Different Strokes

I’ve noticed that high-time pilots and instructors of light general aviation aircraft — especially those who fly a single type of airplane — sometimes become surprisingly militant about their operating procedures, proclaiming that aviators should never do this or that, or must always follow a particular technique.

I’ve had people tell me you cannot ever three-point a TravelAir 4000. That you must never land a Cirrus SR22 with less than full flaps. That taxiing in any tailwind whatsoever means the elevator must be fully down. That all runups must be conducted into the wind, without exception. That every pattern entry must begin on a 45 degree angle to the downwind leg. The list goes on.

This mindset is foreign to me. I understand how a single, unwavering way of operating an aircraft might be desirable in some circumstances. Primary flight training comes to mind. It’s just simpler. Flying a transport category jet would be another such example. We have carefully-crafted procedures which are developed by professionals, approved by the FAA, and tailored to the specific kinds of flying we do in that particular airplane.

The tail gets airflow from two places: the natural wind and the prop blast.  As a result, it may not be experiencing quite what the windsock indicates.
The tail gets airflow from two places: the natural wind and the prop blast. As a result, it may not be experiencing quite what the windsock indicates.

But in my experience, real-world flying, especially in smaller airplanes, often dictates operating procedures which are, shall we say, bespoke. Even the same airplane at the same airport might require variances as weather, loading, and other conditions change. Take the taxiing into a tailwind example. As it regards elevator position, when flying a tailwheel aircraft, I don’t just blindly look at the windsock. I’ll look at wind direction and velocity, then determine whether the prop blast is overcoming that wind to provide the elevator with a tail- or headwind. That’s what I really care about.

The same idea applies to the runup scenario. At my home airport, one of the runup areas requires pointing downwind so that if the airliners turning onto the ramp blast the runup area, we’re pointing into that wind rather that away from it. Those with a militant mindset about operating procedures might not be open to the larger picture.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not suggesting limitations be exceeded or manufacturer’s recommendations be ignored. I’m simply open to the idea that someone out there might have a better way of doing things than the way I’ve always done it, especially since I fly a lot of older airplanes which have limited (if any) operational guidance from the manufacturer.

Consider the takeoff briefing. They’re typically performed only in multi-engine airplanes, but I’m on record as favoring a takeoff brief for just about every kind of aircraft, mainly because every departure is different. If your engine fails at 500′, the best response in a Cirrus — say, pulling the ballistic recovery parachute — would not even be available for the guy flying a Skyhawk. On the other hand, if the runway was long enough, the both pilots might opt for the same course of action, lowering the nose and landing straight ahead on the remaining pavement. Even a shorter runway might work if the headwind was strong enough (Santa Ana winds come to mind).

Speaking of takeoffs, have you ever been told that you should never consider turning around below 500′, or 1000′? Just land straight head, they’ll say. Well what if you’re departing from an airport which has nothing but buildings in front of you? This is the rule rather than the exception for me. As I wrote last year:

So why aren’t single engine pilots exposed to this during training? For one thing, today’s teaching methodology is based on material that’s been in use for half a century. Anyone who’s taken an FAA knowledge test can tell you that. Back then, airspace was simple, open fields were everywhere, and it was assumed you’d just glide down to landing. Today? It ain’t necessarily so.

Consider my neighborhood. At Santa Monica, you practically touch the roof of a gas station before reaching the numbers for runway 21. At Compton, homes are built so close to the field that residents can count the rivets dotting the underbelly of a landing aircraft’s fuselage. Airports like Hawthorne and Fullerton? Good luck. Obstacles in every direction, including some of the most densely populated parts of Southern California.

You might be thinking “Ah, my airport is nothing like that!”. Maybe so, but even if you’re based at a rural field, you probably fly to urban or mountainous airports from time to time. Something else to consider: if I’ve learned one thing from my seventeen years of flying, it’s that real world failures don’t always mimic our training. I’ve had several emergency situations, but not one of them was anything like the standard training scenarios.

In other words, an attempt to increase safety through an overly regimented mindset could blind you to options you’d never considered and actually be counterproductive. An example: you might think it would be suicide to attempt a turn around you lose thrust at 200 feet above ground, but in a glider it’s done all the time during simulated or actual rope breaks from that altitude. Far from being suicidal, I often had to extend the dive brakes to get down in time to land.

