Three Tips for Becoming a Better, Safer Pilot

My take on some advice offered by the FAASTeam.

The Deer Valley Pilot’s Association (DVPA) held its annual membership drive at Deer Valley Airport (DVT) in Phoenix yesterday. I’d joined the group earlier this month, when I discovered that membership entitled me to a $1.10/gallon discount on 100LL fuel at my preferred FBO there, Atlantic Aviation. One top-off was enough savings to pay the cost of a year’s membership.

DVPA EventI was so appreciative that when I heard about the event and the fact that a few aircraft would be on static display, I offered to put my helicopter on display. So yesterday morning, at 8:15 AM, I parked on the ramp in front of the terminal building to give attendees just one more aircraft to look at. I even hung out for a while and let kids climb into my seat.

FAA LogoThere were other organizations on hand, with tables set up under a big shade. The FAA’s Safety Team, which sponsors the WINGS pilot proficiency program, was one of them. They had a table full of informational flyers. Because of my general interest in helicopter accidents — which, by the way, I’m starting to think isn’t exactly healthy — I picked up a flyer titled “Helicopter Training Accidents.” Later, back home, I gave it a quick read.

The pamphlet focused on two areas of training accidents: autorotation and dynamic rollover. It provided a lot of bullet points under headings like “Autorotation — Common Errors” and “Dynamic Rollover Precautions.” It was pretty basic stuff, but good to read just to refresh my memory. I wish I could link to it here for reference, but I simply can’t find it online. I’ve scanned it; you can download it here. And believe me, there’s lots of online reference material available at their Web site.

But the most useful content — especially for new pilots or pilots falling into the complacency trap that can catch you at any experience level — were the bullet points under “Cockpit Resource Management and Personal Readiness.” Three of these points jumped out at me as great topics for discussion in a blog post. Here they are.

Oh, and although I’m a helicopter pilot and use helicopter examples here, most of this applies to airplanes, too.

Know your limits and observe them.

I think that this is one of the biggest causes of accidents — although I’d expand it to read “Know your limits and the limits of your aircraft and observe them.” Many of the accidents I’ve discussed in this blog can be categorized as what I call ‘stupid pilot tricks.” In so many cases, pilots overestimate their own skills or the capabilities of their aircraft either in general or under conditions they’re not accustomed to.

So how do you discover what your limits are? The best way is by experience. If you’ve successfully performed a maneuver consistently over time, that maneuver is probably within your limits — in the conditions in which you’re have successfully performed it. But whenever conditions differ, you need to proceed carefully to test your limits. For example, perhaps you’ve landed quite a few times off-airport on dirt and gravel in light wind conditions. But now you need to land on terrain littered with big rocks. Don’t assume that it’s just as easy as any other off-airport landing. Consider the risks and proceed carefully. Leave yourself an out. Don’t commit to setting down unless you know you can do it safely and then take off again later. The same goes for making an off-airport landing in a strong crosswind or tailwind situation. Or in dusty or snowy conditions. Have you done it successfully before? Multiple times? Consistently? Then it’s probably within your limits. But if the situation is brand new to you, you can’t possibly know for sure whether it’s within your limitations. Proceed with caution!

Advanced training can also help. If you find yourself with a need to perform maneuvers that you’re not sure about, find an experienced CFI and go flying with him. Let him train you, let him give you the additional support you might need to practice it safely. Isn’t it worth a few hundred dollars to get the experience you need to safely expand your personal limits?

As for the limits of your aircraft, that’s pretty easy. Open the Pilot Operating Handbook and look them up. If you fly the same kind of aircraft often, you should have most of the limitations memorized, including a rough estimate of out of ground effect hover capabilities at various weights and density altitudes. And if you find yourself in a situation where you’re not sure if an operation is even possible for your aircraft, reach for that book and look it up to make sure. It’s required to be on the aircraft, so there’s no excuse not to consult it. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve done this several times. I even keep a copy of the book in my office to make sure I can handle unusual client requests before booking a flight.

Develop and use good habits (e.g., checklists).

The FAA loves checklists and I’ve been told by a few pilots that they won’t let you pass a check ride unless you use available check lists during the flight. While I agree that checklists are extremely helpful — I actually created my own for preflight, startup, and shutdown when I flew LongRangers at the Grand Canyon back in 2004 — I also feel that if you perform the same series of tasks in the same order without distraction more than 50 or 100 times, a checklist becomes a bit redundant. So if you’re expecting me to wax-poetic about checklists, I’m sorry to disappoint you.

