Are You a Safe Pilot?


By Richard Zephro

At one time or another, luck has a lot to do with making it or not. The important thing is to reduce the element of luck by making skill overshadow and lessen the factor of luck. Luck can be construed as time and unforeseen occurrence, nothing mystical.

What is a safe pilot?

What has kept me alive during 30 years of flying mostly single engine aircraft has been my quick reflexes. There has been a few times that if it were not for my God given quick reflexes, I honestly believe that I would not be here right now.

It is therefore important that you allow what ever reflexes to operate at their best by knowing what to do in any given situation. It is true that our flying careers are made up of hours and hours of incident free flying, followed by moments of shear terror where our knowledge and reflexes are tested to their maximum potential.

If as a pilot, you find yourself taking some minutes to figure out something unusual, or even have a problem making your right hand do one thing while your left is doing something else, all the while having to talk to the controller, you may need more work and practice.
Many of the customers I fly with are of low experience, and I see many of them not able to handle more than one task at a time, and then have to think about it some.

The day may come when you need to be used to handling several things at once, in fact, your life may depend on it some day.

This is not to instill fear in any of you. To the contrary, many pilots have not been taught what questions to ask themselves, so not even aware of the answers if they don’t know the questions.

A lesson from John Kennedy Jr. should teach us that if we are not up to the task of being able to handle anything that might come along, are we doing an injustice to those who fly with us?

My suggestion would be to get to the point where you can fly your Mooney like a master piano player plays his piano. Both hands are independent of each other, and both are doing something entirely different.

The best way to accomplish this is to sit in your airplane for an hour at a time. Here you are safely on the ground, and you can practice what you would do and how fast you would do it by imagining something going wrong.

Can you reach almost blindfolded, your master switch? Your fuel selector? Your alternator field breaker? Your gear actuation breaker?
Can you switch tanks while pushing on the fuel pump switch having already reduced throttle power first?

Can you reset or pull a breaker while at the same time switching off your master switch?

You might wish to practice setting frequencies, banking your plane’s yoke, while pushing on the PTT switch and talking as if you were in the pattern?

Do you practice flying at minimum speeds at a safe altitude while maneuvering the plane?

Do you practice flying your plane at the best glide speed?

Do you ever practice this with your power to idle? If you fly for several minutes at different power reductions, you will not have to worry about super cooling your engine if you take your time doing so, then come on down from a high altitude with idle power. If you do this, make certain that you are over friendly terrain, and recover at a high enough altitude in case the engine has trouble regaining power once applied. Carb heat helps on the decent if you’ve got a 180 HP model. Others be certain your ram air is off for the power out descent. Everybody be certain that you apply power back to the engine slowly, and it should be there.

When you’re set up for landing, or takeoff, do you see a picture of the runway, or do you allow your brain to let you assume you see it? By this I mean, are there any animals on or near it? Are there any planes taxiing up to an intersection whereby he might not see you and keep going?

When you are short final, do you actually look at the numbers to be certain that some little plane is not sitting precariously there?
I was cleared for take off at Santa Barbara one time by the tower controller, and there was a small chopper hovering at the departure end. I asked the controller if I was really cleared for take off, and she quickly came back with abort, abort! I had never even started rolling!

Do you practice stalls, or do you practice how to recognize the stall and how to avoid a stall?

When you get ready to take off, do you ask what if? What if I taxi in to position and hold for departing traffic?

Do you make the full turn to runway heading, or do you stop at an angle so as to see any unannounced traffic on final?

Do you ask yourself what if my engine quits and no runway remains?
Do I already know which direction I will fly in after takeoff where the terrain is more friendly?

Have I sworn to myself as a solemn promise that I will not try to turn around and land the opposite runway without knowing for absolute certain I have enough altitude to accomplish this with room to spare?
Do you ask yourself that when flying low and slow in the pattern, if you never, NEVER, exceed standard rate turns, or is it your habit to continually overshoot final and have to really bank to get back on track?

The base to final turn is one of the biggest pilot smashers there is.
UPDATE: As of October 2007, there have been a ten year all to many stall/spin accidents (mostly in the pattern) which almost always takes place in the pattern and more often than not in the base to final phase of flight. The ten year total of all Gen Av stall/spins is 404. That is about 40 of these needless fatalities per year. Of the ten year total, only 14 of them involved Mooney aircraft, so every year there are 1.4 stall/spin accidents in Mooneys. Relatively low comparatively, but 100% more than there has to be if the patterns are simply flown correctly and not in a tight formation to the runway, but low banking leisurely turns.

Do you ask yourself if you are just along for the ride and fly minimally, or do I honestly know my aircraft, and am I the sole controller of it? In other words, is your plane flying you, or are you flying your plane?

A good pilot doesn’t just react, but must know why he does what he does. He must be a good aircraft handler, a good radio communicator, always on the look out for other traffic, know how to fly to avoid most other traffic, a good engine power manager, and has a good understanding of how the systems work mechanically.

If you are a VFR pilot, do you get lessons occasionally how to fly your plane without seeing out, what to do if you get yourself caught in the soup, and how to shoot an ILS and a VOR approach? Practice, practice, practice, and then practice some more.

If everyone subscribed to these measures, our lousy safety record would be so much improved.

I feel that if you are well prepared for anything, anytime, chances are Murphy will not find you.

If you happen to be a nervous pilot, ask yourself why? If you were well prepared, you would not be so nervous.

Do you know that if you see a bird coming right at you, he will likely dive to avoid you? How about an airliner?

Do you know that he will most likely climb when you see each other at the last moment? They have so much momentum that they can get out of the way easier by climbing than diving.

Did you know that most small plane pilots coming at you direct will veer to his right to avoid you? What will he do, and what will you do if you see one coming at you on an angle?

Do you know that many pilots freeze when another plane suddenly comes right at them? They are in awe of the sight. It is like a still picture when they are close, and then it’s too late. That picture will fill up your windscreen. Don’t be caught just watching the other traffic….do something fast!

In my earlier flying days, I read absolutely everything related to flying I could get my hands on. I can honestly tell you that I think I’ve learned more by reading and watching, than actually doing it.

Never miss a chance to go flying in the back seat where a good instructor is teaching an advanced student. You can’t imagine how much you can learn. Garbage in, garbage out, so it is as important who you pick to be your instructor as it is to pick out your brain surgeon.
What can a 400 hour kid instructor teach you? The main fault of most young people is that they think that they can’t get hurt. Get a seasoned and enthusiastic instructor, and if you find a good one, keep him and refer him!

I personally find flying to be safer than driving. People try to kill me nearly every day in my car, but only a hand full of serious problems through 5,000 hours of flying general aviation stuff, and when I was prepared, I handled everything they’ve thrown at me so far, and they’ve thrown some DOOZIES from time to time. As a pilot, YOU have to be ready for anything.