About the Author

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Southport, Manitoba, Canada
Steve Pomroy is a professional flight instructor and aviation writer. He has been teaching since 1995 and holds an Airline Transport Pilot License, Class 1 Instructor and Aerobatic Instructor Ratings, military QFI, and an undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering. He's written and published three flight training books through his company, SkyWriters Publishing, and has several other books under development. Steve currently teaches RCAF pilot candidates on their Primary Flight Training course.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Game and the Scoreboard

One of the constant issues we deal with as flight instructors is the need for students/pilots to LOOK OUTSIDE during flight operations. The flight and system instruments tend to be a huge distraction, and this problem only seems to have gotten worse as avionics have gotten fancier and pilots have gotten more experience playing video games.

The phrase that we often use is "chasing needles" which is what happens when a pilot over-references the instrument indications and under-references the aircraft attitude. The result: an oscillatory flight path with no stable flight parameters. Why is this? Because the aircraft takes time to respond to control inputs, and the instruments take time to display the results of the control inputs—especially the pitot-static instruments. So if we make, for example, a pitch correction until the altitude says what we want it to, the aircraft will have already overshot that position and will be in the process of overshooting it further. If we try to fix this with reference to the altimeter, we simply reverse the problem. Thus the phrase, "chasing needles".

Chasing needles can be entertaining to watch, and it's easy to fix. As one of my co-workers likes to point out: "The instruments tell you what the aircraft was doing, and the attitude tells you what the aircraft will be doing". This is a saying that I've shamelessly stolen and used with my own students. It is closely related to another saying that I've also shamelessly stolen: "Outside is the game, inside is the scoreboard". All of this leads us to what we actually want to do for positive aircraft control: LOOK OUTSIDE and control the attitude with reference to the horizon.

Of course, it's also worth noting (for our IFR brethren) that this rule doesn't change just because we're flying in cloud and on instruments—it just means that our attitude reference moves from the real horizon to the fake one on the attitude indicator.

Happy Flying!

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Takeoff Briefing

The takeoff briefing is a crew briefing (not to be confused with a passenger briefing) conducted just before takeoff. It orients us to the takeoff procedure and forces us to make critical time-sensitive decisions in advance—especially those that may be required during an emergency.

In a multi-crew operation, the takeoff briefing also serves to ensure that both pilots are on the same page and ready to work together through the takeoff process—including if something unplanned happens. In the case of the unplanned "something", it eliminates the need to discuss options at a point where time is critical—the decisions are already made and agreed upon, all that's left is to act on the situation.

When operating single-pilot, we should still be conducting takeoff briefings. The purpose of the briefing still helps us assess the takeoff and prepare for the unplanned "somethings" that could happen. During an emergency on takeoff, time is usually critical regardless of whether we are operating multi-pilot or single-pilot. The briefing gives us the opportunity to make critical decisions in advance so that we don't have to take the time to do so as the aircraft is moving.

The question then, is, "How do we do a takeoff briefing?". Commercial operators often have SOP's that dictate how the briefing is conducted. If we don't have the benefit of an SOP, we can develop a takeoff briefing by considering how many different ways the takeoff might progress.

Of course, there's the obvious,if-everything-goes-perfectly scenario. More often than not, this is precisely the scenario we're dealing with. So it's definitely worth briefing normal ops—runway, winds, speeds, etc. Normal Ops covers the first two steps of the pre-takeoff briefing: Environment and Procedure. In other words, what are the operating conditions, and how do we plan to operate.

If we knew with certainty that everything would go according to plan, the briefing would stop there. But what if something goes wrong: Instrument misreading? System annunciator? Engine failure? Bird strike? These possibilities lead to the rest of the briefing.

In light/slow aircraft, emergencies or abnormal situations during takeoff can be divided into three categories: During the roll, Airborne and able to keep flying, and Airborne and unable to keep flying. In bigger/faster airplanes, the During the Roll category is sometimes broken down further by using a cutoff speed such as V1 or some fixed numerical value (e.g. - 80 knots) to decide whether a takeoff should be rejected or not1.
During the roll
For most light aircraft, any abnormal or emergency situation during the takeoff roll should result in a rejected takeoff. There may be exceptions to this rule, for example if the accelerate-stop distance is longer than the runway length available, we may choose a reject point or reject speed past which you would continue if the aircraft is still flyable. But it's not unusual for the reject point to be the liftoff point. the briefing should include a quick review of how the takeoff would be rejected (power to idle, max braking, and any other point that may be type-specific).

