What is it about airline pilots that puts passengers at ease and exudes an air of cool? Is it the neat, pressed uniforms, a greased landing—or that soothing West Texas drawl?
You don’t need bars on your shoulders to demonstrate the kind of professionalism that inspires confidence in your passengers and earns the respect of fellow pilots. Copying what airline pilots do in the cockpit is probably the single best way to improve your flying safet--and make you look a little cooler in the process. Think other pilots aren’t watching your every move? Think again. Here are a dozen principles that the airlines teach that will make you a better pilot, starting with your next flight. (No, talking with a West Texas drawl is not one of them.)
1. Plan all your flights down to the last detail. You probably already go through the normal cross-country flight planning routine of getting a weather briefing, checking notices to airmen (notams), determining magnetic heading based on winds aloft, and calculating fuel requirements. But did you check notams for all your landing spots and possible alternates? Do you know for sure if your parking area at your destination is a left or right turn off the runway? What if the active runway changes? Did you check the airport/facility directory for any special instructions or advisories? Are the fuel pumps self-serve or off a truck? Are they open?
2. Use checklists. For everything. Yeah, it’s a pain, and you’ve flown the same airplane for years, so you know it from tip to tail. Do you fly as much as an airline crew? Well, they use checklists, from preflight to shutdown. Everything is done by the book, the same way, every time. It gets boring for them, too, but they do it. So should you.
3. Do a good passenger briefing. Don’t shortchange your passengers before taking off. Be sure they know how to operate the seatbelts, harnesses, and door and window latches. Go over an evacuation plan in a way that doesn’t freak them out, but gives them critical instructions just in case. Airlines are required to brief passengers on these items and more. As a general aviation pilot, you can make your passengers crewmembers by asking them to call out traffic, and encourage them to speak up with any concerns or questions. Explain that there are times during the flight when you will ask them to remain quiet—explain what a “sterile” cockpit means to them—and that a little turbulence is normal and nothing to worry about. You can also remind them to keep their hands and feet off the controls, even though most of them wouldn’t touch anything if you begged them. (Regardless of what they say to you, they’re all at least a little nervous about flying with you.)
4. Speak plainly on the radios. If you get VFR traffic advisories (flight following), pay attention to the airline pilots you hear on the frequency. They’ll convey their professionalism and make sure other, important transmissions get through by keeping their radio calls structured, clear, and succinct. Likewise, make your radio calls short and sweet. Rehearse what you’re going to say before clicking the push-to-talk button. When you’re not sure of the correct terminology, just speak in plain English. Most controllers are bilingual (Pilot/Controller Glossary and normal English), so they’ll know what you’re saying and will respond appropriately. Not sure of an instruction? Ask the controller to repeat it, slowly. Controllers are air traffic jugglers, and they say the same 10 or 20 things hundreds of times every day, so they can speak a little too fast sometimes. A quick, “Say again for Cessna One-Foxtrot-Uniform” can clear up any confusion.
5. Taxi slowly. Then slow down some more. Ever notice how airline pilots taxi so slowly? No, they’re not trying to finish just one more Facebook post; they’re following company policy. Slower is safer and makes bent metal far less likely. You should taxi at the speed of a brisk walk, no faster. If you find yourself taxiing as if you’re fleeing an armed mugger, pull the power back and slow down. Your insurance company will thank you. Here’s another tip: Keep the nosewheel on the taxiway centerline. Nothing shouts “newbie” like a Cessna 172 S-turning down the taxiway.
6. Talk through a takeoff abort plan. The big kids in Boeing and Airbus cockpits discuss what they’ll do if X, Y, or Z happens at various points in the takeoff roll and initial climb. They do this for every takeoff. General aviation pilots could follow suit by adding just one more item to their takeoff checklist. For single-engine pilots, the process is pretty simple. Just say something such as, “If the engine starts to run rough or loses power during the takeoff roll, I’ll reduce power to idle, brake as necessary, turn right off the runway, and notify ATC. If the engine loses power after takeoff and below 1,000 feet agl, I’ll push the nose forward and maneuver no more than 30 degrees left or right to land straight ahead.” At the very least, this puts you in the mindset of thinking about “what if,” and could reduce that deadly lag time between something bad happening and recognizing the problem and responding.
7. Use callouts during the takeoff roll. What’s a callout? It’s an out-loud statement of the progress of the takeoff at various critical points. When flying singles, it might be as simple as confirming that the heading indicator matches the runway number when lined up, followed by a brief announcement at “takeoff power,” “airspeed alive,” “rotation speed,” “positive climb rate,” “gear up,” “flaps up,” “VY speed.” Callouts keep your mind focused on your progress, and remind you to do things in the same order every time.
8. Plan your arrivals at least 20 miles out. Don’t wait until you’re close to the airport to check AWOS or ATIS and go through the rest of your arrival procedure. Do it way out: 20 miles is a good number. Use a written checklist, and go through it during low-workload times of the flight. Entering the pattern and landing are high-workload times when pilots should not be distracted by looking at checklists. Arrivals are like doing your taxes; plan for them early and things just seem to go better.
9. Sterilize your cockpit. Don’t be shy about asking your passengers to remain quiet during high-workload times of the flight. Takeoff and landing obviously are important silence times, but asking for weather updates from a flight service station or briefing an instrument approach might require some concentration, too. One word of caution, though: Be sure to ask them nicely. Shouting “Silence! Everybody remain quiet!” could cause a bit of anxiety in the airplane—never a good thing.
10. Fly stabilized approaches. A good approach equals a good landing. We’ve all heard it a thousand times, and a thousand times it’s been true. Flying a constant airspeed, in a steady flap/gear configuration, at a constant rate of descent makes the roundout and flare at the end a piece of cake. Many big-iron pilots are trained to do a missed approach (go-around) if they’re not stabilized by 1,000 feet agl. If they’re too high/low/fast/slow at this point, or if the ribbons are jumping around on their whiz-bang glass screens, it’s time to push the throttles forward and go around. The decision to go missed if the approach is unstable is made: All they have to do is execute it.
11. Have a go-around plan. Too many pilots think going around is like asking for directions—a sign of wimpdom. Wrong! For most pros, going around and trying again is a sign of personal commitment to doing things right or not at all. Sure, if you’re too high on short final, you can push the nose down and dive for the runway, hoping to land somewhere near the touchdown zone. Who knows, you might even get the airplane stopped before damaging the cyclone fence at the end. The point is, it’s not right, and nothing says “amateur” like flat spots on the tires—or a bent prop.
12. Get periodic training. Most airline pilots must go into training every nine months. Think about that. These are people who fly hundreds of hours a year, in the same kind of airplane, with experienced crewmembers at their sides. Still, to stay in top shape they train. Then they train some more. Many GA pilots never see an instructor until it’s time for their next flight review. That’s just too long. How about participating in the FAA Wings program? It will satisfy the flight review requirement, to boot. An hour with a CFI every six to nine months costs a few bucks but can pay massive dividends later when flying with friends and family. Remember, all pilots are student pilots, and there’s always more to know.