Tag: Technique

Filing, dialing, and smiling—and a touch of humility

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To file, or not to file, that is the question… This familiar soliloquy with a play on the verb “file” is something that has piqued my interest for a number of years now. I once had a hangar neighbor who oftentimes would say that “he filed” to such and such a place. His intent was to inform me that he had ventured out into the world of “hard IFR.” Because I was a newly minted instrument pilot at the time, that reverential statement generally left me somewhat awestruck.

Beset with that indelible image of IFR adventure, I too began “filing” shortly thereafter. Ahhh, the pure joy of filling IFR was now realized, albeit not into the “hard stuff;” that came later. Truth be known however, it didn’t take me long to realize that when the DPE on my instrument checkride handed me my temporary certificate followed by the statement, “this could be your death certificate,” he really wasn’t kidding around. So, I moved along minding my Ps and Qs, never missing an opportunity to file, even in severe CAVU.

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New tools make it easier to file—should you do it more often?

Given the fact it’s not always the quickest way to get from Point A to Point B, it does add that extra layer of safety and protection while enroute on a cross country flight. It also keeps you “legal” should you venture inside one of those puffy white obstructions in the sky, along with multiple options for extrication, should that need arise.

For those of you who have been there and done that you also know pre-planning is absolutely essential. Weather, weather, and more weather—it’s all part of the game. Not to be remiss, time doesn’t permit mentioning all the other finer points and details. One just wouldn’t think of leaving home without it. Period.

In tightly knit social groups such as can be found in GA, there’s not too much that remains a secret for very long. As time went by, I happened to take notice that some of my VFR-only buddies kind of eschewed the notion of filing a VFR flight plan. “What in the heck is up with that?” I asked.

“It’s a pain in the derriere,” they’d reply. “If you pick up Flight Following why bother with a flight plan?” Someone once made this prophetic statement: “filing a flight plan is like telling someone you’re going on a long hike in the woods. Getting Flight Following is tantamount to taking a buddy along.” So who’s right? Why not do both?

When you boil it all down to its simplest form, you can easily find the answer. It’s not a legal requirement to file IFR or VFR on a CAVU day, but if your preflight planning reveals that you will be unable to maintain minimum cloud separation requirements, you must file IFR if so rated. Otherwise if you’re only VFR you stay home or plan a different route. Is “get-there-itis” the reason we see so many examples of continued flight from VFR into IMC mishaps?

Why don’t more pilots file a VFR flight plan on CAVU days when IFR pilots do? I wonder if some of us, myself included, are perhaps haunted by the notion of, “if we forget to close it we’ve got some tall ‘splainin’ to do.” Never mind the cost of that practice SAR exercise. I’m not exactly sure, but it’s the only reasonable explanation I can come up with. Given how simple and painless Leidos has made this process (see more on this below), it certainly does beg the question, why not?

When I started working full time as a flight instructor, it became apparent that many student pilots were uncomfortable with the whole filing thing. I don’t think most ground schools do such a great job teaching how to do this. But alas, along comes the knights in shining armor: Leidos (1800wxbrief), ForeFlight, FlightPlan.com, FlyQ EFB, and many more. My personal favorites are Leidos and ForeFlight. One can virtually go through the entire process without any personal communication or intervention whatsoever. Those who are reticent and reluctant to speak to a briefer are the ones that love that option.

That said, I do literally require my students to dial in and make that call to a briefer for their first dual cross country flight. Then, being the meanie I am, I have them open and close that first one in the air using Flight Service. Simply put, it is my responsibility as a CFI to show them every available option, the same as planning that flight using paper charts and the E6B is.

Once we get through that, I’ll present other options to them, such as closing their VFR flight plan by calling 1800wxbrief on the ground, while remembering (to my earlier point) not to forget to do so. I should also mention that it is absolutely necessary to establish an online account with Leidos and set up a personal profile along with that of the training aircraft. Subsequent VFR flight plans then become very simple once the system recognizes you.

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Leidos has made the process of opening and closing flight plans a lot easier.

I have to say that Leidos has literally transformed the flight planning/filing process into a quick and easy experience. When filing using your cellular device you will receive a text message and an email from Leidos the moment you hit the file button and the flight plan has been accepted. Once you reach that point, opening and closing the VFR flight plan can be accomplished in just a few seconds using your cell phone or tablet right inside the airplane. It just couldn’t get any simpler, and both my students and I love the straightforward and streamlined process.

ForeFlight has made filing IFR a simple process too. Perhaps it’s the overall visibility of the iPad, combined with the feature-rich flexibility of ForeFlight that allows for such user friendliness, but I have to submit that I find the briefing aspect somewhat more digestible and concise as opposed to the previously mentioned platform. There again, the way I see it, it’s a matter of personal preference. John Zimmerman wrote a great piece about the finer points of using ForeFlight on iPad Pilot News—I’d highly recommend that all users of ForeFlight check it out, it’s a very worthwhile read.

Bottom line: whether you are a VFR or IFR type, technology has really come to the rescue, and irrespective of your personal preference (self briefing, or calling a briefer), it’s way better than it used to be and that brings a smile to my face!

As for that “touch of humility,” I would really like to share the following story with y’all. A few months ago, while enroute from Cameron, Missouri (EZZ), to Dodge City, Kansas (DDC), I heard a most unlikely exchange between a controller from Kansas City Center and a pilot on his radar screen. On the air, in the presence of God and every other pilot on that frequency, I heard that controller openly apologize for his so called “rude behavior” while speaking to that pilot on an earlier landline call. He literally took at least a full minute to express his remorse for whatever misdeed he felt he had committed. I was totally in awe of this controller’s absolute strength of character in making that open air act of contrition. If left me feeling like, “wow, perhaps there still is some hope.”

To whoever you are sir, if you happen to be reading this, my hat is definitely off to you. Thank you for sharing that great lesson in humility! Humanity became a better place on that day and time.

Latest posts by Tom Slavonik (see all)

Objective area analysis for GA pilots

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Pilots don’t like surprises. Surprises usually mean bad things, like an unexpected obstacle on short final or a closed runway that we don’t detect until too late. We especially disliked surprises in my prior life as an Air Force transport pilot, where we frequently operated in non-routine environments with a high chance of receiving an unpleasant surprise. We sometimes spent hours flight planning a single flight to mitigate surprises.

During my career, I flew to remote airstrips in places like Ethiopia and New Guinea, and busy airports like Bogota, Colombia, where nobody I knew had been. My crew and I had to study these places on our own to ensure that we could safely accomplish our mission. In military jargon, we called this preparation “objective area analysis” and used a mnemonic, called OUTCAST, to guide our preparation. After these missions, we debriefed our analysis by asking ourselves “were there any surprises about the airfield.” We took it seriously.

So imagine my recent displeasure at being surprised while landing at an unfamiliar airfield. I was flying from Arkansas to the Northern Rockies in my Cessna 180. I try to make this trip every year, and I typically stop for fuel in Kansas or Nebraska. On this day, I was making a VFR arrival to an airfield with the perfect combination of cheap fuel and a grass strip aligned with the wind. While on left base, I looked right to clear final and I saw a 400-foot tower, about my altitude, that I didn’t know was there. I was not happy. Post-flight analysis showed that I flew about 5000 feet east of the tower at about the height of it. I wasn’t particularly close to hitting it, but I would have liked to know it was there. I kicked myself as I pumped the cheap fuel.

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When preparing to land at an unfamiliar airport, there is a lot to consider.

And I thought back to the OUTCAST mnemonic that is designed to prevent exactly this type of surprise. I offer it here for your consideration, with a GA twist.

O: Objective Area. Take a big-picture look at the airfield. Start with a sectional chart, an aerial image, and maybe an approach plate. Then, drill down to specifics. Where is the airfield relative to nearby cultural features? What is the runway orientation, and what is the length, width, elevation, and slope of each? What is the surface, and what condition is it in? What markings do you expect to see? What is the taxiway arrangement, and how will you get from your touchdown point to your parking spot?

