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Flight Safety

Flight Safety is a hard conversation to have. There are as many different definitions as there are people who fly. The aviation industry’s long maintained claim is that flight instruction is one of the safest sectors of aviation. But, a student should never get too comfortable or arrogant after getting his Private Pilot License. The accident ratio is higher in pre- check-ride solos, but the death rate is higher in instruction on advanced licenses like CFI. That might indicate that those students going for their CPL or CFI license may be getting a little too laid-back on the basics of safety. Maybe they are suffering from over-confidence.

An age-old flying expression is: “Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing. A great landing is one where you can use the plane again without repairs.”

OK, we get it, but that’s not very definitive…… So, let’s go down the safety checklist.

Rule #ONE: No matter what else happens, fly the damn airplane!!!

If there is a problem while flying: Aviate. Navigate. Communicate. If you’re faced with any emergency, we MUST always remember: fly the airplane, then navigate to a point of landing (or a flat field in the case of Cirrus), and then communicate your emergency and intentions. Never assume that an empty airspace is empty. Make your calls regardless of responses. If you hear nothing in response, double-check your frequencies. (I’ve made that mistake – making 3-4 radio call-outs only to realize my frequency was off by 0.05 MHz!!!)

The pilot that loses track of where he is or gets distracted by events inside the plane (or in the proximity) is a pilot that is at risk of a big problem. No matter if someone throws up inside the airplane, or if the dogs (or children) in the backseat are fighting, or if the sunset is amazing….. you still need to fly the damn plane.

No matter if you are running out of fuel. No matter if you have just had a bird strike. No matter if you’ve suffered an engine failure!!! Or, if ATC is telling you to turn to avoid traffic. Always…… “FPF” (Fly the Plane First).

Rule #TWO: When in doubt, hold your altitude; nobody ever had a collision with the air.

The Kobe Bryant helicopter pilot was IFR rated and his company prohibited the pilots to fly in IMC conditions. He did not comply with company rules. In fact, that rule may have caused him to not ask for IFR clearance which could have saved the lives of 9 people. For a brief moment, that pilot of the helicopter that carried Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others realized in horror his mistake. But, let’s correctly name his mistake. It wasn’t because he didn’t know where he was horizontally – although he DID NOT. It was because, if he’d been high enough, the loss of horizontal awareness would have been a moot point. In his case, why didn’t he just hover…. Then, rise to a higher altitude… THEN try to figure out where he was and where any terrain was?

Why didn’t he hover and ask for IFR directions from the nearby ATC? It was because he didn’t want to get fired for flying IMC.

All of his mistakes arose because he thought he knew where he was – and he knew WRONG. This brings us back to that vicious circle of mistakes. When in doubt, CLIMB. Ask for permission if you are under a Bravo shelf – but CLIMB.

Rule #3: Superior pilots are those who use good judgment to avoid any bad situation where their superior skills will be needed.

Exactly. A great pilot is the one with the experience to tell him/her where and when superior skills may be needed and to take another route, or cancel/delay the flight. Or go around in a landing with crazy crosswinds. Whenever you hear yourself saying, “I got this”, you very probably do not!!!

In the JFK Jr accident, he was delayed in departing over two hours due to “traffic” delays of his wife and sister-in- law. That should have meant a canceled flight because he was a beginner private pilot and that delay meant departing shortly before dusk. Incredibly, his CFI came over to him and offered to go with him and fly home commercial, but JFK Jr declined the offer. He discarded a number of opportunities to make corrections that would have avoided a tragedy. He had spatial disorientation and spun the plane into the sea.

Rule #4: When you are running low on fuel, fuel is weightless.

There are dozens of stories of planes crashing 200-500 yards short of a perfectly good runway because they ran out of fuel. An extra 5 gallons weighs only 30 pounds. Never take less fuel so that you can take more bags. You can’t fly a plane on wine or skin care products. Leave them and take more fuel than you’ll need. Remember the old flying adage……

“The only time you have too much fuel is when you are on fire.”

Rule #5: It’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air — than being in the air wishing you were on the ground.

