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Aviation Safety


Dave Fry, WVFC CFI and Aviation Safety Counselor

Black and White?

We often think of doing things as having a right way and the wrong way, or in the case of some of our military friends, the right way, the wrong way and the Navy way.

However, I digress as I often do.  When we think in terms of black and white, we limit ourselves.  Do you remember black and white television?  Even that wasn’t really black and white, as there were lots of shades of grey.  Nor, is it shades of grey any more.  For over 60 years, television has been in color, and in some cases, it’s also 3-D.

And the world of flying isn’t black and white, either (most of the time).   In flying, there are multiple right answers – though there are fewer right answers than there are wrong ones.

Let’s take the traffic pattern, for example.  Without trying to foist my preferred method on anyone, let me just say that I can find logic and sound rationale for a variety of different techniques, decisions and methods.  One could also poke holes in each with about the same ease.

At what altitude do you turn crosswind?  Arguments could be made for a specific altitude (500 AGL, or 400 below TPA, for example), or for some performance-based reason (the altitude at which a 180 back to the runway is possible (however undesirable that choice may be on any particular flight), or an altitude which will allow completion of the turn above the pivotal altitude).  As I mentioned, any of these answers could be supported, as could other answers.  So what do you do?

How far out from the runway do you turn downwind?  I’ve heard effective arguments for a specific distance, or for a distance that varies with the wind (so you have the same amount of time on base, or a distance that will always allow you to make the runway if the engine fails).

When do you turn base?  Does the position differ with wind?  Some folks like to turn when the numbers are 45 degrees behind; some use an angle/distance method; some use a particular altitude.  Of course, when you’re number eight to land and tower sends you all the way to San Jose to turn base, that whole discussion is seriously moot.

What speeds do you fly on downwind, base and final?  When do you add flaps?  Some folks always have the first notch of flaps on the downwind, the second on base, and the third on final, adjusting power to maintain a desired flight path.  Others add flaps only if they need to descend, saving the power adjustments until the end.  Either method seems to work for the people that use it, but they ARE different.

OK, so almost any method of doing these things (and virtually anything else in flying) can be completely workable and safe to some extent, how do we evaluate the safety of a particular method?

One place to start is to make sure you do the same thing the same way every time.  If you have to modify what you’re doing, perhaps it’s time to question why you needed to change, and whether the methodology really is the right one.  Another starting point is to ask WHY we do things the way we do them.

Unlike things in the Sixties (“if it feels good, do it”), if you understand the alternative methods, and have a solid reason for doing things the way you do them, you’ve made a conscious decision.  And if the decision is based on safety factors, you’ve probably made the right decision.

But it is a good idea to understand (at a level greater than “I’ve always done it that way”) why we do things the way we do them.

It might even add some color to an otherwise black and white picture.