Proficient Pilot

Reality training

February 1, 2007

Barry Schiff retired from TWA in 1998 after more than 30 years with the airline.

Last month's column was a discussion of the differences between stalling a lightly loaded airplane with a forward center of gravity and one that is heavily loaded with an aft CG (see " Proficient Pilot: CG at the Aft Limit," January Pilot). The differences can be profound and can catch off guard a pilot who has stalled airplanes only in the training configuration (empty rear seats and baggage compartments). I suggested that pilots explore that end of the operating envelope to see just how differently the airplane behaves when fully loaded. This is best done, of course, with an instructor.

The discussion reminded me that there are several maneuvers performed in lightly loaded airplanes that often mislead pilots into believing that such maneuvers are easily performed with an adequate safety margin.

When practicing a go-around in a lightly loaded airplane at sea level, for example, a pilot usually has little difficulty transitioning from approach to climb. He concludes that a go-around is no big deal but does not appreciate what it is like to do the same in a heavily loaded airplane, especially at a higher density altitude. Someday, though, he might have to execute a go-around during real-world conditions and discover the hard way how challenging the maneuver can be. It is little wonder that some fail to survive the experience.

This, I think, is where the innovative instructor can do much to better prepare his students. It is one thing to train a pilot according to the FAA's practical test standards but quite another to go beyond these minima and prepare him for conditions he might encounter when on his own and carrying passengers.

Every student, especially those preparing for complex and high-performance endorsements, should be given a dose of what I call "reality training." Nothing teaches like experience. Being a co-pilot on an airline or a corporate jet provides reality training because it allows you to observe how an experienced captain copes with situations to which you might have never been exposed. This is the best reality training a pilot can obtain and is excellent preparation for becoming a pilot in command.

I was grateful that my first Boeing 707 landing in a stiff, gusty crosswind on a wet runway was under the watchful eye of an experienced captain, and that my first heavy takeoff on a polar flight from London to Los Angeles on a warm day was critiqued by one of TWA's graybeards. There was so much that I learned by observation, such as how to weave through a squall line over Kansas or caress the edge of a western-Pacific typhoon.

I'm certain that if I had been the captain during my first lightning strike that I would have needed a new uniform and that my pulse rate would have climbed through the cockpit ceiling. But seeing the seasoned captain to my left taking it in stride had a calming effect. (A strike can sound like someone on the flight deck shot a .45-caliber pistol.)

General aviation pilots get their experience the hard way, by doing it on their own. An innovative instructor, though, can help to prepare them for the real world with imaginative and carefully crafted lesson plans.

Takeoff and climb from a high-density-altitude airport, for example, can be simulated and practiced at a sea-level airport on a cold day. It is a matter of limiting engine power available to the student.

Taking off from Bangor, Maine, in February, but want to simulate a warm day in the mountains? No problem. Advance the throttle to no more than 22 or so inches of manifold pressure or 300 or so rpm less than maximum-available static rpm in an airplane with a fixed-pitch propeller. (You will need to experiment with these settings.) As you can imagine, rotation must be done carefully and with finesse. Honking back on the wheel might serve only to attract a complaint from the stall-warning horn. Climb rate during departure will be anemic and will demand the patience of Job.

With engine power still limited, climb to pattern altitude and prepare for an approach. As the aircraft crosses the threshold, perform a go-around using no more power than was used for takeoff. You will soon appreciate why it is so important to retract the flaps carefully and on schedule.

This is not risky as long as there is a qualified instructor in the right seat. Should safety and airspeed begin to deteriorate because of mishandling, he needs only to apply full power to restore sea-level performance.

I have employed other unorthodox procedures, too. One of my favorites comes in handy when training advanced instrument students and those preparing for an airline transport pilot certificate. At a time when the student has only a general idea of aircraft location (such as when practicing partial panel and recovery from unusual attitudes), I advise him that I am going to simulate the accumulation of structural ice by reducing power 1 inch every minute or so. His challenge is to determine his position (without GPS) and set up the aircraft for an instrument approach at the nearest suitable airport before running out of power and altitude. (This often necessitates delaying gear and flap extension.)

Some form of reality training should be offered by all instructors and demanded by all students. To obtain such experience in the real world without proper training can prove fatal.

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