Tag: John’s blog

CompletePilot

Stop calling it the impossible turn

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Pilots love a good debate, and some topics seem to come in and out of fashion like bell bottoms. Right now the wars over lean of peak and angle of attack indicators have cooled (thankfully), but the war over “the impossible turn” seems to be heating up. In the last few months I’ve seen multiple articles, videos, and forum threads on the subject. It’s fun to debate, but what problem are we trying to solve here?

As my 8th grade English teacher always said, we first have to define our terms, and there we find the start of trouble. The impossible turn is actually quite a vague phrase. It generally refers to a low altitude, 180-degree turn back to the departure airport after experiencing an engine failure on takeoff. The classic scenario involves a sudden power loss below 1000 ft. AGL, where the pilot feels an overwhelming urge to crank and bank their way back to the safety of a runway. There’s not much margin for error, especially at low altitude, and if it’s not done properly the result can be fatal.

I appreciate the desire to make an impression, and that’s clearly what safety advocates are trying to do with their catchy phrase—if the engine quits on takeoff, resist the urge to turn. It’s impossible. There might be a perfectly good field right in front of the airplane, and landing there is easier and safer than trying to get back to the airport.

But while this may be good advice for a new pilot, very few things in aviation are quite so black and white. Such binary language may discourage a pilot from ever trying a turnback, which is flat out wrong. Sometimes, returning to the airport is the safest option and if you’ve never practiced it or thought about it there’s no way you’ll pull it off successfully.

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Taking off from Midway doesn’t leave you many good options?

Think about some urban airports that are surrounded on all sides by housing or offices. Chicago’s Midway Airport, Atlanta’s Peachtree-DeKalb Airport, and Dallas’s Addison Airport all come to mind. On takeoff from one of these airports, an engine failure a mile off the end of the runway leaves you with no good options. Should you automatically exclude the large airport area with four runways and instead try to shoehorn the airplane into a residential neighborhood? That hardly seems safer.

I believe pilots make the impossible turn successfully every year, but you rarely hear about them because good news rarely makes the headlines. Here’s just one example of a turnback in a single engine piston airplane that worked out quite well. It was done at low altitude, and we can all second guess the decision, but it’s clear that the turnback was successful. The pilot walked away.

Glider pilots practice this maneuver all the time, simulating a rope break on departure. When I earned my glider rating about 15 years ago, I remember being shocked at how low we could make a safe return to the airport in such a situation. In many scenarios, the first step was to turn left, count a few seconds, then turn back around 270 degrees to the right in order to line up on final. Those few seconds felt like an eternity, but with proper planning and technique, it worked out. Granted, gliders have highly efficient wings compared to a Cessna, but it’s clear that the impossible turn isn’t impossible at all. We simply have to know when it’s safe and when it’s not.

This brings up the critical question: how low is too low? The correct answer varies from airplane to airplane and even airport to airport (a large airport with multiple runways means a shorter turn is required to find pavement). About 1000 ft. AGL is a good starting point, but it could be as low as 600 ft. or as high as 2500 ft.

The only way to know for sure is to practice, but make sure to do it from a safe altitude and with an instructor onboard. This is no time for steep turns at 200 ft. AGL. Every year during recurrent training for the Pilatus PC-12 I fly, I practice turnbacks from a variety of altitudes and airplane configurations. I’ve done this both in a full motion simulator at Flight Safety and in the airplane with an experienced PC-12 instructor in the right seat, and I never fail to learn something new.

In the airplane, one option is to simulate a takeoff by flying down the runway at slow speed but from 1000-2000 ft. AGL. Climb out as you normally would, and at a predetermined altitude pull the power back. Make your turn and set a hard deck to create an airport in the sky—if you’re not “on the runway” by 1000 ft. AGL it’s time to abandon the maneuver and go around.

Over the years I’ve come away with some important lessons for this maneuver. First, and most importantly, the initial reaction should almost always be to push. If you’re climbing out at Vy, you will likely be at a high pitch angle and without much excess energy. The human instinct is to pull back, but doing so in this situation can quickly lead to a stall. I tell myself to push forward and reduce the angle of attack before doing anything else. At the very least, this buys time.

Next, it’s critical that you make the turn aggressively. That doesn’t mean dangerously—you’re low to the ground and at slow speed, so you want to be very careful of an accelerated stall—but if you only bank 10 degrees you’ll never make it back. In the Pilatus, at least a 30-degree bank seems to be about right, but that feels like a lot when you’re low to the ground. Don’t let the airplane overbank and don’t pull back to tighten the turn.

