New Pilot

A Stranger in the Cockpit

June 1, 1994

You're not really you who's flying the airplane?

The student pilot was having one of those days. Each constant-altitude turn he tried would crank off into an incipient spiral requiring a hurried recovery. Slow flight this day was little more than a succession of pre- stall buffets in an agonizing, mushing descent. The landings — oh, those landings — were like so many pianos rolling out of the rear of a truck.

Meanwhile, the instrument trainee was way behind the airplane. His track along the airway looked like one of those squiggly lines they print on the chart to show that the route is not usable. Flying a 30-degree intercept to a VOR approach course, the course deviation indicator was slowly closing on the center from the left. Oops, there goes the altitude. Got to get it back. Wait. Was that radio call for us? Contact Approach now on...say again? A wing is dropping because the pilot forgot to let go of the wheel while leaning over to switch frequencies; the airplane is leaning with him. Recover from the unusual attitude. Meanwhile, the CDI, having centered to herald our interception of the final approach course, now swings toward a full right deflection, quickly, because we are so close to the VOR and have failed to turn on course. But turning on course is the last thing on the pilot's mind. More important, for some reason, is to tune the ADF to a nearby station — even though the ADF has nothing to do with the procedure now being executed.

If this were a video presentation, I would now freeze the frame and step to the podium to make the comment that the two pilots whose woes we have just witnessed are among the best I have flown with — good, smart, safe pilots who can handle tough in-flight situations. What the unfortunate antics depicted above demonstrate is that even good pilots can find themselves overmatched by an insidious enemy that is always waiting for a pilot to let his guard down. On the days in question, one pilot was very tired and the other overstressed when they climbed into their airplanes. They should have canceled their flights, but instead, at the end of a long day of work, domestic errands, driving the kids to Little League, and generally rushing around like mad, they had worn themselves down below a safe threshold for piloting an airplane — but didn't realize it.

Fortunately, each was on a training flight — probably the best time to discover your limits in such matters, not to mention the toll that can be exacted for exceeding them. In that sense, the flights were far from wasted efforts. When we shut down the airplane back at the hangar, the fellow who had tried to practice steep turns for his upcoming check ride spent an exasperated few minutes sitting in the cockpit running through a list of possible reasons for his discouraging performance. Nothing he came up with seemed on target. Finally he said, "I don't know if it matters, but I have been working 10-hour shifts for the last few days." The frazzled instrument pilot also shook his head in disgust. "Maybe I'm trying to get too much done before leaving on my business trip next week. I really wasn't ready to fly today." Then he added, "I can imagine how that would have felt, up there in real clouds, all alone." Not a bad lesson.

Had they not pinpointed the source of their problems so quickly, I would have suggested that some form of fatigue or stress was the likely cause of the decline in their usually good performance. Having seen the effects of fatigue on other pilots — myself included — I had no doubt that this was the cause, because it was foggy thinking, not a lack of familiarity with the task at hand, that put the outcome of their flying in question. It would have looked to an observer like rank incompetence, but that is the essence of the problem: When you are tired or under unusual stress, you are not the pilot you think you are. You become a stranger, sort of, and like your mother used to warn you, it isn't smart to go off with strangers.

Now, how to avoid the "diminished capacity" problem — I think the key is in recognizing it; many people would not fly if they knew how tired or sick or distracted they were, but it's tempting to brush off the signs as faint-heartedness about the flight at hand and instead say to yourself, "I can handle it." You need not have run in the local charity footrace, gotten three hours' sleep that night because your legs ache, changed a flat tire on the way to work in the morning, and then had a rotten day at the office, followed by an argument with your spouse, to be depleted enough to consider grounding yourself. Yet some pilots won't consider anything less than that sort of high drama as a reason to stay put.

Cumulatively, however, less obvious depletions, such as a few longer than usual workdays or just one night of little sleep, can put you below practical test (or safety) standards that you usually meet with ease. So it may be fortunate indeed that some pilots have a "bad air day" during training, see how much it can affect them, and avoid repeating the adventure.

Remember "I'm safe," the personal check list the Airman's Information Manual gives us for gauging our fitness for flight? It goes like this: I am physically and mentally safe to fly, not being impaired by: Illness, Medication, Stress, Alcohol, Fatigue, Emotion.

When should "I'm safe" kick in? Any time there is doubt. Ignoring fatigue probably is the most common violation of "I'm safe," but ignoring illness is a frequent offender, too. Flying despite a cold because "the check ride is next week" has led to many an unproductive, and an occasionally painful, ride. Ignoring or suppressing emotion — flying angry after a domestic dispute or a tax audit, perhaps — can also be a ticket to nowhere. Stress, such as that imposed by attempting to make a flight- training schedule conform to an artificial deadline, can lead to failure and discouragement, even when you are healthy, rested, and at peace with the world. What is an artificial deadline? Two common examples are, "I'd better get finished up by the end of the year," and "My written expires at the end of next month." Heck, take the written again. It will be the perfect brush-up for the oral portion of your check ride. Goals are important, and they help keep you focused, but they should be realistic, keyed to meaningful deadlines, with enough built-in flexibility to keep the project manageable as well as fun.

