©Jay Hopkins – All rights reserved

Originally published in Flying July, 1997

Every pilot who has been flying for any length of time knows the feeling. Your mouth suddenly gets incredibly dry. A cold, clammy sweat coats your skin. Your mind seems frozen even as it races through a dwindling list of ways to get out of your dilemma. Deep in your churning gut lies the regret for every stupid decision you made that brought you to this moment of truth. Any number of situations can produce this reaction: fuel indicators bouncing on empty with no airport in the vicinity, clouds closing in around the non-instrument rated pilot, the first glimmer of ice on the windshield in a plane without anti-ice capability.

The amount of fear elicited by a particular situation varies greatly between different individuals. Some people seem to experience no fear at all. They face every crisis with the same detached, professional manner. Their tone of voice doesn’t even seem to change, no matter how serious the problem is. At the other extreme there are those who start having an anxiety attack as soon as the possibility of a problem intrudes into their thought process. This difference between individuals is very evident to flight instructors. Some students do not get excited by anything, in fact the more “hairy” the flying the better they like it. The instructor could go right into an accelerated stall or even aerobatics on the first flight and they would be asking for more. Others need to be lead gently into each new adventure. Even a simple straight ahead, power-off stall is unnerving, and many of these stalls must be accomplished before advancing to turning or accelerated stalls.

Neither of these extremes is particularly good. Some nervousness and even fear is normal when a person is introduced to something which has an element of danger to it. The pilot who shows absolutely no hesitation or fear during training is more likely to blunder into dangerous situations when they get off on their own. They have no respect for the risks involved in aviation. On the other hand, students who do not quickly lose their nervousness as they practice a maneuver have a deep seated anxiety which could make it very difficult for them to handle any sort of a problem or emergency in flight.

The types of anxiety or fear we experience in the cockpit vary greatly also. Most people are at least a little nervous before and during a flight test or checkride. This is a normal reaction because we want to do well and we don’t want to let our instructor down or be embarrassed in front of the examiner. This slight case of nervousness can actually sharpen our senses and help us to be more alert to what is going on around us.

One of my students who busted their checkride actually had been flying without supervision for many years before he came to me to finish the necessary dual requirements and prepare for the checkride. Because he had so many hours he felt that he was definitely a cut above the normal student. While I was not worried about his flying ability when I signed him off for his date with the examiner, I was worried that he was so self-assured. As he departed on the first leg of the cross country portion of the checkride, he was so impressed with his own flying ability he failed to recognize that he was headed 180 degrees from the desired course. Even when the examiner gave him a few hints that something was wrong, he completely failed to pick up on them. Finally the examiner had no choice but to fail him.

Too much nervousness can block our situational awareness or cause us to miss items which we would not ordinarily overlook. I was pretty nervous on my own private pilot checkride. As I set off on my cross country leg, I was soon aware that something was not right, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. Although I was following the desired heading exactly, our track was nowhere near the line on the chart. I was very good at pilotage skills, so I just ignored the directional gyro and followed my desired track using landmarks and the sectional. I could see the examiner chuckling at me out of the corner of my eye. Finally he reached up and tapped the compass. In my nervousness I had forgotten to set the directional gyro, and it was nowhere near the correct heading. On the other hand, I didn’t panic or get lost, so I still passed the flight test.

Most stressful inflight events are of our own making. Get-there-itis, invulnerability, macho, impulsivity, perceived pressure or any of the other traps of human nature overcome our best judgment and lead us to make decisions and take actions that are against all our training and normal inclinations. We know we really should stop for fuel, but we’re late and we should still have at least twenty minutes in the tanks when we land. We can see that the weather is not nearly as good as forecast, but continue on in hopes that it will clear up in a few miles. The winds are flirting with the maximum allowable crosswind component for our aircraft, but we still taxi out to the runway. When the problem is of our own making, our reaction is complicated by our sense of pride. Although it may be very evident that we are in over our heads, we don’t want to admit we made a mistake, leading us to continue even further into an untenable situation. The charade is made complete by the calm, professional exterior we maintain even when our guts are tied up in knots.

At least in those cases we have some idea of what we are getting ourselves into so our ultimate predicament does not come as a total surprise. With an inflight emergency we have no such preparation. One moment the world is as it should be and we are the masters of our fate, the next we are in the grips of a crisis which seems to paralyze our minds, removing all ability to reason or make decisions. In a recent “I Learned About Flying From That” the pilot did an admirable job of describing how our minds and bodies react to the stress of an emergency. He was cruising along in his new (for him) Citabria when his wife told him that it smelled like something was burning. When he closed his vent, he could actually see the smoke coming up from behind him and being sucked out the window. An event such as this triggers our “fight or flight” coping mechanism, causing the adrenal glands to produce large amounts of adrenaline. The adrenaline increases our heartbeat, rate of breathing, blood sugar level, and perspiration. It also dilates our pupils and slows our digestion. This initial reaction provides us with a burst of energy, increases our strength, and sharpens our hearing and vision. The pilot described how “his breath was coming in short little pants and the stick slipped wetly in his hands.” He said that his heart was hammering in his throat making it difficult to talk. The bottoms of his feet felt hot, leading him to suspect that the fire had progressed under the floor, but when he reached down to touch the floor he found it was cool.

Next came the realization that he was on his own, that “no CFI in the back seat was going to shout ‘I’ve got it’ and take over.” Only he could get them safely to the ground. Fortunately for him, his wife remained very calm. Often pilots in the middle of a crisis are forced to deal with panicking passengers, reducing their ability to effectively handle the problem. Finally, he had to actually do something, to stop staring at the ground and “force his brain to work.” I have been amazed at how frozen the human mind can be in a crisis. At SimuFlite I used to develop the Line Oriented Flight Training (LOFT) scenarios for the simulators. When I went through those scenarios during my own recurrent training, I knew what was going to happen but I didn’t know when the instructor would choose to initiate the emergency, and I found that my mind would still initially tend to freeze when the emergency occurred.

The first key to dealing with fear in the cockpit is to be prepared. Know your aircraft, its performance capabilities and its emergency procedures. Every month or so take some time before a flight to practice all the emergency procedures using your cockpit as a procedures trainer. Prepare a list of possible emergencies and then run through each problem on that list, touching the appropriate switch or control. Take the fire extinguisher out of its holder and make sure you know how it works. In a retractable gear aircraft, open the cover to the emergency extension mechanism and attach or unfold the handle. You might be surprised to find how awkward some of these procedures are until you practice them a few times.

