By Neil Singer
Flying a jet is a procedural game. For nearly every imaginable normal and abnormal situation a pilot will encounter, the manufacturer has developed detailed procedures that specify exactly how and when to configure the airplane and autopilot. Memorizing and drilling these profiles and standard operating procedures represent an enormous amount of the time and energy expended in the type-rating process, and often are a large focus of recurrent training, as well.
Although necessary, this emphasis on procedural mastery can make it easy to lose sight of the fact that, first and foremost, a light jet is an airplane, and the same foundational rules of piloting apply just as much as they do in a piston single. Arguably the most important rule is a pilot’s backstop of inflight prioritization: “Aviate, navigate, communicate.”
Yes, it’s become a bit clichéd, but for good reason. In any situation a pilot can find the aircraft, the order in which the basics must be performed is unchanged: put the aircraft’s attitude, power, and drag where needed first; second, ensure the aircraft’s flight path is optimal both laterally and vertically; and finally, if all else is in order, speak with ATC.
A missed approach provides a perfect illustration of how these priorities should be arranged, and often it is where rusty pilots go wrong. Commencing a missed approach in most light jets requires a simultaneous power application, pitching up, and partial flap retraction. Given the position of the engines above the center of gravity, the large increase in thrust will cause a noticeable pitch-down force two to three seconds after thrust is applied. Pilots frequently are so quick to begin setting up the autopilot or flight director for missed approach course tracking (a “navigate” step) that they fail to notice the pitch attitude has drifted down—sometimes so much that the airplane has essentially leveled off. Don’t move on to navigating and take attention from aviating until you’re sure the airplane is going where intended.
Pilots frequently begin setting up the autopilot for the missed approach course and fail to notice the pitch attitude has drifted down. Don’t take attention from aviating until you’re sure it’s going as intended.Also common in training is a failure to square away the aviating and navigating before reporting the missed to ATC. Inevitably reporting the missed to tower results in an immediate frequency change back to approach control—requiring radio tuning that diverts even more attention from simply flying the airplane—and further delays finalizing the navigation along the missed approach path.
Vectors onto final provide another opportunity to invert the aviate, navigate, communicate hierarchy. A typical approach clearance may sound something like, “Citation One-Two-Three-Four-Five, you are four miles from FIXXY, turn right heading 330, maintain 2,000 feet until established, cleared for the ILS Runway 36 approach.” Assuming the most likely scenario wherein the pilot is flying the approach via autopilot commands, the two critical steps that need to be taken are to turn the heading bug to 330 and to press the approach button on the autopilot controller, arming localizer capture.
Yet too often the pilot fixates on reading back (verbatim) the lengthy clearance, and only when that is complete directs attention to the autopilot. In most busy airspace ATC has mastered the task of giving the final vector at precisely the moment when, if the aircraft begins turning immediately, it will roll out on the assigned heading just as the localizer comes “alive.” Any delay on the pilot’s part to either commence the turn or tell the autopilot to capture the localizer may result in passing through the final approach course. Remember: Complete navigation tasks before communicating.
The requirement to always aviate first is particularly likely to be forgotten when a pilot becomes task saturated and focused on executing procedural steps (I need to slow down and get the flaps down) or configuring the flight management system (What’s it doing now?). Fundamental to the task of aviating is being aware of, and controlling at all times, the attitude of the aircraft. All the light jets in production feature wall-to-wall (filling the entire width of the primary flight display) attitude instruments for a reason: The attitude indicator is the most important instrument in the aircraft for maintaining control.
When a pilot feels he or she is falling dangerously behind the aircraft, the first instinct should always be to focus on the attitude indication for a second or two and ensure that it reflects a safe, desired state in both pitch and roll. If the pilot suspects the attitude displayed is invalid because of instrumentation failure, a rapid cross-check of the other two attitude sources in the cockpit is essential. Too many fatal accidents in light jets display the same fingerprints of spatial disorientation leading to loss of control that are seen in accidents of small piston aircraft. Pilots must remember that the faster the airplane, the faster the “aviating” can fall apart when neglected.
Neil Singer is a Master CFI with more than 8,500 hours.