August 1, 2011
By Thomas B Haines
Forty-five nautical miles—about a 15-minute flight in the Piper Meridian I was flying. Night, good VFR weather. How hard should this be? I typically don’t fly anywhere around the Washington, D.C., area VFR for fear of violating the complex airspace, especially the special flight rules area (SFRA) around the capital. But this night, as I sat in the run-up area at Martin State Airport northeast of Baltimore, the ground controller was telling me it would be at least a 30-minute wait to get an IFR clearance because of traffic saturation around the three airline airports in the region. What to do?
Martin State is outside the SFRA, but a straight line home to Frederick Municipal Airport would put me within a couple of miles of the airspace. In addition, Martin State is beneath the Baltimore-Washington Class B airspace complex, meaning VFR I would need to be careful of airspace restrictions as I climbed out—solo, at night, in a turboprop with an aggressive climb capability much greater than that of my Bonanza; a turboprop that I was still fairly new to, especially at night.
With visions of NASA ASRS forms dancing in my head, I carefully considered my options. What I had going for me were a highly capable autopilot in the Meridian and a big multifunction display that clearly depicts airspace. The Garmin GFC 700 flies the airplane beautifully and makes coffee on the side. After carefully studying the altitude restrictions, setting up the multifunction display to clearly display the airspace rings, and programming the flight director to show a level off just below the altitude limit, I made the decision to go VFR and within minutes was on my way home. Shortly after takeoff, I flipped on the autopilot and continued carefully monitoring the altitude as the airplane leveled off just as programmed. Pulling the power lever back mightily to slow down the whole process, I soon passed into an area that permitted a slightly higher altitude and programmed the autopilot up a notch.
The miles and minutes whizzed by as I progressed westward and soon said good night to Potomac Departure as I listened to the Frederick AWOS and set up for a visual approach. Alert to the notion that it’s easy to skip a checklist step when things are moving fast, I double checked each item on the before-landing checklist and triple checked the gear down on base and final.
After I cleared the runway and headed for the hangar, I assessed the flight and my decision making. No doubt, the work load on the quick flight was high, but I know the area well and had a great autopilot to assist. Greater familiarity with my Bonanza would have made the decision easier, even though its autopilot is much less capable. And, of course, the Bonanza does not rocket skyward the way a turboprop does, making the altitude management easier.
While a busy few minutes, this flight was no great feat, but it did remind me that every flight is a flight—no matter how short or long. The same amount of care that is required on each and every one. The advantage to a long flight is that you have plenty of time to prepare for the approach and landing.
In his free email newsletter, Flying Lessons Weekly , flight instructor Tom Turner pointed out recently that these quick-and-dirty flights can lead to mistakes. He highlights an accident in which a high-time pilot in a nearly new twin turboprop makes a quick 10-mile hop to a neighboring airport for some cheaper fuel and ends up landing gear up. Suddenly, that’s some expensive gas! Turner’s comments: “The shortest hops, too, can sometimes be the riskiest. Especially if we fly higher-performance, cross-country airplanes, we’re used to a flurry of activity at takeoff and climb out, with a long period to prepare ourselves for approach and landing on the other end. If the en route phase is very short we can find ourselves behind the airplane, more likely to forget something that might be vital.”
His advice: Use the checklist—and triple check the most critical items!
Managing flights has to do with sensitizing yourself to normal work load. When you begin to feel rushed or overloaded, alarms should start going off in your head. The solution? Slow down. Go around. Ask for a delaying vector or holding pattern—whatever it takes to give yourself time to get ahead of the airplane. That rushed feeling should be accompanied in your head by the sound of a link in the accident chain snapping into place. Your goal should be to break that link. There are ways to reduce your exposure. One is to leave the gear down when doing a go-arounds or touch-and-goes. Why risk forgetting the gear?
Another is meticulous adherence to checklists, cockpit flows, or mnemonics. I use GUMPS (gas, undercarriage, mixture, prop, safety—belts and harnesses) religiously when on downwind and again on final, and have for 34 years since my primary instructor told me about it. And I say it aloud, which tends to amuse those who fly with me regularly. Even though I was flying a Cessna 150 with the gear securely bolted into place at the time, he said the “undercarriage” reminder would serve me well when I moved up. And it has.
Feeling rushed? Take your time.
Email the author at email@example.com; follow on twitter.com/tomhaines29.
AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.
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