Okay, you know you're not up to flying, but you are worried about upsetting an instructor or a passenger by scrubbing the flight on short notice. Bite the bullet. The instructor will think it a good call, and most passengers will praise your concern for (their) safety. Depending on how run-down you really are, it may also be possible, after acknowledging the problem, to compromise by scaling back the training flight's length or scope, or finding another pilot to assist you in bringing off that cross country you have been promising your friends for this weekend.

Alcohol? You know the rule, and it should be considered a bare minimum. (Federal Aviation Regulation 91.17 prohibits pilots from acting as crewmembers within eight hours of consumption of any alcoholic beverage.)

Medication? Quoth the AIM: "The Federal Aviation Regulations prohibit pilots from performing crewmember duties while using any medication that affects the faculties in any way contrary to safety. The safest rule is not to fly as a crewmember while taking any medication unless approved to do so by the FAA."

So we are mostly concerned with stress, emotion, and fatigue — because they are the ones that can really sneak up on you.

In my first logbook, there is an entry that reads simply, "Dad." I was sitting at my desk at work one morning when my sister called to tell me that my father had been rushed to the hospital. I live several hundred miles from the old homestead, and I wanted to get there quickly. Only an airplane would do. But with the wave of worry passing over me, I did not consider myself in the right frame of mind to fly a three-hour trip alone. Weather was VFR, and I knew the route well, but I knew that the first link had been placed in a possible accident chain. Acting on my own judgment and appeals from the family, I made a few telephone calls. One of the local instructors and his student readily agreed to accompany me on the flight. They dropped me off at the destination and returned home. I handled all the flying duties on the way, but just knowing that there was another pilot in the next seat relieved part of a tremendous burden.

A family emergency surely must rank at the top of most pilots' lists of occasions on which they might feel compelled to fly despite valid arguments to the contrary. It can't be postponed, like a flight test, or canceled, like a sightseeing ride that has been promised. But a pilot under the gun must always be able to remember that, even in easy weather with a perfect airplane, a "stranger" may be walking in your shoes and sitting in your cockpit.

Dan Namowitz is a multiengine-rated commercial pilot and CFII living, flying, and instructing in Maine.

How It Works: Pondering the Transponder


In the days before widespread radar coverage, aircraft on instrument flight plans had to report their position to air traffic control, whose job it was to make sure two airplanes didn't try to occupy the same space at the same time. That's still ATC's task, but almost universal radar coverage means that the controller on the other end of the radio is as likely to tell you where you are than the other way around. For the vast majority of pilots, radar coverage and the airborne transponder have become a fact of life.

Radar works on the principle of sending out high-power radio waves. The ground station then listens for the waves to be reflected from anything flying in the coverage area. Endemic to this, the primary, system are several shortcomings, including relatively inaccurate distance and altitude feedback. To improve the quality of radar coverage, the Secondary Surveillance Radar System was born, and with it the transponder. Piggybacked to the standard ground radar system is a second transmitter sending out a signal at high frequency, specifically 1030 MHz. Transponders on the aircraft, upon receiving this signal, reply with a signal of their own, at 1090 MHz.

This beacon system greatly improves the accuracy of the displayed targets on the radarscope. In addition, more information from the aircraft may be relayed to the ground station. One of the first things you probably noticed about the transponder is the four-digit octal code selectors. By pulsing the transmission back to the ground in a specific fashion, the transponder can respond with as many as 4,096 individual codes.

Selecting a response code (or squawk, as it's often called) offers several advantages. A universal code, such as 1200 (for VFR operations), 7600 (for lost communications), and 7700 (for emergencies), can be easily read by the controller on his scope. What's more, a discrete code can be issued by the controller to help separate your airplane from others near it.

Information sent to the ground radar station including just the code dialed into the front of the transponder is called Mode A. By impressing upon that signal altitude information, we get the Mode C. This requires the aircraft to have an encoder, which sends the barometric signal to the transponder.

There's also something called the ident button; this merely sends an additional information blip on the transmission that makes your depiction on the scope glow. Finally, you will notice a reply light on the transponder's facia. It is connected to the transmitter section and tells you when it is replying to an interrogation. It doesn't, however, confirm your correct code or altitude.

Another type of transponder, the Mode S, is being phased in. This system allows ATC, once the ground equipment is in place, to selectively interrogate transponders. Right now, all Mode A and C units respond whenever in range of an interrogating ground facility.

That's the theory. In practice, there are a only a few things to consider when operating the transponder. Typically, we are taught to leave the unit in Standby mode during startup and taxi. Most transponders use a vacuum tube in the transmitter and require some warm-up time. Also, selecting the transponder On or in the Alt mode on the ground could confuse local radar. If your airport is served by radar on the field or nearby, it is possible that your transponder might respond to the interrogations and create an image on the controller's scope. Obviously, he doesn't care about taxiing aircraft, so it's just a nuisance.

