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The Pilot's Lounge #113: Real-World Aviating 101 (Lab Required)

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The Pilot's Lounge

Last week we had a little celebration in the Pilot's Lounge at the virtual airport. One of the students passed his Private Pilot checkride, so the flight school put out soft drinks and snacks. It's something the flight school does when someone completes a rating. I like it. I think it goes a long way towards keeping a sense of community here and making the airport a friendly place. From a business perspective, I suspect it also generates more rentals for the flight school. It's an inexpensive investment for the return.

As I was doing my best to do justice to a small stack of chocolate chip cookies, I noticed that the man of the hour and his instructor were right behind me, so I turned and, while trying to avoid blurting out cookie crumbs, added my congratulations.

What happened next fascinated me. The instructor, I'll call him Neil, told me that he had just scheduled a session of dual instruction with the new certificate holder, whom I'll refer to as Gordon. When I expressed my surprise to Neil that he would be setting up some instruction for Gordon so soon after the checkride, he explained to me, "I do this with all my new Private Pilots. I've given them instruction that was aimed at teaching them how to fly well and incidentally pass the checkride. Now we have a session on real-world flying that we conduct out from under the looming specter of the flight test. There are things that I strongly believe a pilot should know to survive in the real world and I think they are best taught as the subject of a separate lesson. During the course of preparing my students for the flight test, I tell each one that we will have one additional lesson after they take the checkride. I've never had one turn me down."

Post-Checkride Dual

I expressed my interest in the concept and Neil said, "Well, if it's OK with Gordon, I'll invite you along to observe."

Gordon agreed and on a gray, overcast morning I found myself sitting in the classroom as Neil and Gordon talked about what was to occur in the lesson.

Neil's approach was to point out that, at 2,500 feet overcast and 4 miles visibility, the weather outside was legal VFR, although it fell within the definition of "marginal VFR." He said that Gordon had planned a 200-nm flight to visit relatives. He looked at Gordon and asked, "Would you be willing to make the flight under the conditions we have along the route today?" (I later learned that, if the lesson had occurred on a good weather day, Neil would have given Gordon hypothetical weather for points along the route.)

Gordon said that if he were taking his family he wouldn't go in the current weather conditions. Neil allowed as how that was pretty sensible and that he was therefore terminating the lesson. Gordon looked shook up: "You mean I drove all the way out here for nothing?"

Neil said, "Welcome to the real world. Sometimes you waste a lot of time hoping to save time going by air." He then turned his back on Gordon and walked to the coffee machine.

Gordon started to pack up his charts. He looked puzzled and then angry.

Before he could speak, Neil turned back and said, "I know you spent over an hour planning this flight last night. Tell me exactly what you are feeling about canceling a flight that you really were prepared to make, especially after you drove all the way out to the airport expecting to go."

Gordon paused, and then said, "I'm pissed off and frustrated. I figured that because this was a session of dual that we'd go, even though the weather was below what I was comfortable flying in. I'm also thinking I'm going to look at the weather again and see if we can go."

Neil said, "Good honest answer. The lesson is reconvened.

Hit You In The Wallet

"I was trying my best to find a way to get you to experience the emotions a pilot goes through when he has to cancel a trip that he'd wanted to make when the weather wasn't truly lousy, just in that marginal, 'Maybe I can go, maybe I can't go' gray area. Way too many pilots decide to look at the weather again and although it hasn't changed, they go. And they die.

"Let's take it a step farther. You've just cancelled a flight that you had been planning to go on with your family. Now what do you have to do?"

Gordon thought for a moment. "Well, I'm going to have to cancel the airplane I had reserved ... they won't bill me for any time because it's a weather cancellation. Then I've got to tell my wife and the kids and start thinking of some diversion that will make up for not going, or maybe we'll consider driving. Oh, man, that's going to be a huge hassle. I've got to call the relatives and tell them what's going on. I've got to cancel the dinner reservations for tonight. Yeah, I think that will do it, but I've got to scramble."

Neil said, "Let's add a variable or two: Let's say that you also had set it up for the relatives to keep the kids tonight because you'd booked one of those nice resorts there for your wife and you for a little time together and the place has a 24-hour cancellation notice policy. You're out a couple hundred bucks. How do you feel about canceling the trip, now?"

