The April 18, 2017, “Safety” column discussed some training practices that have been standard procedure so long that few stop to ask why we follow them or whether they still make sense. Of course, the herd contains a lot more than three sacred cows, so here are a few more conventions that might bear re-examination.
The rectangular traffic pattern: More than half of all accidents in primary fixed-wing training—including 80 percent of those on student solos!—happen during takeoffs, landings, or go-around attempts. Many involve stalls, and stalls entered while turning are particularly vicious. While they don’t cause a large number of accidents in absolute terms, two-thirds of stall accidents during the turn from downwind to base and a full 80 percent of those while turning from base to final prove fatal. (It probably doesn’t help that turning stalls aren’t practiced much in the typical private-pilot curriculum.)
The tradition of squaring off the legs of the pattern probably bears some of the blame. It requires the pilot to separately time and execute two different turns, each at perhaps 30 degrees of bank, as the airplane is slowing and the ground is getting closer. With a brisk tailwind on base, it’s easy to overshoot final by the time the wings have been leveled. This leaves the pilot with the unappetizing choice between trying to crank back around before the threshold arrives or going around for another try. Efforts to slow the descent by pulling up the nose and hasten the turn without steepening the bank can trigger surprising aerodynamic demonstrations at unfortunate times.
The military services have long taught their pilots to fly a single steady turn from downwind to final, eliminating the roll to wings level on base. In 2016 the AOPA Air Safety Institute began collaborating with the University of North Dakota on a project researching the potential benefits and hazards of adopting this practice in the civilian world. The presumed advantages include having only one entry point to choose, being able to avoid configuration changes in the turn, and maintaining a stable descent profile all the way to final. Eliminating the base leg also allows the downwind to be flown closer to the runway while still maintaining a gentler bank angle (around 20 degrees, varied as needed for conditions) than required for a rectangular pattern of reasonable width. The shallow turn also maintains a clear view of the runway even in high-wing airplanes.
We expect to see results of this study later in the year. If they’re compelling enough, there’s even hope the FAA will revise its guidance and update the airman certification standards to match.
Initial hood work: Rather than trying to teach student pilots a full instrument scan during their required three hours of flight under the hood, why not simplify by starting them out partial panel? Most people will find it easier to interpret three unfamiliar instruments than six—and while there’s no guarantee an airplane involved in an inadvertent IMC encounter will have gyroscopic attitude or heading indicators, it will have an altimeter, airspeed indicator, and turn coordinator or slip-and-skid indicator.
The old-timers who talked about “flying needle, ball, and airspeed” were onto something. The altimeter and airspeed indicator will tell you whether you’re descending, climbing, or level, and the turn coordinator lets you know whether you’re going straight or turning. By all means, teach timed compass turns during this phase—that Cub or Champ will have a compass, too. And there’s a bonus: Uncovering the attitude indicator later will make things that much easier, but that mythical Law of Primacy assures us that those who learned to fly partial panel first will be much less vulnerable to spatial disorientation should the vacuum system unexpectedly pack it in.
Cutting the shirt: Since students don’t always anticipate the day they’re signed off to solo and dress for the occasion, might it be better to find ways to celebrate that don’t involve destruction of personal property? (Or buckets of ice water over the head, something not everyone enjoys.) Maybe you could give them a shirt instead—by now, they’ve spent enough money to deserve one. You could even have shirts printed up in batches for the occasion, with a suitable slogan (“I DID IT!”) and your school’s logo on the front, plus space on the back for the instructor to fill in the details: date, aircraft model, N number, airport, runway(s), and weather conditions.
Chances are you can think of a few more established practices that merit a second look. Email your nominees to me at [email protected].