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Playing by the Rules and Winning

I met a fellow at the airport one dark night after I had just landed. He and another pilot were preparing to depart in a Piper Cherokee. "Are there any thermals up there?" he asked to break the ice. (Thermals at night?) Then he borrowed a flashlight. When he told me, "It's a spur-of-the-moment flight," it took me a moment to realize that he had planned to preflight and fly without a flashlight. My guess was that he had no charts, either.

As I walked to the terminal, the other pilot joined me. He told me that he was a student pilot flying out of another airport, but that his friend here was "a highly experienced private pilot, so I go along with him whenever I can to log the hours." (No, I didn't ask how he managed that.)

"Are you really going to fly without a flashlight?" I asked.

"No," the student replied. "I just remembered one in my car, and I'm going to get it."

How, I thought, could this highly experienced private pilot have made it through training without comprehending the imperative need for a flashlight on a moonless night-or any night for that matter? And what habits would the student develop by flying with a turkey like this? Of course the answer lies with some instructor in the pilot's hazy past who did not impress upon this guy the importance of, and reasons behind, following the rules-all the rules, every time.

It reminded me of one of my proudest moments as a pilot. I was in Baraboo, Wisconsin, temperature near zero, bitterly cold winds driving dry snow down my neck at 25 knots. My wife, Jean, and I were returning home after a wedding, and though the weather was flyable, the preflight was miserable. I ordered an engine preheat because of the cold temperatures, and adding a quart of oil took forever because the weather was so cold it would barely pour.

We loaded our bags, and my wife trekked across the frigid ramp for a final pit stop. "Hang out inside and stay warm," I yelled over the wind. "I'll come get you when we're ready to go."

Funny how a preflight that seems so quick on a warm, sunny day becomes such an ordeal on a cold, miserable one. Finally I got the oil added, prop pulled through, and preflight completed, and I was satisfied that the engine had soaked up enough heat that it might start. I sprinted across the ramp to the office, then sipped hot coffee while I quickly paid the bill.

"Pretty cold out there!" said one of the local pilots hangar-flying by the coffeemaker.

"You bet!" I replied, rubbing my numb hands together.

"Windy, too," volunteered another. He shook my hand as Jean and I braced to go out the door. "You folks have a good trip."

To my relief the engine turned over easily and started promptly on the first try.

"Seemed like nice guys." I said to Jean as we taxied out.

"Well, they were OK. Actually, they were kind of annoying, making fun of you."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Oh, they were watching out the window, and saying stuff like, 'I can't believe that guy is dumb enough to do such a careful preflight on a day like this.'"

"Did you say anything?" I asked, surprised that any sane pilot would question a careful preflight.

"Yup. I said, 'Listen, my husband and I have flown safely all over the country in all kinds of weather, and it's all because he exercises that kind of thoroughness no matter what the conditions.'"

"What did they say?" I asked.

"Oh, they were pretty quiet after that."

It took a while for me to fully appreciate Jean's comment to those pilots, but on that day I learned that my consistent thoroughness as a pilot was not an annoyance to her, as I'd thought it might be, but rather something she admired in me. It also helped me to understand why she had been unperturbed when flying with me through challenging situations.

For me, the lessons of that day were that people admire pilots who play by the rules, and that cutting corners is not only dangerous but discourages others from flying with you.

Among our duties as instructors is to transfer to our students the rules, not just as good-to-know-for-the-checkride stuff, but as imperative, unalterable habits. The challenge is to make it automatic, as in, "If you're going to fly an airplane you're going to preflight it-those are the rules of the game."

One flight school I know requires each student and renter to complete a standardized form before departing-including flight and fuel planning, density altitude, and weight-and-balance calculations.

"Since our students must fill out that form every time they fly," says the training manager, "they see it as part of the flight, and it never occurs to them not to do it. In fact, our pilots moving to other locations often ask for copies of the form to use in the future."

Some students may think that all those rules just get in the way of the enjoyment of flying. Not at all!

When you think about it, every worthwhile activity or sport has rules, and while the rules may sometimes be an annoyance, without them the fun goes away. What fun is it to win at Monopoly, or tennis, or cards, if you cheat? No, the fun is to play by the rules and win.

Several years ago, I flew with my family to a remote strip 200 miles from our home airport. It was part of a group flight organized by a local flying club and included about 15 airplanes.

Most of the pilots were flying fast airplanes, such as twins, Cessna Centurions, and Beech Bonanzas. But we were among the last to sign up, and what remained for us was a Cessna 172. I took a little good-natured ribbing from other pilots about a CFI flying such a slow airplane.

A departure briefing was arranged for the morning before takeoff, so one of my sons was surprised when I got up early to collect weather and do my own preflight planning.

"Can't you get that stuff at the meeting?" he asked.

"Yeah," I said, "but I'm doing my homework so we can be first to our destination."

He looked at me quizzically and walked away.

At the airport, I preflighted the airplane and went to the planning meeting. Along with a good deal of discussion about the best route and who would call whom on air-to-air frequency, there were pilots pondering what to leave behind because they had brought too many bags, and others who were just learning that they'd have to fly through corridors to cross the Grand Canyon and trying to figure out how to do it.

I collected my information packet and walked out past two pilots who were "guesstimating" their on-course heading and evaluating who would get to the destination first-a Cessna 210, a Bonanza, or a Cessna 310.

"What's the big rush?" asked my wife, as we walked out to the airplane.

"There's no big rush," I said. "It's just that we're going to see if we can get there first by doing our homework properly instead of fudging like at least half the other pilots are doing."

"We're going be first flying a 172?"

"That's my game. Think we can do it?"

By this time my young sons were all ears at the prospect of a "race." We were taxiing out as the first of the other pilots approached the ramp. I completed the runup and took off with headings already calculated for each leg of the trip. My strategy was to use dead reckoning and pilotage to gain advantage over pilots zigzagging via widely spaced VORs. (This was before GPS.) I'd also planned an altitude change based on forecast wind differences along the route.

We cruised along at a blistering 110 knots in our Skyhawk, monitoring the "I'll get there before you" discussions of those behind us. I said nothing.

Having calculated how far out to begin our descent, we started down at that point to optimize our speed. The kids were on the edges of their seats as we scanned for aircraft approaching from behind, and it looked more and more like we might just "win" this race that no one knew we were in. Well, we didn't win. A turbocharged Cessna 210 made downwind just before us, and the Cessna 310 pilot approaching from behind ignored proper traffic pattern procedures and cut in front of us onto the base leg. The boys were upset about "losing," but I didn't mind. We were third to land, and we got to watch the other pilots' faces as they taxied in their speedsters only to find us waiting in our lowly 172. Playing efficiently by the rules puts good pilots ahead sooner or later. That's not obvious to our students, which is why we must transfer the rules of flying in the form of conditioning, not just academic knowledge. No pilot should even consider taking off without a preflight or at night without a flashlight.

The stakes in flying are high, so following the rules is about more than sportsmanship. But as in any game, a pilot can find joy in playing by the rules, and part of our job as instructors is to share that understanding. Playing by the rules and winning-that's what makes flying so much fun!

By Greg Brown

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