First in what might be a series…
The Internet as full of stories that say they are going to give you a list of things about whatever. A lot of the time, though, the actual list is hard to find. So, I will start with a list of the things that I think define a sharp pilot. This is based on well over 50 years of studying general aviation accidents, the theory being that sharp pilots don’t crash. In reading accident reports my main question is always “Why did he do that?” I have usually found that he did “that” because he was short in one of these areas.
A sharp pilot is:
Okay, I was just kidding on the last one but we all know that does figure into the equation. You are all welcome to add to this list as you see fit.
I am going to offer thoughts on these attributes in small bites, not all at once.
I put aware first, and am going to address it first, because I think it is the most important. It has been written about as situational awareness or positional awareness but plain old awareness covers it best.
What it means in relation to flying is that you are aware of everything that is going on with, in and around the airplane at all times. I will discuss this in relation to one of the simplest accident causes as well as a complex situation.
Look at the most basic, simple and frequent cause of serious accidents, low-speed losses of control, also called stall/spin accidents. Complex studies have been done about this but the simple fact is that one of these accidents involves only the pilot not allowing the airplane to fly.
A lot of time is spent on stall training. I have said before that I think this is largely a waste of time. Why? Because it teaches a pilot how to do stalls and recover from stalls but it does nothing to make a pilot aware of what leads to low altitude inadvertent stalls which are the type that end in bad crashes. How much time is spent teaching pilots about the relationship between back pressure on the elevator control and increasing use of opposite aileron to combat overbanking? For most pilots who spin in, the answer is: “not enough.”
Most stall/spin accidents occur in more basic airplanes being flown recreationally but that by no means excludes other airplanes from exposure. From a low-powered experimental to a jet, if you go too slow too low you crash. Airspeed awareness is critical.
When I was learning to fly, there was a badly mashed up Cessna 140 in the hangar. The pilot had rented the airplane and then gone for some enthusiastic buzzing. He wasn’t aware of one thing: If you pull the nose way up, the airspeed will decay so rapidly that a stall becomes inevitable. As his buzzing zeal increased with each pass, he pulled it up more steeply until it finally fell off into a spin, probably from not much more than 500 feet. An 85 hp Cessna 140 would zoom only so much. The airplane spun to the ground.
Stall/spin accidents are often, maybe even usually, preceded by a distraction that likely causes the pilot’s mind to think only of the distraction, leaving him unaware of what is going on with the airplane.
The pilot of a homebuilt continued VFR into adverse weather conditions. He was apparently circling, looking for a way out of the inclement weather when he lost control. In the probable cause for the accident the NTSB suggested that the pilot was maneuvering for a forced landing even though the investigation found nothing that would have precluded normal operation.
I think what the NTSB meant was that he was circling for a precautionary landing which used to be a fairly common way for light airplane pilots to deal with more weather than they could handle. Just find a suitable field, land, and introduce yourself to the farmer’s daughter.
The pilot was apparently concentrating on this (the maneuvering, not the daughter) and stalled the airplane. It hit the ground in a wing down and nose low attitude.
There was another distraction that the NTSB mentioned but did not include as a cause. There was a drug in the pilot’s blood that can cause drowsiness, weakness or dizziness but they couldn’t determine if the pilot was impaired at the time of the accident. Nor could they determine if the pilot was affected by the underlying psychiatric disorder this drug is used to treat. That sounds like a pass on most everything.
A pilot who doesn’t feel well, or is under the influence of a drug, or alcohol, is not likely to remain aware of everything that is going on with the airplane.
A pilot who has a mechanical problem with the airplane has to be aware that this frequently results in a low-speed loss of control. If the problem is a total power loss, most of the serious accidents that follow are not in the forced landing itself but in the stall/spin that comes while the pilot is maneuvering the airplane, at low altitude, to try to make the forced landing work. Regardless of the circumstances, a pilot has to know survival is more likely if the airplane is under control when the crash sequence starts.
The next thing that brings me to the importance of awareness is a more complex event. It happened to a good friend a long time ago, on 01/27/1987. Jim Reynolds and his wife were lost in their Cessna 340 that night. The NTSB came to no conclusion and said the cause was undetermined. His friends have wondered since what Jim was not aware of that bested him that fateful night. Every scenario that we thought through illustrates the complexity involved in being aware of everything.
They had been in Palm Springs for a while and were returning to their home base at Olathe, Kansas. After a fuel stop at Farmington, New Mexico, Jim had climbed his 340 to Flight Level 210. There was some discussion with the controllers about relatively minor altitude deviations followed by word from Jim that “we’ve had a gyro failure.” In a little more than a minute, the airplane was in a smoking hole in Colorado. The only way that could have happened was a loss of control and entry into a spiral dive where the rate of descent can exceed 15,000 feet per minute.
I think it was pretty generally agreed that a vacuum failure could have been the culprit. This could have been exacerbated by the fact that the gyro on the left side would have probably run down faster than the one on the right side because of autopilot inputs from that instrument resulting on more drag on the gyro.
The reasoning went that the gyro on the right probably looked to be okay when the one on the left was askew but when it did run down it lured him into the spiral dive.
