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Losing the Edge

by Darren Smith, CFII/MEI
Getting the Most From Your Flight Training, February, 2008
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Once you get past all your training as a pilot, you quickly find that flying is all about keeping your technical skills sharp.  Disuse theory argues that skills which are not exercised are gradually lost.  So we schedule recurrent training, do our touch & go practice, and approaches with the hood.

But this is not enough.  Here, I offer nine elements of flying that need your attention.  Not just once in a while, but before, during and after every flight.  You've got to fight to stay on top of these things.  If you don't, you'll lose the edge which keeps you safe and keeps you alive. 

1.  Lack of Communication - You'd be surprised the constant stream of thought that flying requires.  Those that know this sometimes forget to communicate those ideas -- to co-pilots, CFIs, passengers, and controllers.  This is the most common error in the airline flight deck.  Instead of playing "I've got a secret," most professional pilots have learned to think out loud.  Even if they're alone.  Yes, talking to yourself while flying isn't bad technique -- it's great to keep you on track.  Inoculate yourself from this problem with full circle communication.  From checking logbooks carefully to be sure work has been performed properly to providing realistic briefings before all flights, good communication starts with you. Always confirm things if you have the slightest doubt.  When flying with another pilot, paraphrase things to make sure that both pilot's mental image of the situation matches. 

2.  Complacency - This leads quickly to loss of situational awareness.  Train yourself to be mentally prepared for the unexpected and you'll never become complacent.  One the of the best techniques for sharpening your skills is to learn from the mistakes of others.  By checking the NTSB database for your typical aircraft or type of flying, you'll become aware of what lead others to their death.  Pilots who play the "what if" game are always aware and ready for the dangers. 

3.  Lack of Knowledge - When lack of experience or understanding of what's needed for the task at hand sneaks up on you, losing the edge is the least of your problems.  Any training opportunity you can get will help you combat this weakness.  Whether its a flight with a CFI or one of the many free safety seminars at FAASAFETY.gov, you become a true professional when you know the risks and know the procedures of your aircraft.

4.  Distraction - Anything that takes your mind off the task at hand will cause you to lose your edge.  Fighting distraction means sticking with the basics:  Aviate - Navigate - Communicate.  Other techniques you can employ include sterile cockpit during critical phases of flight, delegate tasks to another pilot, and preplan as much as possible before the flight.  And whatever you do, if you become distracted during a checklist, start over. 

5.  Lack of Teamwork - Failing to seek and consider the input of others, whether a co-pilot, FSS, or ATC, will surely lead to your disaster.  We're all part of a family and we rely on each other for maximum safety.  These additional resources are safety barriers which add to your edge.  Your team has a common goal:  a safe flight.  The only thing that remains is solid communication and making conservative choices .

6.  Fatigue - Flying fatigued is more than losing your edge, it's a killer.  The body will get the rest it needs.  It can be at your choosing or at a time of it's choosing.  If you're making the choices, you'll never fly fatigued.  So it's a matter of recognizing symptoms and developing rest patterns which suit your lifestyle.  If you're flying on a particularly long flight, plan activities in the cockpit every 15 minutes to ensure your alertness.  Consider setting a 15 minute countdown timer for this purpose.  The good folks at NASA have found that drinking water reduces fatigue and if needed, use caffeine about 20-30 minutes before you think you need it. 

7.  Lack of Resources - a lack of resources to carry out the task at hand has led to many fatalities.  Keep your edge by lining up resources and ensuring they're present when you need them.  This could be as simple as scheduling frequent fuel stops.  Remember to practice good risk management and always weigh the worst case scenario against your health.  I bet you'll always make the right decision.  Finally, if you think "it" could compromise safety in any way, find the resource you need to mitigate the risk.

8.  Pressures - there's a relationship between safety and how quickly you must do something.  An old Navy practice was during any emergency, wind your watch first.  That gives you a chance to think and consider your options.  If you're getting pressure for action from an external source, clearly state your case until you come to a safe conclusion.  Remember, as PIC, you're still the "fall guy" when everything goes wrong.  As a last resort, maybe "NO" is the safest option. 

9.  Awareness - My most favorite questions are, "Where are you?  What comes next?"  Asking those questions have repeatedly kept me situationally aware during my flying.  Occasionally the answers to those questions gave me conflicting information.  Sometimes what I could observe disagreed with what I thought was happening.  Sometimes I had to resolve the conflict by using an outside source.  Asking such questions is like asking "What if?" and will keep you on the proper side of awareness so never disregard conflicting information or information that doesn't make sense.  Good systems knowledge, good procedural knowledge, and good safety habits/practices will promote awareness.

I hope these nine elements will help you keep the edge.  Fighting for the safest path will not only keep you alive but keep your skills at their sharpest.  One last thing before you go.  Keeping your personal life in check will help you in ways you can't readily measure.  Those hidden stressors can sneak up and knock you down when you are at your weakest.  Come to the airport with the right mindset (IM SAFE) and you'll find the rest of this easy.

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