If the weather is saying, “I wouldn’t if I were you”, listen to that warning. If you are tired or not feeling well, go take a nap. Do not fly.

If you follow the adage that you learn more from your mistakes than your successes, you’ll not want to do that learning from weather mistakes. Mother Nature has more power than you have skills. Are pilots ever up in the air and wishing they weren’t?

It happened to me once. I was once alone flying VFR from Seattle to San Diego and encountered a line of broken clouds over the Sierra Nevadas. But, it looked like there were big gaps to go through. NORAD didn’t show anything significant, so I thought it was minor issue. But, once I was in them, the clouds got closer together until I found myself in a cloud cul-de-sac. I climbed to 12,500 MSL to get over them, then 14,000 with oxygen. Cloud tops were too high – over 18,000 ft. No way out.

Once in the clouds, the OAT was 20-22 degrees F. I looked down at my wings and saw the ice forming, creeping across the wing from the front edge like the incoming tide. I was picking up weight and losing lift by the second. And, it was getting dark…..

My Cirrus SR22T had FIKI ice system and the seller had left me with full tanks. I set it on “MAX” for a few minutes to clear the windshield and wings. Then, on “High” and held my breath for 10-15 minutes until I could see city lights below me. Spent the rest of the flight promising myself, “Won’t try THAT again.” Not all pilots are given second chances after they’ve taken bad first ones.

Take it from me, don’t push through doubts or warnings – thinking “It won’t be so bad.” It’s much easier to learn from the mistakes of others than to learn them directly yourself – although most people don’t listen to the advice of others all that well. Some pilots are never given a second chance like that.

Rule # 6: Failure to Plan is Planning to Fail

Learning is safer than you think. But, it requires much more planning – on weather, weight & balance, fuel needs, ETA / weather at the destination at that time of arrival, even the toilet needs of occupants. Checklists are critical to make certain that everything is done – that no detail is missed.

Part of flight planning starts a few days before departure, weather enroute, fuel availability….. and the planning continues the morning of departure. Allow more time than required so as to allow for unexpected delays or the need to clean the windshield, fill up the TKS fluid, find the missing funnels, find the window shades in the luggage bay, pull the plane from the hangar (even though all should have been handled by others). Walk around – always. Every so often, you’ll find a tiedown or chock that you were sure you removed, or you’ll grab that coffee cup off the horizontal stabilizer, or the keys you left dangling from the luggage compartment door. That last one happened at my check ride!

Rule # 7: There is no such thing as: “I think I got this!”

Whenever you say to yourself “I Think I Got This” or the closely related “I’m good”, you are not “good” and “you don’t have this”. By definition, that doubt violates Rule #2.

When in doubt on any landing, never try to “save it”. Go around. Nobody ever damaged the plane or injured anyone by going around. In fact, we should always land with the preconceived notion that you are going to go around and then, if conditions are perfect, we change our mind at the last minute and don’t give it full throttle. It’s called the “Go Around Bias”; you maintain a bias in favor of going around. SO…… landing the airplane must be very compelling for you to deny that bias.

And, even if the wheels have touched the runway, that bias must persist. Always land with enough speed/energy to be able to quickly lift off again if things go wrong. A sudden gust may turn you toward the runway edge. A dog or rabbit runs across the runway (it’s happened). Or, the ever-popular simply running out of runway.

This go-around bias is the antithesis of Rule #5. It could be stated “It’s better to be in the air wishing you were on the ground, than……on the ground running out of runway”

A pilot was coming back to Maryland from a Florida business trip in 2016 with 3 passengers when he was running out of fuel. He contacted Flight Following and asked to confirm distance to his destination. He said he was “running low”. Control told him about an alternate about 10 miles closer than his destination, but out of his way. He declined, saying, “I think I’ll be OK.” A headwind slowed him down over the next 30 minutes and by that time his destination was his closest airport, he was on fumes. He contacted tower to request a straight in approach and priority due to a low fuel problem. He got clearance, but he ran out 1/4 mile from the runway and crashed 200 yards short of the runway. All four passengers died….. all due to a: “I think I’ll be OK.” NEVER try to arrive with less than 30 minutes of fuel.


