What it takes to be one sharp pilot, part three: coordination

Pat your head and rub your tummy…

It might be lore, but when I was a kid I heard that one item of screening for potential military pilots was to be able to pat your head with one hand and rub your tummy with the other, and then switch without missing a beat. I suppose the buzzword for that today would be multitasking.

That was in relation to the military pilot buildup in this country that started in 1938, in anticipation of our entry into World War Two. We grammar school kids were patriotic and we dutifully honed our coordination by patting and rubbing and switching. We also learned all the songs. These many years later I still remember most of the words to American Patrol.

What does that have to do with flying in 2016? A lot, actually, because operating a private airplane has come to require more and more coordination as time has passed. In the good old days, coordination was thought of mainly in relation to the use of the elevator, ailerons, rudder and power. Now it has become a matter of getting all your stuff together before a flight and keeping it together until the airplane is secured after the flight. Multitasking might be a better word for that, but I’ll be old-fashioned and stick with coordination.

Airline crew
They have an entire crew. You have only yourself.

The next time you ride on an airliner, take the time to note everything that happens before, during and after the flight. Note how many people it takes to handle all that action. Then, the next time you prepare to fly a trip in your airplane, consider that most everything that was done to conduct that airline flight has to be done for your private flight. By one person. You. That is why the ability to coordinate everything and keep it together is such an important piloting skill.

The current FAA nomenclature that might apply to all this is crew resource management (CRM, called cockpit resource management by some). It applies in single-pilot or multi-person crews and is defined as the effective use of all personnel and material assets available to a pilot or flight crew. That is just another way of saying you need to use everything in getting your stuff together and keeping it together.

For the sake of illustration let’s look at how this works and then go for a couple of flights to look at it in the real world.

The preflight work is pretty standard. Plan the flight and check the weather. Then check the airplane carefully, load everything properly, run the checklists, get a clearance (if IFR or required for VFR) and you are ready to fly.

There are two special elements that have to be coordinated when considering the route of flight v. weather. In flat country the weather is the prime consideration but in mountainous terrain the interface between the route and the weather has to be considered carefully.

I’ll use an airport that I flew to hundreds of times to give an illustration of how this works.

Asheville, North Carolina is a challenging place to fly. There are mountains all around and the biggest bump east of the Rockies (Mount Mitchell) is not far to the northeast.

The weather around Asheville is capricious at best. I flew there at least once a month for years and I would often go several times in a row with the only thing seen on arrival the approach lights and then the runway. On many arrivals, that was the easy part.

The hard part was coordinating the arrival with the weather conditions. Downwind of Mount Mitchell can be uncomfortable at best so when planning an arrival the wind direction and velocity at ridge level (6,684 feet) is of considerable importance.

The most common strong winds in the area are from the southwest through northwest and this is the default plan for a flight to Asheville: stay west of the big mountain and intercept the final to Rwy 17 on a 13.6 mile final. Then circle to land if you must.

Mt. Mitchell
Don’t just plan the weather – plan how the weather and terrain work together.

I’ve only seen it happen a few times, but the occasional strong southeasterly through easterly wind is a whole ‘nother matter. That calls for an approach to the area from the east, staying on the windward side of the big mountain. It did happen often enough that I had both routes stored in my navigator. One of the flights I’ll go over in a minute was to Asheville.

Another thing that has to be coordinated at many mountain airports is the relationship between altitude and distance to fly to touchdown. The ratio can get pretty ridiculous and if you don’t anticipate this the approach can become a muddled high and fast affair.

All that can be addressed in the preflight stage simply by doing a thorough survey of the destination. The same goes for a departure. Departure procedures address this and do look for any requirement for a specified climb per nautical mile like 460 feet per nautical mile. That means the required climb rate is dictated by groundspeed so it takes a little figuring and that is best done in advance. (For reference, a normal departure is considered to be one that is at least 35 feet high at the end of the runway and has a climb gradient of 200 feet per nautical mile. If that won’t avoid obstacles then a departure procedure is established.)

So, when getting your stuff together before takeoff a survey of the airports involved and the terrain and route is an important element. This is true whether VFR or IFR. The simple fact is that a lot of airplanes have been lost because the crew was unaware of the terrain in the departure area or of the departure procedures.

Now for a challenging VFR flight.

