Out of the Pattern Part 1 of 12: Setting the Standards

A little structure for conscientious pilots

January 1, 2002

To the Next Level

Oh sure, you can make your way around the traffic pattern and 'round the bend to your favorite $100 hamburger fly-out, but how are your flying skills otherwise? Have you really exercised your flying muscles lately? Afraid to fly with a friend or an instructor because you think you might not measure up?

Come along with us over the next 12 months as we explore ways to stretch our skills, become more proficient, and fly more professionally. As we get out of the pattern for some new challenges, we'll share advice on everything from dealing with emergencies to organizing your cockpit.

Besides interviewing pilots and industry experts for this series, we'll pass along tips for perfecting your flying techniques. But we won't stop there. We'll also put our own advice to the test and send members of the AOPA Pilot staff to fly with the new information in order to find out what really works and what doesn't. We hope that following along with us during this process will help you depart the pattern as a better pilot. — The Editors


What does it take to get to the top of a mountain? An expedition requires months, often years, of planning, training, and commitment.

It takes a certain attitude to climb a major peak.

Those pilots who mount flying expeditions, such as Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager, pilots of the Voyager aircraft, or Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones, pilots of the Breitling Orbiter 3 balloon require a similar commitment. But launching toward a mountainous goal, such as flying around the world, is very different from the day-to-day commitment it takes to be a conscientious pilot.

While we look to the explorers for larger inspiration, if we want to im-prove our flying on an everyday level, we must look to those pilots who fly conscientiously every day, no matter how mundane the mission, no matter how many times a similar mission has been completed.

Military pilots are typically regarded as diligent in this manner, thanks to their training. "When you learn to fly in the military, it's a strict system," says Gordon Fullerton, former space shuttle commander and current research pilot at NASA's Dryden-Flight Research Center (see " Pilots," page 132). "You're going to fly 250 knots, not 240 knots, on downwind, and there's a guy harping on you about it from the backseat."

While not every pilot is suited to wearing a uniform, there is a lesson in the level of detail that factors into military flying. Carl Pascarell, a formation flying instructor, airline captain, and former naval aviator, considers himself &ortunate to have "seen both the military and the civilian end of it." The current and former military pilots interviewed by Pilot?for this article each expressed satisfaction with the good habits and attention to precision ingrained in them during their military flight training. "From day one the military aviator is expected to show up prepared," says Pascarell.

And it takes discipline to put in the steady effort that makes each flight meet a certain standard. As we complete our initial pilot training in the civilian world — depending on the circumstances in which we train — we also leave a relatively structured environment. Once we have the certificate we must, to a certain degree, create our own standards and stick to them. Although the FAA lays out a few regulations for us to follow, it stays away from matters of technique: How we accomplish the preflight gathering of information, for example, is less important than the fact that it gets done.

This is the challenge, then: to create a set of standards for yourself that is simple to follow, covers the basics, and provides enough structure for each flight to increase your safety while maximizing your use of the airplane and the fun you have flying it.

First, define your goal. Completing every flight safely is a necessity. You can encapsulate this goal with a personal motto. For Joe Taylor, former Air Force and Air National Guard pilot and retired Delta Air Lines captain, the motto is "Never be too proud to make a 180-degree turn." While this may seem like a statement limited to those who stumble into instrument conditions, in fact it holds value in most every situation. The turn you make may be on the taxiway as the airplane shows a mechanical problem, or it may be before you get into the airplane, as Taylor relates.

"As a brand-new lieutenant commander, I walked out to an aircraft with multiple maintenance squawks — but no single item enough to ground the airplane — in marginal weather conditions, and I decided to scrap the flight. The squadron commander was furious. But when the situation went to the wing commander, he said, 'Wow, good decision.' Under a different set of circumstances, the flight might have been feasible, but that day it was a 180-degree turn right there on the ramp."

For every flight, take the steps necessary to accomplish it with your goal in mind. There are many details to attend to before a flight, which is one reason why checklists were created — to help pilots manage the minutia. But the manufacturer's checklists for inspecting and operating the airplane are only one facet of the preflight story. It's also easy to get bogged down in lengthy lists that do little more than sidetrack a pilot.

The best checklist is a simple one you make yourself, one that suits your flying and helps ensure you are prepared for each flight. A military-style mission overview or briefing follows a basic profile: the mission to be accomplished, performance parameters, fuel required, emergency procedures, frequencies, weather, and equipment. It assumes the flight is high-risk, and the pilot must understand specifically what lies ahead and prepare for almost every contingency. "You can hardly fly more than 10 hours off the carrier without something going wrong," notes Pascarell.