When an actual emergency occurs, realize that your initial reaction will be fairly automatic, based on your personality. Try to maintain a balance between carefully assessing the situation and taking some sort of action. People who are faced with only a few choices, none of which they particularly like, may end up doing nothing. In most cases it is important to get started on some sort of plan for dealing with the problem. The longer you wait, the fewer alternatives you will have, until your indecision forces you into one particular outcome which probably was not the best solution. It is especially important to deal with gradually building problems such as continuing into bad weather. The fight or flight reaction takes a lot out of us. A person in a constant state of high stress will quickly become exhausted, further degrading their decision making and flying capabilities and leading ultimately to giving up.


©Jay Hopkins – All rights reserved

Originally published in Flying October, 1996

Pilots like to tell their friends who are afraid to fly that the most dangerous part of the flight is the drive to the airport. However, the danger doesn’t end there. Recent collisions between taxiing aircraft and others in the process of taking off or landing illustrate the dangers present in ground operations. In fact, studies have shown that you are three times more likely to be involved in a collision on the ground than in flight, and the most deadly accident in aviation history occurred on a runway at Tenerife, killing 583 people.

My own brush with a surface collision occurred when I was a corporate pilot flying a Cessna 414 out of Tucson. Most of our flights were to Mexico, where air traffic safety is made more difficult because controllers often speak Spanish to local aircraft. However, I spoke and understood Spanish and thus could usually keep track of what was going on. In this instance I was cleared to land on a straight-in approach to Ciudad Obregon from the northwest. I heard the tower controller, speaking in Spanish, clear a Cessna 206 approaching from the east to land on the intersecting runway, to hold short of my runway. I looked in that direction and saw a Cessna on a long enough final so that he would not be a factor. As I completed my landing and began slowing down, I suddenly saw a Cessna 206 approaching rapidly from the left on the intersecting runway. It turned out that there were two 206s on final and I had not seen the first one. I was going too fast to stop in time, so I made a right turn onto the intersecting runway as the 206 made a left turn onto my runway.

As is often the case, the NASA ASRS reports hold a gold mine of information on surface conflicts. Like many other pilots, I had experienced a problem due to intersecting runway operations. An ASRS Directline report states that many pilots voiced serious concerns about the practice of clearing an aircraft to land on one runway with a restriction to hold short of an intersecting runway which also has an aircraft taking off or landing on it. There were numerous examples of pilots who accepted such a clearance but were then unable to comply with the restriction. Some pilots came in too fast or high and floated, others were more concerned with making a smooth landing or decelerating smoothly than with stopping before the intersecting runway.

Poor visibility can exacerbate problems in surface operations. One flight crew landing in poor visibility scored a double play as they continued through the intersection, causing one aircraft to abort. They then taxied onto a parallel runway, leading to a second abort. This illustrates the problems associated with parallel runways, especially ones which are very close together. Unless you have properly prepared yourself by studying the airport diagram before the approach, you can gracefully exit the runway onto a high speed taxiway and then suddenly find yourself crossing another runway. As one pilot said, “We were not mentally ready to stop so quickly after clearing the runway.”

Some pilots who have not reviewed the airport diagram ahead of time try to rely on airport signs and markings to guide them to their destination. This is difficult enough when the airport is clearly marked, and may be impossible at some locations due to poor signage. It is especially confusing when you are cleared to taxi on a runway, because runways don’t have the markings and signs that taxiways do. Add a complacent crew at their “home drome” and the recipe for disaster is complete:

“…ground instructed us to taxi via Papa to Runway 32L, and on 32 hold short of Golf. No problem…as both the Captain and I have been based at the aerodrome for several years…I asked the Captain if he knew where Golf was. He replied that he had no idea of where it was, but would continue taxiing on Runway 32 until he saw a sign. I told him I’d have a look at the airfield diagram. He replied, ‘Don’t bother with that,” and continued taxiing. While I was heads-down digging out, and figuring out the airport diagram, we taxied past Golf, across 28C (an active runway), and stopped short of taxiway Charlie on Runway 32.”

There were numerous factors leading up to this incident. The crew was operating out of their home airport, so they didn’t have the airport diagram available where it could be referenced if necessary. The Captain continued to taxi when he was unsure of the location of taxiway Golf, hoping to rely on signs indicating where to turn. As he discovered, there were no signs visible from the runway which indicated the location of Golf or Charlie.

Communication problems were involved in many runway incursions. ATC has a habit of calling at the most inopportune moments. A pilot who is busy bringing an aircraft to a stop is not prepared to hear and comply with a complicated taxi clearance. One pilot reported that, “immediately after landing the Tower Controller issued us some lengthy instructions, which we neither could hear nor pay attention to until we came out of reversing and slowed.” Other pilots were distracted by various cockpit duties such as starting engines and running pre-takeoff checklists.

There are a number of very practical steps we can take to avoid runway incursions and the risk of a collision. First we have to get rid of any attitude of complacency. The trip from the tiedown to the runway may seem like a piece of cake compared with the challenge of an approach to minimums or a crosswind landing, but a taxi clearance at a large airport can be more confusing than a complicated instrument clearance. It is also important to overcome the impulsive attitude so prevalent in aircraft operations. In our flying, as in our driving, we often seem bent on saving every possible second by doing two or three things at once. In reality, all that rushing won’t save more than a minute or two on a flight lasting several hours.

When operating at an unfamiliar airport, you should review the airport diagram ahead of time, and then check the route once you get your taxi clearance. If you are based at a large airport, you should have the airport diagram out and available for quick reference. In a crew aircraft, try to wait until both pilots can listen before calling for the taxi clearance, and then write down complicated taxi instructions just as you would an instrument clearance. Read the taxi clearance back to the ground controller, being careful to include any hold-short instructions.