The mission was to ferry a new Cherokee from Vero Beach, Florida to Hillsboro, Oregon. The Cherokee was pretty new at the time (May, 1962) and the one that I flew, N5490W, was the 575th one off the line. Over thirty-two thousand were eventually built.

I had never flown in the west before so the second half of the trip would be all new. The mountains were a concern because I didn’t know anything about them or about western mountain weather. For planning purposes, I tried to learn as much as I could but in the end I decided that it would be like learning to swim: jump in and start paddling. I was flying into the unknown.

It was springtime and there was a closed low aloft over the Rockies. I knew about the effects of such systems in the east but had no clue about the west. The advice I got from the Weather Bureau (available to pilots at the time) was that a northern route would be better than a more direct route.

I had allotted three days for the trip and I’ll tell you in advance that I made the trip in three days despite the fact that the weather was less than good. Remember the part in the definition of CRM about the effective use of all personnel? That was how I got to Oregon on time though the personnel I used had no official relationship to my flight.

The group that helped was a string of local pilots that I sought out along the way. I figured that I needed to talk to someone who had been there and done that. The information I got from the locals enabled me to complete a trip that government briefers along the way insisted wasn’t possible.

I started rubbing up against mountains when I stopped for fuel in Sheridan, Wyoming, with the goal of continuing on to Billings, Montana. The briefer painted an impossible picture but the view wasn’t bad and the sequence reports weren’t either. I did know enough to recognize that a report from an airport doesn’t say much about the weather in the mountains.

Airport bums
Those “airport bums” may have a lot to offer in the way of advice.

I was mulling the uncertainty of the matter when a fellow who looked like a duster pilot came into the office. I asked what he thought. He peered outside and said that, from the way it looked, the weather should be okay for a green tourist. He added that the weather the next day would be really bad.

Armed with that, I headed out. The Cherokee had only basic VFR avionics so it was finger-on-the-Sectional navigation but that works as well as a moving map as long as your finger is in the right place.

Actually, as I flew along I kept remembering what my mentor of the moment had said about bad weather the next day. This led me to keep going as long as I could maintain good VFR and this resulted in my bypassing Billings and reaching Helena, Montana, before I called it a day.

Morrison’s Flying Service was a fixture in Helena for many years and while there I met Jeff Morrison. If you’ll look at our Friday Photo feature of 10/16/15 you’ll find a recent picture (Chinese Wall, Montana) from none other than Jeff Morrison, 54 years later. Over the years I went back to Helena and worked with Jeff on mountain flying projects.

The next morning dawned cloudy. Helena is really into the mountains. This was the third day of the trip and I held little hope of reaching Hillsboro that afternoon.

The scuzzy conditions of the early morning improved and by 10:30 one of the passes west of Helena was open and with the encouragement of the locals I headed out. The weather was good only as far as Missoula, Montana, and I was soon on the ground there pondering what to do next.

The man at the Weather Bureau offered no encouragement. Mullan Pass, just to the west, was closed and would likely remain so for the day. I then asked about a route north of the direct one, following a river that led to Pend Oreille Lake and the flat country northeast of Spokane, Washington. That garnered an official no because the valley was narrow and showers and thunderstorms could move over the valley at any time.

It was time for a consultation with a local pilot, from Johnson Flying Service. He said he’d try that northern route. There was a weather station along the way that was reporting good VFR and he added that there were airports along the way and that the valley was wide enough to turn around in their TBM borate bombers. He also added that he’d retreat if 1,500 feet above the valley floor wasn’t working.

That worked like a charm and I was soon flying across Washington over relatively friendly terrain and in pretty good weather.

I had enough fuel to reach Portland but there was still a big hurdle. The Columbia River Gorge slices through some really high terrain (Mount Hood, not far from the river, checks in at 11,245 feet) and I thought I would land at The Dalles for some advice before poking the Cherokee’s nose into the gorge. The entrance to the gorge looked like a keyhole so I was seeking really good advice.

Airplanes had been flying through all day and the advice was that it would be okay so long as 1,000 feet above the river could be maintained and the visibility afforded a good view ahead. The gorge was wide enough for a 180 and there were several airports along the way.

Multnomah Falls
Multnomah Falls, a sight to see from the air or the ground.

That was one of the most beautiful flights that I have ever flown. Multnomah Falls, about half way through, is a sight to see. There was air commerce going on, too. I saw three airplanes along the way. It was like flying down a hallway.