Gordon looked at Neil. "Ah, man, now you're making it tough. It's hitting me in my wallet. Maybe I'd take another look at the weather and convince myself it's OK to go."

Neil smiled. "Thank you for being forthright in this exercise. You and I have looked at a fair number of accident reports during your training. We both know that the most common cause of fatal accidents in the bugsmashers we fly is pressing on in crummy weather until we either hit something or lose control and spiral into the ground. A lot of it is purely the result of some sort of pressure we put on ourselves to make a flight that we truly don't have to make. If I were to have said that the flight we were planning was on Sunday afternoon for the trip home from the weekend visit to the relatives and you had found the same weather conditions, I suspect that you would have said that because it was legal VFR, something more than 1,000 and 3, you'd have made the trip. Is that true?"

After a pause, Gordon said, "Yeah, probably. I think you're right."

Get-Home-Itis

"So, the weather can be worse for starting the trip home rather than going in the first place?"

"I don't like where this is going," Gordon said. "You're doing a pretty good job of playing with my head."

Neil explained, "You're a pilot. You know that flying is 95 percent a head game. Almost anyone can learn the monkey-motion involved with shoving an airplane through the air and planting back on a runway. What matters is how we think. That's what keeps us alive or gets us dead.

"I'm hoping that in the future you'll stick with your decision to cancel a flight when things are marginal. I will represent to you that when you really want to go and the weather is just a bit below your personal minimums, going will almost invariably lead you to say to yourself that it was the wrong decision before you have been in the air 10 minutes. On top of that, I can almost guarantee you that the weather will not improve. A week or so ago when we spoke about personal minimums, you told me you wanted at least 3,000 overcast and 5 miles visibility. We agreed those were pretty good numbers if you've been flying regularly; it's also why I did the best I could to set up circumstances in which at least part of the flight you were to plan had weather just a little below those numbers, but still legal VFR.

"Now, we're going to go fly your planned flight and see what we can learn."

Low-Level Cross-Country

Twenty minutes later the preflight was complete, I was strapped into the right-rear seat of the Diamond Star and Gordon was flying us along at 3,000 feet, which was 2,000 feet above the ground and 500 feet below the sullen cloud bases. From my point of view, it didn't feel as if we had 4 miles of visibility. The visibility had been better 500 feet lower. I wasn't comfortable. Gordon was squirming and had his head down looking at the moving map display on the GPS quite a bit. Neil was hyper-alert, his eyes everywhere, looking at the world outside for traffic and obstructions as well as glancing quickly inside at the instruments and nav radios. He had a sectional chart open on his knee and kept his finger on it all the time. Gordon had a sectional open, but it was just lying on his lap, he was way too busy to do anything with it. Neil spoke up, "How do you feel about what we're doing, Gordon?"

"Not good. I'd be sweating bullets if I had my family in here and no instructor along."

"Honest answer," Neil said. "Ernie Gann, one of the finest pilots and writers who ever lived, said that pilots who are not honest with themselves don't live long. He was right. We're in generally crummy conditions. We could go down about 500 feet to get better visibility, but this is not the sort of thing you want to do for 200 miles. There is just no margin for making any kind of mistake or getting distracted by the spouse or kids. Just think what you'd be doing right now if you also had to deal with a kid that was vomiting for distance.

"Let's change another variable. Let's say the ceiling is getting lower, so descend to 1,500 feet. That will put us 500 feet above the ground."

Gordon took us down to 1,500 feet. Neil said, "Now, we're staying below a low ceiling, as I've set you up intentionally into the common mistake pilots make of pressing on as the ceiling gets lower instead of turning around. We're way down into the world of hard stuff that sticks up and snags airplanes. As an added attraction, we have significantly restricted visibility. So, it's time to think and take action to increase the chances of surviving this foolishness. The first thing to do is set up low cruise, slow the airplane down so that you have more time to spot stuff that may be looming out of the murk up ahead." Gordon made a power reduction and we slowed down some 20 knots.

Neil pointed out that the speed reduction bought more time for us to deal with a poor situation, rather than storming full speed ahead into the unknown. The Diamond we were in had an autopilot. Neil had Gordon turn it onm pointing out that it would take over the workload of flying the airplane. (Neil is one of the few instructors I know who teaches autopilot use to his primary students. I happen to think it's a great idea.) "Any sort of autopilot is a tool to help the pilot," Neil emphasized. "Even if it just holds the wings level, it gives you time to look outside, to check the map, to think. And that's the pilot's job: to think."