Finally, wind matters. This is obvious from a physics standpoint, but it’s often overlooked in the real world. Taking off in calm winds might mean your turnback leaves you far away from the runway, while a 20-knot headwind can leave you right on top of the airport when you roll back out. In some practice scenarios with strong headwinds on takeoff, the biggest issue is getting stopped on the runway after turning back. The headwind keeps you close to the airport as you climb, but then pushes you when you descend. To avoid running off the far end of the runway, full flaps and even a slip may be required. Solving this problem simply takes practice.

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Can you make it back?

There’s no doubt that this is a maximum performance maneuver, but then again a catastrophic engine failure is an emergency situation that demands decisive action. With planning and practice, the impossible turn becomes just another tool in the bag, one that can be invaluable if used under the right circumstances. Many open-minded pilots now recognize this, from Captain Brian Schiff (who forcefully advocates for “the possible turn”) to the FAA (who updated their guidance in Advisory Circular 61-83).

The key is to have a plan that you brief before every takeoff (even if it’s just to yourself). You have to know what your options are and be spring-loaded to react properly, given the conditions. For me, this briefing always considers a few essential things:

  • Runway length: when can we just land back on the runway? A 10,000 ft. runway gives you more options straight ahead
  • Airport environment: is there a parallel or intersecting runway that is more convenient to turn towards?
  • Surrounding terrain: are there any good options besides the airport or conversely, are there any obstacles to avoid?
  • Wind: I like to turn into the wind when possible, since this requires a less aggressive turn to be lined up on final
  • Ceiling and visibility: do we need to set up any avionics to find our way back to the runway if it’s low IFR (synthetic vision helps a lot here)?

This doesn’t have to take long, but a typical briefing for me might be, “We’ll be taking off on runway 21L and climbing out on runway heading; below 1500 feet MSL an engine failure means we’ll land straight ahead in that open field; above 1500 feet MSL we can make a right turn into the wind to land on runway 3L; VFR weather means we’ll do it visually.”

Also, don’t get locked into landing straight ahead or turning around. Sometimes there are other options that should be part of your takeoff briefing. For example, Cirrus pilots typically set a minimum altitude for deployment of the whole airplane parachute system (CAPS). In many cases this is a better idea than either a turnback or a forced landing on a road or parking lot. The point is, you should use all the tools at your disposal to give yourself options, but make sure you think about those options from the calm of the taxiway and not at 800 feet with a quiet engine.

Impossible turn? Hardly. Calling it the possible turn is more accurate, but I prefer “the unforgiving turn.” Like an ILS to minimums, it can be done safely with planning, practice, and discipline.

Are pilots rediscovering how to travel by light airplane?

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By long standing tradition, baseball players never talk to a pitcher in the middle of a perfect game—if everything is going well, why jinx it? The same mindset applies to pilots, who are often hesitant to acknowledge good news for fear of chasing it away. I’m going to violate that unwritten rule because I think it’s worth exploring an interesting development: general aviation is doing surprisingly well during the coronavirus pandemic.

If it feels like the traffic pattern is crowded and the flight school next door is busy, you’re not alone. ForeFlight reported piston airplane flying over the July 4 weekend (as tracked by their app) was up 10% on 2019, while turboprops were up 8%. AOPA reports that, after a major decline in March and April, members’ flying hours picked up significantly in June and July. Calls about financing are up too, as some pilots have decided this is the time to buy an airplane or finish a rating. This is hardly a revolution, but some GA airports are busier than airline hubs right now.

I’ve noticed the increase in activity on some of my recent trips, from the Southeast to the Midwest. A few weeks ago, I landed at Custer County Airport in South Dakota, a beautiful but remote landing strip close to Mt. Rushmore that was buzzing with activity. As I took advantage of some cheap self-serve fuel, another pilot wandered over to chat (from a very Covid-appropriate 10 feet). He was flying home to Denver in a Cessna 172 after visiting family in the area. A scenic two-hour flight in the Skyhawk was easier than a six-hour drive and safer than flying on an airline.

Two things are worth noting here. First, a lot of the strength is in light airplanes—as the 172 pilot illustrates, this isn’t just a business jet boom for billionaires escaping the city. And secondly, a lot of the activity is because people are really going places, not just practicing landings. Both of these are encouraging developments, because I believe traveling by light airplane is one of the most rewarding things you can do in life (it is the tagline for Air Facts, after all).

Public vs. Private

Some pilots may be breaking state-mandated health rules and behaving irresponsibly, but what I’ve seen so far is the opposite—pilots are using airplanes precisely because they allow for social distancing. This is part of a larger trend, as people around the world reevaluate how they get around, comparing the tradeoffs between public and private transportation.

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Customers are voting with their wallets right now and airlines aren’t winning.

Public transportation is almost universally weak right now. Uber rides have declined by 75% almost overnight, the New York City subway is unusually quiet, and TSA screenings for airline passengers are down 70% from 2019 levels (although they are up noticeably from the bottom in April). While the risk of getting sick from an commercial flight appears to be low, passengers are voting with their wallets right now and airlines aren’t winning.