A pilot flying a twin uses an entirely different technique. They’ll maximize power, minimize drag, and return for landing. But even that isn’t always true. In the Gulfstream, adding power isn’t required for an engine failure after V1. The aircraft is actually easier to control with a lower, “flex” power takeoff setting. Just keep it going straight and raise the gear once you’re airborne. Unless there’s a fire, you don’t do anything until reaching 1,500 feet AGL.

Let’s look at landing. A friend of mine asked why every airline trip which ends at Orange County’s John Wayne Airport (SNA) includes what he described as a “hard landing”, while those at LAX are soft. His question is what prompted this post in the first place. I explained that the relatively short runway at Orange County (5,700 feet) means that the smart pilot will put the plane on the ground right in the touchdown zone rather than eating up precious real estate feeling out that soft landing. With longer runways you have the pavement to finesse things a bit more. Chris Manno wrote a good post about this.

The same holds true of a light aircraft. Normally I perform tail-low takeoffs in tailwheel airplanes because it shortens the ground roll, reduces wear and tear on the landing gear and tires, and keeps the prop away from the ground. But in a significant crosswind, holding the plane on the mains for a moment can keep the aircraft under better control until ready to pull it off the ground.

The point is, each airplane and situation comprises a unique set of circumstances. It seems to me that a “good pilot” isn’t the one who flies the smoothest or lands softest. The best pilot is the one who manages risk most effectively, something best accomplished by taking a wide view which considers every available factor: weather, alternates, terrain, runway, aircraft capabilities, and so on. When our flying consists of a single type of airplane operating the same profile, it’s easy to get complacent.

Most of the time nothing goes wrong… but as Andy Grove famously said, “Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.”

  19 comments for “Different Strokes

  1. Graeme
    November 30, 2015 at 12:35 am

    I think you said it best when you said “bespoke”. Echo the comment about aviation being taught from one word of mouth passing to the next…or one experience leading to teach or even preach from.

    A good pilot will evaluate the situation and then perform the most suitable action. Last week when I was in Astoria, Oregon, I went to the Maritime museum. This Museum highlights the danger of entering the Columbia River and the hundreds of shipwrecks taking place over the years. No matter how trained the captain and pilot of the ship, without proper local training and up to the minute location of the Sandbars, disaster would be looming and imminent. A local skipper would have to board the ship and navigate the vessel through the mouth of the Columbia River.

    I like this post because it deals with flight instruction and how to teach and what pilots will pick up and learn (including being resourcful) and what pilots will take (intentionally or unintentionally as gospel.
    As far away decades as my CFI days may be ( likely never at this point) as Ive about HAD it with getting my training organized, I’ll bookmark this post as good reference material on the “HOW” in presentation. (If we are still bookmarking in those days)

    • November 30, 2015 at 12:45 am

      I believe sand dunes can present the same kind of hazard. I took a ride on the dunes near Oceano one year, and the guy driving our vehicle said that the wind re-shapes the terrain constantly out there, so a dune might end with a 3′ drop one day and a 10′ drop the next. Even though they used beefed-up Hummers, the company broke axles on a regular basis because of that. Whether on land, sea, or air, Mother Nature is a powerful and often harsh teacher to the careless.

      Hang tough with the CFI thing. You’ll get there. Like I’ve always said, it’s not hard to find instruction; it’s hard to find good, professional, consistent instruction.

      • Graeme
        November 30, 2015 at 4:17 pm

        Thanks Ron. Yeah, sand dunes and sand bars seem to have similar characteristics. Just heard from American Flyers that they are reducing their CFI program as well due to lack of CFI instructors….Maybe they are all being sucked up by the airlines…

        Love those Dunes by Oceano though, and love the airport as well. I suppose another example is Agua Caliente. You have to take off downwind on the short runway due to a mountain on the west side of the airport. One way in, one way out. No go arounds on your approach..