U: User. In the military, this meant “who are we supporting.” That still applies here, although in many cases the user is you. Some things to think about: Who are you meeting and where will you meet them? Do you have ground transportation? What about food, customs, fuel, parking/hangar space, fees, or services such as oxygen? Is there maintenance available? What about Wi-Fi or cell service?

T: Terrain. This is a big one, given that many CFIT accidents occur near airports. What is the surrounding terrain, and does it require modification of any traffic pattern procedures? Are there any towers nearby that you need to identify? How about power lines or high-tension wires? Will the terrain do weird things to the weather, like funnel the winds in a particular way? What is a minimum safe altitude, and can you climb to reach it? Is there a density altitude concern?

C: Communication. Who do you need to talk to? Is there a control tower? If so, will it be open when you arrive? How will you get the weather or close a flight plan? If you need to talk to approach control, what frequency will you call them on and what service can you expect? If you need to pick up an IFR clearance or cancel a flight plan, how will you do so? Is this airfield frequented by aircraft like gliders or ag aircraft that might not be monitoring a common frequency?

A: Airspace. What class of airspace is the airport in? Is there a different level of airspace overlying it that you need to know about? Are there any TFRs or Special Use Airspace areas around the airfield that you need to be concerned about? Are there any special pattern procedures such as right-hand traffic or non-standard traffic pattern altitudes that you need to be concerned with? How about any unique procedures for the airfield that might be published in a NOTAM or in SFAR Part 93?

S: Solar/lunar illumination, and lighting. What time does the sun rise/set, and will you be operating directly into a rising or setting sun? If you’re operating at night, will the moon be up? How bright will it be? Is there nearby cultural lighting that will help illuminate the airfield? What kind of lighting does the airport have, and how will you turn it on?

T: Threats. In the military, this meant “who might be shooting at us.” That shouldn’t be a problem in our GA flying, but I encourage you to think of this as “hazards” to your operation. Some examples: Are there parallel runways that could be confusing on arrival? Are there any hot spots on the airfield that warrant attention during taxiing? Are there nearby airfields with a similar runway arrangement that might cause confusion? Is there traffic that you need to be particularly aware of, like military/airline traffic or traffic from a busy flight school?

There it is… the OUTCAST mnemonic. After your flight, compare what you expected to the actual conditions you found. Were there any surprises? For example, if you joined a left downwind only to find that other aircraft were on the right downwind then you probably missed something in the Airspace section! Make a mental note to do a better job next time.

Of course, many of us fly with electronic systems that help us identify towers or terrain hazards in time to avert an accident. However, I never want to rely on these systems, and I hope to never hear them alert in flight. That’s where OUTCAST can help you be a safer pilot. Hopefully it will help you avoid any unexpected towers… ahem, surprises in your flying.

Latest posts by Joe Framptom (see all)

Learning the hard way

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These events happened. That they happened, and I survived, made me a more sober and thoughtful pilot. In these events, never have I learned so much so quickly. This is my confession.

After reading this, the newly minted pilot might say, “Of course, everyone knows that.” Being polite, they might say below their breath, “Bridge, you call yourself a pilot?” then sling off letters of admonition to the editor. In my jet trainer days, after a 300 mph “formation of four pitch-out to land” or night aerobatics in formation with speeds between 300 and 600 knots, one of my colleagues would remark, “Why, even my grandmother could do this. Maybe not yours, Bridge.” I was never offended, because that toss-off was a way of relieving the stress of the thrills and scares of formation aerobatics. A more seasoned aviator might say, reading these stories, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”

In flying, as they say in recovery programs, “One has to do the work.” A written article may make an impression. Far better for learning is deep and concentrated study. Study plus practice is better yet. Then, there’s experience. One can learn from experience. Sadly, a wise man noted, “That always means bad experience.”

I would like to offer you several learnings of this kind. Hopefully, you won’t have to learn this way, and be wiser without suffering the anxiety, embarrassment, and humiliation I experienced. It took me days to develop the courage and honesty to write these words. With my arrogance and ignorance, I could have contributed myself to the IFR Magazine’s “Stupid Flying Tricks.” Thankfully, I have not. Not being arrogant, I have only had to overcome ignorance: hence, these stories.


In our Air Force flying school class, we had to make one solo night cross country. At 42,000 feet in a jet at 600 kts, the night is very black. The engines are a distant thunder. One feels very alone with the unseen presence.

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All alone at night, even a good pilot can lose focus.

Coming and going on the one hour, fifteen-minute flight, we crossed two ATC centers and set up for instrument approaches at both ends. We all made it but one. This student pilot decided to bring a sack lunch on the return flight. He was a top student pilot, right? He knew the airplane cold—he thought. He might need a snack; that’s what they do in the airlines, right?

The student lost his radio in flight, made several futile calls while traveling ten miles per minute, forgot to squawk 7600, got flustered with all the clutter in his cockpit, delayed his descent and rushed it at 6,000 feet per minute, got more panicky with fruitless calls on his dead radio, forgot to connect his zero-delay lanyard to his parachute, failed to stabilize his approach, got more behind their airplane, skipped his checklists, lost trust in his eyes on instruments, forgot the “black hole effect” of unpopulated terrain with no features, and flew into the ground at 300 mph.

“Aviate, navigate, communicate,” in that order. Always.

Learn the basics

In our mission of forward air control in the 1970s, we launched target-marking missiles while we were protected by the terrain. “Nap-of-the-earth” flying was routine; more than once, I looked up at the top of a saguaro cactus. We knew the trajectory of the white phosphorus rocket and the distance to the target. Not actually seeing our target, “Kentucky windage” was good enough.

My colleague knew “pop-ups” from his fighter-bomber days. He had some 4,000 hours of military and commercial airline time and was highly experienced in jets. Combat jets do 5 or 6 Gs routinely in their yanking and banking. Our surveillance airplanes were not jets; a 2-G pull was close to the limit with the weight and external pods, the use and abuse of the airplane in the late Vietnam War. In the thin, hot air of the Nevada training area, with rocket pods and a co-pilot, he did a pop-up on a target and aimed directly at his fast-closing target. He pulled three or four Gs, and his airplane entered an accelerated stall very close to the ground. They went down and the world is poorer for it.

The ground school lessons of Weather, Weight & Balance, Density Altitude, and Airframe Limitations always apply. Every airplane has them. Learn and Remember the Basics.

New airplanes

In summer of 2017, my wife and I decided to go back into flying after 35 years away from an airplane. I brought in about 1200 military flying hours from the 1970s and 80s in complex, multi-engine aircraft. Most of my flying was in the severe clear of Southern California; we had joked about canceling a flight if we saw “little wispy things” (clouds) on the horizon. Military pilots in those days knew next to nothing about general aviation flying; it was radar control and IFR flight plans all the way to the desert working areas and back. We were confident and rigorous and ATC knew what to expect.

After 25 hours of flight and two turns through ground school, I got the basic Flight Review. All of this recent time was in a Cessna 172, VFR at 4,000 feet or less in the summer, with no icing in sight. I began the journey of learning the modern electronic flight bag (EFB), communication disciplines, and modern airspace. My eyes were opened to the vast improvements in pilot weather analysis over the decades. I learned that general aviation pilots are real aerial citizens, not just distractions to be avoided as they were in my military days.

Bonanza in hangar 300x165 - Learning the hard way

The Bonanza requires transition training, even for highly experienced military pilots.

We settled on a 1995 Beechcraft Bonanza A36. The airplane speaks to the heart. It had room for two or three passengers for Angel Flights across our state, was fast, and IFR capable. It had avionics in the “six-pack” layout which I knew once upon a time, and a GNS 530W radio/nav equipment. It had a heated pitot tube and prop heat, but was definitely not approved for icing conditions. It had an autopilot, but I had never flown with an autopilot.

