The Pilot’s Lounge #100: Truth — And Some Opinion

AVweb's Rick Durden has been writing ''The Pilot's Lounge'' column for eight years, and every one has tidbits of wisdom, advice, or just plane [sic] rumor. For his 100th column, Rick has assembled a bunch in one place.


Spending time in the Pilot’s Lounge at the virtual airport was once probably merely a vice, but over the years it has become a habit. This time it was a weekday evening. I had flown with a student and stuck around after he headed home because it was quiet and I’d run across something I wanted to read. Old Hack came wandering in after about a half hour and broke the silence of the evening all to smithereens. He bellowed, “Are you doing your shallow breathing exercises, again? Why don’t you do something useful instead of taking up space? I’m going flying and need some dead weight to help hold the tail down … want to play ballast?”Hack owns a Piper Super Cruiser that he’d bought either new or almost-new following his service in World War II. It makes him of an age that causes me amazement; he has to be at least 85. He can still pass his flight physical and he flies the Super Cruiser with lan. I sat in back and watched, not saying much, as he took us into the sky for a little evening sightseeing and then shot some landings while the sun worked its way below the horizon. I spent quite a bit of the time just looking at the landscape, and I kept thinking of the recent deaths of two of our country’s top jet test pilots — Scott Crossfield and my good friend, Alvin White — and seemed to feel their absence from the sky.Helping Hack put the airplane into its hangar; I noticed that the magic of the evening had had its effect on our resident curmudgeon. His voice was quieter and he was less inclined to give insult or a snide remark. Just before we closed the hangar door, and when he thought I wasn’t looking, Hack gave the cowling a pat and I saw him mouth the word, “Thanks.” I looked away and concentrated on pulling the sliding door closed.Walking slowly toward the office, Hack looked at me and said earnestly, “I truly hope I can have a few more years of this. I don’t know what I’d do without it. I’ve learned so many things about the sky and people because I fly. I’ve enjoyed almost every minute of it and I don’t want it to stop.”I asked him what he’d learned and he started laughing, stopped walking and looked at me, “Oh, no, you lazy bum. I’m not writing your column for you.”I said that my 100th column for AVweb was coming due soon and I thought that recounting what he’d learned over the years might be a good subject.Abruptly his irascible manner resurfaced, “Good grief, 100 of your half-baked columns. If someone laid them end-to-end they wouldn’t even reach a conclusion. But, with the way you write, you can use all the help you can get. Let’s go inside and I’ll dictate to you, so pay attention.”It didn’t exactly proceed as he intended, but we came up with some things that we’d learned over the years that have helped keep us alive and well around little airplanes, some basic truths of aviation and some trivia we enjoyed, along with some opinions. We also repeated some things that may not be true, but sure seem to be, and we threw in some stuff about airlines, because there are times we have to ride on them when it’s too darned far or expensive to fly ourselves.

