Turbine Pilot: TOLD you so

Takeoff and landing data - right before your eyes

March 1, 2010

It’s easy to think that with the way cockpit automation is going, it won’t be long before the optional equipment list for new airplanes includes an actual living, breathing pilot stationed in the cockpit to handle the controls and manage the flight. We’re not there yet, but thanks to technology, many of the hands-on tools pilots once considered essential are indeed becoming anachronistic.

Like a pen or pencil. Who needs one when hidden computers do all the busy work, perform all the calculations, and post the desired results? Just enter the raw data on a keyboard or touch screen and up pops the useful information on the appropriate electronic display. Since microprocessors are doing the heavy lifting, the only reason to carry a pen is to sign the fuel receipt at the FBO counter.

With all the dazzling capabilities, features, and performance that state-of-the-art integrated avionics systems wield, why go through the drudgery of researching, computing, and actually writing down matter-of-fact flight information such as takeoff and landing data? Turns out there are good reasons to do just that.

For one thing, we’re still in a transition phase when it comes to avionics. Lots of turbine-powered aircraft are flying around with a panel full of old-school instruments and gauges that still function quite efficiently, thank you. The only way to generate takeoff and landing data (TOLD) in these airplanes is to take out your personal writing implement, along with the performance charts, and do it yourself.

One popular shortcut to researching performance numbers the old-fashioned way—consulting the flight manual—is to use a software program such as EFB Pro, Ultra-Nav, or Atlas from Airport Performance Group to do that work. Some integrated avionics suites will configure electronic displays with TOLD performance numbers, but the pilot has to program the system with the information.

Most pilots of turbine-powered aircraft are familiar with TOLD cards, slips of paper printed with blanks for writing in essential takeoff performance numbers and airport information on one side, and landing and destination airport data on the other. They are a staple in training simulators and a popular giveaway at FBOs. Rare is the TOLD card that isn’t branded with the logo of a pilot training center or FBO.

TOLD cards are not the sole province of turbine operators, however. Increasingly they are making their way into piston-powered airplanes, including light singles—although most of these appear to serve as detailed flight-planning documents rather than succinct briefing cards for essential departure and arrival data.

Unlike, say, an FAA flight plan form, no standard format exists for TOLD cards, in either short form or long form. It’s up to the training center you attend, the chief pilot, the FBO giving them away, or you to decide what information should be included on the TOLD card you use. It can be keep-it-simple-stupid minimalist in terms of the number of data fields, or don’t-leave-out-a-thing detailed.

The traditional quick-reference TOLD card has data fields for twin-engine aircraft takeoff and landing weight; V speeds, power settings, and flap configuration for takeoff and approach, both normal and engine-out; airport data including required runway length, elevation, and weather (current ATIS or AWOS); climb gradient; and ATC clearances. Our task is to compute or obtain the specific value or item of information and note it on the card in the appropriate box.

The completed card is posted in a conspicuous spot in the cockpit—stuck to the panel or wedged behind the windshield post, for example—where it is easily seen and retrieved for quick reference just before takeoff or commencing the approach.

Quick retrieval of essential performance and airport information is even more important in an emergency situation. Coping with an engine failure during initial climb on an obstacle departure procedure in instrument meteorological conditions is not the time to rely solely on memory for the correct single-engine power setting and airspeed. At times like that, a properly completed and accessible TOLD card is worth much more than its slight weight in precious metal.

Even if the airplane has an integrated avionics suite that automatically computes and displays takeoff and landing data, it can be beneficial to back it up with a paper copy. Like the tennis player who endlessly practices ground strokes to develop muscle memory, going through the exercise of completing a paper TOLD card serves to impart some “muscle memory” to the head. It helps keep us proficient in researching, computing, and therefore understanding the why, where, and how of obtaining essential data for the most critical phases of every flight.

E-mail the author at mrtwombly@gmail.com.