I was no longer rusty, but I was still ignorant. I knew “about” Northwest weather, but had always avoided it. Where in the jets we could be in and out of the weather in seconds, a single-engine piston would be socked-in for long, stressful minutes. I knew complex aircraft with controllable propellors, fuel-air mixture, and retractable gear; fortunately, I did not have to learn that from scratch.

I have no excuse for the story that follows, other than, “I didn’t know.” My parents taught me that “ignorance is no excuse.” The story is embarrassing and I don’t want to share it, except that it may bring some benefit to another pilot, budding or returning after a long time away. One more thing: now I have personal minimums branded into my being.

The following occurred in one day in November 2017. The temperature was about 40 degrees at the airport. Ceilings were at 6,000 feet AGL, with a stratus layer extending to an indeterminate 10,000 feet or so. The clouds extended to the mountains to the east and maybe beyond. The morning flight with the transition CFII covered slow flight and stalls, emergency descents, and landings. There was no instrument work and no introduction to the autopilot (not that it would have mattered to my overloaded mind). The A36 is a fairly fast GA airplane, and one has to adapt to this, as well.

The insurance company asked for a cross country of 100 miles; a flight to the Walla Walla Airport would suffice. The CFII examined the weather and planned the flight. She filed for 9,000 feet, right in the middle of the stratus layer. I did not even pause to ask, “What about the icing level?” Some wisp of a memory recalls her saying, “If we encounter ice, we’ll just fly above it. We see it all the time where I work” (a regional Northwest airline). Exactly how much confidence can one place in one’s climb rate in this airplane, even at max power, when the lift is being saddled with ice, with the gross weight of an airplane is increasing, as well? I was in no position to quibble, being on the far side of information saturation. She was an airline pilot and CFII, right?

We fueled and preflighted. Was one prop blade cooler than the others? Was that important? Hmm… Did we pre-brief PIC duties? Did we plan an emergency engine-out on takeoff? My heart grows cold when I think of all this.

As we taxied out, she programmed the flight plan in the GNS 530W, confirmed and activated it. I had not flown IFR for years, and scantily in the RNAV environment in my recent refresher. I could fly basic maneuvers on instruments, but was not at ease with instrument approach procedures. I hardly knew ForeFlight. I remember looking over my shoulder at the disappearing earth, and we were in the clouds at 6,000 feet. I flew east on vapors and trust, heading north of Mt. Hood toward Walla Walla.

In our climb, I had the leaning procedures for the Continental engine down; “Maybe that’s all I needed to know?” I wondered. But no—with us in the clouds at 7,000 or 8,000 feet, just as you predicted, light rime icing began to appear on our wing leading edge. This was “known icing.” Is this normal? I had never seen this before. What’s happening? The pitot heat and prop heat were on. That cool prop blade in preflight began to press on my mind. I looked over at the instructor; not a blink. The CFII asked for higher, and we were given 11,000 feet. If not out of the weather, what then? 12,000? Higher? We reached 11,000 in the clear, and she put on the autopilot. Exactly what that meant, I did not know. I was flying, but definitely not PIC.

Bonanza cockpit 300x300 - Learning the hard way

Mastering the avionics is usually an essential part of learning any new airplane.

I was thinking slowly. I looked down at the gauges, stable at 145 KIAS, 11,000 feet. Remember Mt. Hood? In my stupor, I looked over at it, shining in the glory of an early dusting of snow. Half consciously, I thought, aren’t those lovely, smooth clouds? I’m feeling chilly. My eyes wandered down to the airspeed indicator. Strange: now 180 KIAS, still at 11,000 feet. Uh, fast is good, but how did that happen? I had not touched the power. I said nothing. A minute later, the gauge reported 100 KIAS and falling, still at 11,000 feet.

“What’s happening?” I asked.

Our CFII announced, “Mountain wave.”

“Oh.” Clearly, I was very unclear.

“I want to retake the airplane, to fly it,” I said, as if that would help.

“Why do you want to do that?”

“I am confused. It will help me clear up.”

“OK.” With that, she gave me the airplane, autopilot still on, still holding the airplane straight and level at 11,000 feet. Then, I committed the basic sin of trying to overpower the airplane with the autopilot engaged. After a few minutes of my futile wrestling, she disconnected it, and I could breathe again.

Then, ATC: “N1234, do you have the airport in sight?”

I did not. The land was all new. My laboring mind was sloppy, as in a first drunk. Climbing through 8,000 feet 20 minutes ago, I had become slowly hypoxic, which, of course, you don’t know when you are hypoxic.

“Head 080, the airport is ahead 20 miles. Descend and maintain 5,000 feet. Contact Tower.”

On our landing, the Walla Walla Tower offered, “1234, here’s a phone number for you to call.” I wrote it down, settled the airplane, washed up, and called.

When I told “Joe” at Seattle Center who was calling, he said, “Hey, thanks for calling. We were all huddled around a scope up here wondering where you were going. ‘He’s going this way. No, that way. The airport’s down there.’ You were 20 miles south of your filed course.”

When I told him I was in a new-to-me airplane and had no clue how to fly a flight plan on autopilot and that I had a CFII, he said, “You okay now?” I reassured him, said I would be flying back to Portland and would file a NASA/Aviation Safety Reporting System report the next day.

“OK. Thanks for calling and have a safe flight home.”

The flight back had the same ride over the mountain waves and was slower overall due to the west winds. But no ice. When we arrived back at home, I flew an RNAV approach through the late afternoon clouds and light rain. The airplane landing lights and my night landing skills stood me well. The next day completed the training with manual gear extension and a back course approach into Salem. The CFII signed me off, we shook hands, and we were done.

We went on to some amazing experiences to be shared elsewhere, but all good. For now, my learnings:

  • Devise and meditate on your personal minimums. Religiously. Then grow them, modify them with your increasing competence.
  • Don’t fly unless you “own the weather.” Start studying it several days in advance of your flight. There is no excuse to fly into known or knowable icing. Anticipate mountain waves.
  • Don’t hurry in transition to a new airplane. You will cut corners that you didn’t know were there. Fly at least ten hours in it, VFR. Learn the pre-flight quirks (like prop heat, in my case).
  • Carry an oximeter. If your oxygen saturation drops at 8, 10, or 12,000 feet, it still drops. If it ever drops below 95 percent, carry supplemental oxygen for you and your co-pilot, at least.
  • Learn and practice your avionics in VMC. Learn your autopilot, or leave it off.
  • Hasten to fill out NASA reports: they will absolve you of most sins and misdemeanors.
  • Be grateful for Air Traffic Control. They are the finest people you could ever hope to know.
Latest posts by Art Bridge (see all)

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Stabilized approaches: the last six inches is all that counts

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I believe we have all read more than one article describing how to make good landings. I think we can all agree that using a stabilized approach should result in a good landing, the kind of landing where the flight attendants can smoothly walk the aisle collecting the last of the beverage cups and empty Goldfish packages. 

There are groups of pilots who seldom use a stabilized approach because the variables of most of their landings make that difficult, and their normal landing is to use a flexible approach with almost everything varying except the final contact with the ground. 

I’m not sure I can name all the groups of pilots that are in this category, but those that I can think of are: bush pilots, military liaison pilots, crop dusters, and many glider tow pilots who are limited by space or time factors. Getting on the ground quickly or into a too-small or non-standard area that may pass for a runway, will determine how it is approached. A stabilized approach is best for normal flying but is a luxury that some pilots don’t have.

Bush pilot landing 300x168 - Stabilized approaches: the last six inches is all that counts

Bush pilots don’t usually have the luxury of making a stabilized approach.

These pilots have made enough stabilized approaches and the resultant good landings to know what it is like to touch the ground smoothly even if everything on their variable approaches is wildly chaotic. The chaos is expected and through practice, mastery is achieved. With time it may be difficult to land using a stabilized approach. It may just seem too strange.