Pushing It, Weather and Other Joys

The weather is not going to get better in another five miles.If you are trying to scud-run, the weather will get worse.Towers and power lines are affected by weather: They get taller and move nearer to highways, railroad tracks and airports when the ceiling gets very low.You are most likely to discover an unlighted tower when you are trying to fly low because of weather.Powerlines are invisible against most all backgrounds other than blue sky.Scud running used to be a reasonable method of getting to one’s destination in the flatlands of our country — now with the stunning proliferation of towers, particularly near highways, it is foolish. To do it with any regularity is suicidal.One close encounter with a tower or a set of powerlines appearing out of the haze or fog when scud-running, or going below minimums on an instrument approach, will give you years of the most hideously vivid nightmares you can imagine.It’s not the smartest thing in the world to duck under the glideslope after breaking out of the clouds so as to land short. Many more airplanes crash in the approach lights after an ILS than go off the far end of the runway. There are no prizes for the shortest landing following an ILS.There is less gas in the tanks than you hope.Tornadoes really are caused by mobile homes. In hot, muggy weather be cautious of airports near mobile home parks.The worse the weather the more likely it is that you will have a vocal passenger insisting that you go.When you really, really want to make the trip, the weather will always be just a little worse than either your capabilities or those of the airplane.It is invariably better to be fervently wishing you had flown than had driven.The posters on the walls in Air Force Flight Ops rooms were right: There is no reason to fly through a thunderstorm in peacetime.When making a decision regarding weather, an effective tool is to ask oneself if this might lead to looking stupid in the NTSB report.A forecast of a “chance of icing” is legally “known icing” and is also worthless.Being introduced to flight in ice by an instructor under controlled conditions is hugely valuable and is far, far better than trying to learn about it vicariously or as you start getting ice on the airframe for your first time without an instructor next to you.If you do get ice on the airframe, do not use the flaps on landing. Go fast and do not reduce the power below what you carried on final approach until the wheels touch the runway. Pulling the power off in the flare will probably cause you to stall and plummet the last few feet to the runway with enough force to collapse the landing gear.It’s always better to turn back too early than too late.


Departing with one component of a redundant system out of service will make the other one fail in flight.When flying a tailwheel airplane in a crosswind, hard-soled shoes are an invitation to a groundloop.Even pilots who fly every day need recurrent training. It’s the stuff you don’t do every day — emergency procedures — that will eat your lunch.Despite what fighter pilots say, it’s better to be embarrassed than dead.Saying “any traffic please advise” on Unicom is a waste of words and air time — it gains you nothing that you would not get from a simple position report and it aggravates enough pilots that those who would be of interest to you may say nothing.Store the batteries backwards in the flashlight, that way if the switch is turned on the batteries don’t go flat.Charter pilots know to buy ugly or “sissy” flashlights — they don’t get stolen or otherwise disappear from the flight case. That’s why you see the smartest charter pilots carrying pink flashlights.The only four-place airplane of which I am aware that you cannot load out of its CG range without putting anvils on one of the seats (or more than 120 pounds in the baggage compartment) is the Cessna Cardinal. As with every airplane you can, however, overload it.A turning propeller is invisible. Nonpilots are known to walk into them. So are pilots.Use all the power available on takeoff. The engine was built for it and needs that extra bit of fuel provided at full throttle for cooling. A partial-power takeoff in a horizontally-opposed engine is harder on the engine than using full power. It also slows acceleration and rate of climb, prolonging the period of time of high-temperature operation.The small problem with your airplane that you have delayed fixing will become a major problem at the most remote airport on your trip.Trying to argue with a controller over the radio is akin to shaking your fist at bad weather; you can’t win and you run the risk of making things worse.An intermittent problem will remain so until you throw nearly enough money at it to replace the entire system involved.Admiral Byrd faked his flight over the North Pole. He and his pilot, Floyd Bennett, were not gone nearly long enough to have made it.Lean-of-peak engine operations are the best way to run your fuel-injected engine except if facing strong headwinds. Those who haven’t caught on yet may simply be unable to learn or just unwilling.There is no need to say “with you” when contacting a new controller. It’s redundant, uses up air time on increasingly crowded frequencies and most controllers are sick of hearing it.Despite their pious posturing, very few aviation plaintiff lawyers who are not pilots themselves care a whit about aviation safety. The ones I met who are pilots did care about aviation safety.The world looks different when flying very low and trying to maneuver radically down low. For instance, turning back after an engine failure on takeoff, when you haven’t practiced it, has a distressingly high fatality rate.The Cessna Skymaster and Engineering Research Ercoupe were designed to be very safe airplanes. One has incredibly docile single-engine handling; the other cannot be stalled if rigged correctly. Yet each has a lousy accident record. There is good reason to believe they tended to attract pilots who knew their skills and judgment were suspect and purposely selected a “safe” airplane. The poor judgment and skill of those pilots overcame the inherent safe design of the airplanes. One cannot help but wonder whether Cirrus Design may be discovering that a manufacturer can’t make airplanes foolproof because fools are so inventive — they’ll find a way to do something way more bizarre than the engineers could anticipate. The problem is that engineers suffer from being rational; fools don’t.While speed may be life to fighter pilots, that’s only in combat. The reality is that appropriate speed is life: too little after takeoff kills, as does too much on landing, because extra speed on final is not your friend. Extra speed on touchdown is actually your enemy, because force is a squared function. You’ve got enough energy to dissipate on landing when touching down near stall speed; anything faster is adding to your challenge. Use all the flaps on landing; they help dissipate that energy effectively.