Be especially careful as you start taxiing, since most collisions with stationary objects occur in the vicinity of the gate or tiedown. While the aircraft is in motion, complying with the taxi clearance should take precedence over all other duties such as completing checklists or setting up radios. Be especially careful when cleared to taxi on a runway, when intersecting runway operations are in progress, or when the visibility is poor. Don’t let pride get in the way of asking for help. Just because you can navigate a wide-body jet across the country doesn’t mean you can’t get disoriented on the ground. When starting to taxi at an unfamiliar airport, tell the ground controller you are “unfamiliar” and ask him to keep an eye on you. If there is any doubt or confusion in your mind, stop the aircraft immediately and ask the controller for clarification.

The same vigilance is required at the destination. Review the airport diagram ahead of time and note if there are intersecting runways or parallel runways located in close proximity to the runway you will be landing on. Plan which way you want to turn off the active runway and be sure you are ready to avoid turning onto another runway or crossing a parallel runway without a clearance. Do not accept a clearance to hold short of an intersecting runway after landing unless you are absolutely sure you can actually do so with plenty of room to spare.

Just as in the air, it pays to keep track of what other aircraft are doing. Try to maintain a mental picture of what is occurring on the airport. Even after being cleared by the controller, always make sure there is no one landing or taking off on a runway before you enter or cross it. In many cases you can easily check as you are approaching the runway. Other times it may require a turn back towards the approach end of the runway to assure that no one is on short final.

A pilot’s mind is naturally on getting in the air or to the hanger as quickly and easily as possible. During ground operations we need to make sure our attention is focused on the task at hand and that we give this critical part of the flight the respect it deserves.


©Jay Hopkins – All rights reserved

Originally published in Flying July, 2002

Some people seem to have a natural ability in certain areas. Whether in music, math or mechanics, these people just seem to be programmed for success. Show them something once and they have it. Other people seem to struggle to accomplish what most of us take for granted. Last week my neighbor told me about a student he is tutoring at school. This boy just can’t get math. While other students learned the multiplication tables in a relatively short period of time, this boy just couldn’t get it. Finally, after months of struggling he seemed to understand and be able to multiply in his head.

It is wonderful to be blessed with the natural ability to fly. There is nothing more satisfying than making an airplane do exactly what you want with only the lightest touch on the control wheel; and it brings a true sense of accomplishment to complete a difficult flight with an approach to minimums followed by a smooth landing on a snowy runway in gusty crosswinds.  While I was never good at sports and just squeaked by in school, I excelled in aviation. The ground schools were a breeze. I could complete two written exams in the time it took others to do one. My instructor would show me something once and I would be able to do it myself. While I was providing Aircrew Coordination Training to military instructors I would get to fly the military flight simulators. I had never flown a helicopter or helicopter simulator before, yet on my first takeoff in an SH-3 helicopter simulator I pulled up into a hover, transitioned to a climb, did a Doppler hover on instruments, and then returned to hover and land on the pad. The military instructor said he didn’t understand why his students, who have all completed basic helicopter flight training, can’t do nearly as well. On my first flight in a real helicopter I was able to hover, transition to climb, cruise, descend, and return to a hover stop on my first try.

Many of my students, including my son Jesse, seem to have the same natural ability and quickly pick-up whatever I show them. Others have to work harder, but still are able to maintain a normal progression through the flight syllabus. However, there are a few students who struggle like the boy trying to learn his multiplication tables. I demonstrate, they make an attempt, I critique their performance, they try again. Over and over, flight after flight, I work to help them understand and perfect the basic skills of flying. While some of these “strugglers” slowly make progress, a few get to the point that I have to tell them that I would be happy to continue to work with them, but that it will take a very long time and a lot of money and even then they likely would never get their license.

I truly admire the person without any natural flying ability who continues to struggle until he gets his license. It is hard for me to imagine the determination and persistence required to keep going when every new concept is hard to grasp and every step in the process to becoming a pilot takes much longer, and costs more, than it does for most other students. It is important that pilots who have to struggle to attain their license have a realistic idea of their abilities and set very conservative limits for themselves. They need to realize that just because other pilots can fly in certain conditions it doesn’t mean that they can safely do so.

There are traps for both the natural pilot and for the person who struggles to fly. People who have a natural ability to fly are able to handle difficult situations without getting flustered. They can react quickly and naturally without conscious effort to keep an aircraft under control. They sense the need for correction almost before there is any indication on the gauges. While this can help keep them out of trouble, or get them out of difficult situations, it can also lead to a macho attitude. The natural pilot, because of the ease with which he handles an aircraft, can begin to think that he can handle anything. He may rely on his superior skill to get himself out of situations he could have, or should have, avoided through better planning. While a person with natural ability may be great on the controls, every person has their limits, as does every aircraft. After extricating himself from many sticky situations, he may find that he has finally gotten in too deep. So a little humility and realistic self-assessment are important tools to help the natural pilot keep within the limits of his personal ability as well as the limits of the aircraft.

There are different traps for the pilot who had to struggle to get his license. First there is the problem of currency. A person with natural ability can come back to something after a considerable hiatus and show almost no diminished skill level. For example, after flying gliders for several summers and getting my private and commercial glider ratings, I moved to an area where there were no glider operations. Eighteen years and many moves later I joined a soaring club and took my first review lesson, which also happened to be my first flight in a high performance glider. I flew the entire flight including the takeoff, aero tow, release, soaring, return to the airport and landing, with no coaching from the instructor. After we had come to a stop the instructor said simply, “That is how it is done. I could not have done any better myself.”

A person who lacks natural ability will not only have to work harder during the more intensive flight schedule typical of someone in training, they will lose their skills much more rapidly if they fly less often once they get their license. For example, I had to struggle to pass my college calculus course, and within a few months after the end of the course I would not have been able to do any calculus at all even if my life depended on it. Similarly, a person who had a hard time learning how to do crosswind landings will quickly lose that skill if they don’t practice it on a regular basis.

