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Aviation Safety


Dave Fry, WVFC CFI and Aviation Safety Counselor  

Flying: A Team Sport

The first great step in a pilot’s life is the day he or she takes off without the extra 100 – 250 (or so) pounds of ballast in the right seat and gets to fly solo.  In fact, one of the best things about being a pilot is the independence one has, especially when flying alone.  Some pilots feel the need to fly single-pilot, because of pride, independence, being excessively macho, or some other reason.  I even know people that wouldn’t consider owning a plane that would require two pilots, when a two-pilot plane would match their mission better. 

On the other hand, there are pilots that know they are better when they’re flying with another pilot.  And realistically, that probably applies to almost all of us.  The part about flying better with another pilot, that is, not the part about KNOWING they are better. Clearly, when the spaghetti hits the fan (and from time to time it will), having someone to handle the radios and read checklists can be invaluable.  Among other things, it gives the pilot time to keep the dirty side down and the pointy end forward, and maybe even get the plane where the pilot wants to go.  

Unfortunately, most of us aren’t sufficiently prescient that we can know which flights we need to take someone along with us because things are going to go wrong.  In my 14,000 hours of flying, I have experienced such things as flaps that wouldn’t retract, flaps that wouldn’t extend, cabin depressurization at altitude, gear that wouldn’t lock down, electric systems failure, instrument failure (pick one, it’s rolled over and died while I was flying), a malignant autopilot that tried to do a negative G pitch-over at 400 ft on a coupled approach, a thrust reverser that unlocked during climb out, and an engine failure.  And not once did I have an inkling that bad things would happen before the flight, or even in the final seconds before that system went south.  The good news is that on almost all of those occasions I actually had another pilot in the plane.  Lest some of you think that’s because I’m an instructor and mostly fly with students, I almost always fly with another pilot, even in airplanes with lots of redundancy and automated systems. 

But it does raise the question of how to use the skill and expertise of the other pilot when the spaghetti is NOT in the fan.  The next several paragraphs are ONE way of doing things, though there are (as is often the case in aviation) multiple right answers.  What’s really important is that you sort out the responsibilities before you fly together.

Most commonly, one pilot flies the plane while the other handles the radios and reads the “challenge” part of the checklist and reminds the pilot of the checklist if the pilot doesn’t call for it.  The pilot flying the plane calls for the checklist at each phase of flight, and gives the “response” part of the checklist. 

When in the receiving end of ATC instructions, the pilot handling the radios sets the altitude bug, heading bug, and so on while the autopilot is not engaged, and calls out the values that were just set (or just calls out the values in the case of airplanes without heading and altitude bugs).  The flying pilot then confirms the bug settings. 

When the autopilot is engaged, the flying pilot sets the bugs, and the pilot handling the radio calls out the assigned altitudes and headings, and confirms the values after the flying pilot sets the bugs. 

Before following an instrument procedure, whether arrival, departure, or approach, either the flying pilot or the radio pilot will brief the procedure (the flying pilot determines which one will do the briefing), while the other confirms frequencies, headings, waypoints, airspeeds, missed approach procedures, and altitudes.  And while flying the approach, the non-flying pilot’s focus (aside from the things already specified above) is outside the plane, looking for ground contact and the runway/runway environment.  Experience crew members usually signal when they change what they are doing by calling out such things as, “I’m inside” or “I’m outside.”

The pilot not flying has another VERY important responsibility – to remind the pilot of things that need watching, and it can often be done with a single word.  For example, while on approach, if the non-flying pilot happens to notice the airspeed dropping below the range both pilots have agreed on, the call is, “airspeed”. Similarly, altitude or heading deviations can be dealt with by a simple, “altitude” or “heading”.

The most important calls though, are the ones related to safety, such as traffic calls, or even more importantly, the call to go around.  And as you may imagine, I have a story.  As with all good flying stories, it starts – There I was … 

Flying the Citation VII into Burbank in the mandatory crew environment (since it’s a two-crew airplane), we had performed all the activities up to the final approach checklist, and the flying pilot had done an admirable job on the approach.  Over the previous two years, we had come to expect nothing less – the other pilot had several thousand hours in the Citation VII, as well as being type rated in other Citations, DC-9, 727, 757, and 767, and more hours in jets as I had total hours, and I’d been flying the plane for about 300 hours.  However, as we began the flare, we found ourselves pretty far down the runway and as we approached the half-way point, the non-flying pilot called “go around”, to which the flying pilot responded, “negative” and proceeded to land (and use nearly all of the remaining runway – the VII is slippery, fast, and very unforgiving).  After the flight, we had our normal post-flight debrief as part of our ongoing effort to work better as a crew.  The flying pilot apologized profusely, saying (correctly) that the other pilot could have seen something the flying pilot hadn’t seen, and we agreed that henceforth, if either of us called “go around”, we would do it, no questions asked.

It’s a practice I recommend for all crews.  I love team sports.