Pilots as Airline Passengers

It is said that the two most recently added circles of hell place the sufferer, for all eternity, in coach, in a 757 or CRJ, depending just how awful he or she has been. There, jammed into an ill-fitting seat, adjacent to a grossly obese, sweaty, halitosis-emitting member of the opposite sex who demands to raise the armrest, the poor wretch will have to listen to an adenoidal flight attendant utter the phrase “at this time” every eight seconds. From time to time the passenger in front will violently recline his seat, banging it against the knees of the dammed, while greasy, unwashed hair cascades in the face of the sufferer. Trying for any sort of comfort, the wretch will discover that his or her seat is in front of the exit row and does not recline. To add to the delight, there will be random announcements from the “flight deck” commanding that everyone “sit back and relax.”The seat belt sign enforcement cycle is reaching the point where it is so lax that about a half dozen passengers will soon be injured in turbulence when the sign is illuminated. Enforcement of the illuminated sign will begin again in earnest until memories fade and more folks get hurt. The cycle time is about four years between sets of injuries.

The Really Unpleasant Stuff: Crashes

Fuel tanks in the fuselage, especially in front of the cabin, or in wing leading edges are an invitation to post-crash fire.Nylon and polyester clothing melts in the presence of intense heat and sticks to you, causing serious burns.It’s been said by so many because it’s so true: Fly the airplane all the way into the crash. So long as it’s moving, never give up trying to control the airplane and making it go where you want to go. That’s also a good idea even if you are not actively involved in crashing.Not insisting that your passengers wear their shoulder harnesses should be a criminal offense; not wearing yours has proven terminally foolish for too many pilots; and not retrofitting shoulder harnesses on an airplane you own may be negligence. Shoulder harnesses can be retrofitted on all seats for all single-engine Cessna airplanes (and the Skymaster) back to the 1945 model year. (The hard points were put in at the factory. Shoulder harnesses were always offered as an option, but nobody bought them.)Especially in a twin, if you have to put the airplane onto the ground, do it as nearly wings-level as possible and do not stall the airplane prior to touchdown. Airplanes, even old ones, are surprisingly crashworthy (if shoulder harnesses are worn) but not if you hit upside down or with a substantial vertical-force vector (as after stalling).If you have to land the airplane gear up, do so on a hard surface runway. If you screw up and stall, the runway will translate the force into a slide — on grass or dirt there is the chance the surface will compress slightly, forming a crater and then stop the airplane very quickly, injuring the occupants.To the extent I have been able to chase accident records, there hasn’t been anyone hurt in a gear-up landing in more than 50 years — so long as the pilot did not try to “save the prop” by shutting down the engine(s). There have been a number of fatal accidents when pilots shut down the powerplant and proceeded to crash short of the runway or go off the end at high speed.Going around if the approach isn’t just right is never, ever an indication of incompetence unless, of course, you are about to run out of fuel.There are Neanderthals in this world who will gather to critique landings and make snide remarks about pilots who go-around. There have been accidents at flight schools and airports where this practice takes place because pilots pressed on and landed out of a bad approach because they knew they would be laughed at for going around. There is reason to believe that pilots who criticize other pilots for making a go-around will spend eternity in the seat of a CRJ in the conditions described above. That may be too good for such miscreants.Successfully managing energy in the process of coming to a stop is the key to any landing — or accident. Slow is always better than fast when it comes to surviving. Going off the end at 25 knots is far better than crashing short of the runway at flying speed.As old airplanes get more valuable, if you wreck a true classic or antique — especially when doing something dumb — don’t be surprised when more sympathy is expressed for the loss of the aeronautical work of art than for you. After all, you may just be the product of unskilled labor.Even the slowest airplane goes fast enough to kill you and thus the most modest trainer deserves the same operational respect as the Mach 2 fighter.


Everyone looks silly wearing a headset.Males over age 30 look ridiculous dressed in military “flight suits” when near a civilian airplane. The effect is amplified if the pilot in question has a pot belly. If he has any patches or wings on the jumpsuit, he is an embarrassment to the airplane, and there is a good chance it is secretly laughing at him.An effective way to spot low-time pilots at an aeronautical gathering is to look for the ones sporting shirts and hats covered with patches and wings. Another technique is to watch for the ones who start their aircraft engine at other than nearly idle rpm.A pilot with any poetry in his or her soul knows that it is always appropriate to quietly thank the airplane for a flight after putting it away. In fact, some assert that those who do not do so may have no soul and should not be allowed in the sky.The clich is depressingly true: The chances of making a superb landing are inversely proportional to the number of people watching.If a pilot has not practiced something, the accident reports make it clear that the chances that he or she can do that something in an emergency are lousy — be it scud run, turn back following an engine failure after takeoff or stop the prop and make a safe landing when the gear won’t come down. A lot of people get killed each year trying to do something brand new when they have an emergency. So, go with what you know and have practiced, even if it means damaging the airplane. That’s why insurance exists.Alcohol, even in small amounts, makes you stupid while you think you’re smart, a nasty combination in airplanes.When in doubt about a clearance, ask. Even a snide remark from a controller (which happens to be extremely rare) is not nearly as embarrassing as a violation for deviating from a clearance or, worse yet, smacking into another airplane.Pilots who have spent time in gliders and tailwheel airplanes tend to be much better stick and rudder pilots than those who have not. Significantly better.Most pilots who make jokes about helicopters are secretly jealous and deep down wish they had the opportunity or money to fly them regularly.If you do something moronic down low, such as buzz someone or something, don’t be the least bit surprised if someone complains. With cell phone cameras and small video cameras, there’s a good chance that when they do complain they’ll also have the evidence to convict you. Remember, in the PSA San Diego midair, the 727 descended vertically, on fire, for fewer than 30 seconds. There are good-quality photographs of it. And that was some 30 years ago. Even more people carry cameras now.

Of Flight and Life

0)]It is almost invariably worth it to get up very early so as to be the pilot in command of an aircraft taking off at sunrise. At the moment of liftoff the world transforms itself from black and white to full color. It is especially true in a balloon.We are always ambassadors for aviation, for good or for evil, simply because there are so few of us. Our actions are watched and we are the source of comment, often when we least expect it or maybe even want it. Therefore we have no choice but to be a good example all the time.The round rainbow around your airplane’s shadow on a cloud is called a glory. The first time you see one the name will make eminent sense.Pushing the prop to high rpm on downwind makes much more noise than you realize and pisses off far more people than you can imagine. And they are the ones who will vote to close your airport.Spend as much time as possible on grass runways. They are good for the aviator’s soul. If you can, take a walk on one (yes, avoid airplanes) and think about all of those who have come before you to use it as a place to reach into the sky. You might also consider it to be more than just a strip of grass, but as a place from which you can launch in the most modest of airplanes and proceed to go anywhere in the world. I’m not sure why, but a walk on a grass runway when it’s not being used, perhaps of an evening, as a gentle breeze caresses your cheek, is one of the best ways to relieve stress of which I know.No matter how modest, an airplane that lifts you into the sky is a real airplane; it doesn’t get any more real than that; there are only differences in degree.There is nothing more beautiful than this world when viewed from aloft.See you next month.

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