Crop dusters usually have the seasons working against them—crops ripen according to the season as light and temperature move north. Some dusting operations move with the growing season; some dusters remain local and do repeat applications of chemicals when needed. There is usually lots of area to treat. All dusters are subject to the weather and must make optimum use of flyable time. Getting on the ground quickly for refills is necessary. There are no beverage containers to collect, and the shortest distance between two points is still a straight line. Traffic patterns are not normal. Since dusting or spraying has been described as flying low altitude aerobatics all day long, the landing approaches are no exception.

Tow pilots often have time restraints as well. Getting gliders in the air when the thermals are strongest is the goal, and everyone wants to be in the air simultaneously. Short return times are desired, returning from the direction of the most promising looking source of lift, a billowing cumulus cloud. That often results in a downwind landing. Trailing a usually 200-ft. long towrope adds more challenge, especially if operating from a relatively short, tree-lined field. Almost every landing is a high approach over the trees until the rope is clear. That is often followed by a steep descent using maximum slip and/or full flaps until almost touching the runway. Another (time consuming) option is to drop the rope on one low pass over the field and then return to land with less challenge.

Bush pilots have many challenges. First, they might be landing at places that aren’t airports. In fact, the places they land are often not even thought of as places. They could be a beach, a stream bed, or an uphill glacier. If there is somewhere you want to go, they seem to be able to get you there. It does have to be clear of trees or large rocks, but they seem to be able to land an airplane like it is a helicopter. There are short field landing competitions, usually flying Piper Super Cubs, Cessna 180s, 185s, or similar high wing aircraft with huge low pressure tires that repeatedly land in about twenty feet.

The approach is not at all normal. It is stabilized however, in that once they slow the plane down to below normal stall speed in a very high angle of attack, power is all that is preventing a stall. They slowly approach the landing zone just “ hanging on the prop.” It takes lots of practice, hopefully done first at high enough altitude for stall recovery before it is in regular use. It’s always precarious—you’d better be really good or stay away from places like Alaska or northern Canada. 

Pilots of military aircraft whose designation began with “ L” during World War II, Korea, and maybe Vietnam, and were used primarily for target spotting, shared most the challenges of bush flying where no standard landing site was available much of the time. Similar landing techniques were required in the L-1 to L-19.

I definitely agree a stabilized approach is the best way to have a smooth passenger or flight-attendant-pleasing landing. Practice and master these before you try landing in the other super flexible manner, because the only thing they share in common is to be stabilized—but only in the last six inches above the ground.

Latest posts by George Frost (see all)

Flying perpetual VFR—PFDs, HUDs, and conformal displays

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Many years ago I failed at becoming a CFI. On the first lesson the instructor told me to put the airplane in the climb attitude. He said, “Look out at the horizon, and see the proper angle between the nose, and wing, and the horizon. That’s the climb angle.”

I said, “No, just look in here. See where the little airplane is relative to the horizon on the attitude indicator. And monitor the airspeed indicator and vertical speed indicator. That’s how you determine the proper climb angle.”

No hope for me. To become a CFI I would need to reverse everything I practiced in real life flying and look out the windshield for imprecise attitude and flight path information.

The solution was to skip over becoming a CFI and go straight to CFI-I, where my mission was to tell pilots new to IFR flying to stop looking outside and scan the instruments.

Rockwell CL601 CVS CL605 PL21adv HUD Image 02 824x549 300x200 - Flying perpetual VFR—PFDs, HUDs, and conformal displays

HUDs were once a novelty, but have started to show up in more general aviation airplanes.

Well, it turns out I may have been about 50 years ahead—or behind, depending on your view—of how we will all be able to fly before long. With development of conformal flight displays we will all one day be able to fly as though we are looking out the window on a clear day, no matter the clouds and visibility around us.

The real technology breakthroughs to make perpetual VFR possible came with development of head-up displays (HUD). A HUD displays all essential flight data on a combiner glass in front of the pilot’s eyes. A pilot can look through the glass and see an unobstructed view through the windshield, but thanks to magical optics, also read airspeed, altitude, and most importantly flight path data without changing his eye focus from infinity.

The military was the first adopter of HUD because, for obvious reasons, a fighter pilot needs to have the best possible vision of the threat environment and weapons delivery situation around him. By looking through the HUD glass the pilot can see the target visually, plus all the information needed to properly target the weapons.

Civilians soon realized that a HUD would be extremely useful in low approach conditions because the pilot could see all necessary flight and approach guidance information without taking his focus off the runway that is about to appear out of the murk ahead.

HUD guidance with its flight path marker (PFM) is so precise and so reliable that the FAA certified Category III ILS approaches to be hand flown down to visibilities of 600 feet. Without the HUD, only multi-channel autopilots are certified to fly approaches in such low conditions.

But HUD technology did not spread beyond a minority of transport airplanes and the largest business jets for many years because of the cost and physical size of the equipment.

HUD guidance is so precise because it relies on inertial sensor inputs. Until 20 years ago, or so, inertial guidance systems were large and extremely expensive. They relied on laser ring gyros—or in the early years on a platform of spinning rotary gyros—to measure tiny accelerations and thus calculate the airplane’s precise flight path. And it’s flight path, not attitude, or airspeed, or vertical speed that shows us where the airplane is going instead of where it’s pointed.

In a development few of us saw coming, creation of micro electronic mechanical sensors made it possible to build an inertial sensor so low cost and so compact that we can now see our flight path marker and synthetic vision in airplanes ranging from the largest jets to the smallest homebuilts.

The other size and cost issue with HUD has been the projector and combining lens that makes it possible to see both the view ahead and the displayed data clearly under all light conditions. The system uses a projector that is very bright to shine the data display onto the HUD glass. Miniaturizing the projector has physical limits so cockpit space is an issue. And the electronic and illumination technology required is costly.

However, advances are making it possible to display data on a HUD glass internally without need of an image projector. That can allow for a compact display and will bring cost down exactly as the non-moving gyro development made synthetic vision and flight path display affordable and available.

As HUD technology proliferated at the upper end, it quickly became apparent that the primary flight display (PFD) in the panel needed to change. It is distracting and takes at least a small amount of time to look up and down from a HUD with its image oriented to the real world outside to a conventional PFD with its display centered on the attitude and course data. Thus the conformal display was born. To maximize the benefit of seeing the real world outside through a HUD, the PFD in the panel needs to conform to that view.

G1000 PFD with FPM 300x190 - Flying perpetual VFR—PFDs, HUDs, and conformal displays

The key to a PFD is the flight path marker, which shows not where you are pointed but where you are going.

In a conformal PFD the little airplane symbol that has been the center of attitude indicators since the gyro horizon was invented is gone. In its place is the flight path maker (FPM)—a small circle with small horizontal lines to represent the wings—that shows where the airplane is going. Across the center of the conformal display is the zero reference line. It’s not the “artificial horizon” but the point that indicates your flight path is going up or down. If the FPM is above the zero line you’re climbing. Below, you’re descending. Actual pitch attitude information is pushed out to the perimeter of the display. Same for bank angle indicator. Remember, the FPM shows where you’re going, not your attitude.

And the conformal PFD has full screen synthetic vision. So you see the terrain under or around the airplane, and the airport environment just as you would looking out the windshield, or looking through the HUD.

But how do you know the airplane attitude with a conformal display? Exactly as you do looking out the window visual conditions. The entire display background is a synthetic view out the windshield on a clear day. You see the horizon, terrain, obstructions and, if nearby, the airport environment and runways. No interpretation is needed, at least not more than visual flying on a clear day.

Conformal displays are still developing and there is no “standard” format for all symbology and data presentation as we see with conventional flight displays. Falcon’s conformal display looks a little different than Gulfstream’s, and Boeing’s has some differences, too. Everyone has reasons why their format is optimal, but in time the best and most useful features will become common.

