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Curve balls

Playing the ‘what if?’ game

Upon departure from the Franklin County Airport in Tennessee, my aviation mentor Bill Kershner said, “Your engine just failed. Quick, what do you do?”
Illustration by Leigh Caulfield
Zoomed image
Illustration by Leigh Caulfield

I said I’d push on the yoke to maintain best glide airspeed while surveying options for an emergency landing. I reported that I would veer slightly to the right into the wind, slip the airplane down into the golf course, and bleed off as much energy as possible before hitting any trees on the far west side. Around my home airport, there aren’t many options, but thinking about these ahead of time should help in an engine failure after takeoff scenario.

Another day we were relaxing on the front porch of the Franklin County Airport and watching students perfect their takeoffs and landings, when Bill asked, “What if your throttle gets stuck and you’re not able to move it from the setting at cruise? What will you do?” I replied that I could maneuver over an airport and pull the mixture control to cutoff and perform a power-off landing on the runway. That scenario might seem unlikely, but I believe that early consideration helped me handle a similar situation on an instructional flight. That day, I had underestimated how nervous my student was as I talked him through the spin recovery procedure in my Aerobat Wilbur. Instead of closing the throttle as part of the spin recovery, he pulled it back a couple of inches and, as he pushed the yoke forward, he pushed the throttle knob downward until it broke. Fortunately, we still had partial power, so I navigated Wilbur toward the nearest airport, pulled the mixture back, and glided to a landing without incident.

The “what if?” game that has served me well during my aviation career is rooted in teaching principles presented in the Aviation Instructor’s Handbook. The reference explains that students learn in stages and progress through rote, understanding, application toward correlation and that it’s important for pilots to achieve the highest level possible.

Here’s the deal: If you can’t apply the information, it doesn’t matter that you learned it at the rote or even understanding level. So how do you improve your knowledge or that of your student? The FAA believes the answer lies in scenario-based training.To illustrate these levels with respect to, say, maneuvering airspeed, a pilot who reports that VA is 130 KIAS for her airplane has exhibited rote knowledge of the subject. If she can explain that when an aircraft is flown at or below VA, an abrupt control deflection should not compromise the structural integrity of the aircraft and that VA is a function of aircraft weight, then she understands maneuvering speed. When she reduces her airspeed below VA before executing steep turns, she demonstrates the ability to apply the information she’s learned. I like to think of correlation as the application of knowledge to a new situation. Since turbulence can also impose structural damage on an aircraft, a pilot who slows to maneuvering speed to minimize the chance of such damage has achieved this highest level of learning: correlation.

You may think that achieving a rote or even understanding level of knowledge means you can easily employ it when needed but I routinely witness the contrary. On a practical exam last fall my candidate responded to a scenario I presented with, “Oh you mean A-TOMATO-FLAMES!” I thought to myself, No, not really. But using an acronym to recall, in this case, the FAR 91.205 instruments that are required for a VFR flight, there is nothing wrong with that. Following the ground portion of the exam, we walked to the airplane so the candidate could perform the preflight inspection only to find a pool of liquid covering the glareshield and the magnetic compass card that normally floated in fluid was instead canted on its side. When I asked whether this will be a problem for our flight, he looked up at the gorgeous blue sky, admitted he rarely consults the compass anyway and said we’re good to go since we had GPS. Unfortunately, FAR 91.205 says otherwise.

On another practical exam, the candidate started up the aircraft and the oil temperature needle immediately pegged on the high end of the dial. Because the aircraft had been parked for three hours, we both knew that the oil was cool and the gauge itself was most likely faulty. As I sat quietly, the candidate completed the balance of his pre-takeoff checklist and I watched with dread as he taxied to the runway for departure. I know he knew about FAR 91.205 because we discussed them in the conference room at the airport. I’m not sure whether he understood why an oil temperature gauge is important, but I certainly know he hadn’t achieved application level of knowledge because he commenced his takeoff roll.

A failed practical exam is a bummer but that pales in comparison to making such a mistake in real life. In the debrief, I asked the candidate what he would do if the oil temperature gauge pegged during flight, and he reported that he’d find a nearby airport to land. “Then why would you take off with the same malfunction?”

Here’s the deal: If you can’t apply the information, it doesn’t matter that you learned it at the rote or even understanding level. So how do you improve your knowledge or that of your student? The FAA believes the answer lies in scenario-based training and we designated examiners are required to present scenarios to ensure that we are testing for the higher tiers of learning. The “what if?” game is nothing more than scenario-based training and the beauty is that we can play it on instructional flights, alone or kicking back at the airport with other aviators.

PilotWorkshops ( provides yet another way to play the game. Each month, the group generates a scenario for VFR and IFR flight in which an in-flight problem has occurred along with several options for completing the flight. The viewer is asked to choose the safest course of action before continuing on. An expert then weighs in by selecting an option and explaining why it’s the safest choice. Five more experts subsequently explain their choices and it’s rare for all six to agree. Each time I engage with a PilotWorkshops module, I learn something new about my airplane or perhaps a regulation with which I was unfamiliar.

We owe it to our passengers and ourselves to aim for the highest level of learning we can. Whether you are an instructor shepherding your students toward a life of flying airplanes safely or are a pilot who wants to up his own skills, the “what if?” game is a fun way to prepare for the curve balls that inevitably get tossed our way.

Catherine Cavagnaro
Catherine Cavagnaro is an aerobatics instructor ( and professor of mathematics at Sewanee: The University of the South.

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