Mentally Behind the Power Curve

by William S. Lawerence, USMC (Retired) on January 27, 2011

in General Aviation

“Bonanza 47S, following your turn to 270°, you will be cleared to descend to 4,500 feet and commence the back course ILS for landing runway 27L.  Call the outer marker inbound commencing.  Switch to tower frequency 237.50.  Traffic will be a Cessna crossing right to left, co-altitude.  Skies are partially obscured, 3/4 mile visibility with winds 110 at 13 gusting to 16.  Please push plus 20 knots on final for traffic separation. Also confirm that you have information sierra.   Oh, and when you get a chance, how about the last four of your social security number, grandmother’s maiden name, and the zip code to which your credit card bill is mailed.”

The last part is fictional, of course, but sometimes it seems like that, does it not?  The old aviation expression is that flying is “hours and hours of boredom, interspersed by moments of stark terror”.  I always thought that was associated with combat, but as I transitioned into civilian aviation and my availability to fly was increasingly restricted, the expression found a home in my Bonanza.

During my 28 years flying for the Marine Corps, I walked out of the ready room to find a flight line filled with essentially identical aircraft.  Flight rules dictated that we spend enough time doing enough “stuff” that we remained comfortable in the aviation environment, regardless of whether it was night time, instrument time, goggle time, or just the rare GA&L flight (grab ass and loops for those who have not been there).

I learned a bunch of things when I began walking out of the ready room to find only my Bonanza on the flight line.  First, it was a unique aircraft.  There was literally not another airplane in the world like it with its unique avionics configuration, unique fuel configuration with some extra tanks and without others, unique seating configuration, modified engine, and the list goes on.

The second thing I learned is that I needed to know a lot more about this little airplane than the expensive, super-fast, exceptionally-maintained monster the Marine Corps actually paid me to fly.  And that was because I had to do a lot more.  Nobody was going to check the fuel for me, make sure the oil was clean and full, the pitot tubes were uncovered and clear, the tires had the right pressure, the controls were unlocked and free, the control surfaces were moving properly, the radios were set and tuned, the navigation devices worked properly, the weight and balance were within limits, the weather was okay, and the flight plan was filed.  What?  Well, of course I did all those things in the Marines, but I always knew that there had been a swarm of worker bees doing all those things before I got out there to kick the tires and light the fire.  Now, there was no one else to make absolutely sure all those things got done.

The third thing I learned is that, when you don’t fly with some regularity, things begin to slip.  Those time-honored and natural habit patterns get a little hazy.  The comfortable instrument scan, when flying in the clouds, gets a little less comfortable.  There is a queasy feeling that comes when you realize you forgot to do “that” on the preflight.  And scariest of all, you no longer are ahead of the airplane.

When I flew with regularity, I planned my next move early.  I knew frequency, navigation, and course changes before they were required.  I checked fuel flow, quantity, and balance without even having to think about it.  Checking gauges and looking for traffic kept my head on a swivel constantly.  In short, the scan was working well!

Flying less often in my Bonanza, almost always in good weather, never across the continent, and with significantly fewer systems, I nevertheless found myself saying “Darn, I forgot to (fill in the blank) before takingoff”.  Or “How did the flaps get down?  I oversped the flaps!”  Or “Wait a minute.  Is it 24 inches at 2500 rpm or 25 inches at 2400 rpm?”  I noticed that I got behind the aircraft too easily when too many things happened at once.  I also noticed that my preparation was lacking.

The clearance is obviously fictional … isn’t it?  You’ve never heard one like that, have you?  You haven’t just said, “Roger, cleared for the approach, switching tower” and hoped you didn’t forget anything important … have you?

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

James T. Crouse January 27, 2011 at 1:10 pm

Colonel Lawrence again provides insight into an important aspect of flying—preparation. One must always be and stay prepared for each type of flight he or she is going to fly. That means before, during, and after the flight. That’s right, AFTER—do you review the good and bad about each flight?
But this isn’t only about preparation. It is also about knowing your limits, being willing to admit to those limits, and having the courage, and sense, to address them. I am reminded of the old adage: “There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.” Well said.
So whether it is private aviation, commercial aviation, helicopters, gliders, sailplanes or balloons, pay attention, and know your limitations. Stay out of the hospital—or worse—and out of the newspapers.


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