We tend to think that civilian flying is no more risky than driving, and 90 percent of the time this is true. But it doesn't hurt to prepare for each flight with the mindset that something could happen and to create a preflight overview that addresses potential problems. A sample overview for those of us flying VFR might include the destination or training goal, takeoff and landing performance for the airplane, fuel required, review of emergency procedures such as engine failure after akeoff at the departure airport, frequencies for the departure airport and destination, a preflight weather synopsis, and the pilot's gear, including headset, charts, flashlight, and handheld nav/com.

For an IFR flight, follow the experts' lead. In 1995, Jeppesen launched a version of its instrument approach charts that included its Briefing Strip — data culled from the approach procedure and placed in a panel at the top of the chart, initially developed by research engineering psychologist M. Steven Huntley and refined by the Air Transport Association, AOPA, and Jeppesen. Jim Terpstra, senior corporate vice president at Jeppesen, points out that this data consists of "the six or seven most important pieces of information" on the chart.

The other chart provider, NACO, has its own version of the Briefing Strip, and you can use this information to construct departure and approach briefings for your flights under IFR. But as Terpstra notes, it's possible to review too much information at one time. "If you overbrief, you don't have highlights anymore."

"One good solid brief takes care of it," says Taylor. Especially if you don't fly as often as you'd like, a simple preflight overview hits the important points and prepares you for the flight. Having the mindset that such preparation is necessary is something we can learn from the military example — but rest assured that military-trained pilots aren't the only ones who fly conscientiously. From his experience as an instructor pilot for Delta Air Lines, Taylor says, "It's a fallacy that the military always trains better pilots — the military weeds out people that don't belong." Some of the best pilots he's taught at the airline have been trained at civilian flight schools.

Fullerton agrees. "There are lots of very conscientious pilots out there." You can adopt this attitude the next time you fly. Instead of approaching your next lesson or flight in a passive manner ("the airplane is going to take me somewhere") think of what you can do before the flight to make sure all the bases are covered.


E-mail the author at julie.boatman@aopa.org.


Putting It Into Practice

Discipline — it's in the bag

I'm a highlight-style flight planner. Since my mind is geared toward problem solving, as part of my preflight overview I try to collect the tools that I will need to take care of my physical well-being and enhance my ability to gather information during flight. This works better for me than trying to plan for every possible eventuality that might crop up.

While this might sound like an excuse for not being prepared, my method of accomplishing these goals centers around my flight bag. I keep it organized. The bag is my discipline in action.

In that bag I carry an extra pair of glasses, two small Pelican-brand flashlights — one has a swivel neck so the beam can be directed toward the instrument panel from a shirt pocket or after clipping to a ball-cap visor — two pairs of earplugs, a signal mirror and a portable lightweight strobe light, a stopwatch, a small squeeze bottle of sunblock and a vial of eye drops, a small pair of binoculars, my headset, a handheld nav/com, a handheld GPS, a Leatherman utility tool, a couple of the chemical packs that allow me to empty my sump during flight (the sumped material is converted into a biodegradable, odorless gel), a pad of flight-plan notepads, a copy of The Cellular Pilot, a couple of Sic-Sacs, a couple of NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System (ARC 277B) forms, and enough batteries to keep everything going. Oh yeah, and one of those ubiquitous yellow AOPA Air Aid chart rulers. I keep a flight log during every flight. I use a spiral-bound steno pad. It also lives in my flight bag.

This bag is the starting point for every flight. Depending on the route of each flight and the time of the year, I add charts and appropriate survival gear as necessary. I also try to glean as much information as I can find about the weather and route of flight before I get to the airport.

For instance, in mid-November I flew the sweepstakes Bonanza from the AOPA Expo site in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to Mineral Wells, Texas. I placed an order for terminal area, sectional, and world aeronautical charts for the route and added them to my flight bag. I also read the pertinent chapters for that route in Flying America's Weather, by AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Tom Horne. Most of my flying is around California so I keep current Los Angeles and San Francisco sectional charts, a copy of the Pilots Guide to California Airports, and an IFR low-altitude en-route chart for my area.

I read a lot. The two books I find most helpful for keeping my mind disciplined for flight are Sparky Imeson's Mountain Flying Bible and Flight Operations Handbook and Wolfgang Langewiesche's classic, Stick and Rudder. Understanding Langewiesche's chapters titled "The Dangers of the Air" and "The Working Speeds of an Airplane" has helped me establish my rules of light-airplane flying, which are to keep the tail behind the nose (fly coordinated), don't run out of gas, and don't get too fast or too slow.

I made a short flight from my home base in Santa Maria down to Santa Barbara recently. I used the DTN weather on the AOPA Web site to obtain a standard weather briefing and plan my flight. The actual discipline required for this flight revolved around a thorough preflight inspection of the airplane, and making sure I got my flight bag aboard. I know that successful and safe flying requires discipline — this simple method works for me. — Steven W. Ells


E-mail the author at steve.ells@aopa.org.