Private transportation, on the other hand, has seen renewed interest. Car sales in China are up 15% over last year as more commuters decide the hassle of traffic beats the risk of a bus ride during a pandemic. In America, you can’t hardly buy a bike or an RV right now because sales are so strong. Even house prices have risen, contrary to most predictions from late March, as people invest in their quarantine locations instead of concerts and restaurant meals.

General aviation certainly falls into that private category, and has benefited from the rapidly shifting social norms. Flying club members have found new value in their 1/12th ownership in a Cherokee. Airline pilots have taken early retirement or been furloughed, and they’re getting back into general aviation airplanes either for fun or for a new career. Million-milers have started to consider private aviation instead of United. And employees working from home might have just a bit more time to pursue a new activity like learning to fly. This renewed interest in aviation is not universal and it could easily fade away, but so far it seems genuine.

You don’t know what you have until you lose it, and over the last four months many Americans have realized how much they like to travel. Sure, some business trips are a waste of time and the three-hour layover at O’Hare is nobody’s idea of fun, but travel is a defining characteristic of our country. Visiting a customer five states away or taking the kids to the beach are relatively routine experiences in the 21st century, not some exotic idea from a 1930s science fiction magazine. When that easy travel went away this spring, people noticed.

A new type of travel?

In addition to how we’re traveling, where we’re traveling has also changed. With most foreign borders closed and cruise ships parked, national parks and lake houses have become 2020’s preferred destinations. For GA pilots, these are ideal places to fly—no need for 2000-mile airplane range and passports, just a duffel bag and a quick flight. 

I did a version of this in July and was thrilled with the results. I used a piston airplane to take my kids on a quick lake vacation, and with a convenient airport near my destination I could do it in a day, eliminating the need for hotel rooms and other travel logistics. I never would have tried this in a car, and the nearest airline airport was over an hour away. We never got closer than 20 feet to another person, and enjoyed every minute of it.

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Many state parks still feature convenient airports.

In many ways, we’re rediscovering some great ideas from 50 years ago (heck, even drive-in movie theaters are making a comeback). While we’re mining the past, pilots should take inspiration from this time period, general aviation’s golden age. Flip through an Air Facts or Flying magazine from the 60s and 70s and you’ll see all kinds of interesting ads, some of which seem foreign in today’s world. One promoted a golf course with an airport nearby, using the catchy headline “Drop in for tee.” Oklahoma encouraged pilots to “try a flying vacation” and see their fabulous state lodges, five of which featured lighted airstrips. The message was clear: airplanes are for going places and having fun.

Some of those state park airports may be a little run down these days, but most are still around, making regional trips in the US convenient and fun. They’re part of a network of 5,000+ public airports, one of the crown jewels in America’s transportation infrastructure. 

It’s even possible that technology might allow for more relaxed schedules and easier flight planning for some of these new travelers. Need to stay a day longer because of bad weather? Zoom and cell phones mean many people can work remotely while waiting for the storms to move out.

Piston airplanes might have a role to play in business travel as well. While the Fortune 500 companies are using their business jets, smaller companies might appreciate the privacy and flexibility of a Cirrus or a Cessna 310. If people really leave big cities like New York or San Francisco due to remote working policies (a popular prediction right now that I’m a little skeptical of), workers could find themselves living much closer to a general aviation airport than before. It’s easier to start flight training in Manhattan, Kansas, than Manhattan Island. 

Encouraging new pilots

Of course to support real growth in general aviation flying, we’ll need to train new pilots. That will take a renewed commitment to flight training. In addition to ads about fly-in destinations, those aviation magazines from 50 years ago were also packed with encouragement for new pilots. Full page Cessna ads show the simple 150 and offer $5 intro lessons. Another one offers renters a convenient new option: “Lease-a-Plane offers America a new system in General Aviation. Now you can rent a plane as easily as you rent a car.”

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Magazines from the 1960s and 70s were packed with ads for fly-in destinations.

Such ideas are unlikely to come back, but newer ones offer some hope. AOPA’s recent work to grow the number of flying clubs is starting to pay off, with over 1,000 groups in their database. These offer affordable flight training programs with a social infrastructure to keep new pilots engaged, and should be the first point of contact for many new pilots. The growth of the experimental airplane community means pilots can travel in comfort without spending $500,000 for a new airplane.

Another new technology might help pilots at the very earliest stage. Microsoft’s new Flight Simulator game, out this month, represents the first totally new simulator in years and looks simply amazing. It’s attracting a lot of attention, from the general public as well as aviation enthusiasts. I know Microsoft Flight Simulator was a critical step in my path to becoming a pilot, starting in the early 90s; perhaps the latest edition will hook the next generation while they’re spending more time at home.

