November 2006Features

Staying ahead of the airplane

Good words. What do they mean?


"Stay ahead of the airplane," the wise heads of aviation say. Learning how is a survival skill--and one that will serve you later when you fly faster, more workload-intensive aircraft. Another pithy pearl of piloting prose postulates, "Learn how to think at 150 knots." And who hasn't seen the ubiquitous quotation found in pilot shops and on hangar walls, imploring the pilot to "Watch thine airspeed lest the ground come up and smite thee"?

Amen--all this makes sense at the gut level. But "Staying ahead of the airplane" remains a vague notion, just as the opposite chorus--"He got behind the aircraft"--offers merely a murky explanation of why someone got into trouble. Can we put some meat on the bones of this skeleton of a valuable idea? Yes. Even better is that there are ways to learn the skill in a 90-knot trainer that replicate in almost exact detail the demands of staying ahead of that much faster aircraft you'll need to know how to handle some day.

Staying ahead of the airplane is an exercise in mental discipline--a way of training yourself to think about a flight. It requires only that the pilot continually receive and digest new information as the flight proceeds. The textbook writers call this informational environment "situational awareness." The pilot's job is to act on the information being received before the flight's risk profile becomes elevated. In this context, define an elevated risk profile as anything from straying off course or making a poor landing, to running out of fuel or blundering into a thunderstorm.

Sometimes a pilot stays ahead of the airplane by accomplishing a piloting task a few minutes before it is needed; sometimes the preparation can occur hours or even days before the flight begins. Twisting the dial of your number two com radio to the next frequency you will use, and checking the volume, is an example of the former. Testing those com radios on the ground is an example of the latter. Folding your sectional charts for use on a cross-country, arranging them in the order they'll be needed, and placing them in the cockpit within easy reach is an example of the former. Marking them for easy identification of course lines and checkpoints and studying the route in detail, so you'll know about possible alternate airports, terrain elevations, and airspace classifications, illustrates the latter.

Staying ahead of the airplane requires continual attention to details of a flight, including some that may seem unimportant in light of more immediate concerns. Suppose our flight requires you to enter a busy terminal area under radar flight following from air traffic control. Obviously you'll have your hands full with aviation, navigation, and communication. Soon you'll be landing at a bustling airport. On your mind are flying the arrival correctly, visualizing and setting up the proper traffic pattern to the runway you've been assigned, and having your control tower and ground control communication frequencies at the ready. You may have even decided that you will request progressive taxi instructions to avoid even the slightest risk of an incursion or becoming disoriented once you're on the ground. That's assuming you get on the ground. You'll also review your aircraft's go-around procedure because you don't want to become one of the unfortunate many who discover the hard way that they were unprepared to quickly transition into this simple but oft-forgotten, easily botched, maneuver.

Great work. A commendable performance. But there's more you must be thinking about--and believe it or not, experience will quickly teach you how to manage the other things that are going on around you.

As we've said, this is busy airspace. Since you made initial contact with air traffic control, you've been listening carefully for any calls from ATC. (Some pilots actually stiffen noticeably in their seats when their N-number is hailed over the radio, a subtle bit of body language that communicates their alertness, as well as their level of composure, to an instructor.) But what about the radio calls not addressed to you? Do you have enough attention left over from your workload management to monitor those calls too?

Suppose you are inbound to the airport on the 360-degree radial of the local VOR, descending from your cruise altitude, when ATC hails an airliner and says, "American 830, you have traffic at your 11 o'clock position and three miles, southbound, altitude indicating 4,300 feet, a Cessna, inbound." The airline crew replies that they are looking for the little guy, and are instructed to contact the tower. Just then another aircrew cuts in on the frequency and the chatter turns to another situation of no interest to you.