The key is that with a full conformal display cockpit we are flying as though we are looking out the window in clear skies while still seeing the most precise flight guidance available. Are you flying instruments, visual, or both? Really both. And that’s the best of all worlds.

I can’t predict when we will see a truly conformal cockpit in piston airplanes, or even the light end turbines. It takes a lot of computer power to refresh the flight display so that it maintains a true image of the world around and under the airplane. But then I never expected to live to see precise flight path marker, synthetic vision, and even rudimentary HUDs in light airplanes. So who knows?

Maybe when the conformal display cockpit arrives in light airplanes I’ll go back and get that CFI because I can look outside and see the instrument data at the same time.

Latest posts by Mac McClellan (see all)

Learn to love stalls

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Stalls are not a subject I ever expected to be writing about. They have been part of my flying repertoire since I first learned to fly in the 1970s. So why write this article?

After a 25-year hiatus from flying, I returned to making stalls and steep turns part of my regular proficiency regimen. However, the media and pilot conversations kept bringing up the concern that pilots were afraid of stalls and avoided them. Personally I believe this is the wrong approach and that stalls should be embraced in order to learn about the flight handling characteristics of their plane. A couple of experiences really brought the subject of stalls into focus.

An opportunity to fly a Cirrus Vision Jet with All In Aviation in Las Vegas brought stalls to the forefront. The FAM hop in the SF-50 left seat was a delight, with Paul Sallach in the right seat. Takeoff and a short trip out of the Class B was followed by steep turns to get a feel for the plane. To the question of what I wanted to do next there was no hesitation on my part: slow flight and stalls in order to explore the low speed flight envelope. He laughed at my request.

Wondering why he laughed, I sought a little clarification. Paul responded that of the many FAM hops he had flown with prospective customers in the jet, I might have been the only one to ask to do slow flight and stalls! Most pilots were more focused on exploring the colorful flight management system displays. This just blew me away.

In preparing for the 10-hour Airmanship and Aerobatic Course with Patty Wagstaff Aerobatic School a few years ago, I read several articles that stated that pilots rarely exceed a pretty low angle of bank and pitch up attitude after getting their license. Those statement were just too hard to believe. But follow-up conversations with Patty and other experienced professional aviators confirmed this fact.

It is not my intent to profess to be an expert in stalls; there are aviators far more qualified that I am. Many excellent books have been published that address stalls from Wolfgang Langewiesche’s Stick and Rudder to Rich Stowell’s Stall/Spin Awareness. In fact, Stowell’s book prominently displays text on the back cover stating “Don’t fear the stall/spin, Master It!” He has recently introduced a new booklet entitled “Learn to Turn, A Stick and Rudder Approach to Reducing Loss of Control,” where he cautions that “Stalls don’t happen to the pilot. They happen because of the pilot.” Another good resource is the FAA Advisory Circular AC 61-67C,on Stall and Spin Awareness Training.

F14 Cat 06 CVN65 300x235 - Learn to love stalls

Now that’s a critical time for low speed handling.

My first job in aerospace gave me a unique familiarity with the low speed range for airplanes. As a flight test engineer with the US Navy at Patuxent River, Maryland, we conducted minimum end airspeed tests off the aircraft carrier catapults to generate the Aircraft Launching Bulletins (ACLB). Tests with instrumented aircraft were first conducted on shore to determine the minimum airspeeds for the aircraft in many different configurations.

Then we would take those aircraft to the boat (i.e. the carrier) to perform catapult launches at gradually decreasing speeds to determine the minimum end airspeed. Once the minimum controllable speeds were identified, the ACLBs were developed so that they ensured a 15-knot minimum end airspeed margin for when the fleet would launch aircraft. So the speed envelope just above stalls and the stalls are familiar.

Stalled flight occurs when the critical angle of attack is exceeded. But the plane is not going to fall out of the sky, it just isn’t able to maintain altitude. On a coefficient of lift versus angle of attack curve, stalls occur past the peak on this curve, or the point where the increase in the angle of attack results in a decrease in lift. This is the technical stuff but what about stalls in your plane?

I have to admit that during my training for my private pilot certificate many years ago, there was apprehension to demonstrate stalls. However, somewhere along my flying career I decided to learn to love stalls rather than fear them. Once I got over that obstacle, stalls became my friend, not my enemy.

If you haven’t focused much on stalls, slow flight and steep turns, grab an instructor at your next flight review, or just go fly with an instructor to renew those slow flight and stall capabilities that you learned when first getting your license. The benefit of flying with an instructor is that they will be able to identify those actions you are doing correctly and those that may need improvement. Plus it will help alleviate any fear that you may have in doing these maneuvers on your own.

Before flying with an instructor, it is important to agree what type of stalls, slow flight, and steep turns you want to demonstrate during the flight. Are power-on, power-off, and accelerated stalls enough? Or do you also want to investigate cross-controlled, elevator trim, and secondary stalls? Make the most of your flight by setting goals in order to help you become a more experienced pilot after the flight.

Once you have mastered slow flight and stalls again, make them part of your future flight regimen. Your level of proficiency will improve and you will feel even better when you next “slip the surly bonds of earth!”

Latest posts by Pat O’Brien (see all)

Managing engine failures on takeoff: a new approach

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I have just read another accident report about the fatal crash of a twin engine aircraft following an engine failure shortly after takeoff. Conditions were VMC. The accident report stated that the pilot applied the wrong rudder, which resulted in loss of control. There was no speculation as to why an experienced pilot might make such an error, nor was any corrective action proposed!

This goes back to a problem I discovered about twenty years ago while giving annual training to airline pilots in full motion Boeing 737 simulators. The bottom line is that training for this critical emergency was and still is woefully inadequate.

AF simulator feature 300x162 - Managing engine failures on takeoff: a new approach

The simulator is the best place to learn new techniques in a twin.

The good news: at the time, I developed an effective for avoiding this mistake and began teaching it to all those crews I was paired with.

The bad news: I did not make a big enough effort to get this problem—and our solution–broader recognition and dissemination.

First let’s discuss some background and realities about training for the failure of an engine during and immediately after takeoff.

Modern light twins have little or no excess energy with loss of one engine on takeoff, and appropriately, the focus is typically on remaining on the runway or re-landing if possible. Unfortunately, for safety reasons, this is never actually practiced in a real airplane. In turboprops the performance improves somewhat, but again the actual loss of power in this critical phase is not practiced except in a simulator.

To receive a multi-engine rating, no simulator training is required. During the check ride, engine failures are given either at very low (safe) speeds, or above 500 ft. after takeoff. Never in IMC or at night! The failure is simulated by the check pilot retarding one of the throttles–a big clue as to which engine has “failed.” Testing requirements pretty much dictate training requirements. Training is expensive. Training in sophisticated full-motion simulators, which accurately reproduce the performance of a multi-engine aircraft with a failed engine, is very expensive. The reality today is that most multi-engine rated pilots have no actual experience–either real world or simulated—handling a twin with a failed engine shortly after becoming airborne.

Until the early 2000s, airline pilots were only trained and checked on handling engine failures that occurred at V1—just at rotation on takeoff (V1 cut). Because both wheels were still on the runway, the only control input needed was rudder. The plane would suddenly veer away from the centerline. I would train them to, “Stop the rotation, apply enough rudder to bring the nose back toward the centerline, freeze that rudder position, and continue the rotation.” This would result in them becoming airborne with the correct amount of the correct rudder already applied. There would be little roll as the wheels left the security of the runway. From that point memorized call outs and the abnormal checklist finished the safe recovery. There was no training for an engine failure after becoming airborne!

As a rule, the airlines don’t like to spend more money on training than is required to meet FAA standards. However many, including mine, had become concerned that more training was needed beyond the repeated but limited maneuvers of the annual Proficiency Check (PC) and had begun petitioning for more flexibility in their pilot training programs. That became a reality with the introduction of the requirement to conduct Line Oriented Flight Training (LOFT). Today this is called Scenario Based Training. To mitigate the burden of this additional training requirement, we were authorized to vary the types and conditions of emergencies that we simulated—with FAA approval and oversight.

