Me, Myself, and I

Crew resource management for a crew of one

December 1, 2004

Last week you were flying with Perfect Pilot, the King of Crew Resource Management (CRM). Perfect knew everything, shared it willingly, was a great stick, helped little old ladies across the street, and even paid for dinner. This week, however, with the King gone, you're back to doing it all yourself, even (gasp) paying for your own dinner.

Flying both ways

Many of us spend a great deal of time flying in both one-pilot and two-pilot environments — how do we go back and forth with any degree of confidence and competence? Well, we could always fly as if we're alone. But how does that make for a happy, ego-free cockpit when there are two pilots in there? After all, when it comes to a pilot and his ego, there is often only room for the ego, and the pilot ends up catching a later flight.

On the other hand, we could always fly as if we're part of a crew, with one pilot flying and the other handling communications and support. Both pilots back each other up on navigation, in-flight decisions, and occasionally even join hands and sing Kumbaya. By bringing all the consistency and tools of a two-pilot environment to a one-pilot environment we can improve the way we fly in both. How can we bring all this to a crew of one — what can we do when CRM only involves me, myself, and I?


Let's start with briefings. Most weather emergencies start before you ever leave the ground, by not correctly interpreting what's going on up there. I usually get DUATS or a briefing from a dispatcher to start with when I fly a trip for my airline. But, if I have any question, I call flight service, whether I'm flying a Beechcraft, a Boeing, or a Bamboo Bomber. In this day of automated this and automated that, flight service is a great resource. Not all specialists are pilots, but some are, and even with the demise of the local FSS, many still have local knowledge they can share. This allows you to get another version or opinion on the weather conditions beyond what you pick up on DUATS or your favorite Internet weather provider. Weather is a huge cause of accidents, and the more folks you have to help you decipher the Greek that is climatology the better.

Whether you're getting or giving weather, departure, or approach briefings, it can be difficult to remember to ask all the questions and cover all the bases. So I made a briefing checklist to help me remember both the little things and the obvious things I might otherwise miss. It's easy to do — just sit down and think about all the things you want to consider before each phase of flight, write them down, and then boil them down into what you need. I carry these results with me through the flight, regardless of what, where, or with whom I am flying. If I am with another pilot, it gives me talking points to make sure my brief for the situation (or theirs) has covered everything needed. If I am by myself, it gives me all the points to think about as I am going through my own personal briefing. It can also help if you're not flying all that much. "Approach fuel," "evaluate alternate," and "alternate fuel," for example, are three things that are good to consider before you begin your descent for the approach. That covers: "Do I have enough fuel to complete the approach, miss, and go to my alternate with reserves?"; "Is my original alternate still my best choice?"; and "What's my exit, or bingo, fuel — how much gas can I burn before I have to go to my alternate?" Just having those three items as part of your approach briefing checklist can make you feel a lot more comfortable and in control.

Sterile up and down

If there are two of you, you can divide the distractions. One can do flight planning and aircraft prep while the other handles passenger issues. However, if you're a crew of one you are the lightning rod for all distractions. Things get pretty hectic, as it seems we always try to fit an hour's worth of flight prep into just 15 minutes. On top of that, your other half wants to know when to call the relatives with an ETA, the kids want to know if they can bring their bikes, and the dog thinks the tiedown rope is a chew toy. We can easily get distracted when we're getting ready to go. Personally, I'm the king of deciding to straighten the house five minutes before leaving for the airport. Delegate as much as you can (especially cleaning the house) to your passengers, or FBO folks, who will do most anything simply for a tip — from cleaning up the inside of the airplane to cleaning the windshield, to getting food (most important).

Once you're in the air, try to use the same concepts that you would use when there are two of you. Sterile cockpit is a term used in the airline industry that prohibits conversation in the cockpit unnecessary to the flight below 10,000 feet while not in cruise. You can brief your passengers on the sterile-cockpit concept and that you will let them know when you can chat. You can use it if you're by yourself too; things like tuning the ADF to the ball game or working on your next flight plan can wait until later.

A checklist equals a challenge

We generally use checklists in a challenge-and-response manner when we are in a CRM environment. One pilot reads the checklist item while the other pilot confirms the item has been completed and provides the appropriate response. If you're just one, then you are the challenge and the response. Go through checklists as you would if the other person were there. The key is to issue a challenge and a thoughtful response to every item. As you challenge, reach to the switch, verify the position, and respond with the actual switch position as you look back at the checklist. Make sure your response matches the checklist response. If it doesn't, do something about it before continuing.

Checklist discipline is huge — the only thing worse than not doing a checklist is reading a checklist but not actually checking anything. People get so used to whatever the correct response is; they say it or think it just like Pavlov's dog. Just running your thumb down the list without looking at or touching anything is even worse than not doing it. At least if you're not doing it, there's no false sense of security derived from thinking you completed the checklist.

Bring your instructor with you

We all know the value of training. But training is even more effective when we train for the environment in which we fly — the "train like we fly, fly like we train" concept. If you spend time going from a crew of one to a crew of two on a regular basis, train both ways. Have it clear in your mind what you want to do in each environment when something goes wrong.

