You successfully executed the approach; the engine is shut down and the wheels are chocked. Another successful flight is over. Or is it? To me, every flight is a learning opportunity. Being safely on the ground is the best time to reflect on the latest dance with the elements. Just because you landed without incident doesn’t necessarily mean it was a good flight. Let’s examine some of the critical factors that may have been encountered on this flight.
The Weather Briefing
Did the preflight weather brief provide all you needed to know for the flight? Chances are it didn’t. Weather can change rapidly and unpredictably. En route we have a lot of options available to us that were unheard of a few years ago in general aviation. Did we avail ourselves of the technology to establish our strategy beforehand? Or, did we use it only when things started degrading to a tactical level?
Flight service has been around for ages, but I suspect few of us bother giving them a call during a flight. With all this technology at our disposal who needs them anyway. There might be some truth in that statement with regards to in-flight weather updates—but only if we use the technology we have—and use it wisely.
Did the briefer provide everything needed for the flight? Most of us have had our encounters with the briefer from hell. Did you simply get the bare minimum you needed to free yourself from this exchange? Chances are if you called back a few minutes later you may encounter a different briefer. Better to get a complete briefing before departing. It also could be time for a little self-reflection. Was this painful interaction entirely the fault of the briefer? Long day, pressed for time, we may find ourselves somewhat curt when dealing with others, which only leads to the person on the other end of the conversation to reciprocate.
A killer of more than one pilot— did you give yourself ample time to prepare for the flight and adequately preflight the airplane? Is there something you forget to check that fortunately didn’t bite you on this particular flight?
I once took off with the pitot cover still on. Fortunately, I remained clear of clouds and was able to land safely and remove it. Had there been a low overcast, I can only hope I would have been able to handle the situation properly. That incident though, goes through my mind every time I preflight as a reminder.
Of course, my wife was with me that day and provides a periodic reminder. However, she did have an interesting question for me that day, “what else did you forget to do?”
Although listed as the third element in IFR flying, communications is pivotal. Were you able to copy the clearance with no problems? Was it set up properly in the database? Was there a SID you should have used? Care is needed that you don’t assume the clearance received is exactly what you filed—especially if it’s a route frequently used. An example is always being told to fly runway heading on departure. But on this occasion, I was told to fly 10 degrees left.
How many times en route did you have to ask ATC to repeat something? How many times did they have to ask you for clarification? Many pilots fear talking on the radio—but the more you do the better communicator you will be. There are apps you can use to record your ATC communications such as one that comes with the Lightspeed headset. If you do have trouble communicating, consider using one of these on the next flight and review it as part of your postflight.
Unless ATC had to call three or four times you probably won’t know you missed a call. So even if you don’t have trouble communicating you might want to see if you did miss some calls and try and figure out what you were doing at the time that caused the missed call.
Did ATC assign the route filed? If not, were you prepared for what was given? Could you have anticipated the course ultimately received? Weather usually plays a major role in how flights are routed. Getting the whole weather picture can help prepare for the route the flight will be taking. Even if weather along the route doesn’t look like it is going to be a factor, if a major airport is along the way and weather elsewhere is bad, commercial traffic may be diverted to your area—and guess who takes precedence? Restricted areas and MOAs can also result in rerouting.
Sometimes ATC will assign a fix not on the chart or one you never heard of before. I’m frequently routed to two that are not depicted. While they are all in the database, the first time you have one assigned can be disconcerting, especially if it’s an area with which you are familiar. Take note of it since you may find yourself routed to this fix again in the future. If they are not on the chart, though, I wouldn’t recommend using them to file.
Did you get the correct spelling of all the fixes? The first time I was assigned ODDEL I assumed it was spelled ODELL. Both exist but just over 850 miles apart. Wasn’t until the plane had me turning in the wrong direction that I discovered the mistake. Good idea to zoom out when putting in a fix beyond the range of the display to ensure you have the right one. I find the NEAREST function helps identify fixes being given—but in congested areas your assigned fix might not make the list. This is one reason having a chart handy is a good idea to help in identification.
The Bottom Line
How was the flight overall? One tool I find useful is FlightAware, especially with ADS-B Out installed. Through FlightAware (as well many electronic flight bags) you can review an entire flight in detail. How well did you maintain course, speed and altitude? How well did you follow the published approach? Did your time en route coincide with the flight plan? I used to routinely file for 150 knots TAS, but after reviewing several flights, 145 knots is more realistic.
Reviewing a flight can be a sobering experience and reveal areas you need to start focusing on. The one drawback to FlightAware is it does not replay the weather along your flight, only the weather that existed at the end. Still, in shooting that final approach you can get an idea of how bad the weather was during the approach—and how close you were to something you wish you weren’t.
Looking at how ATC might have vectored you may provide some ideas on how to better flight plan the next trip. There is a restricted area between my airport and a frequent destination. Flight Service could never tell if it would be active during a planned time of flight. I would file around it either on a northerly or westerly route (depending on winds) and ATC would often give me whatever I filed. Then I started just filing direct—and I get direct more often than being routed around it.
But let’s not be too quick walking away from the airplane. A quick walk around inspection is a good idea, especially if not at your home base. You don’t want any last-minute surprises before the departure. Fuel caps all on and tight? No visible signs of an oil or gas leak? Nothing broken or missing? All the vents and pilot window are closed? Tires in good shape? Chocks/tie downs in place? I also look at the trim tab positions to ensure they are where I expect them to be after a landing.
Popping your head back in the cockpit is also a good idea to ensure all switches are off. If your aircraft is being handled by an FBO take a few time stamped pictures. More than one pilot has come back to a damaged airplane that an FBO has disavowed any responsibility for.
A good postflight is just as important as a good preflight and can make the next preflight a lot simpler and safer.
Richard Lanning, Ph.D. is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a pilot for more than 30 years. He is an ATP and CFII and recently transitioned to the gyroplane.
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