So our first big change was to replace the V1 cut with an engine failure at 400 ft. after takeoff in IMC. Guess what happened? A large number of our pilots lost control and would have crashed had we not stopped (frozen) the sim. Several of us went into the sim and thoroughly investigated what was happening. Here is what we discovered.

BretAztecVFR 300x169 - Managing engine failures on takeoff: a new approach

Are you prepared for that engine to fail at the worse possible time?

When the engine fails, the plane yaws and rolls into the dead engine. The roll is detected immediately, but not so much the yaw. The pilots automatically react by applying aileron against the roll—which is good. Rudder turned out to be another issue. Once airborne in a climb, even in day VMC, there is little visual reference for determining which rudder to apply and in what amount.

The proper response did not come naturally to most pilots. Other than, “Step on the ball,” and/or looking at the engine gauges to see which engine had failed then “Stepping on the good engine,” pilots had no reliable way to quickly ascertain which rudder to push and to what extent. All of their previous engine failure training had emphasized getting on the rudder immediately. However when this is done in haste, three things can happen, and only one of them is good:

  • Apply the wrong rudder—often fatal.
  • Apply the correct rudder too aggressively, causing the plane to abruptly roll in the opposite direction, which leads to the belief that you have applied the wrong rudder, and a swap of the rudders—often fatal.
  • Apply the correct rudder in the correct amount—good! But, how do you reliably and safely determine this correct direction and amount?

We learned that we could maintain control of the aircraft with one engine at takeoff power using aileron alone. If we left our feet flat on the floor and used only the ailerons to straighten the wings—a lot more aileron, up to 90 degrees to return to level—we could easily fly the plane safely in the climb. It was neither coordinated nor pretty, but it was safe! No one ever put in the wrong aileron.

We began to teach this technique to our pilots, instructing them not to jump on a rudder, but use only the aileron, then after the plane is under control, look at which direction the yoke is turned—which side is down—and slowly apply rudder in that direction until the yoke is back to level. At this point, the correct amount of the correct rudder would be applied.

It is my experience that most pilots of multi-engine aircraft have never turned the yoke more than about 30 degrees one way or the other in flight. It is my suggestion that any multi-engine pilot who hasn’t go out and see what full aileron deflection will give you, and learn how far you have to turn the yoke to get it. Then, slowly pull back one throttle and use just the aileron to keep the plane level. Obviously you should not get slow and stall while practicing this.

As you all become confident in this new technique, please pass it along to others, especially new MEIs.

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Crosswind operations—no drama, please

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Contrary to the title, you frequently hear two different viewpoints being vociferously debated between the proponents of crabbing into wind or wing down and slipping for crosswind landings. Let’s dissect the arguments. Throughout this discussion let’s assume that the direct crosswind is at least 15 knots or more, or approaching the limits for your airplane.

Bear in mind the published demonstrated crosswind listed in the airplane flight manual is just that. It is not an airplane physical or legal limitation but, in all probability, it could be the maximum crosswind found during the airplane’s certification test flying. We will come to crosswind landings after first looking at crosswind takeoffs.

The basic problems with crosswind takeoffs are keeping straight, stopping the upwind wing lifting, and avoiding a premature lift-off. On crosswind takeoffs, the downwind wing is in disturbed air as the wind and slipstream bubbles past the nose. The upwind wing is in clean air and generates more lift, thus lifting it above the downwind wing and, once started, the problem tends to get accentuated with further blanking of the airflow over the downwind wing.

Takeoff tailwheel 300x167 - Crosswind operations—no drama, please

Crosswind takeoffs in a tailwheel airplane are not always easy.

Tailwheel airplanes have the problem compounded by the large keel area aft of the pivot point (the downwind main wheel), allowing the airplane to weathercock. If the manoeuvre is fast enough, the centrifugal force of the turn will also tip over the airplane.

Becoming airborne prematurely must be avoided on a crosswind takeoff because if the airplane touches down again with drift on, it could turn base over apex. A very painful operation made unlikely by making a flapless takeoff and holding the airplane level while accelerating to a speed slightly higher than normal, then lifting off abruptly. Flapless (check the pilot’s notes/flight manual) because it allows the nose wheel to remain in ground contact longer for added directional control to a higher speed than taking off with partial flap selected.

Sweaty palms on crosswind takeoffs will disappear if the pilot flies the airplane as though the pilot in command means business. FULL RUDDER, FULL AILERON into wind and relax the pressures as increasing airspeed improves control effectiveness. When clear of the ground make a coordinated turn into wind to correct for drift and to maintain the runway centre line.

Imagine the case where you don’t do this and find the airplane pointing straight at the hangar. Full rudder keeps you pointing straight at the hangar but there is nothing further available to return the airplane nose down the runway centre line. In this extreme and theoretical case, had the pilot applied full rudder at the start of the takeoff run and only reduced the rudder deflection as necessary to keep straight, the problem couldn’t arise.

Obviously, on those airplanes where rudder and nose wheel steering are interconnected the application of full rudder at the start of the takeoff is impractical. Students are not always told much how aileron or rudder to use. Don’t be like a trained monkey—THINK—you are less likely to get into trouble overcorrecting, than letting things get out of hand from timid control inputs on a crosswind takeoff.

Now let’s look at crosswind landings, but first let me quote from one manufacturer’s Pilot’s Operating Handbook: “The best time to know procedures and the worst time to practice them is during an emergency.” In adopting this philosophy, you need to ensure your flight techniques employed are not those used only during crosswind landings but are related to every flight you do.

If we agree (and I think most pilots do) that good landings start with good approaches, it follows that good speed and glidepath control make for good landings. Precise numbers can be quoted for airspeeds on the approach but glidepath positioning is a skill you acquire from repetitive demonstration and by trial and error in everyday flying. Glidepath control intuitively becomes a comparison of visual relationships. Airplane attitude relative to the horizon, position of the nose relative to the end of the runway, rate of closing with the ground, runway perspective, etc.

On a crosswind approach with wings level, a crab angle sufficient to maintain runway centre line maintains all these relationships. The only thing different from an into wind landing is that the airplane nose points slightly to one side or the other of the runway.

If, however, we adopt the alternative method, downwind rudder is used to align the airplane parallel to the runway as into-wind aileron is applied to prevent drifting. And to maintain your lateral position on the runway centre line a steady sideslip is established. You don’t normally fly with crossed controls so don’t on a crosswind approach. If you do all the normal relationships you strive so hard to maintain for a good approach disappear. The position of your aiming point above the nose has changed, so has the sink rate for a given airspeed and power setting; you can feel this sideslip in the seat of your pants. Nothing’s normal. It looks like a good case for the crab crosswind technique on approach down to the landing flare.

crosswind landing smoke 300x160 - Crosswind operations—no drama, please

Watch the pros fly crosswind landings sometime.

What next? We can’t land with drift on or we meet that old base over apex trick. When you get the opportunity, watch the professionals in their Boeings, Airbuses, Embraers, Gulfstreams, or Cessna 402s and see what they do. The real “aces” apply downwind rudder just prior to touchdown to eliminate the crab and align the airplane along the runway centre line. As rudder is applied, the upwind wing will sweep forward and because it is going faster, it develops more lift and hence roll. The pros stop the roll with upwind aileron and touch down with crossed controls.

As the airplane slows down note how they increase the control deflections. Those full-time pilots who don’t think they are in the “ace” category are very careful to make sure they don’t land with drift on. They align the airplane along the centreline early during the hold-off flare and if their speed is too high for a touchdown on the main wheels, they apply into-wind aileron to lower the wing while keeping straight with opposite rudder. This causes a sideslip but because of the crosswind the airplane will not drift laterally in relation to the runway centreline. They level the wings just prior to touchdown by slightly decreasing the aileron input—bearing in mind that it is not catastrophic to land gently on one wheel but better still to use both main wheels.

