License to Learn

Fly it right

March 1, 2011

Riddle me this: When is an airplane not an airliner?

Answer: When it’s not an airliner. But that reality hasn’t dampened the enthusiasm of many to fly their small, single-engine airplanes as if they’re operating a jumbo jet.

On its face, emulating the pros seems like a good idea, given that airline pilots are quite proficient at not bending the machines they fly. But upsizing gives airline pilots some things that single-engine operators lack—two or more big engines and a co-pilot who can be ordered in all sizes and shapes, for example. What seems like an excellent piloting strategy may in reality be an enormous safety handicap.

Not long ago, I gave a flight review to a fellow in a Cessna 172 whose takeoff consisted of calling out a rotation speed, an initial climb speed, a post-initial climb speed, and then a cruise climb speed. My guess is that it would have taken a flathead screwdriver and WD-40 to pry his eyeballs off the airspeed indicator. I have no doubt that upon reaching rotation speed he would have pointed the airplane’s nose up to climb, whether the propeller was still there or not.

It turned out that his flight school preps all their pilots for commuter airline jobs, whether they want one or not. Keep in mind that when airline pilots rotate their machines, they’re sure they will climb (and the props often are already missing). You can’t say the same for smaller airplanes. Small airplanes climb only when they want to climb, not when the airspeed indicator says they should climb.

Another example of airline piloting behavior used by small-airplane pilots is the almost obsessive reliance on written checklists. On a recent flight, I had one fellow pull out and start reading a post-takeoff checklist a few hundred feet off the ground. Huh? I gently took the checklist from his hands and tucked it away in my side-door pouch (where he couldn’t get to it). The student said, “What am I going to do for a climb checklist?”

I replied, “I’ve shortened it for you. Here it is:

“Checklist item number 1. Get away from the ground pronto. Checklist item number 2. Don’t bump into anything while doing it.”

Checklist Man was so focused on reading that he wasn’t thinking about the critical nature of an engine failure at low altitude, let alone seeing and avoiding airport traffic.

Of course, airline captains must rely heavily on checklists, and they can do so safely because they have copilots who’ve graduated from Dick and Jane to V X and V REF. For small-airplane drivers, however, the use of a written checklist in the cockpit should be inversely proportional to their horizontal and vertical proximity to the runway. It’s no secret that the closer you are to an airport, the greater your risk of changing paint and unapproved parts with another airplane. Immediately after takeoff and just prior to landing, your eyeballs should be looking out, not in.

Another symptom of heavy-metal flying behavior being used in small airplanes is the excessive emphasis on a stabilized approach when landing. In this context, the term stabilized approach means establishing a bigger airplane on a final approach that’s long enough to work all the knots and kinks out of the glidepath. When this involves turning final at or below traffic-pattern altitude in a small airplane, the result is often a long, shallow glidepath. I’m not against stabilized approaches in small airplanes, but they shouldn’t involve crossing time zones or require filling out U.S. Customs forms.

I recall one commercial student who insisted on extending her downwind legs so she could fly a final approach 2.5 miles in length. The pilots operating behind her weren’t tickled by having to continually reset their watches and postpone lunch appointments. I finally asked Glidepath Lady if she was going to turn base for Runway 36 soon, or whether we should just get a clearance to land on Runway 18 as she came around the other side.

Keep in mind that small airplanes are easy to stabilize on any approach, even when turning final one-half mile or less from the runway. That’s because they’re small airplanes, meaning they respond quickly to changes in pitch and power. Voluntarily lengthening the final approach leg without a commensurate increase in altitude confers very little safety benefit, while almost always generating an unnecessary increase in risk.

Finally, flying an airliner is a numbers game. Controlling a big machine means flying by the numerical values associated with pitch, bank, and power. For the most part, it’s the flight instruments that tell you what an airliner is doing. In a small airplane, it’s your rear end—the seat of your pants—that should provide you with that information. Your senses are your co-pilot. You must look outside while you fly, aided by the sensations of sight, touch, and sound. Unfortunately, when private pilots operate as if they’re in a multipilot environment, they often do so at the expense of listening to what their pants are telling them. So listen to your pants.

We should fly an airplane as if it’s the airplane we’re actually flying, not the one that someone thinks we might fly at some future time. Even if there is a beverage service involved, private pilots operating a single-engine airplane in a single-pilot environment decrease their safety margin by acting as if they’re flying heavy-metal, multicrew machines.

Aviation writer and professional speaker Rod Machado has been flying since 1970. Visit the author’s blog ( www.rodmachado.com).