Perspective

Of course I don’t really want to go back in time, and nostalgia can be crippling as well as inspiring. Leisure suits and high inflation can stay in the 70s. In aviation, I’d much rather have datalink weather and WAAS approaches than Flight Watch and NDBs. Other than fuel prices (which are 30% higher today than they were in 1980, adjusted for inflation), I agree with Richard Collins’s philosophy: “may the good old days never return.”

It’s also easy to overstate general aviation’s recent strength. There is still plenty of bad news in the world, whether it’s significant Covid-19 outbreaks or massive airline layoffs. A small bump in flight activity does not signal a return to the glory days. However, we shouldn’t bury our head in the sand either. In the wake of a once-in-a-lifetime public health crisis and economic collapse, the fact that our little corner of the aviation world has survived is worth celebrating. More importantly, it’s worth building on.

Five airplanes every pilot should fly

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You don’t get to pick your parents and most pilots don’t get to pick the airplane they learn to fly in. If the local flight school has a beat up old Cherokee, that’s what you’ll fly, whether you love Pipers or not. But once you earn your license, it’s a real thrill to check out in (or at least log some time in) a variety of airplanes. I actually think this is more interesting than adding a new rating—new models offer new adventures and new lessons to learn, and there are no annoying FAA tests to pass.

What should you fly? Almost anything with wings. I might skip the rare Soviet warbird that hasn’t flown in 25 years, but unless you have reason to doubt the design or construction, strap in and go flying. You won’t catch Barry Schiff; still, it’s fun to try.

While all airplanes have stories to tell, some are more important and more interesting than others. Here are five I believe should be in every pilot’s logbook or on their to-do list. These aren’t necessarily the best or most exciting airplanes ever to take to the skies, but they define specific ages in general aviation and make up the rich history of our industry. Call it the general aviation canon.

1. Piper Cub. The familiar yellow taildragger almost single-handedly created general aviation in America, teaching an entire generation of pilots to fly. Consider the numbers: in 1939 there were fewer than 35,000 pilots; by 1950 there were over 500,000. One key reason so many Americans earned their license was obviously the military, but that meant the Cub was often their first airplane. In fact, nearly 20,000 were built in less than a decade. For comparison, only 10,000 piston airplanes total were delivered between 2010 and 2019.

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A yellow Piper Cub in the grass is the essence of recreational aviation.

But the Cub is also a survivor, a symbol of a general aviation boom that didn’t really happen. At the end of World War II, some enthusiasts assumed that the thousands of returning military pilots would want to settle down to family life with an airplane in the garage. It didn’t turn out that way (commuting by Cub wasn’t quite as practical as boosters predicted), and many interesting airplanes disappeared as the post-war boom turned into a bust. 

Not the Cub. Almost 100 years after it was introduced and many decades since it was last produced, the Cub remains an iconic airplane. It’s fun to fly, affordable to own, and challenging enough to be rewarding when mastered. Some are basic airplanes with no electrical system, some are fully restored showplanes, and some are modern reincarnations of the famous design—all of them are recreational aviation in its purest form. Spending a late afternoon with a Cub on a grass runway is just about the most fun you can have in aviation. It’s like going back in time, but without having to stroll around a dusty museum.

2. Beech Bonanza. After the bust of the early 1950s, general aviation began its next big boom in the 60s. Cessna thought the post-war future looked like the 195, a gorgeous but fairly dated airplane with a tailwheel and a radial engine. Beechcraft, on the other hand, designed a strikingly modern airplane with low wings, retractable gear, and an engine we would recognize today. The public voted with its checkbook, and by the mid-60s the Bonanza was a best-seller. In particular, the V-tail S35 and V35/A/B models were memorable designs, the pinnacle of general aviation flying in that decade. When you showed up in one of those sleek airplanes, you not-so-subtly told the world you had arrived.

Beyond making good airplanes, Beechcraft helped to create the era of personal transportation by light airplane. Here was a machine that could go beyond the local area, with both the performance and reliability to be a personal airliner. Ads from the 60s show businessmen and families alike traveling in the comfort and speed of a Bonanza, a dream that pilots still chase today.

Much like the Cub, the Bonanza lives on. In this case, you can buy a brand new one, but you’ll find even 55-year old models doing everything from chasing $100 hamburgers to logging hard IFR flights. It’s still a joy to fly, with responsive controls and solid performance. I was raised on Cessnas, so the first time I hand flew a Bonanza I felt like I had stepped out of a pickup truck and into a sports car. I instantly understood why people loved it. The Bo has had many imitators over the years, but not until the Cirrus (see below) did the graceful Beech finally face a real threat—an incredible run of over 50 years.

