Emilie Phillips updated August 23, 2020
Every two years pilots must take a flight review with an instructor. I have opted to use a different instructor each time to broaden my horizons. This year my choice of instructor was dictated by who was low risk for coronavirus. I did it with a friend from the New England backcountry crew who also happens to be an airline pilot. He gave an excellent BFR. I went in to the lesson wanting to learn more on aircraft equipment emergencies, radio work, and instrument flying. I came away from the lesson with specific ideas of how to safely improve my flying.
When we were wrapping up at the end, Rene pointed out that, as a ~400 hour pilot, I can’t expect my skills to keep improving at the rate they used to. During this phase, it’s critical to keep in mind
- getting to the next level, even if it’s only a small improvement, may take a lot of effort.
- keep practicing the basics. They are the foundation of advanced flight.
I have been feeling the plateau for the past four years or so. At times it saps my interest in flying. A lot of the initial fun was learning how to do something new. Now often one flight is the same as the last. I can’t point specific new skills I have conquered.
I was left to ponder, what are the basic skills? Here are the stick and rudder skills I came up with
- slow flight, stalls and spin avoidance. This is a prerequisite for short field fun and low and slow flying.
- maintaining constant altitude or constant rate climbs and turns — perquisite for instrument flight.
- flight at various airspeeds — canyon flying, formation flight.
For what it is worth, during the review I was not as good at maintaining constant altitude in the Bearhawk as I had been in the Cherokee when I took my private pilot check ride.
There are also basic planning skills like evaluating weather conditions and planning cross country flights. The better you are at those, the fewer days you are stuck on the ground. (or dead in a hillside)
As part of getting to the next level, I need to learn how to identify what is a reasonable next challenge. I have often made a comparison between skiing and kayaking. Downhill skiers usually have a good assessment of their skills. They can tell when they picked too hard a trail because they fall down a lot. Sea kayakers often mistake their experience level for their skill level. It’s easy to rack up miles and years of experience paddling upright on calm days. Then when weather turns unexpectedly bad, they capsize and drown.
Flying seems awfully like sea kayaking — you go fly, land, and walk away. “Must have been a good flight,” you think. Or you push the limits a little too far and bend an airplane or worse. Well, just like with sea kayaking, there are ways to learn skills and judgement without waiting for a calamity.
At the end of every landing, I have an idea of whether it went great, “just ok”, or “gee that wasn’t at all what I expected.” The goal is to predict ahead of time where the airstrip will land on that scale. Rene suggested creating a rubric, and having a personal go/no-go checklist. Here are the inputs I have thought of so far
- Approach: clear, some obstacles, very restricted
- Escape routes: lots of outs, not many
- Type of runway: FAA approved airport, maintained grass strip, random field
- Length and width
- Shape: straight, curved
- Surface: hard, soft and wet, bumpy, etc
- Slopes: up-slope or down-slope, side slope, undulations?
- Turbulence including probable locations of sinks, or rotors from cross wind
- Airplane configuration
- Density altitude impact on performance
- Big tires vs little tires
- Familiarity with airport
- Fatigue or hunger level
- Other airplanes around: peer pressure, congestion
Some of the above list came from “Mountain Canyon and Backcountry Flying” by Hoover and Williams.
Managing two pilots
Tyson and I often fly separate planes, but there are two contexts where we fly together: long cross countries, and practicing instrument flight. (The latter practice has been Tyson’s, but I should work on simulated instrument flight too.) I had never considered the two pilot dynamic as something to learn from a flight instructor. According to Rene, lots of pilot-instructor pairs have crashed because of uncertainty over who was PIC. The airlines manage the issue with a strict split of responsibilities between the pilot vs co-pilot. For example, one pilot is dedicated to flying or taxiing, while the other pilot handles the radios and navigation. Both pilots double check critical settings.
On our flight to Utah, Tyson and I had informally assigned flying and radios to the left seat; navigation, weather, and hotel reservations to the right seat. Looking back farther in this blog, I can find examples where we didn’t divide responsibilities as well.
Rene suggested that Tyson and I agree on a delineation of responsibilities. We should document it, and keep iterating until it works.
The next thing I wanted to talk about was equipment failures. Tyson and I have had an in-flight alternator failure. That was annoying, but not dangerous. I have heard stories from other pilots about partial engine failures, smoke pouring into the cabin, and flap cables breaking. The backcountry flying book says it is not a question of “if” you will have a mechanical/electrical failure, but “when”.
Two BFRs ago, I got docked for not having a checklist with the emergency engine out procedure. So the night before this review, I invented a set of flight checklists for the Bearhawk. Here it is.
Rene had his own stories of mechanically induced incidents. As a result, he checks three key things
- oil level, during preflight
- how does the fuel system work, for each new plane
- carb heat, frequently and often during descents
The other thing he emphasized is that most aircraft failures are best handled slowly and calmly. The one emergency that requires immediate action is an inflight fire. Get on the closest ground as fast as possible. For everything else, memorize a quick checklist to get the plane stable, then methodically work your way through the airplane systems and options for landing. He did say that even if you think you have found the issue, you probably should still land at a nearby airport to do a full diagnosis.
We flew to Manchester to practice radio work. With airline and business flights reduced due to coronavirus, we expected a boring flight in and out. Instead, when I called Approach, the controller was swamped. That was ok. I found a lull to make my request and got assigned a squawk code. We cruised on towards Manchester. I have never flown into Manchester from the north, but we seemed to be getting close enough to the airport that approach control ought to have handed us off to the tower. I heard a steady stream of calls to other pilots, but nothing for us. Then we were so close that I needed to start my descent if I was going to land. Still nothing for us. Rene was confident the controller had lost track of us, so he suggested politely requesting to begin our descent. I did so. The controller called another pilot before finally transferring us over to tower. At that point I was staring down at the runway trying to figure out how I could get down to pattern altitude and land. I said the right words in response to tower, but I forgot the directions immediately. Apparently one of the things I had echoed was a right hand traffic pattern, which is atypical at that airport. Rene ended up taking over the rest of the radio conversations until we were on the ground. Once we had stopped moving and I had unflustered, Rene had me call tower to confirm the taxi instructions. I correctly echoed them back and drew the route on my tablet.
Reviewing afterwards with Rene, he said I made two specific mistakes on the radio:
- my read backs should end with my call sign, not start with it.
- on departure, I need to read back the exact runway from which I have been cleared to take off.
To get more practice, Rene suggested flying through Manchester’s airspace. If they aren’t busy, request a change in direction or altitude while in their airspace. Additionally, I should be prepared for a non-standard traffic pattern at any towered airport.
The review boiled down to practice and refine. Practice the basics, practice decision making, practice radio work. Refine our check lists and refine our task delegation. Now it’s up to me to do it.