Turbine Pilot

Driving the Machine

February 1, 2002

Who needs a flight operations manual?

You're stepping up to a turboprop or basic turbojet; you've been through the training course and simulator, received the nod from the insurance company (with restrictions), and are ready to hit the flight levels. Chances are that you have never flown anything as fast or gone as high as you have during those first few flights in the new aircraft. It's all new and different — glorious and exciting — every flight comes with a rush.

But there's a lot of stuff to remember, not just the requirements of the airplane flight manual, but also additional regulations and operating procedures, and limits to stay ahead of so you don't fry those expensive turbine engines. And it all happens so fast! If you're lucky, you have an experienced pilot to accompany you on your discovery rides. Doing so provides you with the experience to stay ahead of your beautiful beast. But even with an experienced hand in the right seat, staying ahead can be a chore.

Much of it has to do with the speed at which things happen, but to an even greater degree it has to do with more things to accomplish. While the easy power management of the turbine is a blessing, the accompanying curse is all the associated gadgets designed to keep you out of trouble and "make your life easier." Altitude alerters, yaw dampers, flight management systems, autopilot and pressurization controllers, and traffic alert systems all vie for your attention. If you stayed awake during aircraft transition class and got fair grades in the simulator, you should be in pretty good shape.

The real test comes when you try to put it all together, making the airplane work for you in a predictable and safe manner. And much of what has to be done occurs either before or after the flight — flying turbines should be a total system approach, not just driving the machine.

Since we regularly use a checklist in the aircraft, why not a checklist for the entire operation — something to ensure that all aspects of operating the aircraft are handled the same way every time? This includes items that go beyond the cockpit, such as insurance requirements, handling passengers, and making sure the postflight paperwork is completed correctly, required maintenance gets done, and your personal standards and limitations are committed to paper.

The airlines, the military, charter operators, and corporate flight departments record all of this and more in a flight operations manual (FOM). They want to make sure that all flight crewmembers not only operate the aircraft the same way, but also that they understand the standards and limits dictated either by the FAA or the operator. In effect, the FOM communicates standards, limits, and expectations set by the operator. But, to a greater degree, the manual creates a structure within which to operate.

Standards and limits

Since civil aviation is probably the most regulated activity this side of nuclear power generation, pilots know their rules and abide by them. The federal aviation regulations (FARs), the airplane flight manual, and insurance limitations are all familiar to us. Each of these specifies minimum standards and limitations. In other words, these are the absolute minimum conditions within which we can operate.

Yet, minimum standards may not serve us well under all circumstances; we often increase the minimum standards based on personal capabilities, environmental conditions, and general prudence. For instance, night VFR when the weather is right at 1,000 feet and three miles makes us uneasy — 1,500 and five sounds better, especially when obstacles line the route of flight; zero-zero weather for IFR takeoff is legal but generally not advisable; and 45 minutes of fuel reserve may not be enough for a person with little time in a gas-gulping turbine.

Higher limits like these are especially important for someone new to a fast, complex aircraft. Conversely, even if you've been at it for a while, having standards and procedures in writing tends to make you more likely to abide by them. Setting limits before you need them — and sticking to them — are the marks of a professional, to say nothing of the relationship between old and bold pilots.

Even the pros adhere to limits beyond the FARs. Not many airlines permit circling approaches in less than VFR weather, for instance. Similarly, approaches or departures when thunderstorms are within five miles often are not permitted. The point is that minimum standards are just that, minimums; improved risk management and safety are often achieved when the standards are raised.

But the FOM is more than just a repository for additional standards and limits; rather, it provides a comfortable envelope within which to operate your aircraft. Important elements of that boundary are SOPs.

"Establishing and adhering to adequate standard operating procedures [SOPs] and flight crew decision-making processes improve approach and landing safety" — this is the number-one conclusion from the landmark Flight Safety Foundation Approach and Landing Accident Reduction study published in 1999. Its authors feel so strongly about this conclusion that the report's number-one recommendation is: "Nations should mandate and operators should develop and implement SOPs for approach and landing operations. The data showed that the absence of SOPs resulted in higher exposure to approach and landing accidents and incidents."

But this is just for airlines and large corporate or charter operators, right? Not really. In the 1950s the military aircraft accident rate was alarmingly high, more than 10 times what it is today for certain missions. The services found that the World War II "kick the tires, light the fires" philosophy didn't work well in the jet age. In an effort to save lives and to keep from running out of aircraft, all services instituted major standardization programs that provided aircrews with detailed SOPs and evaluated compliance with them on a regular basis. The resulting accident rate reduction was dramatic.

The airlines discovered the same thing in the 1960s as they too entered the jet age. Pilots attempting to fly the new swept-wing airliners using the same techniques and procedures they did during the DC-6 era led to a number of notable and tragic accidents. As a result, all airlines developed comprehensive SOP programs, with little urging from the FAA.

