From the first time we jumped on a plane, we heard our instructor imploring us to “stay in front of the plane!” Almost 50 years ago, it was much easier to close off the world and focus on our flights. However, today things are different. Let’s face it, many of us live in a world of endless interruptions, distractions, and intrusions. Our schedules have gone from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. five days a week to what seems like a 24/7 parade of Zoom meetings, emails, and texts. Our smartphone, that incredible provider of weather, NOTAMS and flight information, is also the main culprit in many incidents of distracted driving and even theft. So why should we care about all this? Well, aviation gives us the ability to turn off all those distractions and just fly. However, even on a professional level, this is easier said than done.
The headlines of October 23, 2009 read:Airline pilots miss airport by 150 miles.” It turns out that the pilots of an Airbus A 320 heading to Minneapolis accidentally overflew its intended destination. When finally contacted by ATC, he timidly turned around and landed. Predictably, this caught the attention of the TSA, federal and local authorities, and international media. Obviously, it was not the best day for the drivers.
The investigation revealed that they had their laptops and wifi turned on, and were having a heated discussion about the opportunities and pitfalls of offering their aerial work schedule during an impending airline merger. . But, you say, isn’t the Airbus highly automated, and shouldn’t that have saved those two airmen? Well, yes and no. Automation is only useful insofar as the pilot understands it and programs it. So how does all of this apply to me, the private pilot? We’ll take a look.
Aviation legend Antoine de Saint-Exupéryauthor of “Wind, sand and starshe says: “I fly because it frees my mind from the tyranny of small things. In other words, pilots need to put aside everyday distractions and focus on making good decisions before and during the flight. However, in general aviation, the distinction between personal and professional may be less clear.
We may be returning home after a long day at work or traveling with family and friends in a hurry and, of course, we are the sole decision maker. We shake our heads when we hear of a VFR pilot rushing into IFR conditions, violating a TFR, or running out of fuel. Yet in each of these cases, a little time spent carefully analyzing the flight parameters could have produced a better result. So how can we put those “little things” aside and focus on our flight?
Assess the risks
One approach is to ensure that before each flight, pilots take a moment to consider the flight risks involved and make a well-considered decision. You can use one of the risk assessment tools available on the internet or simply take the time to objectively examine the risks and alternatives. If you’re rushing to the airport from work an hour later than expected on a moonless night in the mountains, is that still the best decision? If the movements of your passengers are beyond your capabilities, step back, review all the data and make an informed decision based on the forecast conditions and your capabilities. A few minutes of silent risk analysis can set the record straight, help you make a better decision, and keep you ahead of the plane!
Have a preflight routine and stick to it
The second step is simple. Establish a thorough and comprehensive pre-flight routine and stick to it, especially if you’re in a rush. Make sure it ticks all the boxes of common sense and legality, and includes time for flight planning, proper aircraft maintenance, and the myriad of little details that make up a safe flight. security. Then, be aware when others break your upstream chain of events or when you start taking shortcuts. Since you’re the de facto gate agent for the flight, think about how your passengers fit into your routine, but make sure they don’t interrupt it. Visiting your plane, pre-flight checklists, and reviewing taxi and take-off are often your last chance to avoid serious problems and stay ahead of the plane.
There’s no such thing as an emergency takeoff
Go/no-go decisions are a part of life for every commercial, military, or private pilot, and in most cases, they are “go.” However, here in the world of general aviation, the phrase “when you have free time, fly” was written specifically for us single-engine jockeys. Our little birds, even with the incredible electronic gadgets we have today, are limited in the type and severity of weather conditions in which we can fly. Every pilot should have a set of personal weather minimums and stick to them. Just because we’ve got that crunchy new instrument ticket in our pocket doesn’t mean it’s time to launch into an awfully low ceiling or fire an approach to a 200 foot ceiling and half visibility -mile.
And while we’re on the subject of minimum standards, it’s a good time to add a card to the IMSAFE checklist. In addition to our weather decisions, our physical and mental preparation for flight is a go/no-go element. Oh, and how about those pesky passengers. If we want to reassure them, we can let them know that we have a backup plan. This may include a pending rental car, backup plane tickets, or a multi-day travel window. These are all good methods for managing risk, avoiding last-minute rush, and staying ahead of the plane.
“We shake our heads when we hear of a VFR pilot rushing into IFR conditions, violating a TFR or running out of fuel. Yet in each of these cases, a little time spent carefully analyzing the flight parameters could have produced a better result.
A few years ago, air show legend Patty Wagstaff wrote an excellent article in this magazine about the compartmentalization of attention. Simply put, good pilots learn to separate their flight from the ups and downs and distractions of everyday life. In the movie “For the Love of the Game,” Kevin Costner plays an aging baseball player who finds he can no longer shut out crowd noise, cat squeals, and his personal life. Pilots, like professional athletes, need to be able to leave these types of stressors behind and focus on the task at hand. One of the ways professionals enforce compartmentalization is through the sterile cockpit rule. Airlines only require flight-related conversations below 10,000 feet. So establishing ground rules about everyone’s role during takeoff, departure, arrival and landing is a good start.
Don’t let automation catch you napping
So back to that unfortunate airline crew who managed to miss the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Why didn’t automation save them? It turns out that these pilots had not programmed the published instrument arrival and approach into their flight management system. So when the Airbus reached the end of the magenta line, it simply held the last known heading. No horns or flashing lights, just a little change of indication and the computer does exactly what it was told to do.
Okay, so here well below flight levels, that amazing new flat screen cockpit display and shiny new multi-function autopilot we just wedged into the panel will most likely do exactly what you tell it to, and nothing what’s more. And worse, since we usually have touchscreens rather than touchpads, these little electronic rascals can absorb our full attention when programming, especially in turbulence. An overreliance on automation to save the day can be a significant obstacle to staying ahead of the plane.
Clear your mind and stay ahead of the plane
As pilots, we are at our best when we focus on the simple act of flying, master the basic tasks at hand, and spend our time thinking a hundred miles or more in front of the plane. We need to build a firewall between the hustle and bustle of the day’s events, turn off emails and texts, and focus on the decisions needed to ensure a safe flight. Good pre-flight planning requires reliable habits, discipline, and sound decisions made with flight safety in mind. And while we’re at it, let’s not get too comfortable with automation. It’s a good thing, but we’re still the pilot in command! Staying ahead of the airplane in the modern era requires us to cast off the “tyranny of the little things” and focus on flying the airplane. Fly safe!
Do you want to read more Pro Tips For Private Pilots columns? Check “How to Fly in Formation Safely” here.