With the autopilot on, and airplane at a lower cruise speed, Gordon was gaining confidence and mentally catching up with the airplane. He was again looking outside and had put his finger on the chart, keeping track of where we were.

Diversion

Neil upped the ante. "We've managed to get hold of Flight Watch, even though we are at low altitude and they told us the weather ahead and behind us is crummy, worse than we want to deal with. What are you going to do?"

Gordon was ready. When he'd planned the flight, he'd done as he had been taught and looked over the airports along the route. He identified one that was only about 15 miles off to our right and turned towards it.

Neil nodded, agreeing with Gordon's move, and then shut off the GPS, announcing it had failed. He also mentioned the "off" flags on the VOR receivers. "When things go bad, they often go bad in groups. The GPS has gone offline and we're too low to receive any VORs out here. It's just hilly enough that we can't get them at 500 feet, so there's no way to do a cross-check to figure out our position. It's finger on the map time."

Gordon had been keeping track, and with the autopilot on, had only to slew the heading bug to keep us pointed where we wanted to go. That gave him time to look ahead on the chart for towers that were depicted and keep track of the height of the terrain ahead. As he did so, Neil asked him how it would be if the autopilot were to fail or if one were not installed. Gordon said that he wouldn't care for that scenario. Naturally, Neil promptly turned off the autopilot.

Gordon had his hands full. It was mildly turbulent, so he had to keep returning the airplane to heading and altitude while he tried to plot our position on the map. Every time he looked up from the map we were in a bank, sometimes fairly dramatic. "Good grief, I can see where this could get dangerous in a big hurry," Gordon commented at one point after looking up to see we were in an increasing bank and had lost 100 of the 500 feet we had above the ground. About then a tower that wasn't on the chart (and was a couple of hundred feet higher than we were flying) and wasn't lit materialized in the haze at our 10 o'clock position and swam by less than a mile off the left wing tip. Gordon said that this wasn't fun.

Neil looked over at him and said, "Yeah, flying can be the most fun thing we do with our clothes on, and it can be one of the most terrifying experiences we ever have. You, as the pilot, generally have the power to decide which end of the spectrum you want to be. Intentionally making a VFR flight in low weather is not up there with the good experiences."

The Last Straw

"Gordon, you've got us aimed at a good airport and we're making progress toward it. However, being an Evil Flight Instructor in good standing in the fraternity, I have just noticed that visibility is rapidly dropping and there is no way we can get to that airport. The temperature is dropping fast and fog is forming. What are you going to do?"

Gordon slowed the airplane a little more and dropped approach flaps, which gave us a more level deck angle so that he could see better. He thought for a moment and said, "I'm going to find a field and land on it."

Neil agreed and they both began to look for a field oriented into the wind. Being caught up in the scenario, I did, too. After a few moments Gordon said he thought he saw something that would work, and started a left turn. Neil and I both saw a farm that had a decent looking airstrip. Neil said for Gordon to go ahead and set up a landing on it.

Gordon had a little trouble adjusting to flying the pattern at 500 feet AGL and Neil had to point out that in lousy visibility the pattern would have to be kept tight, so Gordon wouldn't lose sight of the runway. Once we were on final, Neil told Gordon to fly down the runway, just off to the right, at about 200 feet and look over the surface to see if there was anything he could spot from above that might affect the landing. He said that if there were time, it was a good idea to look over a proposed landing site if you had to land out. Gordon made the pass, climbed back up to 500 feet and flew the pattern again.

When we were established on final, with full flaps, I expected Neil to call for a go around. He didn't. Gordon seemed a bit surprised, but carried on and made the landing. Given that he was not expecting to actually be landing, he did a pretty good job.

Sweet Reprieve

It turned out that the airstrip was in great shape. Neil had Gordon taxi us over near the farmhouse and shut down. Almost immediately a man and woman came out of the house and greeted Neil. It turned out that they were friends of Neil and had encouraged him to use the strip when he was doing flight training. They also had some homemade ice cream that they pressed on the three of us. (We only accepted because it was the polite thing to do; and we figured it would be even more polite to accept seconds.)