There is also a risk that a pilot who is very conservative because of an accurate self-assessment of his flying ability will occasionally get into a situation that is beyond his skill level. For example, the wind at the destination may be stronger than forecast and directly across the runway, but still within the published capabilities of the aircraft. It would take a pilot with strong personal integrity to divert to a different airport where he can land into the wind rather than attempt a difficult crosswind landing. I noticed that in the AOPA General Aviation Accident Analysis Book for the years 1982 to 1988, 42% of all takeoff accidents and a whopping 73% of all landing accidents involved nothing more than a lack of basic piloting skills. There was no wake turbulence involved; there was no ice on the aircraft. The pilot didn’t use the wrong flap setting. The runway was adequate for the aircraft and was in good condition. Yet there were approximately 3,000 accidents where the pilot simply lost control or made other basic control errors including: premature rotation, failing to maintain climb speed, stall/mush on final, botched go-arounds, improper flares, excessive speed, landing long or short, delayed go-arounds, high sink rate, and loss of directional control. Each of these pilots somehow lost their ability to handle an airplane in normal flight conditions. I would be willing to bet that many of them were pilots who had to work hard to get to the level of competency required by the FARs and then didn’t have an opportunity to fly regularly and gradually lost some of that skill they had worked so hard to attain.

While it is easy to make a commitment to take the time to maintain our competence in our basic flying skills, in our busy world that commitment often falls by the wayside. Each time we fly we need to carefully assess our capabilities and competency level based on our natural ability coupled with our overall experience and our recent flight time, or lack thereof. Then, if we find our capabilities or our recent experience lacking, we need to make the hard decisions necessary to avoid getting in a situation that is outside our comfort zone.


©Jay Hopkins – All rights reserved

Originally published in Flying January, 2000

Now that I have been back in the saddle for a couple of months, I thought I would share what it has been like to be an aviation Rip Van Winkle. In some ways I have been amazed at how things have improved over the last twenty years. For example, back when I was a corporate pilot there wasn’t a computer on every desk. Flight planning often took a considerable amount of time, especially when the trip was long and the weather was marginal. First the general route had to be determined; then the actual airways listed and the distances added up. With that information carefully noted by hand on a flight log, the pilot would call Flight Service for the weather and laboriously write down all the information which the briefer would provide at a rate slightly faster than the pilot could write. After analyzing everything, the pilot develops the final flight log and the flight plan information, again all by hand.

As I got ready for one of my recent flights I logged onto GTE DUATS on my computer. I couldn’t believe how quickly and easily I could plan my flight and even file my flight plan using my computer and the Internet. Once I entered the information about my Twin Comanche, it was stored for me so I didn’t have to enter it again. Only a few keystrokes were necessary to tell the program my departure point, destination, time of departure and cruising altitude. A few seconds after I asked the program to plan my flight via airways, I had a complete flight log from Chandler, Arizona, to Slidell, Louisiana, with distances, flight times allowing for the winds aloft, and even fuel requirements computed and displayed. I printed out that information then went back and with one small change received the same trip log for GPS/LORAN with every RNAV waypoint was listed. I then could compare the savings in time and fuel by going direct. Click on another box and there was a flight plan, already partially completed with all known information including altitude and route. I filled in the missing data and a few seconds later had submitted my flight plan.

As I prepared to get back into using an airplane as a tool to get to my clients’ locations, I also had to get all the necessary charts, both VFR and IFR. I travel throughout the country so that would entail a lot of charts. Because of the limited space in the Twin Comanche, I was concerned not only about cost, but also about how I would store everything. If the charts Dick Collins carries for just the eastern and central United States take up 11 books and weigh over 46 pounds, there was no way that I had room for the charts for the entire country. Then I saw an ad for Howie Keefe’s Air Chart Systems and decided to give it a try. It took a while to get used to it, but now I love it. I have all the IFR Low Altitude Enroute Charts in one spiral bound book, and all the WAC Charts in another. Each page has notations on how to continue in any direction, along with a generous overlap. I selected the ring bound NOS IFR Approach Plates so I could remove the approaches to some of my common destinations and keep them together. The rest of the approach plates fit nicely into two small cardboard boxes, one for the northern US and the other for the southern US. Those boxes reside on one of the rear seats, making all the approaches available to me if necessary. The Keefe system has the added advantage of not needing constant updating. A few minutes before a flight is all that is necessary.

Even though I had done an instrument and multi-engine competency check in a Seneca prior to purchasing the Twin Comanche, I also wanted to do the same in my plane. I recently accomplished the multi-engine part with John Walkup, president of Chandler Air Service. I chose John because he actually has experience in Twin Comanches, along with extensive single, multi-engine and aerobatic training experience. I am a multi-engine instructor myself, but I wanted someone with more recent experience along before I started shutting engines down and doing VMC demonstrations. We spent an enjoyable two hours doing all the multi-engine stuff along with some steep turns, slow flight and stalls. It was good to verify that the propellers would indeed feather and unfeather, and to experience what the plane felt like when flying on just one engine. I definitely feel more at ease in the airplane and more prepared to deal with any emergencies which might come my way.

In general I have enjoyed getting back in the cockpit. I have especially savored the freedom from the whole airline rat race. In fact, since I bought 479HC, my shadow has not crossed the threshold of any airline terminal. Besides the freedom having my own wings has brought me, I also like the ability to take more stuff with me. Now that I can drive the car right up to the plane and am not limited by airline baggage maximums or my own ability to haul whatever I take through endless corridors, I find myself packing extras I would never even consider taking on an airline—roller blades, extra files, my hiking gear. That means I can make better use of my down time and stay in shape too!

Of course nothing is ever perfect, and there have been a few sore spots in my reentry into  serious aviation involvement. Some were humorous if somewhat embarrassing, such as the time I needed to check the weather on one of my first flights. I went up to the person at the FBO counter and in my best experienced pilot voice asked, “So, what number do you use to call Flight Service from here?” The person at the counter seemed to be wondering what planet I had just come in from as he said, “1-800-WX-BRIEF, of course!” (For those readers who acquired their licenses in the past 15 years, once upon a time there was no national toll free number and it was necessary to use the proper FSS phone number for each area.)

Another difficulty has been securing transportation at the destination. While we like to boast that we can fly to thousands of airports that the airlines don’t serve, that doesn’t mean it will be possible to go anywhere once we arrive. In many small towns there is no way to get off the airport unless you want to walk. Fortunately many of the FBOs in these smaller towns are aware of the situation and try to have a crew car available, but even that won’t help if you plan to arrive after the FBO has closed.

