to. Turning on an autopilot that is not set properly can lead to bad moments.

5. DOUBT? DON’T! This is valid from before takeoff until the airplane is tied down or in the hangar. If there is any doubt in your mind about what you are about to do, don’t do it. One of the great challenges in general aviation flying is in properly using the freedom we have to make all the decisions. There is a lot of information to use in making good decisions and if there is doubt, it is best to go down another path. Or, to put the airplane back in the hangar.

Convective weather offers a good example of how this works. I started flying IFR before there was any radar in the airplanes or on the ground. The information we had on thunderstorms were reports from airports and the stability of the atmosphere. We learned a lot by looking at clouds and we listened for the existence of static on the low-frequency radio. If the clouds were billowing and/or there was static, that raised doubt about the wisdom of poking into any clouds and the only way to erase the doubt was to conduct the flight clear of clouds. Now there is a lot more information, but even with this the technique might be much the same as it was back in the bad old days.

Is there doubt about the weather for an approach? Certainly a report of visibility below minimums raises doubt and should send us scurrying to an airport with better reported weather. Airline crews are not allowed to fly approaches in weather that is reported as below minimums, and if we want to move the level of risk down a little we can do the same thing.

Is there doubt about landing with an hour’s worth of fuel in reserve? If so, land and buy fuel.

Those are just a few examples. Nobody else can know whether or not there is doubt in your mind about the wisdom of taking off, or continuing as planned, or whatever. Who knows? The pilot knows.

6. BE HONEST This is almost like the admonition about doubt but it comes from a slightly different direction. This is where we evaluate the relationship between our ability as a pilot and a proposed flight.

The simple fact is that flying ability is not a constant. It is something that ebbs and flows depending on personal situations, how a person feels and how much flying has been done recently. According to the rules you can legally fly with passengers if you have made three takeoffs and landings in the past 90 days. Do you honestly feel like that is a good idea? You can legally fly an approach to minimums if you have not done so in five months. Do you honestly think that is a good idea? The list is long but as long as we are conservative and honest with ourselves, the chances of getting in over the old head are lessened.

7. THINK AHEAD The phrase “thinking out of the box” is overused but it does have some application in flying. It has often been said that we need to think about what happens next and what happens after that, but we really need to continually project all the way to the completion of the flight, or, perhaps, at least to the edges of the box. A lot of things happen during an IFR flight or a VFR flight in other than clear weather. It is best if we put our minds around each and every one of the things that lie ahead as we fly along. Surprises are bad in airplanes and a truly active mind can hold most at bay.

8. SIMPLIFY I know that you might think all this makes flying more complicated but it doesn’t. The emphasis is on thinking about and doing what has to be done and not worrying about the trivia that has become such a great part of aviation training. For example, now that the ADF has been all but banished (at least in the U.S.) there are really only two kinds of instrument approaches, those with and those without vertical guidance. And you fly them all the same way, which is simply by programming the navigators correctly and then flying to keep the needles centered.

Another useful simplification is found in thinking of everything related to navigation in terms of track. This is easily possible with GPS, which gives quick and accurate information on the track being made good across the ground. That is what gets you where you are going. If you look at the chart and it shows 269 for the localizer, what (and all) that means is that if you track 269 degrees the nav needle won’t move. It is commonly called the localizer course but that is a description of the broadcast signal, not of what you have to do to keep the nav needle centered.

The only time you have to think “heading” is when you are getting radar vectors. And on windy days the air traffic control system should really think in terms of assigning tracks instead of headings to fly. That way they could assign the same number to fast and slow airplanes alike with the same results.

9. UNDERSTAND THE RISKS The risks found in light airplane flying are pretty simple. We lose airplanes in serious accidents for two basic reasons. Pilots lose control of the airplane and crash into the ground out of control. Or, they fly the airplane into something with it under control but in quite the wrong place. There are different ways to do either of those things. Mainly if we put every effort into flying the airplane within its envelope and mind the relationship between the airplane and terrain and obstacles, these risks will be managed.

10. UNDERSTAND THE ROLE OF THE FAA As a pilot earns certificates and ratings, there is exposure to how the FAA thinks flying should be done. Once the training is done there is little contact with the FAA unless a pilot bends something or makes an airspace mistake.

The rules the FAA makes can offer some good guidelines but most of the rules can be, and often are, broken without anyone noticing. Also, many of the rules are minimums, as previously noted, and the best risk management comes when FAA rules and guidelines are exceeded.

And then there are the magic words: “FAA approved.” Just remember that every part that breaks and virtually every pilot who crashes is FAA approved. In actual practice the main thing the FAA does for a pilot flying under Part 91 of the FARs is provide us with the best air traffic control system in the world. There are ATC problems in the areas around some big airline airports but that has to do mainly with a shortage of concrete. For the rest of us, it’s a great system.


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