Other transponder problems include ATC's inability to see you on secondary radar. Sometimes cycling the transponder from Alt or On to Standby, and back will cure this. More often, it's caused by poor radar coverage or a grease-covered transponder antenna on the aircraft belly.

Sometimes controllers will say that your airplane's altitude indication is off. Usually, the controller will politely remind you of the local altimeter setting — this is a hint that he thinks you are not at your assigned altitude. If you are where you ought to be, ask him for your Mode C readout. If it differs from your true altitude by more than 300 feet, he will typically ask you to "stop altitude squawk," which means you ought to switch to the On (or Mode A) setting. The encoder sends an uncorrected altitude signal; it is skewed for the current altimeter setting at the ground station.

Incorrect codes have been known to appear on the controller's scope, even though the right one shows on the transponder's face. That means it's time to select another code — the knobs sometimes stick between numbers — or have the avionics shop take a look. For reasons of correct transmitter alignment and altitude information, the transponder and encoder system is required to be inspected every 24 months. Finally, remember that Federal Aviation Regulation 91.215(c) requires that the transponder and encoder are to be used in flight; it is strictly illegal to intentionally turn off an operating system in flight.

New Pilot's Journal: Copilot, Dear


The weather is nearly perfect — 77 degrees, with just a few billowy clouds floating around at 3,000 feet. I had been looking forward to this day from the moment of my first flying lesson. Today, four days after receiving my private white slip, I am taking my wife flying, her first flight in a small airplane.

Previous conversations with her had gone something like this:

"Sweetheart, I can't wait until we can fly somewhere together. I know you are going to love it."

"We'll see. Did you get a chance to take the trash out?"

And then there was:

"Hon, I've scheduled my flight test for next Wednesday. Where would you like to go over the weekend?"

"We'll see. Can you pick up a pizza on your way home tonight?"

What man, when met with such overwhelming enthusiasm from his soul mate, wouldn't respond with an even higher level of motivation? Nothing was going to stop me from passing that practical test.

Of course, when I was a kid, "we'll see" meant something between "as soon as your deadbeat Cousin Louie sends us the money he owes us" and "as soon as there is world peace." Times change, though — don't they?

Here we are, on the way to the airport bright and early for our first flight together. Funny thing, no matter how I played with the air conditioner, my wife wouldn't stop shivering. Must be a wheel out of balance on her side of the car. Of course, unlike her, I was a bit nervous. After all, this flight was her introduction to general aviation. If she had fun and enjoyed the flight, we could look forward to years of weekend trips. Maybe we could even get an airplane of our own. If I screwed up and botched the whole thing, I could look forward to years of conflict.

I had reserved an airplane for 9:30 a.m. The prior renter and his instructor were a little late getting back. The wife and I went to the fixed-base operation for coffee (to warm her up) and to watch the airplanes take off and land. I knew that the activity would give her a chance to relax, watching the airplanes, one after another, accelerate and lift off toward the clouds.

One lovely little Piper zoomed down the runway, rotated when halfway down the 4,000-foot strip, climbed to about 30 feet, and then pierced our ears with silence. Its engine quit. We watched, dumbfounded, as the airplane started its descent and disappeared behind a row of hangars that blocked our view. In all of my 53 hours of flight time, I had never seen anything like it.

We all jumped in our cars and headed toward the end of the runway. As we cleared the row of hangars, we could see the airplane, nose deep into the tall weeds that surround the lake at the end of the airport, its landing gear deposited in various locations along its previous path in the grass.

Thankfully, no one was injured — embarrassed and frightened, yes; injured, no.

Shortly thereafter, our Piper 140 arrived. As I performed the preflight, my wife, rather lethargically, followed me around the airplane. She seemed to be a tad ill, judging by the glassy look in her eyes. But not to worry, she'll be fine once we get in the air. A little incident like this certainly couldn't affect her enthusiasm for her first flight with me, could it?

I had the forethought to borrow an intercom and an extra set of headphones so that she could listen to whatever was going on, dampen some of the noise, and feel more of a participant than just a passenger.

As we taxied down the ramp toward the runway, I reached over and squeezed her hand, reassuringly. Have you ever tried to squeeze a frozen fish? I couldn't understand why her hand was so cold and so wet. It was, by now, more than 80 degrees outside and hotter still in the airplane.

At the hold-short line, I announced my intentions to take off and pulled onto the runway, and off we went. At about 700 feet, my wife started breathing on her own again and lost much of her blue pallor. We flew west for a while and then on to an airport about 60 miles north. Landing there, we went into the restaurant for another cup of coffee. I could tell that my wife was starting to relax. Some of the circulation was returning to her knuckles.

We took off again, flying back to home base, straight down the coast, enjoying the view of the beaches, condos, and magnificent homes. After landing without incident and once back in the car, my wife actually smiled. She had apparently recovered from whatever virus had attacked her earlier.

I believe that she is becoming an avid aviator. Even though, when on our second flight, her door popped open shortly after takeoff, she continues to climb into the airplane with me, on a mutual quest for adventure. She is "of the right stuff."

Les Hall, is a private pilot who has been flying for more than five years.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz | Aviation Writer

Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor.