Thoughts On Falling Behind


We’ve all told apocryphal stories of pilots falling so far behind the airplane that they were only holding on by the static wicks. Amusing as these tales may be, falling behind is a major cause of accidents and incidents.

There are two reasons for finding yourself in this unenviable situation: Either the airplane is going too fast for your mental cognizance, or you’re performing your piloting duties too slowly.

What’s It Really Mean?

In the days of yore, the cause was often the loss of situational awareness. While droning along in the inky shadows with only a quivering VOR needle and maybe a flickering DME to guide you, it was easy to find yourself where you didn’t think you were. Like uncomfortably close to terrain—often with disastrous consequences. With the advent of GPS and moving-map-everything in even the most modest cockpits this is hopefully a thing of the past.

In today’s aviating world, you probably know where you are— you’re just not ready for the next series of events. Most often though this happens during the arrival and approach segments of a flight— where things happen rapidly and where best laid plans can go awry.

Most pilots have seen this timeline of workload-vs-capability of a flight. Recall that while stress and fatigue can reduce the safety margin, so can falling behind the aircraft in the ability to perform required tasks.

Being Prepared

Prior to the flight, review the approach plates for the arrival, departure and alternate airports. Often the frequent IFR pilot will just glance at an unfamiliar airport to make sure it’s got a couple of precision approaches and the FBO facilities needed before launching.

Approach facilities sometimes fail (or have an out-of-service NOTAM because they are being flight tested) and you may have to execute another type of approach, possibly a complex one. If you discover this on the approach descent while picking up the ATIS—you are behind.

As for the departure, be aware that you may have to return ASAP with your tail between your landing gear if the plane should develop any problems. Then is not the time to realize that you may have to perform a back-course localizer with multiple step-downs.

En Route—Sit Back And Relax

No matter what type of flying you do, it should be relaxing, peaceful and enjoyable.

Certainly though, you should keep an eye ahead, specifically on the weather. En route, un-forecast storms and icing can be an issue, and changes in your destination conditions. All handily available on a suitably connected tablet or box in the panel. If not so blessed, talk to Flight Service.

Now there is happy medium between being too proactive (worrying needlessly) and just droning along thinking all will be well. I’ve personally found that worriers burn too much of their mental energy pondering what might happen and consequently may be less diligent in dealing with what is happening, mainly flying the airplane at that moment in time.

And of course, the opposite happens too. “Oh, the TAF calls for a TEMPO of a quarter-mile visibility? Naw, I don’t think it’ll be that bad…” The successful pilot manages to maintain a balance and flies with a mixture of confidence and preparedness. Psychologists refer to this as Defense Mechanisms.

It’s easy to get behind in the modern G1000 glass cockpit. Consider that there are 43 switches/buttons on each of two displays that can be pushed, twisted or toggled to provide more than 500 functions.

Keeping Up With The Arrival

As noted, you are most likely to fall behind on arrival and approach to your destination.

If you are lucky enough to pilot turbine equipment, you’ll most likely be flying an arrival procedure when landing at a medium or large airport. Piston pilots see less of this, but we all are subject to changes—such as last-minute runway and approach assignments.

This happens even at smaller and possibly non-towered airports. Winds different from what were forecast and other numerous inbound IFR flights may cause your plans to be altered.

With respect to the two parts to falling behind, the first one is most easily controlled by you—the speed of the aircraft. The old adage applies: “If in a hole, stop digging!”

If you need more time, slow down the airplane—and remember to notify ATC.

Another way is to request a delaying vector or a couple of 360s. This sounds a little irrational, but ATC will often approve this. Each standard-rate turn provides two minutes, which is often enough time to set up and review a new instrument approach.

Some situations we must deal with as they come. The main thing here is to follow the axiom “Aviate, Navigate, Communicate.”

First, keep the shiny side up. Preferably by maintaining a steady state of flight. If you’re in a turn, finish before doing anything else. If in a descent or climb, level off before proceeding. This is good advice when hand-flying but holds true even if George is coupled.

From then on monitor with a good scan while you work the problem.

Second, start the airplane going to where you need to be. Your GPS map will show VORs and fixes, swing the heading bug in the desired direction and then you’ll have a bit more time to load the approach and/or arrival procedure, and when accomplished, hit Direct To.

Third, communicate when you can and not before then. We all think that we can talk and chew gum at the same time, the problem is that we usually don’t do it so well. And although controllers are used to speaking at a rapid-fire clip, don’t be hesitant to request “say again.” The other magic words here are “standby” and “unable”— use as necessary.

High Performance Aircraft

To procedurally fall behind is easy, but it can happen in the more physical sense too. Usually, this involves finding yourself high-and-fast on an approach.

The higher the performance of the aircraft, the larger the vertical and horizontal boundaries you deal with. However, even piston-engine planes, flying in a relatively small envelope of altitudes and speeds, don’t take kindly to rapid descents or speed changes (nor do passengers).

Every aircraft has different capabilities where limits of engine cooling, gear and flap extension speeds and other restrictions come into effect. It’s up to you to know all the numbers and make a reasonable assessment on their use. The leading cause of accidents in jets (mostly flown by supposedly “professional pilots”) is overrunning the runway after an unstable approach. Props do better for a host of reasons, but landing halfway down the pavement almost always guarantees a bad result.

If you’re falling behind on the approach, use one of the delaying tactics noted or simply ask ATC to come around for another try. There’s no shame in this, it happens every day and is certainly no mark against you. In fact, quite the contrary.

Don’t let your Type A personality turn into a distinctly Grade F outcome.

Bo Henriksson is a captain with a regional carrier and has more than 15,000 flight hours.

This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of IFR Refresher magazine.

For more great content like this, subscribe to IFR Refresher!


  1. I enjoyed this article. I’m curious about the provenance of that capability vs time graph. Googling found many other uses but no clue as to what data supports it. The idea that pilot capability must decline from the moment you strap in at the start of a flight is both depressing and alarming. It would be nice to see some evidence. All I’ve been able to find are some articles such as this on dealing with ultra long flights. My own anecdotal data suggests that performance has peaks and valleys (rather than a steady decline) at least until I reach a point of major fatigue/low blood sugar/etc. Adrenaline or caffeine at times of stress can help get you back into the game… at least it seems to. I’d like to believe the reality is not as grim as that graph suggests.