Why Preflight Preparation and Planning Pay Off Big Time

One pilot's reality check that he still had so much more to learn.

pilot checklist
Taking the time to mentally review a flight in advance really pays off, especially when flying complicated instrument procedures in busy airspace.Pixabay

As a newly minted flight instructor in 2002, I thought I knew it all. I could recite regulations from Part 61 and 91 from memory and anticipate my students’ mistakes before they happened. I felt like my stick-and-rudder skills were at their peak, having just wrapped up the maneuvers training for the commercial pilot certificate a month earlier.

At that time, a pilot needed 3,500-plus hours to be considered for a first officer position at a regional airline, so that was out of the question. Fortunately, an opportunity arose to fly right seat in a Piper Cheyenne II turboprop with an experienced corporate pilot for a few trips each month. Finally! I was ready for some real flying while also gaining multiengine experience.

After a few hours of basic ground training on normal procedures in the Cheyenne, it was time for my first flight with passengers, from Cincinnati to Nashville. I studied the approach charts in advance, had my IFR en route charts folded and ready, and even brushed up on my buttonology to operate the cryptic KLN 90B GPS receiver.

So, how did the flight go? Well, to put it plainly, not good. A lot of it could be attributed to nerves in a new, fast-paced environment, with external pressures I wasn’t used to.

I felt like I couldn’t even accomplish basic tasks such as ATC radio calls, checklist call-outs or vertical-descent planning for the arrival. This is a common experience for most pilots stepping into a faster, turbine-powered airplane for the first time. It was an eye-opening experience for me, and one of those pivotal moments in my aviation career that I’ll never forget. It served as a reality check that I had so much more to learn about the real world of IFR and high-performance flying.

During that flight I felt like I was so preoccupied with reading and confirming normal checklist items that I lost sight of what tasks really mattered. After several trips, my brain finally caught up with the faster thinking required to fulfill the copilot requirements for that airplane, and I was able to better grasp the bigger picture of what was going on. Also, the Cheyenne captain did a great job of impressing upon me a very important point that I now keep front and center in my mind on every trip: You always have to pay attention to the little things, or “gotchas,” that are present on every flight.

At that stage in my flying, I had developed what I now refer to as “checklist blindness.” I was so focused on completing the checklist in a to-do-list fashion that it resulted in overlooking small, critical tasks that needed attention but weren’t on the checklist. This can quickly lead to ATC clearance deviations if you’re not careful, or in the case of a minor oversight, result in a bit of embarrassment in the company of passengers on board. The risk of this happening seems to increase when flying older airplanes that have been upgraded with a collection of modern avionics, each from different manufacturers. While all the systems might play nice together, there are often limitations or special procedures required when setting up for an approach or using the full capabilities of the autopilot.

For example, one of the Piper Aztecs I fly has a modern Garmin G500 glass flight display connected to an S-Tec autopilot. It’s a great combination, but the compromise in the installation is that the autopilot annunciator lights are not directly in the pilot’s normal field of view, and it doesn’t take much to bump the autopilot master switch to the off position when selecting one of the mode buttons. On more than one occasion, I’ve been in a situation focusing too much on the after-takeoff checklist, seeing the flight director bars and thinking the autopilot was engaged, only to find the airplane drifting off heading and pitch after completing the checklist.

On the other end of the avionics spectrum, integrated cockpits like the Garmin G1000 or G3X offer the pilot some additional help. They include important status items such as autopilot modes, CDI source and other navigation information front and center. This made a world of difference for a good friend of mine after he sold his Cessna 182 and transitioned to a Van’s RV-7A with a Garmin G3X glass-cockpit system. Almost instantly, he was more aware of what the airplane was doing at all times and eliminated those gotcha moments during our training flights together.

Regardless of how the cockpit is equipped, preflight preparation and planning can pay off big time here. Before each flight, after reviewing the weather and notams, I like to fly the trip in my mind, from start-up to shutdown, and try to identify any gotchas that might be present. Here’s a short list I came up with for a recent trip in a Cessna Citation from Las Vegas to St. Louis:

  • iPad fully charged, with charts and notams saved for offline viewing
  • Identify hot spots near taxiway/runway intersections on the taxi diagram at Las Vegas
  • Review the expected departure-procedure crossing altitudes for a "Climb via" clearance
  • Identify when to activate leg sequencing on the Garmin GTN 750 GPS navigator for the departure procedure
  • Disable bank limit on the autopilot to make sharper turns along the departure-procedure course
  • Calculate a descent plan to be able to maintain the minimum engine power required for the airplane's engine anti-ice system during the arrival
  • Disable GPS steering (GPSS) through the heading channel of the autopilot when getting vectors for the ILS approach
  • Identify when to switch the CDI source from GPS to VLOC to fly the ILS approach
  • Decide when to select the approach mode on the auto­pilot to allow it to track both localizer and glideslope

While some of these items are procedural and might be routine for some on every flight, I’ve found taking the time to review them in advance really pays off, especially when flying complicated instrument procedures in busy airspace. It doesn’t take much for unfavorable weather, ATC demands or other complications to cause a temporary distraction. Having rehearsed the potential gotchas in advance, you’ll be much better prepared and less likely to get caught off guard by the little things that are so important on any given flight.