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Reconfiguring the Pilot for Comfort & Performance

By Laurel Johnson

Ready for your next flight review? Good training requires good tools. Regular assessment of ourselves and our gear can make and keep you sharp. Especially for renters switching aircraft, or owners of older airplanes, there are now more tools and accessories available to enhance and ease every flight, enabling us to perform our best.

Photography by Mike Fizer
Zoomed image
Photography by Mike Fizer

Pilots are unique individuals, and our growing GA community is becoming increasingly diverse. Moving a airplane by hand gets more difficult as we age, and in mid-life, the need for readers can affect the sight picture in addition to a clear view of charts and instruments. A simple adjustment, or addition to your personal gear affecting your reach, weight or sight could make all the difference.

Acquiring and storing a new airplane, or just moving it out of a wet wash rack, may require a new tug. Many new choices in battery powered, robotic and light weight models are currently available. A good tug which can accommodate wheel pants and adapt to the conditions of your environment can save your back and your budget over time. For me, the battery powered Minimax Tug­—weighing only 60 pounds and configured for a Cessna 182 with wheel pants—speeds hangar transitions and prevents slipping in wet Northwest or snowy conditions. The power drill battery is quickly interchangeable so you can keep a second charged battery on hand. I find the small tug as easy and convenient to use as any towbar.

What’s Wrong with This Picture?

New glasses or a change in prescription may require an adjustment in your sight picture. Grabbing an instructor with recency in your specific aircraft to get an independent assessment of your practice progress can help you refine or adjust your technique. A yoke mount for iPad can keep electronic charts stable and ease viewing. I prefer the fully adjustable RAM version. Nonpolarized progressive transition lenses can save space in your flight bag and keep you flight ready. Many good online videos from AOPA can refresh sight pictures for landing skills. The FAA Safety Team has introduced airport specific approach tutorials with online Flight Deck videos specific to regional airports. A video by Rod Machado discusses transition sight picture techniques leveraging peripheral vision as an added point of reference for situational awareness.

The Right Height for your Sight

New to flying or returning to flying and struggling with consistency? A friend had put in dozens of hours but had not soloed because he could not stick consistent landings. He had the technical understanding and procedures down cold, but no relative sight picture as a frame of reference because he could not see the cowling until he raised the seat. Aerobatic and tail wheel pilots know to divide the sight picture into increments to get expert landings at flair down to inches, not feet. This is impossible without a frame of reference and complete sight picture.

Using a booster, stadium cushions or platform shoes can be a game changer. Speaking as a five-foot-two female, most planes built in the past fifty years were not built for us. My first flight lessons were from a five-foot instructor who is now an accomplished airline pilot. We had to raid the flight school lounge couch for cushions so we could see well enough to fly. To solo my first trainer, a light sport model, I needed to bring my full flight bag and books weighing 25 pounds to satisfy the required minimum weight for airmen. Cecilia Aragon, the first U.S. champion female, Latina acrobatic pilot had to glue platforms to her shoes to reach the rudder pedals and strap 50-pound weights to her seat to safely adapt to the G forces of vertical climbs.

A critical lesson I have learned from training is to adapt the equipment to my size. Golf, competitive cycling, distance running all require custom-sized equipment tailored to the activity and individual. Earlier models of some of the most technically advanced aircraft being built, such as the new turbo Cirrus, with a price point over $1 million, did not have a fully adjustable seat, requiring some pilots to use a bolster. NoralPilot offers a line of two, three and four inch half and full back cushions designed specifically by and for pilots. Better seat fit is important for speed and ease of training, enabling better focus and safety. Supported posture relieves fatigue, especially important on long flights.

Don’t struggle or feel embarrassed. Adapt the plane to fit you. If you are renting, make the plane configuration consistent every time. Double check the specific seat height and placement. Keep the equipment you, or your passengers, may need on hand in the trunk of your car. Add gear to your personalized checklists. When running your IMSAFE checklist, instead of just identifying illness, think about optimizing wellness and flight readiness. Let the “I” also stand for “Individual.” Make your gear, and your plane fit YOU every flight.

Laurel Johnson is an aircraft owner and instrument rated private pilot.

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