7 ways to scare yourself in an airplane - and how to learn from them
John says: Sometimes the only way to learn an important lesson is to scare yourself just a little. We try to fill the experience bucket before the luck bucket gets to empty. Here are seven common ways to do it, and before you say it could never happen to you, remember that pilots don’t crash aeroplanes because they want to. That’s why we call them accidents.
1. Run low on fuel. So common, and yet fuel is one thing we have almost total control over. Poor planning combines with ‘get-home-itis’ until the pilot runs low on both fuel and options. Most of the time, the pilot lands before the engine quits, but usually not before a lasting impression is made.
Lesson: Be pessimistic in your calculations. Aim always to land with one hour of fuel in the tanks.
2. VFR into IMC/scud running. Similar causes, but whereas low fuel is pretty easy to monitor, there is no instrument to measure “low weather.” There are FARs to define legal VFR, but where’s the line between safe and legal? Pilots sometimes become overly optimistic, taking false comfort when the forecast says “it shouldn’t be this bad.” The only weather report that matters is what you see ahead. Ignore it and, you scare yourself by flying dangerously low or skimming in and out of cloud.
Lesson: Trust METARs, and the trends indicated in them, more than TAFs. Consider your flight as a series of “go a little further/stop going” decisions instead of a single “go/no go” option. If you have to go down or slow down more than once, it’s time to divert.
3. Close call in the traffic pattern. Most pilots can remember at least one close call, with one flying a standard pattern and another making up his/her own arrival or transit. Often exacerbated by poor radio calls and a lack of awareness. Both airplanes bank to miss each other and tempers usually flare afterwards.
Lesson: Fly the standard pattern, making clear position reports. Assume other pilots won’t be so conscientious, so fly defensively. Keep your visual scan going and raise or lower a wing to double check. Have a sense of where each airplane is in the pattern, and if unsure, ask!
4. Runway incursion. Given clearance to cross the runway, as I did so I saw a Falcon 900 barrelling down it. I had been lazy, and was lucky! Turned out he was landing and stopped well short of me, but it was a clear reminder that airmanship is required also on the ground.
Lesson: Trust, but verify. I say to myself “clear left, clear right, cleared to cross” when crossing a runway.
5. High density altitude take-off. The first take-off at an airport above 5,000 ft. is a real attention-getter. Combine elevation with high temperature and a non-turbocharged engine and you have a long take-off roll and a slow climb. It’s hard to resist the urge to pull back even more, but don’t!
Lesson: Don’t assume your airplane can do it – build in some healthy margins. You can’t make the airplane fly if it doesn’t want to.
6. Falling asleep in flight. You close your eyes for a moment …. When you wake up, you instantly look to the fuel gauges and GPS. You call ATC to make sure you didn’t miss a radio call while you were “off air.” It may have only been seconds, but you’ll remember the scary feeling forever.
Lesson: The old “eight hours bottle to throttle” is a bare minimum. If you’ve been working hard or playing hard, make an honest assessment of whether you’re safe to fly. When in doubt, delay the flight.
7. In-flight icing. A frightening event for most pilots, especially in airplanes with no de-icing equipment. Whilst we’re getting better at forecasting ice, the when, where and why it happens is still a mystery to many.
Lesson: If the temperature is below 5C and/or you’re in cloud, be alert. Learn to read Nature’s signs of possible icing: Lows, temperature inversions, strong lifting forces etc. Look for reports of cloud tops so you know whether getting on top is an option. Do not linger in ice, even with de-icing equipment. Execute your backup plan immediately (you do have one, right?).
Any of the above ring a bell?