Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Protecting Your Freedom to Fly

Safety Publications/Articles

Ugly thoughts

They can be a good thing

Growing up in Texas, I often felt "over mothered" when Mom would quickly correct any perceived lack of manners or improper behavior as she defined it. This sometimes included a lecture about "ugly thoughts," which she somehow just knew I was having about someone or some situation that did not agree with me. I cannot tell you that these discussions did much for my mental sanitation; however, they did make me think about some different kinds of ugly thoughts with a connection to aviation risk management.

Rod Machado's Instrument Pilot's Survival Manual discusses the need for a pilot to think like a professional pilot in order to reach a level of knowledge and skill that will keep him or her safe in the challenging world of IFR flight. Machado describes the importance of thinking ahead and developing alternatives for when things go wrong. He is correct in stressing that it's important to learn how to think like a seasoned aviator. Beyond turns, stalls, and landings, we need to learn how to push our brains out ahead of the aircraft and anticipate upcoming events so we can deal with them in a timely manner.

Here's an example. Before beginning to taxi, we should do a brake check. This avoids the ugly realization that the brakes don't work as you roll toward the row of parked airplanes in front of you. By the way, a student of mine had a close call while we were preparing to depart from the tie-down area. Upon testing the brakes, the Cessna 172 swerved hard to the left despite his pressure on both pedals. I quickly helped stop the airplane as the student looked at me with a very puzzled expression and asked in a rather loud and alarmed tone, "What did you do?" This is not the first time I've been accused of plotting some diabolical exercise to see what the student will do when things go wrong, but I was truly innocent this time. We figured out that something had not been completely addressed during some recent wheel maintenance, so we shut down and had the airplane towed back for repairs. The point is, by checking the brakes early, a potentially serious problem was avoided.

Just last week, Becky was taxiing for takeoff on her way to take her private pilot checkride at a nearby airport. Upon conducting the usual radio check, she discovered the push-to-talk switch had picked this morning to die. She returned for a repair and departed only slightly late and moderately stressed for her appointment. (By the way, she aced the checkride.) Again, the point is that by checking her radio early, she avoided a larger problem. Imagine if this had been an IFR departure from a nontowered airport. Dealing with a lost com situation in real instrument meteorological conditions is a major "ugly" that might be avoided with a simple radio check.

You can extend this approach in many directions. How about deciding in advance what you will or won't do? For example, many of us don't think the 30-minute fuel reserve required by regulations is sufficient. If you have committed to always land with one hour of fuel in the tanks even if it means an extra fuel stop, you will most likely avoid one of the common traps that lead to accidents. Or if you have decided not to trust your life to a single vacuum pump during IMC operations, and have installed a viable backup, you have just had a great "ugly thought."

If you always obtain a weather briefing before flight, regularly check the weather ahead during your trip, and insist on a solid alternate that you can easily reach, you are a poster child for "thinking ugly." If your trip involves a possibility of icing or thunderstorms, even more critical thinking is required because it simply doesn't get any uglier. During a trip, you notice deteriorating weather ahead. Using your ever-improving ability to conjure up ugly thoughts, you decide to check with flight service to evaluate the situation against your predetermined personal minimums. Additionally, you prepare for a possible deviation around the poor conditions. Meanwhile, you know if things get any uglier, you will return to the airport you just passed, stop, and reevaluate.

This is an example of aeronautical decision making (ADM). Today, the FAA and many instructors are spending more time and placing more emphasis on ADM because we know it will reduce accidents. By thinking carefully about the risks involved and developing strategies to handle the what-ifs, safety is enhanced. For an excellent way to learn more, check out the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's online course: Do The Right Thing. Decision Making for Pilots.

Many times, I find pilots frittering away valuable time during the cruise portion of the flight when they could be tuning radios, reviewing the destination airport information, or planning where to begin the descent. They are droning along, fat, dumb and happy, while the airplane begins to get ahead of them. As the workload ramps up quickly during the descent and landing phases, the pilot struggles mightily to catch up, often with limited success. This is guaranteed to launch some ugly thoughts in any instructor's brain.

Managing the flight by planning ahead is an essential skill for all pilots. Instructors should insist that students understand how to do this by posing what-if questions and developing scenarios that require proper planning. For example, an instructor might ask his or her student to plan a flight to a nearby airport. As they fly toward the destination, the instructor could ask the student to explain what she would do if the wind changes to a crosswind beyond her personal minimums. Hopefully, the student would select a runway more aligned into the wind, even if it required a change of destination.

However, instructors should not be too quick to solve problems that arise from their students' failure to plan. Some great teaching moments occur when this happens. I still remember my instructor sitting in the right seat of the Cessna 150 as I attempted to demonstrate that it was possible to go around with full flaps at gross weight on a hot summer day.

Machado makes a point that we should always be thinking of the "next two things." That is, ask yourself, "What should I be doing now?" and "What will I need to do next?" as a way of getting things done as early as possible.

By planning ahead and taking advantage of times when workload is low to get tasks accomplished as early in the flight as possible, the whole effort is better managed. Instructors must teach and students must practice this critical skill to develop the ability to think ugly.

Ken Wittekiend, a Master CFI, CFII, and FAA FAAST Team representative, owns Promark Aviation Services in Burnet, Texas. He owns a Beech Bonanza and a Piper Super Cub.

By Ken Wittekiend

Back to the Index of Instructor Reports