For general aviation pilots who fly for sport and recreation and don’t think they are in the professional’s “ace” category, the early removal of crab or drift then sideslip during the hold-off to make sure they don’t land nose wheel first seems to be the best technique. After all, most pilots can and do level the wings after a wing drop on hold-off, so what is very different about putting a wing down on a crosswind landing while keeping straight with rudder just prior to touchdown?

If you make a crab approach and you can only see the runway out the side window, it is easy to see that you have bitten off more crosswind than you can chew! A sideslip approach does not make crosswind evaluation as easy. Note how quickly the Boeings, Airbuses, Embraers, Gulfstreams, or Cessna 402s go-around in really windy conditions if things are not to their liking. They don’t wait for extreme airplane attitudes to develop as some light airplane pilots do before deciding to go-around. Crosswind operations are not worth shouting about but they are worth thinking about.

Finally, just because your wheels have touched the ground does not mean flying has finished for the day. As the speed washes off, so the flying controls lose their effectiveness. Thus, more rudder and aileron need be applied up to full deflection unless over control appears first.

It seldom does. Try it.

Latest posts by Brian Souter (see all)

Smooth operator: sometimes you can go too far

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How smooth is too smooth? And how to achieve that?

Before we start the never-ending discussion about super butter/greased touchdowns, an essential disclaimer right from Boeing’s Flight Crew Training Manual: “A smooth touchdown is not the criterion for a safe landing.” Having said that, and emphasizing crystal clearly that a smooth touchdown is completely secondary and even not desirable in certain circumstances, we can now dive in—with a deliberately reduced sink rate—to this mesmerizing subject.

The first and most important thing: different airplanes land differently. And since we will eventually get to the widebodies, let’s summarize general aviation techniques first. No wonder taildraggers are harder to grease: the landing technique consists of stalling them right over the touchdown point. Yes, there are options, like landing the mains first and reducing speed and setting down the tailwheel gently, but those are not applicable to all operations for a myriad of reasons. Of all my landings, only one was in a taildragger, and although it was good enough for me to walk out of the airplane by myself and for the owner to use it again without extra maintenance, it is reasonable enough that I focus, from now on, on tricycle gear aircraft.

I learned to fly in a Cessna 152, a respectful trainer that is really generous and fun to fly. The flare and touchdown technique for a single piston Cessna doesn’t change a lot with its size. You are approaching with a rather high speed (we discussed months ago here in another article) and have to bleed this energy during the flare, touching down with the mains despite the fact that the design of the Cessna is already kind of nose up. So, if you are at pitch zero, you would touch with the nose gear first—never a good sight.

Flaredusk 300x228 - Smooth operator: sometimes you can go too far

Hold it off… Hold it off…

Therefore, you are already at idle, well into the flare, and hold, hold, hold, until you touch down softly with the main gear—sometimes close enough to a stall to hear the horn. Most single engine pistons land the same, and although I haven’t tried myself, maybe even some single turboprops might land well that way (if you know, let us know in the comments below, please).

Remember: the airspeeds we use in a Cessna are all based on maximum takeoff weight, which is seldom going to be your weight during any landing due to the 172’s limited resources for air-refueling. I’m not getting into the crosswind landing techniques as well, since we extensively talked about them in another article a while ago.

On the ladder up to the heavy metal, you get on the next step: the light twins. I had the opportunity to fly two classics on this category, the Piper Seneca and the Beechcraft Baron. The Seneca, especially the first, lacks so much power and owns a so obvious out of trim condition that is not really practicable to flare it at idle; most of the time, you will close the levers as you touch down, otherwise its refrigerator aerodynamic characteristics might get you in trouble. But if the Seneca is a bit more comfortable, because apparently it was designed from inside out, the Baron has awesome performance. A lot of power, nice wings, low drag. It flares and lands a bit like a piston single: if you keep the power, even just a small amount, you will float forever. So, the secret is the same: close it during the flare and hold, hold, hold…

But the laughing Santa technique is only applicable to general aviation light airplanes. When we step up to the jets—and my learning curve jumped in a 737 right seat with fairly low hours—then the “landing by attitude” becomes the norm. Well, physics are the same for any airplane, so pitch and power will get you safe with any flying machine—that’s why we learn it on a Cessna and we learn it on a multi-hundred-tons long hauler. But when it comes to landing, that is even more essential. So, let’s suppose you don’t know that and get your GA experience and apply it directly into landing a jetliner. First things first: please keep those two reds/two whites as far as over the threshold at least, otherwise you might either leave your landing gear before the runway (four reds) or have a runway excursion at the end of it (four whites). Believe me, both things have happened with well-trained and experienced crews in real life.

The second point: the thrust. Pitch for speed, power for altitude is as true in a Dreamliner as it is in a Skyhawk. But as we get closer to the ground—and the Dreamliner has an extra push up for the amazing wings and the consequential ground effect—in the Cessna you would go idle way before you should in an airliner. The right way to do it (and the 777/787 do it automatically, since they land with the auto-throttle engaged) is to reach idle as the main gear touches the ground. The reduction starts at around 30 feet, from a threshold crossing of 50 feet. It is a Boeing, so you still have your hand on the throttle and can override it any time.

In the 737, since we land with the auto-throttle disengaged, you decide when to bring it down or pump it up, but on a normal day, you would do exactly as the auto system of the 777/787 series does. So, yes, depending on wind variations, pressure, thermals, you might have to put some extra pounds of thrust in odd moments to assure a safe—and why not smooth—touchdown. But most of the time, the power toward idle gently from 30 feet until touchdown works nicely.

TouchdownSDU 300x225 - Smooth operator: sometimes you can go too far

Smooth touchdown is not the primary goal for an airline pilot.

And remember we talked about the Cessna approach speeds being based on its maximum takeoff weight? Well, in an airliner, they are based on the actual weight. In a Boeing 737, one knot for every 500kg or so. In a 787, one knot for around two tons. Lift goes up at the square of the speed, right? So, a light airplane will land fairly slow (in the 120-130 kts range), while a heavy one, up to the maximum landing weight, will have a Vref closer to 140 or 150 kts. And the reference speed is based on 1.3 times the stall speed. On top of that goes the five knots for the approach speed, which is going to be bled off during the flare.

So, let’s think about the Cessna again: you hold it off until you almost stall it. An airliner, quite differently, touches down with a 30% margin over the stall speed, which means it could fly still with enough angle of attack. That’s why attitude is of paramount importance; in the case of the 737 and 787, something around four to six degrees of pitch up ideally, with some margin up and down. But of course, you are eating 210 feet of runway per second so you are not really counting the degrees on your primary flight display.

So, how do we do it? Well, if you crossed the threshold at the correct speed and power setting, your pitch is right where it should be, as is your sink rate—something around 700-900 feet per minute typically. As the radio altimeter starts singing down the “fifty… forty… thirty…” song, you feel that is time to flare, and slowly but surely pulling back the yoke, you arrest that sink rate right to touchdown with the correct pitch—you are looking outside now, not to your instruments—even if using a heads-up display.

If you pull too much or get rid of the power too early, chances are you are going to either float and lose the touchdown zone, hit the tail on the ground, or both (a tail strike happens at around 10 degrees of pitch up in many airliners). If you don’t pull at all, then you land hard, with nearly the sink rate of the whole approach—what is called during the certification process “aggressive landing technique,” a very good name.

Now, since we have talked about the landing itself, how to make it smooth? Well, the bigger the airplane, the easier it is. Because of the design of some gear bogies—like the 767 or A350, with a negative tilt—they are a bit harder to grease. At the other extreme are the 747 and the A330, where you literally have more than one chance to do it right, since the aft pair of wheels is much lower than the front one during touchdown. The 787 falls in between, especially the -9 and -10, which have a nice attitude of the wheels, making it much easier for the pilot to put it on the ground softly.