That was the situation last weekend as I headed east to Louisiana again. I had planned to leave early Sunday morning and make the trip in one day. However, when I checked the Weather Channel Saturday morning, I found they were forecasting snow and freezing rain for most of New Mexico just when I would be passing through, so I decided to leave right away to beat the weather. The problem was that the FBO at my planned fuel stop in Burnet, Texas, would be closed by the time I arrived, and the local motel would not be able to pick me up. After several phone calls back and forth, Dale Faulkner of Faulkner’s Air Shop very graciously offered to have a Lincoln Town Car waiting in the parking lot for me and everything worked out fine.

Other lessons I have learned over the past two months:

Don’t eat anything chocolate, especially while wearing khaki pants. Also, don’t open a carbonated beverage when flying at 17,000 feet!

Always have a washcloth handy in case you break one of the above rules.

The worst turbulence on a flight will occur just when you have gotten ready to reduce your bladder pressure. (See note about washcloth.)

Some pilots will labor long and hard to help their fellow airmen. For example, take a look at Southern Aviation Resources. This free web site maintained by F. A. Waters of the De Ridder FSS has an incredible selection of aviation preflight planning resources and other aviation information. (http://www.dtx.net/~waters/flyla/homep.htm)

The GPS really does work better with antenna vertical, just like the book says. The previous owner had placed the antenna as close to the windshield as possible, causing it to tilt back significantly. I found that it acquired the necessary satellites much faster when I moved the antenna back a bit so it could be vertical.

Notwithstanding the previous adjustment, the GPS will develop “Poor Coverage” just when you need it most. For example, there is one area of the Rockies southwest of Denver where the GPS seems to lose coverage on almost every flight. This is also the area where VOR reception is marginal even up in the mid teens.

Be very careful using a cannular oxygen delivery system. I had never used oxygen before as all my flights in my previous life were either below 10,000 feet or were in pressurized aircraft. On my first flight using this system, I turned the oxygen on, inserted the metal plunger into the proper receptacle and put the cannular dispenser into my nostrils. As the flight progressed, I had to climb higher to get over some weather and at 18,000 feet attempted to switch to the oxygen mask as required by the FAA. I couldn’t figure out how to switch from the cannular dispenser to the mask and had a tangle of oxygen hoses spread across the two front seats before I became aware that I was definitely experiencing the effects of hypoxia. I finally realized that I had missed one nostril and was only receiving oxygen from one of the cannular outlets!

Take any advice from an FSS briefer with a grain of salt. While I’m sure they meant well, several times I have received advice which was directly contrary to everything I knew from my own preflight preparation. (I would like to hear about your experience in this area. Please see request for reader feedback below.)

Even though I have learned a lot over the past two months, and have gotten back up to speed fairly quickly, I obviously still have a lot to learn and some weak areas that still need attention. My next step is to spend some time in a simulator polishing my instrument skills, followed by one or more flights under the hood in 479HC. Only then will I feel I am once again qualified to fly “hard IFR” with extended periods in the clouds followed by an approach to minimums.


What is the worst advice you ever received from an FSS Briefer (including Flight Watch), and what course of action did you follow? Please provide a brief description of the situation and how it turned out to Jay Hopkins c/o:


©Jay Hopkins – All rights reserved

Originally published in Flying April, 2008


There are a number of reasons why around 700 people die each year in aircraft operating under Part 91 and Part 135, while Part 121 operations sometimes go an entire year without any fatalities. Airlines have stricter regulations, and operations manuals spell out every nuance of how a flight and the entire airline will be run. When they do have an accident, the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder usually allow the NTSB to get a pretty good idea what led to that accident, allowing everyone to learn from that accident and avoid the same thing in the future.

Part 121 operations have one other advantage that a lot of general aviation pilots may not be aware of. All major carriers now have a Flight Operations Quality Assurance program (FOQA) that analyzes the data from the flight data recorders to look for operational trends that might lead to an accident in the future if not corrected. FOQA programs got started in Europe in the mid 1970s when airlines realized there was a wealth of information on flight data recorders that could be utilized to enhance the safety and effectiveness of airline flight operations.

The FOQA programs are not used to “spy” on flight crews. Instead, deidentified data from all flights is analyzed by computers to search for trends that could ultimately result in an accident. In one example cited by Christopher Jesse of the Institute of Industrial Research at the University of Portsmouth, England, an airline FOQA program discovered that its aircraft were often slowing to V2 after takeoff. The flight data showed that pilots were pitching the aircraft too high in the initial climb, resulting in a reduction in airspeed. An engine failure at that point could have resulted in a serious incident or even an accident. The airline could use this information to adjust its training program to address the problem.

The FOQA programs rely on heavy, expensive flight data recorders, putting this type of data analysis beyond the financial means of charter or corporate operators, flight schools, or individual pilots. To overcome this problem, UHL Research Associates (www.uhlflight.com) has spent the last 12 years developing a Flight Reconstruction System (FRS) that weighs less than two pounds and is available for under $3000.

The UHL-FRS has a one pound flight recorder that is a refinement of a system developed by David Ellis to eliminate the need for a barograph on competitive glider flights. It utilizes an internal GPS, a solid state gyroscope and a highly accurate 10 g three axis accelerometer to take a digital snap shot of what the aircraft is doing every tenth of a second. It also includes a less accurate 50 g three axis accelerometer that can record the forces experienced during a crash.

The data is stored in a hardened memory unit that can store up to 8,000 hours of flight data and is typically placed in the tail to enhance survivability in case of an accident. The memory unit is connected by a data cable to the flight recorder, which also has inputs for dynamic and static pressure, gear and flap position, and other aircraft system status information that can be recorded if desired. The flight recorder also has a flash card interface that allows the data from the memory to be extracted for analysis.

The reason the hardware is so simple and inexpensive is that most of the work is done after the data is removed from the aircraft by software developed by Urban Linch, the founder of UHL Research Associates. The software takes about 20 seconds to analyze a one hour flight and produce a three dimensional wire frame reconstruction of that flight with both an external view and an out of the cockpit view. Over 18 other parameters are also available for each data point, including heading, airspeed, altitude, bank angle, and pitch, yaw and roll attitude. The reconstructed flight can be viewed real time, or any specific point of the flight can be analyzed in detail. A blue line shows the path of the aircraft through the air, while a green line shows the path across the ground. Yellow lines are used to indicate desired flight tracks and stabilized approach windows, while white lines show runways.