3. Cessna 172. Here’s my nominee for best all-around general aviation airplane. It’s not fast, it doesn’t haul that much, and most pilots wouldn’t call it a beautiful airplane, but it’s capable of handling a wide variety of missions without complaint. As a trainer it is unmatched, taking the place of the Cub as the most popular flight school airplane. As a cross-country IFR airplane it is surprisingly capable, as Richard Collins proved many years ago during his criss-crossing of the US in one. It has also served as a photo platform, a law enforcement tool, and a perfect first airplane for new owners.

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The Cessna 172 is the most popular trainer for a reason.

One reason for its success is its forgiving nature and bulletproof design. It has enough power to take three people on a 300-mile trip but not so much that pilots quickly get in trouble, a complaint early in the V-tail Bonanza’s life. The systems are basic but reliable: just watch the abuse the landing gear takes during a typical pancake breakfast fly-in if you want proof. The 172 (don’t call it a Skyhawk) is the everyman airplane. 

It also represents the glory days of general aviation, a 10-year span in the late 60s and 70s when it seemed like flying would become a mainstream activity. Cessnas were on popular TV shows and sales were as red hot as the Miami condo market in the mid-2000s. In 1978, over 17,000 piston airplanes were delivered, a stunning number never to be equaled (or even approached), and the Cessna 172 led the charge.

4. Cirrus SR22. After the GA winter of the late 1980s, many pilots wondered if the industry would ever recover. Cessna restarted its single engine line in 1996, but arguably the real rebirth of personal aviation came from two brothers in Minnesota. When the Klapmeiers’ sleek SR20 hit the market in 1999, it had some radically new assumptions (fast airplanes can have fixed gear, safe airplanes have a parachute, big color screens are better than round dials) and some sexy marketing to go with it.

Many scoffed, but it worked. Cirrus has delivered more than 5,000 airplanes since 2006, dwarfing Cessna’s 182/206 line of traveling airplanes and even outselling the vaunted Bonanza by a wide margin. In one of the most impressive turnarounds in aviation history, the SR22’s accident record has gone from a liability to a strength, and the once-scrappy startup has established a powerful brand with devoted fans. It is the airplane non-pilots dream about.

Whether it’s the parachute or the occasionally abrasive fans, Cirrus has made some enemies over the years, but in my experience, the biggest skeptics have the least experience with the airplane. My advice? Don’t hate it until you fly it. The SR22 is everything a modern airplane should be: it’s a joy to fly, the performance is impressive, and the interior comfort is magnificent. On a cross country trip in one last year, I found myself cruising along at 170 knots in air conditioned comfort, with deice protection and great avionics to point the way. Not bad for a fixed gear piston airplane. I think it’s fun to fly, but at the very least, passengers love it—and that should count for a lot.

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The RV-12 is one of the few successful Light Sport Airplanes.

5. Van’s RV series. What will follow the Cirrus? Maybe nothing in the transportation segment of the market. But to me, the next generation of recreational aviation has been around for a long time and is only now starting to claim the spotlight. As certified airplanes have become more and more expensive (that 172 is now a $400,000 airplane), the “Van’s Air Force” of homebuilts has become a more attractive option for everyday pilots. The build time has been reduced with the use of ingenious quick-build kits, and the avionics options are actually better than most certified airplanes.

Which RV to fly may be the hardest question. The RV-12 is what an LSA should be, light on weight but heavy on fun. The RV-10 is basically a half-price Cirrus, with excellent performance and seats for four. The RV-8 is your own personal airshow airplane, with thrilling performance but reasonable operating costs. All of them exhibit great flying qualities and affordable operating costs (I remember being shocked the first time I flew an RV-12 and saw a fuel burn of less than 4 gallons per hour).

While I’m not a homebuilder, I’m excited by the energy and the innovation in that world. The latest models are safer than previous generations and practical enough to be used both in flight schools and for cross-country travel. If there’s going to be a rebirth of piston aviation, I would put my money on RVs and not Skyhawks or Bonanzas.

Bonus: I promised I would stop at five airplanes, and I will. But if you’re looking for extra credit, let me add a category: light jets. Along with experimental airplanes, the real growth in general aviation over the last 10 years has been in turbine airplanes. These are wildly expensive and certainly overkill for VFR pilots in search of the next great airport diner, but the progress here has been stunning. I got to ride in the right seat of a Citation Mustang a few years ago and couldn’t believe how easy it was to fly. Compared to a Cessna 421 or a King Air, the top of the heap in the late 70s, the Mustang was a walk in the park—even single pilot. Life is just different in the turbine world, from the systems (FADEC, automatic pressurization) to the maintenance (much better than typical piston shops) to the training (regular simulator sessions). Light GA manufacturers and pilots could learn a few things from the jet jockeys, so if you’re ever offered a ride in a CJ or a Phenom, don’t hesitate.

What airplanes are on your personal to-fly list?

What pilots can teach the world about managing risk

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When talk around the dinner table turns to Covid-19 these days (and it seems to quite often), I find myself increasingly using the language of risk management, as if I were evaluating a tricky go/no-go decision in an airplane. If any pilots are around, they usually nod quietly, while non-pilots look mystified or just roll their eyes. I’m certainly not suggesting pilots are experts on infectious diseases or the right people to manage a public health crisis, but I do believe the lessons learned by the aviation industry over the last 50 years have something to offer as we think about life in a world of risk.

But first, let me be clear what I mean by risk management, because that term has become such a buzzword recently that it has lost almost all meaning. In previous articles, I have lamented the “risk management-industrial complex” that has emerged to promote expensive and complicated solutions to non-existent problems. What I’m talking about here is not a document or an app, but a way of thinking, one that most pilots develop during flight training and their initial experience as a private pilot. While you may not realize it, you probably think about potential problems, the probability of those problems occurring, what options you have for avoiding them, and if the end goal is worth it.

That sounds a lot like the decision-making process we are all using right now, whether it’s how to open up a restaurant or whether to go on a vacation. In aviation as in public health, information is never complete and the stakes are high, so decisions are rarely easy. And yet doing nothing is not a long term strategy—staying in bed all day is no way to live life. So how do we balance our impulsive nature and the tendency to fall into analysis paralysis? When making difficult aviation decisions, I think it’s helpful to lean on some core principles of a risk management mindset.

1. Life is not risk-free. This one is obviously true but many people pretend it’s not. The reality is that all of life has risk, even in America in 2020. The chance of being killed by a saber tooth tiger or starving because of a bad harvest are much lower than they were in the past, but you can still get hit by a drunk driver or drown in a bathtub (yes, it happens every year). For pilots, GPS navigators and datalink weather make it very hard to get lost or stumble into a thunderstorm, but flying is certainly not completely safe.

This isn’t a sign of failure. Trying to eliminate all risk is time-consuming, expensive, frustrating, and ultimately impossible. Past a certain point, it’s counterproductive. That doesn’t mean we should all be fatalists and take up BASE jumping, but it does mean we should recognize what success looks like: low risk or managed risk, not zero risk.

2. You can’t reduce risk if you don’t quantify it. Given that life is inherently risky, the key is to think systematically about your exposure, then try to quantify the risks involved. This is much easier said than done, because intuition quickly takes over—we notice headline-making tragedies more than the everyday threats that really kill. You don’t have to spend weeks buried in NTSB reports (or medical journals), but you should try to be specific. “That sounds bad” or “that’s scary” are statements about emotion, not risk. How bad or how scary? For example, your chance of stalling on initial climb may not be exactly 74% higher than losing your engine on takeoff, but it’s worth the effort to calculate a range of probabilities. Which one is really more likely?

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You don’t need a formula to know that cloud is trouble.

Just don’t get carried away with the math. In spite of what a Flight Risk Assessment Tool might suggest, risk isn’t an exact science that can be boiled down to an algorithm or a score. As psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer has observed, there’s a difference between risk (“If risks are known, good decisions require logic and statistical thinking”) and uncertainty (“If some risks are unknown, good decisions also require intuition and smart rules of thumb”). Usually it takes both of these approaches to make the best decision.

I think this model works for pilots just as well as it does for doctors or insurance underwriters. Consider which threats are knowable and which ones deserve your attention: the FAA’s well known PAVE checklist is a start but it’s only a start. You know your airplane and your experience level best, so think honestly about what risks might be part of your next flight and remember that the probability of an event happening matters much more than the number of possible events. That is, a high chance of problem happening should count for far more than an extremely low chance of 20 different ones happening.

Having quantified those risks, it’s then much easier to make a game plan to mitigate the ones that matter. Start with the most likely or the most lethal risks, then walk through your available options for avoiding the problem altogether or at least building in some safety margins. This can mean canceling of course, but also altering the route, changing the departure time, reducing the passenger load, or even bringing along another pilot.

3. Habits and systems catch errors. Humans almost never perform flawlessly, so safe pilots (and airlines) expect errors to happen. Likewise, there is no single safety tool that can prevent accidents, so the right answer is an array of procedures and tools to catch those errors before they become a major threat. Belt and suspenders? Yes please.

This is where Gigerenzer’s concept of uncertainty comes in. Hopefully you’ve considered all the obvious risks. But what if you encounter an unforecast gray cloud an hour into your flight? What if your airspeed indicator shows 10 knots fast on final approach, even though everything “feels” normal? You don’t have time to run probabilities and there are no FARs that tell you what to do, but hopefully your own personal rules of thumb kick in: we avoid ugly clouds and we go around if the approach isn’t stabilized on one mile final.

This mindset applies to technology too. Every few years, a new miracle cure is proposed for aviation accidents. Medicine had its hydroxychloroquine moment recently; aviation has had its moments too, from moving map GPS navigators to sophisticated autopilots with a level button to angle of attack indicators. These are wonderful tools (I fly with all of them!) but individually they are merely pieces of the puzzle. Only when combined with good training, thoughtful safety habits, and good maintenance can they can create a safer way to fly.

4. Complacency kills. Richard Collins always said that, no matter how many hours were in your logbook, it was the next hour that counted. That was his way of staying vigilant, because Mother Nature and Murphy’s Law do not care whether you’re a student pilot or an ATP. A threat is a threat.

Experience is certainly valuable for a pilot, but only if you learn the right lessons from your logbook. If you took off 300 lbs. overweight and made it over the fence at the end of the runway, does that mean you can do it again or that you got lucky? Likewise, if you haven’t caught Covid-19 by now, does that mean you never will? Be careful about phrases like, “it worked last time” and “it hasn’t happened yet.”

This brings to mind a great line from the 1995 movie La Haine: “Heard about the guy who fell off a skyscraper? On his way down past each floor, he kept saying to reassure himself: So far so good… so far so good… so far so good. How you fall doesn’t matter. It’s how you land!”

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Part of being a professional pilot means having the discipline to use the checklist, every time.

The antidote to this dangerous attitude is a combination of perspective and discipline. The perspective part means staying focused on the ultimate goal. As pilots, our goal isn’t just to fill in the blanks of a weight and balance form or perform a preflight walk around; it’s to complete a flight safely. Going through the motions should be a red flag.

The discipline part means following the rules, even if you’ve done it 1,000 times already. A great example is the near religious use of checklists by pilots (admit it: you use them around the house too). Airline captains most definitely know how to start the engine or configure the airplane for takeoff, but they follow the checklist anyway. They know that routines, while occasionally inconvenient, also keep you safe. After all, those habits and systems mentioned above only work if they are in place for every flight.

5. It’s all about the risk-reward tradeoff. Some people are horrified at the idea of willingly accepting additional risk in life, but we do it every day when we decide to speed by 10 mph or eat sushi. If the reward is valuable enough to offset the increase in risk, the tradeoff is perfectly rational.

The same goes for general aviation. When I fly my family on vacation in a four-seat piston airplane, I am taking on more risk than the same trip on Delta. The numbers show this quite clearly. But I’m hardly a thrill-seeker by nature: I have never been skydiving, I don’t drive motorcycles, and I don’t even like to gamble. I fly myself not because I think I’m invincible but because I believe I can drive down the risk (with good training, equipment, maintenance, and procedures) and maximize the reward (land closer to our destination, have a more flexible schedule, and simply have more fun).

These tradeoffs are what general aviation risk management is all about. Scud running under an 800 foot overcast at night just so I can get a $100 hamburger? That’s a terrible risk-reward equation. Flying to visit family on a clear day over familiar terrain? That’s worth it. We all make these decisions every time we fly; the best pilots are explicit about them.

Humans are not naturally gifted at this type of thinking; most of us hate talk of unknown risks and potentially deadly tradeoffs. That’s because our minds are, in evolutionary terms, still optimized for an agrarian lifestyle of 5,000 years ago. We are well suited to distinguishing a predator from a plant, but none of our human hardware is made for flying airplanes in the clouds at 170 knots. That doesn’t mean our job is hopeless, only that we need to train ourselves to think the right way and then consistently apply this mindset. Gut instincts just aren’t enough.

What will general aviation look like after COVID-19?

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Making predictions about COVID-19 is a fool’s errand right now, with a year’s worth of news happening in a week. When will schools open? When will sports stadiums again host packed crowds? The best guesses seem to change by the minute, so I for one am not making any predictions about these topics.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t think in broad outlines about the future of flying. While the medical community is focused on finding a vaccine and parents are contemplating the merits of online schools, many pilots are thinking about what changes we might notice at the airport six or twelve months from now. There is plenty of analysis to read about the airline industry and the challenges they face (a lot). But what about general aviation?

I’m obviously biased because I love light airplanes and the freedom they offer, but I genuinely believe general aviation will come out of this crisis stronger. This isn’t just wishful thinking; there are reasons to be optimistic about our small corner of the transportation world.

Consider why most pilots choose to fly in the first place. It’s typically for one of three main reasons: for fun, for transportation, or for a career. At least two of those three seem to be on very solid ground.

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in the virus era, the isolation found aloft is a feature, not a bug.

Recreational flying should be relatively unscathed by COVID-19, at least once the expected recession comes to an end. In the short term, some pilots will be nervous about flying purely for fun during shelter in place orders, others will be worried about family finances with unemployment rising fast. But after these immediate threats subside, taking a Cub or RV-12 for a lazy flight down the river will be a very safe way to have fun—in the virus era, the isolation found aloft is a feature, not a bug.