The 737, since has a simple main gear, has only one chance to get it done right, but is not altogether impossible. And how to do it smooth and safely? Well, I was lucky enough to have a very experienced simulator instructor during my initial training on the 737. Coming from the 707 and the 767, he taught us the following concept: you arrest the sink rate and only then put the gear on the ground yourself. Since the airplane is in a pitch up attitude at this point, as you lower the pitch, the relative angle with the runway will decrease and touch the main gear on the ground—that, and not the whole descent of the airplane, will make the touchdown. Remember, you are still flying 30% above the stall speed.

I’ve been doing this for most of the last thousand landings, and although it does not work every single time, I have enough smooth touchdowns to not remember them all, and few firm ones to fill one hand only. With the non-negotiable aim of safety, with this technique it is possible to have a smooth landing without compromising safety, because you press the aircraft positively on the ground—getting spoilers up, autobrake on, and reversers opened nanoseconds later.

1084px Qatar Airways A350 941 A7 ALA landing at Frankfurt Airport 300x199 - Smooth operator: sometimes you can go too far

Not all landing gear systems are created equal.

The tricky part is, of course, to calculate when to stop the flare (ideally a few inches over the runway). Sometimes you do it too early and, since it is secondary to have a smooth touchdown, at any point you just let it go: keep the attitude, give it back a little if needed, and do a normal landing. Sometimes you do it too late, and a not so pretty touchdown happens. Easier said than done, faster done than said. But safe, above all.

And since the heavy plastic has this feature of sensors measuring the landing, how smooth is too smooth? Well… a normal approach occurs somewhere between 700 to 900 feet per minute. By my own experience, I’d say that any landing below 200 feet per minute feels very smooth, more in a widebody than in a narrow. Between 200 and let’s say 350 feet per minute feels normal—not especially smooth but not firm either. Above 350 feet per minute, up to somewhere close to 600 feet per minute, that’s a firm one. The aircraft can stand it, it is still safe, it just does not look pretty (or intentional, for that matter).

The hard landing concept itself depends on the manufacturer and is more G driven. On a Boeing, the pilot feeling dictates the decision to classify a landing as hard—the sensors can be deceived by lateral loads or secondary touchdowns, for example. Besides, they measure decimals only so a smooth landing tends to be 1.0 G. If you have a still decent one, let’s say 1.2, it means a 150 pound person “weighs” 180 pounds at touchdown. You see the problem? It is too much. Where is 151, 152, 153… 179, 180? Not very precise: I even got a 0.9 landing once. But the runway was kind of uphill, so yes, maybe that’s why the sensors understood that I landed with less than 1 G, as weird as it can sound.

Now, let’s take one of my last landings, a personal record: 38 feet per minute at touchdown, according to the measurement. Same technique: flare, pitch up, reduce the pitch slightly to put it on the ground. By the speed we had at that moment, this meant around 1 foot of vertical move over 120 feet of horizontal displacement. This is how smooth it was, and honestly, it felt super smooth indeed: cold temperature, high pressure, some headwind, all in my favor in a nice and sunny spring British morning. But I don’t believe these sensors for a hard landing, why would I believe them for a smooth one? I must stop looking at the numbers after each landing. It has to be only safe, after all.

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Checklist vs. memory items

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An old saw among pilots is that you use a checklist for actions you perform on every flight, such as lowering the landing gear, but for a very rare event, such as an engine fire, you’re required to perform the proper actions from memory. Does that make sense?

Any pilot who’s been through a formalized type training course has had to deal with “memory items.” The memory items deal with possible system failures or other emergencies that require specific pilot actions. And to pass the oral exam, or check ride, you need to know the memory items and be able to repeat them verbatim, or perform them in the sim, in the exact order specified.

Once you have completed the memory item actions you can consult the checklist to perform the rest of the necessary steps to deal with the failure or emergency.

emergency checklist copy 300x174 - Checklist vs. memory items

How many memory items can you really remember?

I’m not sure how the concept of memory items became imbedded in pilot training, but I’ll blame it on the military. The core of military pilot training, particularly in decades past, was single pilot flying under high stress. Think fighter pilot. There was nobody else in the cockpit to read a checklist, and our hero had his hands full with the emergency, so he had to know the proper procedures by heart. From memory.

As the years went by safety and training experts realized checklist use was one of, if not the most important elements of safe flying. And crew resource management (CRM) developed and was elevated to a required component of any training. Always using a checklist, and consulting with any other aid in the cockpit such as a second pilot, is the core of CRM.

So where does trusting your memory instead of using all the resources in the cockpit—as in checklist and copilot—fit into safe flying? The answer has become clear: memory really isn’t reliable, particularly under the high pilot workload of a system failure or emergency.

Certification authorities have been working hard to reduce and eliminate memory items as much as possible from newly designed airplanes. Cockpit automation has helped that cause a great deal, but mostly it’s a change in attitude.

While a recently certified jet may have only a handful of, if any, memory items to learn, the airplane I fly most often, the Beech King Air 350i, has 27 memory items. The King Air I fly is brand new but its certification roots date back to the 1960s. In many respects it’s a newly built antique, at least in terms of much of its certification basis, and the reliance on memory items.

Some of the memory items in the King Air are absurdly obvious. For example, if you get a warning message that fuel pressure is low the memory item is turn on the boost pump. Duh. Or if the warning message is that both generators have failed there are six memory item steps to perform before you consult the checklist. The battery is still there and will keep the essential loads powered for at least 30 minutes, so why all the switch flipping from memory before looking at a checklist?

One memory item for the airplane that I find to be really really strange is recovery from a spin. The memory item includes five steps. They are the cookbook techniques of full forward stick, neutral aileron, rudder opposite rotation, and so on. But the weird thing is that the King Air has never been spun in flight test. The flight manual says these steps are the best guess on how to recover from a spin, if recovery is even possible. Wouldn’t a better memory item be don’t stall, then you won’t spin?

What we need is a way to teach and check a few emergency pilot actions that really need to become instinctive. For example, if you get a stall warning there shouldn’t be any need for a memorized or any other checklist. If your instinct isn’t to unload the wing and add all available power when a stall threatens, a memory item can’t possibly help.

If your instinct isn’t to push and hold the red button under your thumb if the automatic flight control system is doing something you don’t understand, that’s a problem. The checklist can help you sort out what’s wrong after you are in control, but the first and essential action needs to be automatic.

Cessna stall external 300x199 - Checklist vs. memory items

There’s no checklist for stall recovery—it has to be an automatic reaction.

I believe our training techniques sometimes interfere with developing the essential instincts to handle the initial and most critical phase of an emergency. For example, when we practice approach to a stall in training we are graded on performing a series of actions in a required order. Raise the flaps or gear first? Roll the wings level or not? Recover with least altitude loss, or with most positive escape from the stall? To pass you need to perform the tasks in the exact order specified for that airplane training program, and they can be different from one type course to another.

The proper pilot instinctive action to any stall warning should be to unload the wing and add power. Trade altitude for positive flying speed. And over the past few years the FAA is coming around to that attitude. The past emphasis on minimum altitude loss during stall recovery is being replaced by positive action to escape the stall condition as quickly and positively as possible.

I don’t know how we teach essential pilot actions so they become instinctive, but that’s the goal. Teaching memory items was an attempt to do that, but I think it misses the point. When you lump in a generator failure as something that requires immediate actions from memory with what should be instinctive reaction to a true emergency, such as an impending stall or loss of power at low altitude, the crucial objectives of pilot training and performance are in conflict.

We need consistent and effective checklist use for safety. We need to have learned the few fundamentals of true emergency actions to the point they are instinctive and appropriate for any airplane. Memory items? I think that’s something to reserve for the eye chart before your next physical.

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