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15 Things Pilots Should Know

by Darren Smith, CFII/MEI
Getting the Most from Your Flight Training, April 2004

There are certain fundamental truths in aviation... what goes up must come down... airplanes are the quickest way to drain your wallet... et cetera.  What most people do not learn are the other fundamental truths:  the ones that keep you safe.  Aviation is a game of rules and if you want to survive, you must start with the basics and grow wiser.  Through trial and error, most pilots figure these out sooner or later and one way or another.  Lets start with sooner, and its much better to do it reading an article on safety rather than recovering from an unusual attitude.  This is a follow-up to the article, Things Your Flight Instructor Wish You Knew.

1.  Use the lights. Given the particularly dismal survival rate of mid-air collisions, why wouldn't pilots use as much lighting as possible when they are below 3,000 AGL or within 10 NM of an airport?  The FAA did a study and found an 80% decreased risk of bird strikes when the landing light was used continuously during flight.  Mike was flying along humming to his favorite music when ATC issued him a traffic alert.  Neither airplane saw each other until they were within a mile of each other.  Mike in his 172 and the pilot of the Lear had a better chance of seeing each other sooner by lighting up. 

2.  Practice your skills.  From running through a VFR flight planning exercise to doing pattern work, you are one who benefits from every investment of study or CFI time you pursue.  How are your landings?  How are your slips?  How are your approaches?  Do you remember how to practice stalls & steep turns?  When is the last time you practice your emergency procedures?

3.  Be sure the feet are down.  Try landing without the wheels down and it usually becomes the most expensive landing you'll ever have.  Insurance companies are starting to classify this as pilot negligence and certificate actions are usually next.  Don't let anyone distract you during critical phases of flight.  Steve learned this when a controller changed his landing clearance.   Get as much instruction as possible if you transition from fixed gear to retractable.  George learned this when he landed gear up when he forgot he had to put the gear down. 

4.  Avoiding silly things we should have thought of before.  Play the "what if" game next time you day dream about your last flight.  What would happen if there was an air bubble in the fuel line for one tank?  Silly things like switching gas tanks after run-up have caused pilots to crash on the departure leg.  Questions like that will help you to identify risks and manage against them.  How many of those can you come up with for your aircraft.  I'd like to hear your list.

5.  Take care of your equipment.  Sometimes the cost of a repair seems to outpace the risk associated with the problem.  After the accident, you'll probably change your mind on the risk-cost analysis you performed.  You put a tremendous amount of trust in the machine that defies gravity so it makes sense to give it the care and feeding that we fundamentally know it needs.  Assist with annual inspections to learn the real capability of your aircraft.  Paul, an adventurous pilot who loved performing spins and other mild aerobatics in his normal category aircraft saw the light when he saw the stress cracks on the way-too-small bracket & bolt that holds the wings onto his Cessna 182. 

6.  Be smooth.  In all your actions, smoothness will keep your flight safe and passenger friendly.  Whatever you do, don't over react to a flight condition because you might cause the problem to get worse.  Ernie was on final one day and felt himself getting too far behind the power curve which caused the sink rate to go up.  He over reacted and reacted too late with the addition of power.  After he added too much power, the nose pitched up and flattened his tie-down in a tail strike.  Remember your flight instructor's favourite phrase?  "Small Corrections." 

7.  Know the winds when you land.  One of the worst sins you might commit is to fail to see the windsock before you land so you know the runway conditions.  Its also useful to know other airport conditions which you can get from the unicom or ATIS frequency.  You simply must follow proper cross-wind procedure in order to have an uneventful landing.  You should always strive to land on the centerline, taxi on the centerline using proper aileron inputs.   Brandt a 80 hour pilot was landing with a direct crosswind.  His instructor gave him a cross wind briefing on downwind.  Brandt failed to keep his wing down into the wind.  As a result the wind got up under the wing and tried to invert him.  His flight instructor's proper rudder input prevented the disaster but they ran off the side of the runway.  Luckily they didn't hit any runway lights and the Grumman nose wheel withstood the rough terrain. 