That's when it hits you: You, after all, are flying a southbound Cessna (inbound on the 360-degree radial, remember?) and you were just passing through 4,300 feet on your descent when the traffic call to the airliner was made. You did not receive a corresponding traffic advisory, or a caution for wake turbulence from ATC--but that may be because someone else cut in on the busy frequency at about the time you would have received it. The airliner's pilots were looking for you at their 11 o'clock and were told to contact the tower, so it too must also be inbound, and behind you--or anyway it was behind you. Certainly something to be looking for out there, or even to ask about the next time you can get in a word over the radio.

Meanwhile, that airport is getting bigger in the windscreen and it, too, demands your attention. You were instructed to plan to enter a right downwind to Runway 30 Right. That's an approximate heading of 120 degrees. The winds have just been given as 270 degrees at 15 gusting to 25. That means there are a number of things you'll have to do to stay ahead of the aircraft in the traffic pattern: on the downwind: crab into the wind--let's try a 135-degree heading for starters--and be ready for a strong tailwind component. On the base leg, adjust the crab as necessary; expect gusting crosswinds on the final approach. Keep the flight controls deflected in those strongish winds after touchdown, and position them appropriately while taxiing along the ever-changing course to the ramp. Are those deflections well learned? This is no time to be thinking, OK, I'm taxiing with a quartering tailwind so the yoke goes forward, and the ailerons go which way...? In this case, staying ahead of the airplane means staying ahead of the wind.

Speaking of the wind, staying ahead of the airplane is something your flight-test examiner will scrutinize as well, in virtually every area of operation and task you perform. There's no specific task in the practical test standards (PTS) on the subject, but consider the PTS language that describes whether a maneuver has been performed to acceptable standards for testing purposes: The applicant must "demonstrate mastery of the aircraft with the successful outcome of each task performed never seriously in doubt." There is no such thing as mastery of an aircraft that is keeping its pilot guessing.

Instrument training is one of the best venues for sharpening (or observing) someone's ability to stay ahead of the craft.

Flying instrument approaches (especially without GPS) requires pilots to do a lot of twisting and turning when intercepting and then tracking approach courses and holding patterns--especially nonprecision approaches requiring a lot of visualization. As training progresses, the student becomes ever quicker at getting everything set up for what's next. The headwork, more so than the physical act of flying, is the real challenge. So there's one more reason to add to the list of justifications for getting your instrument rating. Your multitasking skills become positively amazing as you run through the famous Five-T drill of flying instrument procedures--they stand for turn, time, twist, throttle, talk--at the appropriate times.

Staying ahead of the aircraft means doing the little things too. While you are cruising along on a cross-country, ATC is contacted by another aircraft near your position and replies by assigning a transponder code, and relaying the current altimeter setting. If you reached over and adjusted your altimeter too, congratulations--it will be noticed. "Divert," orders the examiner. Turning instantly to a heading that you know will get you in range of the nearest airport, and dialing in its common traffic advisory and AWOS frequencies, will create a better impression than reaching for your chart or pressing the "NRST" button on your handheld nav unit.

I asked an active private pilot what staying ahead of the aircraft meant to her. "The next two things," she replied. "As in, what are the most important two things in aviation? 'The next two things.' My flight instructor reminded me of that, and I still try to do it on cross-countries. 'Let's see, I've passed this checkpoint. The next two things are switching tanks and making sure I have the frequency plugged in for the next checkpoint.'"

I tried to tantalize you at the beginning of this article by saying that you can climb into a slow trainer and get the exact same effect on the need to stay ahead that a flight in a slick, fast machine will impose on its pilot. How? Easy. Since you can't achieve high speed, substitute a short distance. Ten miles or so. That is, take off from Airport A and fly to Airport B, ten miles away. It'll help if at least one of them is tower-controlled airspace, or better yet, a Class C hub, requiring you to deal with airspace changes and air traffic controllers as well as your normal pilot duties during your short departure, cruise, and arrival flight segments.

Guarantee: The fast-paced business of getting up, over, and down in so little time will keep you stimulated every second. It will also have you reliving the flight later and scheming up ways to do it better next time--still another way to teach yourself how to stay ahead of the airplane.

Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. A pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990, he resides in Maine.


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