The math is simple. If the airplane is moving along at two or three miles per minute and the pilot's thought processes are lagging behind at about half that pace, circumstances will overtake reasoned responses and adverse consequences will result. According to AVweb's Howard Fried,
February 14, 2002
|About the Author ...
Howard Fried started flying with the Army Air Corps in WWII, where he
served both as a multi-engine instructor pilot and in combat piloting B-17s.
After a stint teaching sociology and on-the-air and management jobs in the
radio business after the war, he turned to teaching flying again full-time.
Over 40,000 general aviation hours later, he is still instructing
and running his own flight school. Along the way he administered over 4,000 flight tests
as a Designated Examiner until victimized by rogue FAA
He has authored two popular flying books aimed at student pilots and
instructors, Flight Test Tips and Tales and Beyond The Checkride, and a
series of audio tapes, Checkride Tips from
Flying's Eye Of The Examiner.
all heard the expression "staying ahead of the airplane" but what
does it really mean to each of us? To different people it may well mean
different things. Rod Machado advocates that, when in IMC (instrument meteorological
conditions in cloud), a pilot should at all times have determined what are the
next two things he/she is going to do. He says we should constantly be asking
ourselves, "What are the next two things I'm going to be doing?"
This seems a bit much, although it is an excellent idea. Perhaps keeping in
mind the single next task is enough for me. I know it is plenty for my pitiful
little pea brain at a time when I've got my hands full of an airplane in
rotten weather. In fact, staying mentally out in front of a fast-moving flying
machine requires that we pay strict attention at all times, IF or VFR. If we
fail to do this we find ourselves playing "catch-up" and this
invariably leads to trouble. When we are behind and playing catch-up we invariably
tend to get farther behind, and each step can lead to another until we end up in a hopeless situation.
Bob Buck, in his classic book Flying Know How, a tome that belongs on every
pilot's bookshelf along with all my books (three of which can
be purchased right here on AVweb), says:
"Being ahead of the airplane." That's an expression we've all heard
we're apt to toss it off without paying attention to it. But it may be the
most important expression in aviation, and certainly is worth time and talk. Being
ahead is pretty obvious. It's a matter of planning in advance so nothing jumps
up and surprises us. "Planning" and "being ahead" are
synonymous. But what
do we think when we plan? It's broken down into two parts: "advance" and
"Advance" planning is simple. You are going to fly somewhere. How
far is it;
how much fuel will it take to get there; and do you have all the maps and equipment
to do it?
"What if" planning is different. It asks "what if ... ?" the weather ahead
goes sour, or the headwind is twice what's expected, or an engine (maybe the
Actually, you cannot do enough "what if" planning, but let's
remember not to
let "what if" planning turn us into nervous Nellies. We've got to
"what if" with cool objectiveness as something to prepare us for
and not something to worry us. It's one of the parts of flying that cannot be
by emotion because, if "what if" thinking gets emotional, you'll never
off the ground you'll be too scared! Neither will you ride in an automobile,
even get out of bed.
And on that subject, let's remember what I've often said. When emotion takes
over logic and reason goes out the window, fear is the killer!
I have often been asked, "What single attribute is most valuable for a
pilot to have?" My answer has been the same as Bob Buck's, but
expressed in simpler terms. I simply say, "The most valuable attribute a pilot
can have is the ability to anticipate what's coming up next coupled with the
flexibility to change as conditions dictate."
And while we're on the subject of flexibility... Several years ago, in a
column on some of the bizarre things I observed while administering flight
tests as a DPE (Designated Pilot Examiner), I wrote about an inflexible
applicant who refused to adapt to an unforeseen situation. That incident is
worth repeating here. After he gave me an excellent oral portion of the
practical flight test, we went out to the airplane. The applicant performed a
thorough walk-around preflight check. We started up, taxied out, and took off
on the cross-country portion of the flight test.
The trip, in a northwesterly direction, was planned for 4500 feet MSL. After
breaking out of the traffic pattern, the applicant established the proper
heading and started to climb. Directly in our path was a solid cloud deck at
about 4000 feet MSL. The applicant headed straight for it, obviously intending
to plunge right into the cloud. I asked, "What are you doing? Don't you
see that deck in our path?"
The reply was, "My instructor told me to make a plan and stick to it no
At that point I took control and leveled off well below the cloud deck.
Of course we should attempt to stick to the plan we made on the ground, but we
must also be flexible enough to change as circumstances dictate. And in the
air, after having analyzed our options, completed the decision-making
process, reached a conclusion, and determined on a course of action, we must
still avoid being so locked in to that specific mind-set that we lose the
flexibility to change to a better course.
And on the subject of selecting a
course of action, let me say I was driving my primary instructor crazy back in
1942 by doing nothing. He'd call for a maneuver, through the gosport (speaking
tube), and I'd sit there in the rear seat with the wind in my face and
cogitate, thinking step by step what I was going to do. About then the stick
would be vigorously whapping me on the knees as my instructor yanked it back
and forth. He'd scream, "Do something, dammit!" (The insides of both
my knees were bruised black and blue throughout my primary training.) Then he
would quietly tell me that, when we returned to base, I should find a secluded corner
of the hangar and reach down, grab myself by the ears, and pull my head out of
my butt. On the ground he explained that when he called for a maneuver he
meant for me to do something right now. If I did nothing, he had no way of
knowing what I was going to do, but if I did the wrong thing, he could correct
it. That was his job, what he was being paid to do. Indecision, he explained, is worse than wrong decision.
