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Home » John E. McLain

How I see it: Three flying resolutions for the new year

By John E. McLain (January 2001)

In the year 2001 I will achieve the following in my aviation career: Forty years as a certificated pilot, 36 years as a certified flight instructor, and 22 years as a pilot examiner. Along the way I have been a fixed base operator, chief pilot of several Part 135 operations, and chief instructor of several Part 141 schools. Total flight time approximates 18,000 hours, 13,000 hours of dual given, and several thousand hours of charter flying in the northeast corridor. I have also conducted, as a pilot examiner, more than 4,000 flight tests. I bring this up only to establish a reasonable amount of credibility for what I am about to say in this article.

The New Year has come and gone, but it is still not too late for the pilots who honor (or humor) me by reading this column to make some New Year’s resolutions.

Over the years I have seen fantastic improvements in the equipment available to pilots. When I started flying, dual VORs and a 90-channel comm radio constituted a reasonably equipped IFR airplane. Luxuries might have been an ADF. Radar was in its infancy and not too reliable. It was possible to fly IFR with a comm radio with only 27 transmitting channels.

Of course flying IFR with these limitations required a lot more flight planning. Courses had to be plotted, ground speeds estimated and constantly updated, estimates to reporting points computed and position reports made regularly. It made for a high cockpit workload, but it also made for a well-trained pilot. A poorly trained pilot quickly learned he had to master these techniques if he were to survive.

Now, with all the modern equipment available to the pilot, things are much easier. Radar and transponders have virtually eliminated the need for position reports. Ground speeds are read out in the cockpit and navigation is done for the pilot.

All of this has definitely made flying easier, more relaxing, and safer. Unfortunately it has also led to a degradation of basic piloting skills that to a certain extent negates the safety advantages.

The New Year would be a good time for all pilots to take a close look at their basic flying skills and resolve to not just bring them up to minimum standards, but to improve them. With this idea in mind, here are some of the more flagrant weaknesses I encounter with pilots as I travel around trying to promoting aviation safety.

Poor rudder usage is a very serious problem. Failure to use the rudder properly results in yaw, and yaw can lead to unexpected rolls and spins. Years ago, the chief instructor for a major airline used to hang around the airport where I learned to fly. He was one of the first Boeing 707 captains. We were all anxious to hear about flying this first marvel of the jet age. Well, he told us there were 10 rules to flying a jet. Number one is “keep the ball in the middle;” Number two is “keep the ball in the middle;” Number three is “keep the ball in the middle.” I hope I don’t have to tell you the other seven. Even the FAA agreed. It mandated jet aircraft should all be equipped with yaw dampers. Apparently the FAA personnel at the time were not confident that pilots had the necessary rudder skills to control the yaw in large airplanes. Even the manufacturers of some light aircraft contributed to the problem with their integrated control systems, which was an attempt to mechanically coordinate aileron and rudder movement to prevent yaw

The unfortunate result of this has been that good stick and rudder skills have deteriorated among pilots over the years. The vast majority of professional pilots now fly turbine aircraft and have the benefit of yaw dampers to control yaw. Therefore, unless they also fly small aircraft for personal use, they have not only lost much of their rudder skills, but they have forgotten its importance. For some reason, this poor or lack of rudder skills among the professionals has leaked down into the amateur pilot.

Another place where poor rudder skills are reflected is on landings. Show me a pilot who has problems with cross wind landings, and I will show you a pilot with poor rudder skills. We also see all too many incidents or accidents where aircraft depart the runway on landing roll. This can also in most instances be blamed on poor rudder control.

So my first New Year’s resolution to you is work on developing good stick and rudder coordination. It will help you in avoiding undesirable flight problems such as uncommanded rolls or possibly a spin. It will also help you avoid many problems encountered on landings and improve your crosswind technique. Finally, it will help keep your passengers more comfortable and less susceptible to airsickness.

I could probably write a book on proper instrument scan, but this is another area where modern equipment has created a problem. The modern sophisticated airplane, which many professionals fly, has done away with instrument scan. The flight management systems put all the necessary information into one instrument. Consequently many pilots have forgotten the principals and skills of attitude instrument flying. Resolution number two should be to improve your instrument skills by learning and understanding the concepts of attitude instrument flying.

Unfortunately you may have problems finding an instructor with a thorough understanding of attitude instrument flying. If your instructor talks about scanning all the instruments in each scan, he/she is not knowledgeable in the concept of attitude instrument flying. Knowing the two primary instruments for each flight condition and concentrating on them is the key.

Your third resolution should be to learn and understand the principals of air traffic control and how to cooperate with controllers. The best ways to do this is to visit an ATC facility or attend an “Operation Rain Check.” The trick here is not to go in cold. Prepare some questions beforehand that you would like the controller to answer. These might include how to make initial contact when inbound, which controller is responsible to assure you have the ATIS, and what are some of the common problems controllers encounter with pilots. You might also want to ask why a controller did something to you that you either did not like or understand.

Finally, brush up on your basic pilotage and dead reckoning navigation skills. This also includes getting a good weather briefing. Here is a trip to try with a pilot friend flying as safety pilot. Plan a trip from you home airport to another small airport about 50 miles away using the old E6B or an electronic computer to estimate your headings and ground speed. Select two check points en route. One should be about 15 miles out, the next another 20 miles. Leave the departure airport, and see how well your planned heading and ground speed get you to the first check point. Determine what corrections you have to make in ground speed and heading. Then, put the hood or other view-limiting device on and compute how long it will take you to get to the next checkpoint. When your time is up, remove the hood and see how well you did. Make any necessary corrections to your computations for an estimate to the destination airport. Put the hood back on, and at the estimated time of arrival take the hood off. If you are not within two miles of the airport, or you cannot find the airport, you need some work on dead reckoning. Remember, Lindbergh hit his landfall within three miles after hundreds of miles across water. Now that you have successfully landed at the destination airport, complete your training by departing it and proceeding to another airport at least 25 miles away. Except this time cover up your compass and heading indicator. Use the old sectional chart and get there strictly by pilotage. When this whole exercise is complete, evaluate your own skills at pilotage and dead reckoning. If you need some work to improve them, do it.

Well, there it is, a series of New Year resolutions, that if adopted. I think will make you a better and safer pilot. I also think if you really enjoy flying, working on these will be a satisfying and fun experience. Finally I hope you can find a good and experienced instructor to work with you.