The wife said that Neil showed up with someone about once a month or so and that Neil had a couple of routines he would use to place the student low and in a condition where the safe thing to do would be to make a precautionary landing once the airplane was near their farm. I thought it was a great training tool, especially as we sat on their deck, listened to the breeze and ate the ice cream.

On the flight back to home plate Neil had Gordon navigate via finger on the map at 500 feet AGL. The proliferation of towers was driven home with that 40 mile or so flight, as was the difficulty in navigating in reduced visibility; it was still only about 4 miles. The autopilot in that airplane was a big help.

I noticed also that Neil insisted that Gordon fly around any towns or even subdivisions. "Look, the regs require a minimum of 1,000 feet over populated areas," Neil said. "I've read the cases where the NTSB said that four houses in a half mile constituted a populated area and that that several cars on a highway was a populated area. None of us need a bust for low flying. Plus, ever since 9/11, about half the population has become paranoid and is scared to death of little airplanes that they perceive as flying low. On one hand, we don't need to stir them up. On the other, everyone has a cell phone with a camera and the idiots who still haven't caught on that it's stupid to buzz someone with an airplane are being photographed and making it easy for the FAA to nail them.

Even an airplane at 500 feet looks really low to a lot people. You've seen the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds, right? They look like they fly really low, right? Truth is, they almost never go below 500 feet. So, there you are in your little airplane, making noise as you go by at 500 feet and you look very low, especially to someone who doesn't like little airplanes. So, I do not fly over any places where there are likely to be a lot of people. Not only are there towers where people are, I don't want to have to defend a low-flying certificate action by the FAA, especially because the judges tend to believe the complainant rather than the pilot."

Honest Debrief

Back home Neil and Gordon debriefed the flight. Neil was candid with Gordon: "You are a new Private Pilot. You've demonstrated that you exceed the skill levels required in the PTS. You've been a good student and you've shown good judgment. We've done a few things outside the normal syllabus. We went to a fly-in breakfast a few weeks ago and you got to see what a complete zoo that can be. Trying to mix in with a bunch of other airplanes the first few times can be pretty scary; after that it's merely crazy.

"The area of risk I'm most concerned about is weather. There are no two ways about it: A VFR-only pilot is going to be canceling a fair percentage of the trips he schedules or is going to be completing them some days late. That's hard, cold reality. Trying to be more optimistic is how folks get dead. It's tough to imagine cool you buying the farm, with that terrified look on your face as you realize you have finally, irretrievably, screwed the pooch and the ground is coming at you at some weird angle at very high speed. Unfortunately, it happens to way too many pilots each year, and I don't want you to be one of them.

"Hey, keep in mind that instrument-rated pilots talk about the number of trips they have to cancel or postpone because of thunderstorms and ice -- and they can go in low visibility and low clouds. So, just think what that means for you. I'm being very blunt here. I like you and I want you to have several decades of enjoyable flying. I want your family to enjoy flying with you. I don't want you to ever scare any of them, because I want all of them to either come to me to learn to fly or at least vote in favor of the local airport in every election."

With that, Neil had Gordon pull out his calendar and the two of them scheduled a session of dual six months down the road. I asked Neil why he did that.

Neil looked at me straight in the face, "You know as well as I do that the skill level of a Private Pilot is at its maximum when he takes the checkride. Unless he goes for another rating, it goes down from here and he starts picking up bad habits, especially flying final too fast. I have standing appointments every six months for a half-day session with each of the students I've flown with, once they get a rating, any rating. They come in for a "how goes it" and I work them hard. Most of them leave the session with a flight review sign off. The one variable that I can find on accident causation, no matter what, is the period of time since the pilot had recurrent training. The longer it is, the higher the accident risk.

"Think about it," Neil continued. "A brand-new Private Pilot is a blank slate. He's used to taking dual, it's normal and routine. It's the perfect time to get him into the mindset of taking dual once every six months. I do my best to get my students into that habit pattern. Right now I've got about 30 pilots coming to me every six months for a review session. Some of them have been doing it for years. Not a one has had an accident. I think it's cheap insurance for each and every one of them. Besides, I like each of them and want to have them around as my friends for a long time."

See you next month.


Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out the rest of his columns.

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