The weather for the last miles was the worst I encountered on the entire trip and as I passed through the Portland area on the way to Hillsboro I actually considered stopping short. Then conditions improved and I got to deliver the new Cherokee right on time. The $13,700 list price airplane had burned $89.11 worth of fuel on the trip out. The airplane apparently remained happy in the area because to is still registered in the State of Washington.

I’m not adding this to bash technology, but I can honestly say that nothing that has been invented and offered since that 1962 trip would have made that flight any safer that it was. Sure, terrain on a GPS and downlinked weather would have been good but I did fine with a finger on a map and a view out front. I’d fly it again tomorrow in the same airplane, with the same equipment. And even though crew resource management had not been invented at the time, my use of the folks along the way was a major help. I wonder if they would still be available.

The other flight I want to tell you about was to previously mentioned Asheville, North Carolina. Most my flights there were to visit my father and this was likely to be the last for that reason. At 92, he was in a hospital, on final.

When I checked the weather for our flight (my wife Ann was going, too), it looked like a typical scuzzy January day in Asheville. There was a cold front to the west, not due in the area until that evening. In the warm sector east of the front, the forecasts were calling for reasonable ceilings with the visibility variable in rain showers. There were no red flags.

This was in 1995, before the days of weather in the cockpit. I did have, in my P210, an airborne weather radar with reasonable performance and a Stormscope.

The going was smooth and the wind aloft not debilitating but as I checked the Asheville weather the trend was in the wrong direction. The south-southeast surface wind was stronger that the forecast. The showery weather was almost continuous and the reported ceiling was substantially lower than forecast.

We were about to come up over Hickory, N. C. when the center controller called and asked me if I had the latest from Asheville. I didn’t so he told me (as best I remember) that it was 400 overcast, a half mile visibility in heavy rain, with the surface wind out of the southeast with gusts to 38.

It was clearly time for some of that cockpit resource management. In all my years of flying to that area (the first trip was in 1954) I had never failed to make the peanut butter and jelly come out even for an arrival on the proposed day. This day, though, the pb&j just didn’t look even. I also had to deal with a pilot who might have been preoccupied. Bad decisions are easy to come by when in that condition.

Asheville airport
AVL is not the airport to try a circling approach with a 35 knot tailwind

The approach would have to be to Runway 16 and the weather was below minimums for that approach. I had dealt with that much wind at Asheville on many occasions but never in low IFR weather and never from that direction. The approach to the south would be on the wrong side of Mount Mitchell for the wind direction and, finally, I did not have a clear picture of what was causing the inclemency.

All I could come up with was that either an occlusion was forming, though I had never seen one over terrain that rough, or a low pressure system had developed just to the west. One or the other, or, something else.

I told you about the locals who helped me interpret the weather on that marathon trip in the Cherokee. That wasn’t available in the same form this day but I could hear my father saying don’t push the weather. I heard him say that many times, to me and to other pilots, and the admonition on this day was just as real as when it was done in person.

So, when but about 60 miles out, I made the decision to go back home and come back the next day. We did and got there with about 15 minutes to spare.

There is a lot to consider and coordinate when you are flying. It can be pretty simple, as it was in that VFR-only Cherokee and a stack of Sectional charts or it can be more complex as it was that day in my P210.

I’ve told of this before but when on the subject of coordination, it is worth repeating.

Concorde flew the whole time with the original avionics. There were none of the modern whistles and bells. I watched in wonder many times as the captain coordinated everything about an arrival. From almost 60,000 feet at 1,150 knots, he had to make the peanut butter and jelly come out even with the airplane at the gate at JFK. I watched a number of them, including my late and great friend John Cook, do that using the best computer of all, the old brain. Even is even, however you do it. What flavor jelly would you like?

Be sure to read “What it takes to be one sharp pilot” – part 1 and part 2.

9 Comments

  • One does have to be a little careful with local advice sometimes. I once got the advice to just follow the freeway from Ogden, UT to Laramie and it would be OK despite the clouds. So I took off and climbed back and forth next to the mountains until I could see over them to the East. I didn’t like the view and returned to Ogden and rented a car. The snow was so heavy that the freeway got buried and I barely made it into Laramie. The freeway was closed the next morning between Laramie and Cheyenne. It would have been impossible in the 172.