During transition training to turbine-powered aircraft great emphasis is placed on the use of standard procedures and techniques. However, there is a tendency to let the contents of the training vendor's manual fade into obscurity and the book become a dust-collector on the shelf, at least until it's time for recurrent training.

While the connection is tenuous, the fact that the accident rate for business flying is often more than 10 times higher than the airlines' accident rate may speak volumes about the need for SOPs and their wrapper, the FOM. The former category often involves just one pilot and piston-powered aircraft while the latter usually employs two professional pilots and a turbine-powered aircraft. The key point is that corporate flight departments almost all have flight operations manuals that incorporate detailed SOPs; the pilot simply flying for business rarely uses such guidance.

The real value of SOPs comes from their familiarity and the forethought that goes into their development. Doing things the same way every time gives us a point of reference and a cozy place to go when things get tough. We revert to both early and familiar experiences when things start getting weird. Having well-known SOPs to fall back on may save the day during an emergency or crisis. Although we are not running an airline or a military squadron, we can profit from their hard-won lessons.

Even if you are the only person in your "flight department," a manual serves as a communications vehicle for all those who deal with you regarding the aircraft. The accounting department or your accountant should know how you handle aircraft receipts, how to code them, and how invoices are to be paid. Your administrative assistant has to know how your aircraft schedule works, where to get rental cars, and what the closest hotel is to the FBO. The aviation maintenance technician who works on your aircraft needs to know how you record aircraft discrepancies, how you prefer that they be signed off, what maintenance record tracking system you use, and how entries are to be made.

Perhaps the most essential element in having an FOM is that the act of drafting one (and keeping it up to date) requires you to think your way through exactly how you want to operate your aircraft. In doing so you predefine every aspect of its operation — it forces you to think. Not that you don't normally think, but doing so in the very specific terms required by the FOM provides you with the perspective necessary to ensure that all aspects of aircraft operation are covered.

Communicate your intent to operate to a higher standard to those who count — yourself and your insurance company. A number of underwriters either require or prefer their clients to operate under an FOM; the attractive consequence of doing so may be lowered premiums.

Once you've decided what should go into your FOM, carefully draft the manual, borrowing liberally from reference sources such as the training and procedures manual you received during transition training. Since plagiarism is the finest form of flattery, the training provider should be duly impressed if you lift applicable portions of its training manuals, although it may appreciate attribution for the compliment. Yet, what you lift must fit your operation.

What you put into your manual should reflect the reality of how you operate, not how you wish to operate some day. Record what works for you and your aircraft. Standards, limits, and procedures must reflect your ability, aircraft equipment, and your environment.

Once you've created your magnum opus, keep it up to date. You should periodically review the manual to make sure it reflects the reality of what you are actually doing with the aircraft. The death knell for a manual is for your operating procedures to evolve away from what the manual says without an update.

The systematic review of your aircraft operations and putting them in writing is a wonderful means of rehearsing your actions before they happen; consider it a combination personal and aircraft Cliffs Notes. We all want to be pros in our flying; the FOM is an essential first step to professionalism.

John Sheehan is president of Professional Aviation Inc.

Flight Operations Manual Outline

Extensive outlines are available from the FAA and corporate operators, but the following items serve as a good starting point:


  • Mission of the aircraft
  • Safety policy
  • Operational control
    — Scheduling
    — Flight-following procedures
  • Use of the aircraft
  • Recordkeeping procedures

Flight operations

  • Health and fitness
  • Duty and rest time
  • Standard operating procedures (all phases of flight operations)
  • Abnormal operations
  • Operating limitations
    — Pilot
    — Aircraft


  • Maintenance program
  • Discrepancy control
    — Recording discrepancies
    — Deferred maintenance
  • Maintenance provider selection
  • Maintenance away from home — JJS

Sample SOP Segment

  • Have departure, initial segment, and departure airport approach charts readily available.
  • Compute takeoff safety data/create takeoff and landing data card.
  • Ensure that the chosen/assigned runway is suitable regarding length, width, and surface. Note any climbout limitations regarding required climb gradient or controlling obstructions prior to departure.
  • Conduct a takeoff briefing or self-briefing, to include:
    — Speeds, power settings, aircraft limitations, and special conditions.
    — Communications and navigational frequencies for normal departure and emergency return.
    — Departure procedures.
    Initial assigned/chosen altitude.
    — Emergency/contingency procedures.
  • Use an appropriate aircraft lighting configuration to ensure that you are visible.
  • Select go-around mode on flight director (if installed) for initial pitch attitude guidance.
  • Cross-check pitch and roll indications with all available instrumentation.

Business or Executive?

Business flying — The use of aircraft by pilots (those not receiving direct salary or compensation for piloting) in conjunction with their occupation or in the furtherance of a business.

Corporate/executive flying — Aircraft owned or leased and operated by a corporation or business firm for the transportation of personnel or cargo in furtherance of the corporation's or firm's business and which are flown by professional pilots receiving a direct salary or compensation for piloting. — JJS