What I will expound on, however, is the idea of developing good habits for all phases of flight. Here are a few examples from my own flying:

  • Always perform a preflight inspection in the same order.
  • When adding oil during preflight, always leave the cowl door open until the oil cap/dipstick is replaced. Do not close that cowl door unless the cap/dipstick is confirmed present and tight.
  • Just before stepping into the aircraft, always do a complete walk-around starting and ending at the pilot door. Use that walk-around to check for open cowling doors and fuel cap tightness one more time.
  • Always perform all parts of the startup procedure, from sitting in the pilot’s seat and fastening my seatbelt to loosening frictions just before bringing RPM to 100%, in the same order.
  • Always check to make sure all doors are secured before lifting up. (I can reach all doors from my seat and all their windows have fingerprints where I push on them before each flight.)
  • Always do a visual scan of the area before lifting up and then again before departing the area.

These things, when done regularly, become routine. I actually feel as if something is wrong if I neglect to perform one of these tasks. I have even gone so far to climb back out of the aircraft before starting up to check fuel caps if I can’t recall doing so.

What’s a bad habit? How about storing papers, pens, or other items in the area beneath the collective? While some aircraft have ample storage space there, many do not. Don’t place anything there that could prevent you from getting the collective down in a hurry if you need to. How about leaving dual controls in when non-rated passengers are on board? Do you really want to worry about some idiot pushing the cyclic, resting his feet on the pedals, or having his fat butt blocking the collective when you’re trying to pull pitch? Pull those controls out if you don’t want the person beside you able to mess with them. Or how about glazing over or skipping your passenger preflight briefing? Do you know how you’d feel if your passenger were trapped in the aircraft after a mishap because you neglect to tell him how to open the door?

Think about the things you do when you fly. What good (or bad) habits have you developed? Get rid of the bad ones — they’re not going to help you become a better or safer pilot. Instead, think about the things you need to do or be aware of when you fly and incorporate them into your workflow or cockpit management.

Be constructively critical of each flight.

This is my favorite of the tips, the one that made me think this was a topic to blog about.

The trouble is, too many pilots are head cases who think they can do no wrong. No matter how well or poorly they fly or complete a mission, they’re too full of themselves and confident in their own capabilities to review what they’ve done and think of how it could have gone better.

The Pick Up/Set Down Challenge

I must have written about this elsewhere, but I can’t find it so here it is.

When I flew at the Grand Canyon in 2004, I averaged 10-14 flights a day. The flying itself was rather tedious, with only two extremely well-defined routes and no room for deviation. There wasn’t any opportunity to make it more interesting — other than the challenges Mother Nature threw in our way — so I decided to focus on the part of the flight where there’s always room for improvement: those 10-14 pickups and set downs.

From nearly day 1, I concentrated on that part of the flight, working hard to make every single pick up or set down as smooth as I could make it. Then, right after each one, I’d give it a score from 1 to 10, with 10 being the kind of pick up or set down where you didn’t even feel the aircraft make or lose contact with the ground. I didn’t have many 10s — I’m a tough scorer — but after a few weeks and months, I didn’t have many below 6 either.

To this day, I do the same thing with pick ups and set downs. The result: I’m pretty sure that few fellow pilots would find much fault in most of my pick ups or set downs. The passengers think they’re great no matter how low I’d score them — but what do passengers know?

Have you ever considered doing something like this for your flying? Challenging yourself for no other reason than to improve yours own skills? If not, why not?

The reality is that anyone can improve at least one aspect of any flight or mission. Just think about everything you did and focus on what wasn’t perfect. Then think about what you could have done to make it perfect — or at least closer to perfect.

Here are some examples:

  • During preflight, did you miss any inspections you should have done because you were distracted? If so, how could you prevent future distractions? (A friend of mine will restart a preflight inspection from the beginning if anyone interrupts him while he’s doing it.)
  • Did startup go smoothly? If not, what could you have done to make it better next time? (I’ve gotten to the point where I usually know how long to prime the engine before starting based on the ambient temperature.)
  • Was your departure smooth and within height-velocity diagram recommendations (if possible)? If not, what could have improved it?
  • Were your radio calls well-timed, concise, and correct? Is there anything you could have done to make them better?
  • Did you choose the best route to your destination? If not, what route might have been better and why?
  • Was your approach to landing suitable? If too steep/shallow, fast/slow, or with a tailwind, what could you have done to make it better or safer?

I can go on and on with examples, but you get the idea. Review each flight or mission and make mental notes about how it could have been better. Then, the next time you fly, act on those mental notes as appropriate. Not only will this make you a better, safer pilot, but it could help you develop some of those good habits I discussed earlier.

The point is, no matter how much experience you have and how great a pilot you think you are, you are not perfect and no flight is perfect. There’s always room for improvement. It takes a good pilot who is genuinely interested in becoming a better pilot to recognize this and work hard to get better. And better. And better.

Only You Can Make Yourself a Better, Safer Pilot

Not only is it within your control and capabilities to make yourself a better and safer pilot, but it’s your responsibility to do so. These three tips are a good place to get started.

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