We often talk about hearing the voices of our instructors in the cockpit. Now, I'm not sure I would tell my friendly medical examiner that I was hearing voices, but there are ways you can bring along some of your instructor's insight without having to resort to a séance. There is a lot we forget 30 seconds after we leave recurrent training, but making notes on checklists can help bring our instructor's valuable knowledge and counsel back when we need it most. You know, the little things, the skinny on what else to look for, or traps to avoid, during an abnormal or emergency situation.

You can also augment the "recurrent" manual given out during training with other useful information to make it your personal reference manual for when you go flying (I used to carry mine in a small Jeppesen binder). The peace of mind of knowing you have as much information as possible in front of you is priceless.

Autopilot is your bud

If you are hand-flying, who's backing you up? Nobody. When you're flying alone, automation is your only backup. Any advanced training you get these days, especially formal courses from a training provider such as SimCom, Simuflite, or FlightSafety International, is going to require that you are intimately familiar with the avionics and automation on your airplane. It's getting to the point now in many training programs that we are spending as much time programming the various boxes as we are flying the actual airplane. This can be a good thing, because if you are letting the autopilot fly, you are managing the airplane and backing the autopilot up. If you are flying by yourself, ain't nobody backing you up.

Once you've decided to make full use of the available automation, you need to know how to use it in every airplane you fly. Even if you are flying one airplane of a fleet of like airplanes, it is unlikely they are all the same. We fly different airplanes every day in the airline industry, but to assume every model is the same is to assume that the panel of two Cessna 310s made 10 years apart are the same. Not gonna happen. Different equipment, different installations. When the fur is flying, you can bet that your fingers will reach for something that's not there.

Emergency for one, please

When things do go south, how can you make yourself into two crewmembers when you need to? By giving yourself the gift of time and slowing the airplane down. Going from 240 knots to 120 knots effectively doubles the time you have available to solve a problem, whether it's an emergency or something as simple as a missing approach plate. Time in an airplane is the gift that keeps on giving.

When you're in trouble your emergency checklists are your lifeline — and that's a bad time to find out that you or they are not up to speed. Reading them periodically and knowing where to find each item can save you a lot of fumbling around when the time comes. Checking with the manufacturer to see if there have been any updates can give you the benefit of any improvements that have been made because of the experience (good or bad) of other pilots.

The trend in the airline industry has been toward reducing or eliminating most memory/recall items — the things you do immediately during a specific emergency without looking at the checklist. Personally, I don't want to end up trying to do something from memory, especially if there is a problem — I'm the guy that always comes back from the grocery store with only half of what I was supposed to get. So which half of your emergency checklist do you want to leave out? That annotated checklist that I made notes on is me, my instructor, and the people who built the airplane, all on our best day. When things go bad, I don't want to lean on the guy up in the air with a thousand things going on. I'd rather lean on the guys sitting on the ground with nothing but time on their hands, who have had all day to contemplate my exact problem and write down a step-by-step solution for me.

On the other hand, the best solution is worthless if you run into the ground while implementing it. If you're a crew of one, who tells you when you're about to do something stupid? Usually no one. Sometimes we can get so stuck on our ideas and interpretations that we don't accurately read what's going on around us. We can get so focused on the problem that we forget to fly the airplane. Stories abound of airplanes running out of gas or into a mountain while trying to solve a relatively minor problem. In the end, it doesn't matter how much wisdom you have or how many pilots you have in the airplane if you run out of gas.

What happens when you accidentally throw the other pilot out of the airplane — how are you at single-pilot crew resource management? If you're a control freak it's great. As the only pilot you don't have to worry about anyone else; you are the pilot in command by default and make all the decisions. Going solo, there is one less person to talk you into doing something stupid. Unfortunately, it can mean there is one less person to talk you out of doing something stupid too. It can also mean that you are doing the work of two and only getting paid for the work of one, or worse, only one of you is paying the bill.

My other half, Leja, and I live in that tenuous place where one pilot flies for a living and the other wants to. I knew that when we went flying for the first time; it was really important to her to show me she was a great pilot. I also knew, in a rare case of relationship intelligence, that it was even more important for me to keep my mouth shut. So, playing the part of Captain Mute, I simply watched her fly. Leja spends a lot of time flying both by herself and as part of a crew. I watched her talk through everything she did, sort of CRMing with herself during the entire flight. She flew as though she were part of a crew, using the same procedures and talking through them, whether there was anyone else there or not. The same basic concept can apply to us.

The key is always flying the same way — as part of a crew. It doesn't matter who's in the cockpit, whether it's Chuck Yeager and Neil Armstrong, or just me, myself, and I. CRM means using all the resources available in the air and on the ground — flight service, dispatch, annotated emergency and briefing checklists, and pilot reference manuals, just to name a few. It means every checklist is challenge and response, regardless of how many pilots there are to challenge and respond. It means bringing your instructor along and anybody else you can find in spirit — the more the merrier. If we can give ourselves more assets, more time, and bring all the consistency and tools from our crew of two to our crew of one, we can improve the way we fly in any environment.

Marc K. Henegar, AOPA 1073441, of Bend, Oregon, is a pilot for Alaska Airlines.