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Proficient Pilot: Anatomy of a pilot report

Being an aviation writer opens some wonderful doors

When I began writing for AOPA Pilot in 1963, my articles were strictly technical.
Barry Schiff

When I began writing for AOPA Pilot in 1963, my articles were strictly technical. They involved such subjects as pressure-pattern navigation, desert-flying procedures, and coping with optical illusions in flight. Changing pace, I later began to write about aerial adventures that included a flying safari in East Africa and taking my first wife and another couple in a Piper Comanche to a fly-in at the edge of the Arctic Ocean. Eventually, the editors entrusted me to write pilot reports about flying different types of aircraft. My first appeared in July 1974, and featured my experiences in Australia with one of the most unusual airplanes I have ever flown, a Transavia Airtruk.

The challenge in writing an interesting pilot report is discovering and then highlighting the unusual aspects of an airplane, items most likely to pique the reader’s interest. In some cases, discussing these features can be expanded to teach lessons of lasting value. Writing an interesting pilot report about a plain-vanilla airplane such as a Cessna 172, however, can be tough. Is there anything that can be said about this airplane that everyone doesn’t already know? In the case of the Airtruk, it is such a weird machine that almost everything about it is noteworthy. The article almost writes itself.

Those reading pilot reports usually are unaware of how much effort is spent behind the scenes. The process begins when the editor assigns the subject airplane to one of his writers. Or it might be when one of the writers suggests a subject aircraft to the editor, usually one that the writer has a particular urge to fly. In my case, this has resulted in reports about some special aircraft. These include a Lockheed U–2 Dragon Lady, a B–29 Superfortress, a P–51 Mustang, EAA’s replica of the Spirit of St. Louis, and receiving dual instruction in NASA’s space-shuttle simulator from then-Chief Astronaut Charlie Precourt. Being an aviation writer opens some wonderful doors.

Much planning precedes the flying. This begins with coordinating the availability of those involved and gathering them together at a specific time and place. It is most difficult when air-to-air photography is required. Locating and providing a suitable airplane that can be used as a photo platform can be difficult. The airplane must provide needed camera angles (without having to shoot through a window), have performance compatible with the subject airplane, and be flown by a skillful formation pilot.

Sometimes, though, the best laid plans go awry. For the air-to-air photography of a beautifully restored, open-cockpit 1930 Lincoln PT–K in 2001, John Deakin believed that his STOL-equipped Bonanza could be flown slowly enough to match the speed of the biplane. As we joined over the searing desert north of Las Vegas, Nevada, I had to coax every bit of power from that old 100-horsepower Kinner just to keep up with the near-stalling Bonanza, and that caused the ancient radial to begin overheating. In the meantime, Deakin had to fly so slowly and so far behind the power curve that he, too, needed full power from his engine—and without much airspeed, it, too, began overheating. Conditions were approaching the point where we would soon have to call off the photo shoot. AOPA Senior Photographer Mike Fizer, however, had sensed the developing drama and shot fast. By the time conditions required breaking off and heading for the barn, Fizer yelled over the radio, “Hey, guys. I got it. It’s a wrap.”

Unforeseen mechanical failures obviously create logistical nightmares. An example involved a B–24 Liberator belonging to the Commemorative Air Force. After everyone had gathered on the long-awaited day, the nosewheel of the big bomber failed. Everyone had to return home, resulting in lost time, lost airfare, and renewed planning.

Weather also is a potential threat to completing an assignment. You can wind up waiting days for ceilings to lift or strong Texas winds to subside. Postponement and rescheduling is always an expensive and disappointing option. Many pilot reports have interesting back stories, some that can be openly discussed and others that probably shouldn’t. These assignments seldom go exactly as planned.

After the field work done, this writer is then confronted by his worst enemy, the dreaded blinking cursor on his monitor. He wonders how he can say all that is required in the limited space available.

There is one airplane that I have longed to fly ever since soloing in 1954, an exciting aircraft that I never thought I would have the opportunity to experience. But guess what? Against all odds, it happened, and a most special pilot report will appear in these pages in a future edition. I only hope that my words will do justice to my attempt to share this exciting adventure with you.

Barry Schiff has flown 344 different types of aircraft in his 62 years of flying.


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