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Training Tips: Troubleshooting or shooting for trouble?Training Tips: Troubleshooting or shooting for trouble?

A single-engine Cessna is climbing just after takeoff when the engine skips a beat, then resumes normal operation.

When faced with an unusual flight scenario pilots should assess whether to continue or, if necessary, land. Photo by Mike Fizer.

Attention-getting. But what happens next?

Does the pilot shrug it off and continue on course to a nearby airport for touch-and-go practice? Or does the pilot go on alert, assess the situation, and re-evaluate the mission?

Good for you if you opted for going on alert. How will you proceed?

In any unexpected flight scenario, the first thing to do, as every student pilot should be able to recite from memory, is “fly the airplane.” Maintain control, making the extra effort not to let the strong urge to begin troubleshooting the problem immediately distract you from a more immediate priority. Can you say what that priority is?

Expediting the climb to an altitude from which you can make a safe return to the airport—if necessary—is the immediate priority. (Your engine is still developing power. Use it.)

It would be very helpful to maneuver close to the departure airport, either by remaining in the traffic pattern or by “spiraling up” to your cruise altitude in the immediate vicinity. At a towered airport, work out the details with air traffic control, giving ATC a heads-up that you are troubleshooting a problem but require no special handling so far.

Under control and level at a safe altitude, it’s time to scan the gauges, double-check the position of the fuel selector valve, check for carburetor ice, or perform a magneto check, as the scenario dictates. (You are “double checking” the fuel selector valve because most pilots might instinctively have given it a quick look during the climb while taking care not to violate the prime directive to fly the airplane. Same goes for checking the carb heat control, if equipped.)

 Keeping your priorities straight while balancing the demands of flying a questionable aircraft through a critical phase of flight, then troubleshooting, demands clearest thinking.

When a pilot landing a Cessna 441 twin turboprop on a wet runway guessed—wrongly—that a problem with the propellers’ reverse-thrust function was the cause of the aircraft’s poor deceleration during rollout, the result of misguided corrective actions was a runway overrun.

“My initial troubleshooting of the reverse wasted valuable runway distance, and so could have been used more efficiently in slowing the aircraft,” the pilot noted in an Aviation Safety Reporting System account of the event.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Associate Editor Web
Associate Editor Web Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 30-year AOPA member.
Topics: Flight Training, Student, Aeronautical Decision Making
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