Linch has been testing and refining the Flight Reconstruction System over the past decade. For example, the US Air Force is very interested and spent 21 hours testing the system on the F-15, F-16 and T-38. They found that the output was 95% accurate when compared with the actual aircraft parameters, and said this was “good enough” for their application. Even better, the software can combine the output from 32 separate aircraft to help analyze air combat maneuvering or aerobatic team performance.

The applications for this system are almost unlimited. While every operator could benefit from the analysis of operating parameters and variances, there are specific benefits for some applications:

Aircraft Manufacturers

Quartz Mountain Aerospace (www.qmaero.com – formerly Luscombe Aircraft) will be equipping every airplane they sell with the Flight Reconstruction System. They found that both the insurance companies and the leasing company they will be selling to are very interested in the system, as it could protect them by showing whether an accident was caused by an aircraft malfunction or pilot error. Quest Aircraft Company (www.questaircraft.com) will be putting the FRS into all the Kodiak single engine turboprops they deliver.

Flight Schools

I am very familiar with the advantage of being able to reconstruct an instructional flight. At SimuFlite we would generate printouts of various maneuvers and approaches to show the pilots exactly how they did. We could also tape the cockpit view during various maneuvers. It is often hard to describe exactly how the pilot was over controlling on an approach. With the FRS, the student can see exactly what he was doing in real time. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, and the pilots often couldn’t wait to see the tape after a session to help them understand and learn from the mistakes they had made. I could see how this could even become a marketing factor for schools that equip their aircraft with the FRS, as it would greatly enhance the effectiveness of the debriefing session after an instructional flight, allowing students to progress more rapidly.

The FRS can also help flight schools monitor student solo flights and keep track of how rental pilots are operating their airplanes. One flight school in Malaysia that equipped an airplane with the FRS system was surprised to learn that a student pilot on a solo cross country flight did not follow the intended flight plan but instead wandered off to different areas where he was not supposed to go. This kind of blatant disregard for the rules could easily lead to an accident in the future.

Aerobatic Teams and Military Flight Operations

Since the UHL software can combine the recordings from up to 32 aircraft into one presentation, it would be very useful for an aerobatic team to analyze their performance. The military can use it for training in aerial combat maneuvering, allowing each pilot to see exactly how they flew and the effectiveness of various maneuvers.

Post Accident Analysis

This is where the FRS would really pay for itself. One of the most frustrating issues in general aviation is that many time we have no idea why an airplane crashed. This often leads to complicated litigation with the pilot’s estate blaming the manufacturer and the manufacturer blaming the pilot. An FRS would show investigators exactly what happened, which could reduce expensive litigation and hopefully result in reduced insurance rates for everyone.

Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) has already experienced the power of this system. They tested eight demonstration recorders in some of the most difficult flying in the world to verify the accuracy of the units. During the demonstration period, an FRS equipped airplane landed short of the runway in Indonesia at a remote landing strip that requires strict adherence to the specified approach procedure.

Ordinarily it would have been assumed that the pilot had somehow lost his focus and caused the accident. By analyzing the FRS recording for this and other landings at this location, MAF determined that the pilot had done everything right, and that there were dangerous wind gusts at certain times of the day that necessitated going to more conservative wind restrictions at that strip. Dave Rask, the Manager of Aviation Safety for MAF, said they are going to install the FRS in additional aircraft and eventually hope to equip their entire fleet worldwide with this system.


With any new system that monitors aircraft operation, there is bound to be resistance from pilots and instructors who don’t like the idea of anyone looking over their shoulders at everything they do. Once pilots understand that the data is typically used for deidentified trend and variance analysis to improve flight operations, and that it can exonerate a pilot after an incident or accident that was not their fault, I believe the inherent value in this system will become evident. Over time, the information derived from many flights and accidents could allow us all to learn how to avoid those kinds of accidents in the future, ultimately saving lives by reducing the number of people who die each year in general aviation accidents.


©Jay Hopkins – All rights reserved

Originally published in Flying February, 1993

Maintaining good “Situational Awareness” is of the utmost importance for a pilot.  Running out of fuel, encountering “inadvertent” instrument conditions, and colliding with terrain or another aircraft often are the result of at least a partial loss of situational awareness.  And of course landing at the wrong airport by definition indicates a complete lack of situational awareness.  The problem is that this is a fairly nebulous term, making it hard to nail down the exact extent of loss of situational awareness in any accident.  However, there are some specific steps we can take to enhance our capability to maintain good situational awareness and to increase the odds that we will quickly realize when we have lost it.

We can define situational awareness as the accurate perception of all factors and conditions affecting the aircraft and crew during a specific period of time.  This includes being aware of what has occurred in the past in relation to what is going on now, and how all this may affect the future of the flight.  In a previous article we determined that there are up to nine different areas that a pilot has to keep track of during a flight: attitude of the aircraft, location of other aircraft, time, weather, position, systems status, airport/navaid status, maintenance status, and possibly crew and/or passenger status.  If we are to maintain good awareness of all these parameters it is critical that all our sensors are working well.  In the same way that we preflight the aircraft and check the weather before each flight, we should also review our own condition to see if we are ready to take on the responsibility of pilot-in-command.  A good way to accomplish this is to use the memory aid “I’M SAFE”:

Illness – Are you sick or experiencing any symptoms which might distract from paying full attention to your flying duties?  Have you fully recovered from a previous illness?  Somehow pilots seem to only have the flu for one day when everyone else is laid up for at least three days.

Medication – Did you take any medications, and if so, is there any possibility they could affect your flying?

Stress – We all are under stress of some sort in our personal lives, and various types of stress affect people differently.  It is important to assess your stress level as you prepare for each flight.  Has it reached the level where it could distract you or affect your operation of the aircraft?  In particular, has something happened that is especially upsetting to you?

Alcohol – Not only are you legal to fly (eight hours bottle to throttle and below .04% blood alcohol level), but are you free of any influence from alcohol or its after affects?  It has recently been shown that the effects of a hangover can be just as debilitating as the effect of alcohol on our senses and reasoning.

Fatigue – Are you adequately rested, considering the duration of the planned flight and the difficulties you are likely to encounter?

Eating – Have you had enough nourishment, and are you bringing sufficient food along with you?  Many people have a hard time concentrating when they are hungry, so after a long flight it’s a good idea to have a snack before a difficult approach.