8.  Fly Coordinated Always.   When airplanes are forced into a turn, use coordinated rudder inputs to make it clean.  In contrast, be sure not to make flat turns by using rudder only.  Uncoordinated flight at low airspeed always leads to a stall-spin event, another top three killer in general aviation.  Coordination is especially important in the traffic pattern:  upwind and base-to-final.   Keeping that ball inside the cage will ensure you do not end up short of the runway or just off the other end.

9.  Understand Weather.  Weather considerations cause a large number of general aviation accidents.  From pre-flight planning to enroute weather checks using Flight Watch or monitoring enroute ATIS/AWOS/HIWAS broadcasts, learn and understand what the weather is doing, and avoid getting too close to weather you shouldn't be involved. with.  Consider approaching your local community college to see if they have a meteorology course. 

10.  Follow the checklist.  Checklists are one of the most important pieces of safety equipment on the aircraft. They ensure proper configuration of aircraft for flight operations.  So why do people fail to use them?   Don't allow yourself to forget to finish them, they don't take up too much time.  Even if you have a simple aircraft, a checklist is a must.  The NTSB database is full of accidents which include the phrase, "pilot's failure to follow the checklist...."  When you're under stress, the checklist is a great tool to remind you of the right things to do.

11.  Know where you are.  Whether you are on a cross country or cleared for an ILS approach, pilots must be situationally aware at all times.  This not only includes knowing where you are, but being aware of other aircraft in the vicinity.  Improve your situational awareness by tuning in unicom frequencies for enroute airports.  What would happen if your GPS died?  When was the last time you did a cross country with pilotage and ded reckoning?

12.  Don't fly too close to the ground.  This is an absolute sin because its a leading killer in that top three list of general aviation accidents.  Whether you are buzzing or scud running, either can lead to premature impact.  Aside from rules related to safe altitudes, do you have the skill to maneuver for extended amounts of time at low altitudes?  Remember, even the experienced aerobatic performers need special permission to exhibit their close-to-the-ground flying.

13.  Fly proper traffic patterns.  Use standard traffic pattern entry when approaching an airport.  Entering on base to final or long final is efficient but understand and manage the risks associated with non-standard patterns.  Know the particulars about airports you aren't familiar with.  Things like traffic pattern altitude, right or left traffic are set up for a reason and available to all in the various directories good pilots use.  Stay close to the airport when flying your pattern.  Its good for two reasons:  1) if your engine quits, you are likely to be set up to land in the right place, and 2) you'll be visible to others who are approaching the airport because you are where they expect you to be instead of on a 4 mile final.  Of course you are using all your lighting to that you are easy to see.  In addition, your eyes are looking outside to find others who are near the airport.

14.  Know what's good enough.  A safe pilot has a passion for doing things correctly and goes beyond just following the rules.  Is your life valuable enough to seek out the knowledge to excel or are you operating on the "just good enough" principle?  Is your flying precise?  Are you flying on-altitude, respecting minimums, and truly seeking out all available information for your proposed flight?  It's not a matter of knowing what's good enough, its a matter of being satisfied you're prepare to execute a well thought out plan with any risk identified and managed.  Unless something happens and the FAA becomes involved, you are the ultimate judge of your own performance.  Be fair, but be critical.

15.  Never give up.  Experience grows a pilot's skill.  Rough experiences grow a pilot's wisdom.  Don't let the small things like a rough landing or minor scrape stop your progress.  Use the experience to grow your wisdom and resolve to improve your skills with remedial training.  See the associated article, Characteristics of Successful Pilots.

NEXT:  Characteristics of Successful Pilots>>

Safety Resources

IFR Risk Management
Things Your Flight Instructor Wish You Knew (Airplane) or Helicopter
Making Safe Choices
Flying Discipline
Hazardous Attitudes
Things Your Flight Instructor Worries About
Characteristics of Successful Pilots
Aviation Safety Programs
Personal Minimums Checklist (Airplane)
Flight Profile Flying - how to improve safety flying the profile
Introduction to Aeronautical Decision Making
    Hazardous Attitudes
What's Killing Pilots - What to do to save your life

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