  2. Joe Miller
    November 30, 2015 at 9:36 am

    The old World War 2 pilots (at a large oil company) would tell all us young wet behind ears copilots on flying company jets (year 1967) FLY BY THE BOOK DIE BY THE BOOK. Example: training @ F.Safety with Gulfstream’s test pilot as my copilot on a G2. Failed engine @ Aspen right before touch down with a truck on the runway and visibility set to zero. I followed the directions of the test pilot (after max power, gear up), max bank 10 to 15, speed whatever it takes to clear obstructions (he watched the radar altimeter) and not below stick shacker, DO NOT ACCELERATE, we climbed out successfully with room to spare at a speed less than V2. F.Safety said we cannot teach this procedure. Flew corporate jets for 46 yrs.

    • November 30, 2015 at 5:25 pm

      Wow, that sounds like an adventurous sim session, to say the least! I think the standard procedures are developed for pilots of “average” skill, so I can see why they wouldn’t want to teach that at FSI. These jets — especially Gulfstreams — are often capable of much more. The only max-power maneuver we do on a regular basis in the sim is a windshear escape. Push the power levers all the way to the stop, ignore the half-dozen red gauges and triple bongs, pitch up to the stick shaker, and enjoy the ride.

      The Tay 611 is quite de-rated on the G-IV compared to the power output they get from it on certain airliners like the Fokker 100. But it strikes me that a FADEC airplane wouldn’t be able to do that. You’d push the power levers to the firewall, and a computer would limit your thrust to whatever the redline happened to be. I’ve often wondered if that would make a non-FADEC airplane like the G-IV more likely to escape a microburst than the G450.

      Thanks for the story! Maybe I should have you write a post of memorable events from your days on the Gulfstream. That would be a fantastic read!

      • Joe Miller
        November 30, 2015 at 6:30 pm

        Ron, you have written about me. THE FINAL FLIGHT OF THE FIRST GULFSTREAM-( serial #001). The Final Flight on N55RG was also my Final Flight after 46 years flying corporate jets. I have a lot of stories and the GREATEST story of all was flying and being in charge of Mr. Robert Galvin’s (Motorola) famous aircraft. My parting words to N55RG were: I NEVER SCRATCHED, BRUISED OR DENTED YOU AND YOU NEVER BRUISED OR SCARED ME. THANK YOU. N55RG is in her new home at the Carolinas Aviation Museum.

        • November 30, 2015 at 6:32 pm

          Oh, I know that Joe! 🙂 I was just thinking about the FSI story you related above. I bet you’ve got a stack of other amazing tales from your 46 years in the biz!

          I look forward to visiting 55RG in that museum one day. Is she on display yet?

  3. November 30, 2015 at 10:29 am

    There should be more follow-up training. Even just last week I learned (possibly was reminded) that as soon as I am in the plane I can start flying it. So in the DA42 I was in as we started the takeoff roll the CFI pointed out that this model tends to wheelbarrow a little and that light back pressure on the stick would help with that. It did, hugely. Without that pointer I would have stuck with the primary training I had, which was “controls nuetral until airspeed green, light pressure to rotate…”

    Tailwheel training is a big help. I hope to follow that with glider training.

    • November 30, 2015 at 5:31 pm

      It does feel odd to just jump into an airplane you’ve never flown and start operating it, doesn’t it? But that’s what you’re paying the CFI to do: familiarize you with the unique characteristics and quirks of the aircraft you’re transitioning into.

      You’ll love the tailwheel and glider training. I’ve never had anyone tell me the time, money and effort were anything less than a stellar investment in their flying skill set.

      I knew Bluebonnet had a poor instructor the moment she said the CFI never let her taxi, takeoff, or land. From day one, I always have the student do all those things. OK, maybe not land on their own, but at least work the rudder pedals and keep the nose straight. They should be involved in the process the whole way.

  4. renewedpilot
    November 30, 2015 at 12:58 pm

    Along the same lines, you mentioned flex takeoffs…

    We are all taught that a reduced power takeoff will meet the second segment climb restrictions. Every sim ride I take, after a V1 cut, the remaining thrust lever remains in the flex/reduced position. In the controlled environment of the sim, it works great every time.

    I decided a long time ago it would be a shame to hit something while there was still some extra thrust available in the good engine. We are taught taught taught that we can leave it alone. If the climb looks good, sure… leave it. But, I sometimes wonder how many would push it up if the performance calculations were a little off.

    Thanks for the great post.