Airborne and able to keep flying
This one should be self-explanatory. Nonetheless, we should include it in a briefing—as a fresh reminder if nothing else. If the airplane can still fly, we can fly it around to land back on the runway we just departed from. Note that if we're IFR, this could be more complicated depending on the weather and the facilities available.

Airborne and unable to keep flying
This one should also be self-explanatory. But it's also worth reviewing—again, as a reminder if nothing else. Usually, the unable-to-continue flight scenario means minimum turns to avoid obstacles and landing roughly straight-ahead. But again there are situation-specific exceptions. For example, if there is water straight ahead, but a 40° left turn will enable a landing on dry land, this point could be included in the briefing.

Last, but not least, we need to review any Crew Roles that were not already covered in the previous points. In a single pilot operation, this is easy—the pilot does everything. However, in a multi-pilot operation, pilot-flying and pilot-monitoring roles need to be clear. Even on a single-pilot flight where our passenger is a pilot, we should use that person's abilities in an emergency—always stack the odds in our own favor as much as possible. When I fly on mutual proficiency flights with other instructors, it's routine for the takeoff briefing to include a statement like ,"in the event of an engine failure, I'll fly the plane, you take care of the radios and transponder.".

So, in summary, the takeoff briefing should cover the following, in order:
  1. Environment: Runway, Wind, Traffic
  2. Procedure: Type of Takeoff, Parameters (speeds, climb profile, planned track, etc.), Crew Roles
  3. Abnormal Indications: On the Roll
  4. Abnormal Indications: Airborne, can keep flying
  5. Abnormal Indications: Airborne, cannot keep flying
  6. Crew roles
Happy Flying!

1 – Rejections at higher speeds are higher risk because of the higher kinetic energy of the aircraft. So an "abnormal" situation may result in the decision to continue, whereas an "emergency" may still result in a rejected takeoff.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Little Airplane Checkout

At some point in every flight instructor's career, they have to provide a currency check to a big-airplane pilot who wants to rent a little-airplane to go joyriding. That may seem a little counter-intuitive to someone from outside aviation. The little-airplane is normally easier to fly and invariably has simpler systems and operates at lower speeds. If the big-airplane pilot is current on some larger type, forcing them to do a "checkout" on a simpler little-airplane may—at first glance—look like a bit of a cash grab by the flying school/club.

However, there are some pitfalls in moving back to a simpler airplane. These pitfalls are potentially dangerous, and the checkout can be a lifesaver. In my own experience, every single big-airplane pilot that I've helped get current on little-airplanes has made all three of the (potentially fatal!) mistakes discussed below. The good news: These are all easy fixes. They can be straightened out with a quick trip in the circuit.

Two-Handed Flying

In a multi-crew environment, the Pilot Flying (PF) often flies the big-airplane with two hands. This makes it easier to manage the larger control forces and to fly the numbers more precisely. However, it has the disadvantage of not leaving any hands free for the throttle, radio, flaps, gear, etc. But in a multi-crew aircraft, all of this stuff can be managed by the Pilot Monitoring (PM). Moving back to a little-airplane, which is operated single-pilot, requires that the flying be done with one hand on the stick/control column—leaving the other free to manage the rest of the aircraft—with particular emphasis on the throttle.

Very Excessive Control Forces

As noted above, big-airplanes tend to have larger control forces than little-airplanes. When we spend any amount of time flying one aircraft type exclusively, we begin to take the control forces involved for granted. This is a problem when we transition to a new type with significantly different control forces. Moving from a big-airplane to a little-airplane, the control forces are significantly reduced. As a result, there is a tendency to massively over-control the little-airplane.

This problem goes away very quickly after the little-airplane gets flying. A little bit of exposure to the new control forces provides for a quick adaptation. But that first takeoff and early climbout can be very exiting!

Crazy-High Roundout

Every aircraft has an eye-to-wheel height. Big-airplanes have a large eye-to-wheel height. Little-airplanes, not so much. In a little airplane, sitting in the cockpit with the wheels on the ground, your eyes might only be 5 feet off the ground. In a big-airplane, the eye-to-wheel height can more than 20 feet (a lot more in some cases). That's quite a difference. Big-airplanes also tend to use up more altitude in the roundout. The net result, big-airplane pilots are very high off the ground when they start the roundout—perhaps as much as 100 feet for some aircraft types. Meanwhile, in little-airplanes, the roundout starts when your eyes are 10 to 15 feet off the ground. Rounding out at 100 feet is a very excellent way to break your airplane. This makes the first one or two landings in a little-airplane conducted by a big-airplane pilot rather exciting (almost as exciting as that first takeoff!).

Happy Flying!