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Aviation Safety


Dave Fry, WVFC CFI and Aviation Safety Counselor


The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Pilots

(With Apologies to Stephen Covey)

Just like effective people, there are actually more than seven things that pilots do as part of being effective, but here are the ones that came to mind by the time I got to seven.

1.  Highly effective pilots make the most important decisions before getting to the aircraft

We don’t often think about it, but when you’re opening the door to an airplane, you’ve already made the explicit or implicit assumption that everything is fine, and you’re going to fly.  And at the very least, a thorough check of the IMSAFE checklist, followed by an examination of the weather and the aircraft performance/weight and balance is in order.  It can save the time and expense of a trip to the airport.  A partial list of things that can easily be avoided include:

Flying into icing conditions

Flying when physically limited – things that seem of no consequence make a lot of difference when there is significantly less oxygen around

Flying outside the CG envelope – whether because of lack of planning, or because of overly optimistic passengers

Flying into embedded thunderstorms

Flying into TFRs

Remember, you’re far better off being on the ground wishing you were in the air than the other way around.

2.  Highly effective pilots stay ahead of the aircraft

I’m sure you all remember at least one time when (for whatever reason) you got behind the airplane and had to play catch up.  For most of us, it happened early in our flying careers or early in the process of learning a new (to us) faster or more complex airplane.  For the less fortunate among us, it happened (or will happen at some future point) when something bad happened in or with the airplane, and suddenly things are happening faster than we can react.

Something that frustrates me is the supposedly knowledgeable analysis on television or radio that talks about the Law of Unintended Consequences.  For the uninitiated, the Law states: “Every action has at least three unintended consequences, at least one of which is bad”.   HOWEVER, just because a particular consequence is unintended doesn’t mean it can’t be ANTICIPATED.  Simple example:  As you fly along on a cross country, you notice you’re covering ground at a slower rate than you planned.  Wanting to arrive on time, you goose the gas a bit and start flying faster.  The intended consequence is that you’re going faster, and you’ve achieved that, but what about the unintended consequences?  Some are easy; since you’re going faster, the plane will generate more lift and try to climb.  It will also mean resetting the trim to hold altitude.  Going faster may also put you into the yellow area on the airspeed indicator, and depending on the conditions, that may be less than a brilliant idea.  Going faster also boosts your fuel burn and reduces your range, and that may mean a fuel stop, making you even later than you would have been.  Being ahead of the airplane among other things consists of anticipating these unintended consequences and including them in your planning.

On another level completely, there are the unexpected events such as engine problems, system failures, passengers that get ill, …   These are things that don’t necessarily result from a particular action, but could happen anyway.  In these cases, there may be a brief moment when the pilot isn’t ahead of the plane, but highly effective ones get there rapidly by prioritizing and flying the plane first and worrying about other things later.  “Aviate, Navigate, Communicate” – it’s a great place to start.  Sometimes it’s as basic as “Dirty side down, pointy end forward.”

3.  Highly effective pilots are always learning

As Toffler pointed out things are changing, and the rate of change is increasing.  Just look at the things that have changed since the 1960s – Engines have fuel injections, turbocharging, and FADEC.  Turbine engines are available in general aviation.  GPS was barely a dream back then, now it’s available in any airplane, iPad and phone.  XM weather, NOTAMS, TFRs, METARs and TAFs are available in the cockpit.  Pilots that haven’t learned new technology as it becomes available get left behind.

In addition, no matter what you know about the airplane you fly, there is more to learn, more situations to explore, more emergency scenarios to master.  Any new thing you learn can help you master something you THINK you know already.

4.  Highly effective pilots understand their aircraft

There is a lot to understand in even the simplest aircraft.  There’s even more to understand in more complex ones.  Every one of them has memory items and limitations.  Sometimes when things go south, they can even be solved by the procedures in the POH.  Sometimes the Emergency procs don’t seem to address the problem you face.  When that happens, there is no substitute for understanding the aircraft.

Understanding, however, isn’t just an academic exercise.  It also includes an intuitive feel for “if I do this, here’s what happens.”  In some of the fun cases, the pilot, for example flies power off in an engine fire scenario, trying to get to the ground as quickly as possible, and (because of a high level of understanding) is able to touch down lightly within a few feet of the objective.  This only works by understanding the plane – or sheer dumb luck, which counts, but you can’t count on it.

5.  Highly effective pilots are proficient

As anyone that flies on instruments will tell you, there is a huge difference between knowledge and proficiency.  Just because you know HOW to do something doesn’t mean you can actually do it.  It takes practice.  Look at what is required of airline and charter pilots.  Every year (or more often), they get placed into simulators and are faced with situations you don’t really want to do in real airplanes.  Not all of them happen often, and some have NEVER happened in that particular type of plane, but being able to handle those situations means the ability to handle others.

Nobody trained to land an airplane in the Hudson after eating a flock of geese, but Sullenberger was able to do so in his own words because “…for 42 years, I've been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on January 15 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal."

6.  Highly effective pilots mitigate risks

The first step in risk mitigation is knowing what the risks are.  Acquisition of the habits leading up to this one is a great place to start.  However, it also requires a deliberate effort to identify what the risks are.  As outlined in Chapter 17 of the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical knowledge, it is an on-going process of being aware of what is happening around and to you, considering alternatives, and executing the plan that mitigates the risk.  It’s a chapter that’s worth reviewing from time to time.

7.  Highly effective pilots have professional attitudes

From time to time, I re-read some of my favorite books.  I always find something I didn’t see the previous times, or more often as I get older, didn’t REMEMBER from the previous times.  This is why professional pilots re-read the POH once per year, and with what seems an entire ream of paper devoted just to the systems section, that can be a bit of reading.  Re-reading the Airplane Flying Handbook and the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge is also a common practice, as is re-reading Aviation Weather, Instrument Flying Handbook, and Instrument Procedures Handbook.

Highly effective pilots also fly in a professional manner, and have the skills to adapt to the situation.  When sharing expenses with friends on a weekend flight, the professional pilot will fly as close to the center of the envelope as possible, making things so smooth that those friends will come back and share expenses on future flights.  When demonstrating spins (as instructors do from time to time), the effective pilot explains what’s going to happen and why, then demonstrates the maneuver after taking the appropriate safety precautions.  Granted, this case is a bit closer to the edge of the envelope, but the pilot is still professional and safe.

Even in the extreme case of a test pilot, the professional attitude is shown when PAST the edge of the envelope.  For a great example, watch the NASA tailplane icing video, in which the pilot calmly reports loss of aircraft control and control forces exceeding 75 pounds and reverse airflow along the elevator.

As mentioned at the beginning, there are probably a lot more habits of highly effective pilots, and each of these topics could be expanded into entire articles, but these are the thoughts that came first to my mind.  I’d love to have conversations on the topic.