That's a valuable lesson that has stuck with me for
these many years. Indecision is a killer. Look at the road kills. An animal
starts across the road. A car is coming. The poor animal starts back, changes
its mind and turns again, and then again. About then it is hit and killed, all
because of indecision.
It is absolutely essential that our thinking be faster than the machine we are
driving through the air at two or more miles per minute. This is what we mean
by the expression "staying ahead of the airplane." If we permit it
to get away from us and allow ourselves to slip behind the airplane, we are
likely to find ourselves in a world of trouble. And when we start playing
catch-up the situation becomes worse, and the errors compound themselves
exponentially, until we find ourselves in a truly disastrous position from
which there may be no way out.
And on the subject of "out" ... As we go through the decision-making process and select the best of our available
options we should always leave ourselves an out something to do, somewhere to
go if our first choice doesn't work out as planned.
We should expect the unexpected. The object is to be so well-prepared that
we will encounter no surprises. If we permit ourselves to be caught by
surprise when conditions change or equipment fails (perhaps an engine, or
worse, the engine), we should be prepared to deal with the situation.
we are once again in deep doo doo. And that's a place we never want to be.
However, if we do find ourselves in that undesirable place, we must keep
our cool. Panic is the killer. When the emotions take over (fear), reason goes
out the window. I have seen pilots who, when confronted with a simulated emergency,
froze to the point where they were unable to do anything at all. Remember,
nothing's happening so fast you have to panic. If we have been
trained properly to respond to whatever happens and we keep our cool, there
is almost nothing that can happen in a general aviation airplane from which we
cannot survive with little-or-no damage to the human body, or even to the
For three and a half years I commuted daily from PTK (Pontiac, MI) to DET
(Detroit City Airport, Detroit, MI) in one kind of light plane or another. The
route was some thirty odd miles over a heavily populated area. And I had
someplace picked along every inch of the way where I could put down in case of
an engine failure (when I was in a single engine airplane which was most of
the time). There were two cemeteries, a race course, the fairgrounds, and two
high school football fields. Yes, if flown with care, most light single
engine airplanes can be landed in the space of a football field. You might
bend a wingtip on a goalpost, but there will be little damage and no serious
injury. Like the boy scouts, you must be prepared! You must pay attention to
what's going on and not permit distractions to destroy your concentration on
the job at hand.
And on the subject of distractions ... Of those who fly retractable gear
airplanes, it is said that there are those who have landed gear-up and there
are those who are going to. Personally, I haven't done it yet (and I'm not
about to say that I won't), but I have tried to twice and both times were
classic cases of distraction. Both times I was saved the embarrassment
(and expense) by a friendly, alert tower controller. I have personally known
several pilots who have committed this act, and every single case (except a
couple of equipment malfunctions) involved distractions.
I'm sure most of my readers have heard the old Army Air Corps story about the
cadet, solo in the pattern in an AT-6 (the first retrac he's flown), who, on
his final circuit, seemed to be coming in with his gear still up. His
instructor grabbed the mic and shouted to him, "Lower your gear! Extend
the gear, you idiot!" The cadet continued and landed gear up. His irate
instructor demanded, "Didn't you hear me screaming at you over the radio
to lower your landing gear?"
The cadet responded, "How the hell could I hear you over the racket the
damned gear warning horn was making?"
How's that for a distraction?
In my own two cases of attempted gear-up landings the distractions were
classic. In one, I was on an angling final from the southeast for runway 27
when a faster airplane called inbound on a straight-in final. I was already
cleared to land, but to allow plenty of spacing I dove for the runway, looking
back over my right shoulder. I never spotted the traffic. I was flying a Piper
Arrow (PA-28R) with automatic gear extension, but with the power and speed I
had, the automatic system wouldn't work. Just as I was starting to flare for
landing, the local (Tower) controller called, "Howard, it looks like your
gear is still up." I instantly popped the gear down and landed.
And this brings up one of my pet peeves. Don't call a position until you
are there! The pilot in the faster airplane making a straight-on approach had
called his position at a VFR check point several miles before he got there
(probably as soon as he could see it). I was on the ground and had the Arrow
tied down before he arrived!
The other occasion was truly classic. When training a pilot in a retractable
landing gear airplane, I would occasionally pull the circuit
breaker on the gear actuation system surreptitiously to see what the student would do. On this
particular occasion, while administering a certification checkride in a light
twin, I had pulled the circuit breaker and, on downwind, the applicant
attempted to extend his gear with no result. He found and fixed the problem.
Then, on short final, I said, "Look out! There's a child on the
runway! Go around."
The applicant upped the gear as he started to climb out, made the circuit of
the pattern and came in to land without extending the gear again. I was so
busy watching him that I failed to notice, but once again an alert controller
caught it and saved the day for both of us. I said this was "truly
classic" because I believe it to be the most common cause of gear-up landings other
than mechanical failure of one kind or another.
It all boils down to mentally staying out in front of that fast moving flyin'
machine, taking care of the business at hand and not permitting distractions
to interfere with thought processes and responses.
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