Not long before his accident, Jim was flying with me in a Mooney, at night, headed to Olathe from ether Tulsa or Oklahoma City. As we droned along in the dark, atop an overcast, Jim asked me if I really felt okay doing this in a single-engine airplane. When I replied that I was fine with it, he said that he liked his twin better because it had two of everything.
If a vacuum problem got Jim, he might well have not been aware of a failure mode in some twin Cessnas that can take power away from the gyros without a vacuum pump failing. It has something to do with the interface between the vacuum and deice system which operates off the pressure side of the system. The only reason I know about it is that it happened to another friend, also in a 340, and he got to fly a number of hours of partial panel over the North Atlantic because of the problem. He made it, the problem was fixed, and his air tour of Europe continued.
Most pilots flying these airplanes are probably unaware of all the failure modes that can cripple the instrumentation. For that matter, most pilots of piston twins are not aware of the fact that the airplanes do not have dual electrical systems. What they have is dual alternators powering a single electrical system. That leaves room for failures other than in the charging system.
Now, because a couple of recent events reminded me of some past events I have been wondering if it was something else that got the best of Jim.
I had not done the altitude chamber in quite a while when, before a T-38 flight, I had a session in it at Williams AFB in Arizona. I was substantially older than on previous sessions and while I had quit smoking decades before, there had been all that other wear and tear.
I don’t think it is possible to be aware of the effect of altitude on your performance until the phenomenon is examined.
What I came away with from the last chamber session was that I was going to fly a little lower in my P210. I had been using FL210 as my standard eastbound altitude (max for the airplane is 23,000 feet) but I scaled that down to FL 190.
The reason I did that was because when I took the mask off at 25,000 feet my time of useful consciousness was quite short where it was far better at 18,000 feet. Simply put, if I had a pressurization failure well above 18,000 feet I would be in a world of hurt. Being aware of that made me fly lower to keep the cabin altitude lower. I don’t know whether or not Jim had ever done altitude chamber training.
In the two recent events a Cirrus flying in the low twenties overflew its destination and continued until it likely ran out of fuel and came down. A new TBM 900 ended its time in the same manner. The Cirrus was not pressurized so the problem there was likely with the oxygen system. The TBM apparently had a pressurization problem.
There is nothing new about sophisticated airplanes having either mechanical problems with pressurization or pilot problems resulting in improper operation of the systems. Golfer Payne Stewart was lost in a Learjet as was LSU head football coach Bo Rein because the airplanes climbed high without being pressurized for whatever reason.
A Greek 737 was lost with all aboard as was a King Air 200 in Australia in similar events. If you want to read the hair-raising story of the 737, Google “Helios 522.” It is scary. I would recommend skipping the pictures. In another example, it is a safe bet that the cabin of Malaysia MH370 was not pressurized, for whatever reason, during its long flight into oblivion.
When Jim and his wife were lost, I raised a question about this. A 340 has a little switch that has to be turned on for the pressurization to operate and a dump valve that has to be closed to keep the pressurized air in the cabin. There is a warning light that illuminates when the cabin altitude goes above a certain value. That value was 12,500 feet in my P210.
An omission in the operation of the system plus a burned out light bulb would leave the pilot only with how he was feeling as a warning about possible hypoxia. That is not a reliable warning.
Also, one of the more basic pressurized cabins leaks a lot. I used to entertain myself in my P210 by letting an unused Kleenex go and watching where it went. Believe me, it usually moved quickly to an area where air was leaking out. A second Kleenex could often also take quick flight. The point is that even though the system might have operated normally to start, a leak could have developed, allowing the cabin to slowly climb.
In Jim’s case, his airplane partner listened to the tape of his conversation with the controller and said that he sounded normal. That made us tend to dismiss hypoxia as a possibility. I no longer think that means he was not becoming hypoxic. In related accident reports the last transmission from pilots is not always noted as sounding abnormal. Maybe hypoxia is like booze: we can fake it right up to the moment it becomes beddy-bye time.
To splash a little gasoline on the fire, automation of the airplane and pilot awareness are closely coupled. How so? In an airplane with every warning system, does the pilot feel like he is aware that all is well if no caution or warning lights come on and no aural signals sound? For my money, a sharp pilot monitors everything even if warning systems are provided.
If a pilot is operating a fly-by-wire airplane with such exotic features as stall barriers, is that pilot aware of what happens if some ancillary system is compromised? The first domino that tumbled when the Airbus A330 splashed in the Atlantic was simple icing of the pitot system. That led to a bunch of errors that resulted in a stall and uncontrolled descent into the ocean If a pilot is aware of what is necessary in the way of attitude and power to keep things on an even keel that should make it possible to remain in control even when other things are awry.
The Air Asia A320 had not been missing for long before the talking heads on TV were comparing it with the A330 in the Atlantic. It didn’t matter that they didn’t know what they were talking about because they had credentials that impressed the TV folks. Still, in the end, there could be similarities in the two events.
I submit that awareness is a number one sign of a sharp pilot because the penalty for being unaware can be absolute, as noted here. As airplanes become more complex, awareness of every detail becomes even more important.