Besides, with fewer concerts or sporting events, there will be less competition for time and money in the family entertainment budget. A flying club might offer some sense of social interaction but in a more controlled way, plus the option to fly for fun. Light airplanes could start to look pretty appealing when compared to some larger group activities.

Pilots who fly for personal or business transportation purposes face a slightly more uncertain future. Some people are writing dire predictions about how business travel and face-to-face meetings will never be the same. I don’t doubt there will be a lasting impact from this forced experiment in digital meetings, but we often overestimate how much fundamentally changes after a crisis. Business travel took a major hit after 9/11, but it did not disappear. Less than three years after the terrorist attacks of 2001, airline travel was back above its previous peak. The major changes were mostly in the type of flying (more low cost carriers, fuller airplanes), not the actual amount of flying.

In fact, I think this time of isolation may reinforce how valuable in-person meetings are. Certainly not all of them, but among your most important colleagues and customers there is simply no substitute for being in the same room—no matter how good you are at Zoom meetings. You might skip the handshake, but I can’t imagine major deals will be sealed from thousands of miles apart. My experience over the last month with Skype calls, Teams meetings, and Hangouts chats has been helpful for keeping things going, but it has also been very inconsistent and occasionally quite frustrating.

When this type of travel does come back, general aviation and business aviation will be highly preferred over airline flights. The certainty of knowing who you’re flying with is worth a lot, and those quiet country airports you visit by light airplane might start to look quite safe compared to LaGuardia or LAX. With good planning, a private flight can also save an overnight stay in a hotel and thus any associated concerns about additional exposure. Some large companies have long prohibited senior executives from traveling by airline, and more recently fractional jet companies have started moving their pilots around using empty legs on corporate jets in order to avoid airlines. These policies may become more widespread, at least for a while.

The desire for personal travel will be even stronger than business travel. After months of no contact with grandkids and close friends, I suspect many pilots’ first long flight will be to visit loved ones. What better way to do that than a Cessna or Cirrus? With avgas prices dropping under $4/gallon in some areas, the economics will look better than they did just a few months ago.

Anecdotally, I’ve found many people are rediscovering their families after being “forced” to be together for weeks uninterrupted. That statement sounds sad at first, and there have been some sarcastic jokes about the pain of home schooling kids, but plenty of parents have also realized that children should be loved as people, not managed like expensive assets. Maybe the rat race of school, travel sports, music lessons, and SAT classes isn’t worth it, and a family vacation is a better investment than a new Mandarin tutor for Johnny? If so, then a general aviation trip to the nearest beach or national park is going to be a great option. Such a vacation will certainly be possible much sooner than a long international airline flight to a country with strict quarantine rules.

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Airline pilot hiring goes in cycles—what will the next one look like?

That leaves us with flight training, and this is definitely the biggest question mark. Just two months ago, the world was suffering from a long-running pilot shortage, with airlines taking elaborate steps to attract and hire new pilots. Some were even buying flight schools to fill the pipeline with prospects. Overnight, this “problem” has been solved. Will it come back?

The exploding demand for airline pilots has certainly gone away, at least for now. Many airlines have cut their schedules by over 90%, and some have gone out of business completely. Any recovery from this hole will take time, and probably major progress on the healthcare front.

But it’s worth remembering that the other side of the airline pilot market, supply, has not fundamentally changed. The demographic trends can’t adjust overnight, and the US airline industry still faces significant retirements over the next five years as the Baby Boomer generation reaches age 65. An analysis last year showed that the peak of airline pilot retirements would not hit until 2022 or 2023, perhaps right around the time airline travel is booming again. The military is certainly not turning out large quantities of pilots, so the best supply of new regional airline first officers will still be general aviation.

Some things will undoubtedly be very different at these flight schools. Health may be monitored much more carefully, so pilot and instructor temperatures might be checked alongside the fuel and oil levels. Yokes, throttles, and touchscreens may be cleaned thoroughly between flights, in addition to the windows. Some ab initio schools may operate like semi-quarantined campuses. Whatever changes we have to live with, flight training will be back—our pilotless future is still many years off. Plus, learning to fly is a one-on-one instruction model, so the solutions for flight schools will be easier than those affecting university lectures and other large gatherings.

Many pilots are wondering when this whole virus mess will be “over” and our aviation lives can return to normal. That’s the wrong question to ask. Sure, a vaccine will hopefully solve our problem one day, but COVID-19 is a fact of life for the medium term. We need to solve the health crisis in order to solve the economic crisis, and only then will we be able to deal with many of the problems unique to aviation. In the meantime, travel restrictions may lift, only to be put back in place if another outbreak happens. That uncertainty argues for flexibility and creativity, and that’s the hallmark of general aviation.

CompletePilot
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