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It's the Little Things or Good Habits

Posted in Hangar Talk

Tags: technique, procedures, power-off stall, emergency field, chair flying

It's the Little Things or Good Habits

Good habit patterns when flying may or may not affect the outcome of the flight. If I use good habits, I will safely fly my aircraft and likely land safely and be able to use the aircraft again. Where do we learn these good habits?

It's the Little Things or Good Habits

Written by Marc Nathanson (Ret. Lt. Col. USAF, FAA Designated Pilot Examiner)

Good habit patterns when flying may or may not affect the outcome of the flight. If I use good habits, I will safely fly my aircraft and land safely and be able to use the aircraft again. Where do we learn these good habits? We are first exposed to them as student pilots paying attention to our instructors as they teach us how to gather and asses pre-flight information such as the weather, Temporary Flight Restriction notifications (TFR), and Notices to Airmen (NOTAM). We watch them as they lead us through our first pre-flight inspections of the airplane, start the engine, check the aircraft and it's components during the run-up and watch how they handle the flight controls to make the craft respond to their every command. Good instructors teach us techniques that we use during these phases of flight. Great instructors show us several techniques that we can pick and choose from to make our own.

Technique vs Procedures:

FAA-H-8083-3A demands certain maneuvers or procedures be performed in a specific manner. There are, however, different ways to do some maneuvers or procedures that allow us to do them the way we are most comfortable with.  These are called "techniques". The FAA allows the use of techniques, however, there are procedures that must be followed and are cited in the Code of Federal Regulations commonly known as the Federal Aviation Regulations or FARs. 

For example, the Practical Test Standards (PTS) requires the power-off stall to be performed in the following manner:

"Establishes a stabilized descent in the approach or landing configuration, as specified by the Examiner."

The requirement to establish a descent is a requirement and must be done. However, how you get the aircraft to do this may be performed by using a technique. For example, you could perform the required clearing turns at cruise power and speed, then slow down and configure the aircraft by lowering the flaps and landing gear (if so equipped and required by the Examiner) after rolling out wings level. You then maintain altitude while allowing the aircraft to slow to normal glide speed, the same speed you would use on final in the traffic pattern. You then release enough back elevator pressure to allow the aircraft to glide at this speed as you would in the traffic pattern.

This is an acceptable technique you may use to establish the glide as required by the PTS. Although this technique is acceptable, it wastes both time and airspace. A better technique to use would be to hold altitude while reducing the throttle to 1,500 RPM (in a light training aircraft such as a Cessna 172 or Piper Warrior) as you maintain altitude allowing the aircraft to slow while performing the second 90 degree clearing turn. This method does a couple of things.

  1. It shows the examiner that you can control the aircraft while changing airspeed while turning.
  2. You stay within your cleared airspace and, if planned correctly, you stay near your emergency landing field. This technique results in a more efficient and timely set-up for this stall practice.

Let's talk about the emergency landing field and its importance during the check ride.

I insist my students have an engine difficulty plan in place in case the engine does not give them its all, quits, or requires to be shut down due to an engine fire. The plan should include engine difficulties from takeoff to landing. In the practice area, you should stay near a suitable emergency landing field. What constitutes an acceptable emergency landing field? The number one priority should be a field, that if landed in under emergency conditions, allows you to live through the landing whether the aircraft sustains damage or not. There is a point in an emergency when you just have to realize that you are simply delivering the aircraft to the insurance company. That's what insurance is for! How long should the field be? You can make a comparison with the airport runway you normally use. Compare the length of the runway at traffic pattern altitude or a higher altitude to the width of your wing. How many wings would it take to cover the runway? You can use the same method to determine the approximate length of the emergency field.

Having an emergency landing field within gliding distance, when possible, is always important. Admittedly, you may be flying over inhospitable terrain in which case you must know how to land on it.  Again, refer to the FAA-H-8083 manuals for guidance. For those of you who have a GPS, don't forget about the "Nearest" function. When selected, it will bring up the nearest airport. Most GPS allow you to select the "Direct To" function which will show you the desired track and distance to the airport.

Back to techniques:

How do we determine which technique works best for us? It is the technique that we are most comfortable with that results in the desired outcome. Your instructor can help by giving you feedback as to the quality of the maneuver or procedure. You may be comfortable with a technique that does not yield the desired outcome. In this case, you should strive to master another one suggested by your instructor.

Practice makes perfect. Remember that, when you learn, you are affecting a behavioral change. You can train your muscles and mind to perform the task correctly every time (muscle memory). Having flown airliners at night for several years, I found that muscle memory does not always work when I am tired. My technique in this case was to go over the procedure/technique by touching the controls as I recited the method I use. The technique was fresh when I used it.

Chair flying maneuvers is a great way to perfect procedures and maneuvers. You can do this by sitting in a chair with the heels of your feet on the floor as they would be positioned on the rudder pedals in your aircraft. Close your eyes and envision the inside of the aircraft and it's relationship to the horizon. Practice everything you do when performing a procedure or maneuver to include clearing. This can also be done in the aircraft while on the ground with the engine not running.

If you pay attention to the little things and develop techniques for your procedures, then you will be a much safer and competent pilot in every aspect of your flying!

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