“Headwinds happen”. That is the aviation version of: “Shit happens”.

Rule # 8: Sterile Cockpit

Distractions in the cockpit is a major contributing factor to accidents. Observe the sterile cockpit rule. My rule to passengers is — there’s no talking during the final phase of our flight. And no commentary, no questions.

Always give a preflight briefing to your passengers. Make sure that your passengers all understand why they need to keep 100% quiet during certain phases of flight or any time you tell them to. That doesn’t mean, “keep talking but keep it down, ok?” The pilot must focus on radios, checklists for descent, fuel, airspeed……not a passenger request for information or just to tell you that they need to pee.

In my cockpit, I am alone in the plane for the first 10-15 minutes and for the last 15 minutes. No talk is allowed even between passengers, no comments, no questions. It’s best to just turn the passenger headset button off.

Rule # 9: Throttle is your friend; Altitude is his.

In snowmobiles and airplanes, throttle cures most ills. My snowmobile instructor said, “The throttle is your friend; he eliminates most problems.” My flight instructor said, “Full throttle, your stalling.”

(Note: My snowmobile instructor always referred to the throttle/engine as a “he”, but the snowmobile as a “she”. “Give her a little more brake.” Might be a sexism issue?)

This rule is a combination of Rules 7 & 2. Maintain altitude, especially when running low in fuel or if terrain is nearby. If you arrive at the destination too high, there is an easy cure called “circling” or the more difficult forward slip. In engine failure or fuel problems, you will have more options if you are higher.

“Sky of blue, power through.” If you are stalling, push forward and add power. Throttle is part of the solution to many, many problems in aviation.

Rule # 10: A Culture of Checklists.

This has been a checklist. The underlying message is to “Always Use Checklists”. The most frequent comment among pilots who just had an accident is: “I missed something.”

I had an instructor once who said, “Checklists are only for beginning pilots.” Not true. That guy likely has not used his checklists for years. Recall the movie “Sully”? They saved that plane and many lives because the copilot was a checklist savant. He had them all there at his fingertips, knew every page of the manual.

I had another CFI once who saw me doing my checklist, got a bit impatient and actually said, “You need to already know all these items. The checklist is only there as a crutch.” Also, not true.

In conclusion:

Flight instruction is safe. In airplanes, the rate of fatal accidents per hour during training is less than half the rate on noninstructional flights —

Similar results are seen if you compare the rates of accidents during flight lessons and afterward. So, if you’re chiefly concerned about the risk of injury, the results are reassuring to be taking lessons. The accident rate is lower for new pilots than among pilots who have had their licenses and have been flying for years. So, more years of flying is no safeguard. Pilots with more years of flying are too often pilots who don’t fly frequently enough to stay in practice.

The one thing to keep in sharp focus is to not do your solo in a rush. Take your time and allow the instructor to make the call without pressure of when you should go.

Also, keep in mind that students have a very low accident rate as compared to licensed pilots. Although student solos made up 45 percent of fixed-wing pre-license accidents, they are typically much less severe than that with licensed pilots. Eighty percent of student accidents happened during takeoffs, landings, or go-arounds.

But, regardless of the higher total accident rate, students rarely suffer much more than a bruise or a scratch. The lowest rate of all accidents are those by student pilots and less than three percent of student accidents are fatal.

Fatal accidents are actually much more frequent in advanced instruction, which saw more than 60 percent of all fatalities even though it accounted for only 35 percent of all accidents. This indicates that advanced instruction (ie licensed pilots) has a higher rate of severe accidents than pilots with less than 50 hours of flight time. So, it is not the lack of flying time that can predict fatal accident occurrence – it’s the opposite.

And, beginner students are not any more likely to have an accident. The causes of crashes during lessons look remarkably similar whether the person receiving instruction is a primary student or a certificated pilot.

So, don’t assume your experience is a guarantee, be careful, fly rested, always use your checklists, and remember this list of precautions.

Flying is the safest form of traveling and learning to fly is the safest flying of all categories of aviation.

Leopard Aviation