  • I don’t know, Stephen. It seems you did exactly what Richard is advocating. You got local advice, and looked outside the windshield as well. When things didn’t go as expected, you turned around. Note that that is a feature of each of the comments Richard made, i.e. “If you don’t have blah-blah ceiling, turn around”. Perhaps all you have to do next time is ask the local- “At what point should a newcomer pull the plug on this attempt?” Anyway, it does sound like you did the right thing, and that the trip in the car was actually a greater risk than the trip to “look-see”. Happy Flying!

  • Great article! On a recent trip to Lake Placid (LKP) in my 172, I found the local CFI and asked what his safety margins are for flying around the Adirondacks. He gave me great advice on what to look for in winds aloft speed and direction as well as how to safely navigate out of the mountains to another airport if I were to get in trouble.
    I have asked other CFI’s the same questions at my local airport, and while their advice was sound, it was not very helpful for flying in the Adirondacks.
    All of the technology we fly with today still does not replace local knowledge.
    Our current reliance on tech and dismissal of “people resources” is probably why GA is not any safer today than it was years ago.

  • Local knowledge is often essential for safe operations, whether for airmen or mariners.

    I flew for years in the very high country of New Mexico. Every year we unfortunately had more than our share of fatal accidents involving “flatlanders”, often coming in from Texas, who overloaded their aircraft and stalled out in our extremely high density altitudes, or failed to account for the very high and swirly winds in mountainous areas. The pilots may have been competent in flying in their home areas, but they simply failed to comprehend the effects of high altitude and mountain waves and rotors.

    Even here in the flatlands of south Florida, people manage to get into trouble from time to time. An airport near where I live (X01 – Everglades Airpark) may seem innocent enough, but being right on the water and surrounded on three sides by tall trees in an area that’s mostly wilderness, on breezy days the swirling quirky winds as one descends the last 50 feet to the runway can suddenly ruin even a well-executed approach. Takeoffs and landings on moonless nights at an airport mostly surrounded by inky blackness can induce vertigo even in well qualified instrument rated pilots. I was fortunately warned of all that by a “local”, and forewarned is forearmed.

  • Richard, I would definitely NOT call it multi tasking. Multi tasking is a misnomer and pure bunk. I would instead say that a sharp pilot needs to be highly organized and flexible. Those are two qualities that will do the single pilot the most good.

  • Initially learned @ 14 on J-3 Cub float planes and retired from American Eagle flying EMB-145’s and BAE-146’s with all the bells & whistles for BEX before it became Eagle.

    Appreciate/respect the automation, but love running up to GON or MVY/ACK in the ‘stick & rudder’ Cub for a hamburger/chocolate shake. Wonderful, laid back VFR!

    As for multi-tasking ,,,, try flying bank checks/Fed Reserve single-pilot ME in all weather conditions in the Northeast for a couple of thousand hours. Makes/keeps one sharp! 🙂

    • Bob, couldn’t help but reply here. Yeah, I’m right with you. I, too, flew bank checks and night freight for many years, so I understand where you’re coming from. And I’m well used to to flying at “25 squared.” Even now in the “French Wonder Jet” I use the old numbers-in-your-head method on rare occasions. Two months ago while arriving into Houston from Charlotte very, very late one night, the Houston Center controller gave us carte blanche on the descent from FL360 and approach. Even though it was pretty low IFR at the time at IAH, I decided to skip the FMS calculations and simply fly the descent myself. I ran the numbers in my head, pulled the thrust back to idle at the appropriate time and left them there for the rest of the descent. And without the use of speed brakes, we came down on the profile, lingered a bit while we slowed to 250 knots at 10,000 feet then continued below that level, dirtied the airplane up on schedule, and reached 1,000 feet AGL before having to increase engine thrust above idle so we could be stabilized from there on down to touchdown. I felt like a pilot again; it was great fun. My first officer was a bit of a stuffed shirt, but he admitted that he would like to try it sometime. Piloting. Yes, it’s a lot of fun.

  • If I’m ever in a position to add to the curriculum of a flight school that trains ‘wanna-be’ professional pilots, I will add a section to the training manual that requires students – just before graduation – to undergo a few hours of training in a fatigued state (sleep deprived). I’d have to enlist the aid of trained psychologists and behavior specialists to get it right, but my students would at least be aware of the physical and mental limitations brought on by normal, commercial operations and how to counter them. It’s quite easy to simply tell someone not to fly when they’re fatigued. It’s a whole new ball game, however, when you’re actually in that position yourself behind closed doors with your boss and he explains the ‘rules’ of the REAL world.

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