Finally, look at the big picture.  It’s very possible to have several of these factors active at the same time.  For example, you may have been sick, and because of this you haven’t been eating or sleeping well, and you have been taking over the counter medications for your symptoms.  There are no easy answers as to whether it is safe to fly, that is up to you as the PIC.  The important thing is to make sure you are aware of all the factors that may be affecting you, and to weigh the possible effect of these factors against the demands of the flight you are about to undertake.  Our standards need to be much higher for a night flight in IMC compared to a local day VFR hop.

It might seem silly to use a memory device to check if you are sick, or if you have had a drink, but I know from experience that it is very easy to overlook any of these items in the midst of preparing for a flight.  At one point I was on call to fill in for a courier if they encountered any problems.  One evening they called just as I was finishing dinner.  I quickly drove to the airport, loaded the aircraft, and took off for Phoenix.  I gradually became aware that I just was not as sharp as I normally was.  Then it dawned on me, just like in the V8 commercials, I had a beer with dinner!  I had not been “drinking” as such, it was just a beverage to go with pizza, so when the call came it never occurred to me that I should not take the flight.  If I had quickly run through “I’M SAFE” I would have BEEN safe!  I also would have been able to spend the evening with my children, instead of flying to Phoenix.

Once we are in flight, becoming aware of a serious loss of situational awareness is difficult because by definition, if we have lost situational awareness, we don’t know what is going on and therefore don’t know we have lost it!   There are twelve warning signs of a loss of awareness which we should tuck away in our brains, ready to alert us whenever necessary:

FIXATION – You realize you have stopped scanning and are just staring at one instrument.

AMBIGUITY – You have information from two independent sources which disagrees and can’t be resolved.

COMPLACENCY – The better you think you are doing, the greater should be your cause for concern.

EUPHORIA – If you are ecstatic about a new baby, a new airplane, or some achievement in your life, watch out!

CONFUSION – Often when we have lost situational awareness we will have a gut feeling that something isn’t right.  We call this feeling a “pinch.”

DISTRACTION – You become aware that your attention is being drawn to an item that is not really all that important.

UNDERLOAD or OVERLOAD – If the flight is so easy it’s boring, you may not be paying attention to important information.  If you are so busy you can’t think, it is very likely you are overlooking something.

POOR COMMUNICATIONS – Difficulty communicating with ATC or a crew member may indicate someone doesn’t know what is really going on.

FAILURE TO MEET TARGETS – If you are reaching checkpoints significantly early or late, or if your speed or fuel consumption is very different from what you planned, you need to find out why.

IMPROPER PROCEDURES – If you catch yourself doing something wrong, you need to look around for other errors you may have committed.

UNRESOLVED DISCREPANCIES – Things just don’t add up.

NO ONE FLYING THE AIRCRAFT – This is a prime indication that things have gotten out of hand.

Typically our first clue to a loss of situational awareness will be an uneasy feeling we can’t really put our finger on, based on one or more of the symptoms listed above.  Often it is manifested as a vague sense of confusion, a gut feeling that something isn’t right, which we refer to as a “pinch.”  Unfortunately we often ignore or dismiss these early warning signs until things get so bad we can’t miss the problem.  The key to quickly identifying and responding to a loss of situational awareness is to focus on the uneasy feeling and to verbalize to ourselves and any crew members that “Something isn’t right!”  The act of putting your feelings into words will help you to focus your thoughts on reviewing the situation and finding out what is going on.

One of the best examples of this happened to me at the end of a long training flight in a Lear 35.  I was the instructor, copilot, and safety pilot for three pilots who had just received their Learjet type ratings in a Phase II simulator.  The purpose of the flight was to give each person a chance to fly a typical Learjet flight profile, including a number of approaches.  My job was to keep us alive.  We departed Dallas Love Field on runway 13R and had just enough time to climb to altitude before it was time to descend for the approach into Amarillo.  We did a missed approach and several more practice approaches before landing to stretch our legs and switch seats.  Of course I didn’t get to switch seats.  I was stuck in the right seat for the duration of the flight.

We flew a similar profile to San Angelo, and after switching seats again were on our way back to Dallas with the last pilot getting his chance in the left seat.  As we got close I monitored the ATIS and was sure I had heard that runways 13 left and right were still the active.  Of course, the reciprocal is 31, so the chance of a mistake was not insignificant for a very tired instructor/copilot who had spent four and a half hours in the right seat, almost none of it straight and level.  It was one of those marginal VFR days due to haze, and as we were being vectored I began to get that funny feeling in the pit of my stomach that something wasn’t right – the “pinch”.  It was taking too long to get on final, and the headings we were getting didn’t make sense.  But because of my fatigue I just sat there “fat, dumb and happy” until the controller suddenly told us, “Turn right, intercept the localizer, cleared for the ILS 31 right approach.”  With my situational awareness snapped into focus, I knew we were totally unprepared for the 31R ILS, so I finally did something smart and declared a missed approach to ensure we didn’t conflict with any traffic for 31 left.  If I had verbalized my uneasy feelings earlier on the approach, we could have reviewed our understanding of the situation and probably would have realized our mistake.


©Jay Hopkins – All rights reserved

Originally published in Flying September, 1993

The commuter airline crew was very experienced in the Beech 99, with over 7,000 hours (captain) and 3,000 hours (copilot) in that type aircraft.  Yet as they flew the approach into Spokane they descended below the MDA and hit a hill 4.5 miles from the end of the runway.  The NTSB determined that this was probably due to the DME being held on the Spokane VORTAC rather than indicating the distance to the runway from the localizer DME transmitter.  The NTSB further surmised that the crew had been distracted by the landing gear warning horn and light which may have come on just as they were about to reposition the DME selector switch.

Accident investigators are hampered in their analysis of small plane accidents by the lack of a cockpit voice recorder or a flight data recorder.  If we were able to hear what was really going on in the cockpit just prior to an accident, we would probably find that in many cases some sort of distraction was a factor.  The problem is that although it may seem like we can be doing several things at once, in reality we can only concentrate on one item at a time.  Anything that catches our attention, even casual conversation, can divert our attention from the task at hand.