    • Joe Miller
      November 30, 2015 at 2:17 pm

      I agree 100% with you. I was there when Air Florida hit the bridge in DCA. All they had to do was go MAX power from the FALSE power setting (50%) due to not turning on the deicing in a snow storm. They even commented on how COOL the engine temperature was in the snow. They crashed with two perfectly good engines running at half power and not knowing it. Max Power would have saved them all.

      • renewedpilot
        November 30, 2015 at 9:15 pm

        Exactly. I’ve studied that accident extensively throughout my career. I think of those guys every time I taxi out in the snow.

    • November 30, 2015 at 5:36 pm

      Great point! Taking off on a hot day, heavily loaded with mountains around is so very different from an empty airplane with minimal fuel on a cool evening free of obstacles. Sometimes we drop passengers at BUR and then reposition the airplane to VNY with little fuel and no payload. It’s a 6 mile flight. You can imagine the performance! I like the windshear escape maneuver I described in a comment above, because it’s a reminder that if you really need a lot of power, it’s there for you.

  5. Campbell
    December 1, 2015 at 10:31 am

    I usually land a Cirrus with only 1 stage of flap – in fact, I rarely land an aircraft with full flaps unless required, better setup for a go around.

    • December 1, 2015 at 12:37 pm

      In some RVs I’ve found additional flexibility by not using flaps at all for some landings — if I want to make a short approach to avoid wake turbulence from an airliner approaching the parallel runway, for example. The airspeed limits on the flaps are kind of low when you consider how fast and clean the airframe is. With a CS prop, the drag is sufficient for keeping the airspeed from getting out of hand.

      Conversely, a fixed-pitch cruise prop on that same airframe would almost dictate the use of full flaps for landing because there’s almost no prop drag to help slow you down. It’s just another example of how a dogmatic approach to aircraft operation might be detrimental.

    • December 3, 2015 at 11:58 am

      Uh, you are not operating per the POH, chewing up your brakes, and increasing your E should anything bad or untoward (hello deer) happen. Not advisable. Sauce: 1000+ hr Cirrus pilot.

    • Duane
      December 9, 2015 at 8:58 am

      The best advice is to always land at the lowest practical airspeed for the conditions at time of landing. As Bung says, lower velocity at landing means less stress on the undercarriage including tires and brakes, and less energy if you happen to hit something or stray off the runway – either the sides or the opposite end. Runway conditions, winds during short final, presence of airframe ice, or malfunction of the flaps can all figure into the lowest practical airspeed.

      As for go-arounds, full flaps aren’t really a significant problem for control of the aircraft if your trim is set properly and you are proficient at the maneuver. Too much nose-up trim and failure to account for p-factor with full power are the bigger challenges in maintaining aircraft control during a go-around.

      Being proficient at landings with less than full flaps or no flaps at all is very good too. But when managing risk over many landings, the slowest practical airspeed at touchdown, in a full-stall condition, is the best way to go.

      • Duane
        December 9, 2015 at 9:12 am

        Regarding energy – the energy your aircraft and your body will absorb in decelerating to a stop – is a function of the square of the change in velocity. For example, if landing with no or minimum flaps results at a touchdown speed of 75 kts, while a full flap landing reduces that by 10 kt to 65 kt, the percentage reduction in velocity will be 13%. The percentage decrease in kinetic energy of the aircraft – and the people inside it – will be much larger – 25%. Maybe that doesn’t sound like a lot, and in terms of bending metal or composites, maybe the aircraft would be totaled if it ran into a tree, a rock, another aircraft, or a ground vehicle at either velocity. But a 25% difference in energy absorbed by the body can be the difference between life and death for a human passenger.

  6. Duane
    December 9, 2015 at 6:23 am

    Since aviation tends to draw heaviest from the “Type A personality tribe”, we pilots also tend to be opinionated, so it’s not at all surprising that there’s quite a bit of rigid thinking amongst some of us pilots. The opposite types – who tend to be all over the map in their techniques and decision making – tend not to last a long time as pilots. The best and brightest use our heads and the book to do what makes the most sense for our type of flying missions, and the capabilities of our specific aircraft … using the book as a reference point but understanding well that the book does not address all pilots and all circumstances.

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