Another problem is that as we initiate a procedure we first do it mentally.  If something distracts us in the moment between thinking about doing something and actually doing it, we may have mentally checked that item off as accomplished, even though it wasn’t.  In the case of the Beech 99, one of the pilots could have stated that it was time to change over the DME and started to do so when the gear warning horn and light activated.  The normal response at that point would have been to cancel the warning horn and if appropriate, extend the gear.  By the time that was accomplished, they may have gone on to other tasks and forgotten that the DME selector switch had not been taken out of the hold position.

Anything related to the flight operation which diverts our attention from the task at hand is called an operational distraction.  Even a normal, required function can be deadly if it distracts us from critical safety of flight awareness.  In a NASA study of airline flight operations, the leading operational distraction was found to be reading checklists.  Obviously the checklist is there to help ensure we complete all required items, but some thought must go into how it is used.  The bottom line is that the checklist can’t fly the airplane, but it can distract us from doing so, or from monitoring another pilot during critical flight operations.

Since it is usually up to us to decide when we will accomplish checklist items, sit down with your checklist and see what you can do to move as many items as possible to non-critical periods of the flight.  For example, the Taxi Checklist should contain only items which must to be checked while under way.  These include brakes, turning indications on navigation instruments and the thrust reversers on jet aircraft.  Everything else should be moved to either the Before Taxi or Before Takeoff Checklists so they can be checked when the aircraft is stationary.

The same philosophy holds on approach.  Everything possible should be completed before the final approach point on an instrument approach, or before entering the pattern on a visual approach.  It just doesn’t make sense to be involved in the most critical phase of the flight with the pilot or part of a crew reading a book!  This is especially true in bad weather.  In one example of the dangers of distraction, a corporate S-76A collided with trees during a night landing at a company helipad.  The weather was reported as partial obscuration, 200 feet broken, visibility 1 mile with fog and rain.  The wind was calm.

The crew flew a VOR approach monitored by radar.  The copilot spotted the pad and called it out to the pilot, who started a steep descent.  If ever there was a time for the copilot to be monitoring the approach this was it.  But he diverted his attention inside the cockpit to complete the Landing Checklist.  Suddenly he sensed that the helicopter had a nose high attitude and looked out.  The aircraft appeared to be moving backward and down so he yelled, “Where are we going?”.  The captain added power but it was too late and the aircraft entered the trees, ruining the rotor blades and causing a hard landing that seriously injured one of the pilots.

In another case involving a King Air, an ATP rated pilot was checking out another commercial rated pilot in the aircraft.  As they were making a takeoff from a touch and go, the commercial pilot became distracted looking for the flap control and allowed the aircraft to descend into the water.  Why didn’t the other pilot in the right seat realize what was happening and take corrective action?  He was looking in his flight bag for some charts and didn’t realize they were losing altitude until just before they hit the water.

When faced with an operational distraction, we have four choices in selecting how to deal with it.  We can either ignore it, delay dealing with it, delegate responsibility to someone else, or handle the problem.  Radio communication problems usually fall into the ignore column.  I once took off in a Cessna 172 only to discover that at low altitude over congested areas both radios were picking up broadcast stations.  After I determined that there was nothing I could do to get rid of it and that I could still hear ATC over the public stations there was nothing I could do except ignore the problem.  A door opening on takeoff also falls into the ignore category.  In many aircraft there is not much you can do in flight to resolve the situation, yet over and over people crash, land gear up, etc. all because of a problem that essentially needed to be ignored until they were safely back on the ground.

Almost anything that occurs during a critical portion of the flight such as takeoff and landing, needs to be delayed.  In jet aircraft, the response to an engine fire light on takeoff depends on where in the takeoff the aircraft is.  Below decision speed, an engine fire light elicits an immediate abort.  A few seconds later, that same light should result in nothing more than a simple statement noting that it is on, and the command, “Continue the takeoff!”  Many aircraft have been destroyed by crews who got so distracted by the fire light or some other light on takeoff that they forgot to fly the aircraft.  The only priority at that point is to get the aircraft up to a safe altitude where the emergency can be handled.

Occasionally there are operational distractions which can be delegated to someone else.  Even someone flying as single pilot with one or more passengers may find an opportunity to get some help from a passenger.  Almost anyone can help hold a chart or write something down.  With only a little training, most people can learn how to select a frequency on the radio.  I remember one instance where I should have asked for help from a passenger but didn’t.  I was flying a Cessna 414 back from Mexico to Tucson with the CEO as the only passenger.  He actually had a private pilot’s license but didn’t normally express any desire to sit up front.

It was one of the few night IFR flights I had experienced in that part of the world, which almost never has bad weather.  As I was approaching the border I began to smell smoke in the cockpit.  Soon I could actually see smoke coming up from the circuit breaker panel on the left side of the cockpit.  I began to isolate the various buses and soon determined that the problem was with the cockpit lighting circuit breaker.  The good part was that I had not lost any critical flight or navigation instruments.  The bad part was that I was reduced to flying with the regulation D cell flashlight in my mouth part of the time as I tried to keep the plane right side up and headed in the right direction while getting ready for and completing the approach.

As he exited the airplane in Tucson, my passenger, in the ultimate understatement, asked me, “Did you have a little trouble tonight Jay?”  I would have answered but my mouth was still stuck in the shape of an “O” from holding the flashlight.  Although it was my responsibility to fly the plane, if I had requested that he come up in the cockpit my life would have been a little simpler, and my mouth a lot smaller!

Finally, there are some operational distractions that simply have to be handled right now.  The second item on the NASA study of airline operational distractions was malfunctions, and there certainly are a significant number of problems that need attention right now.  However, no problem will be improved by flying into the ground, so be very careful that you don’t get so fixated on solving the problem that you forget to fly the aircraft.


©Jay Hopkins – All rights reserved

Originally published in Flying September, 2007

It is one of the dreams that pilots dream. An airplane, a full tank of gas, a clear sky, no where in particular to go and no schedule to get there. Head out to the airport, “kick the tires and light the fire.” Just you and a friend enjoying the view and the freedom, escaping at least for a few hours from the madcap rat race rushing in every direction below you.

Cory Lidle and his flight instructor learned that dreams can turn into nightmares in less than a moment, just as just as thousands of other pilots have learned before them. The NTSB has not completed their study of this accident, so it is too early to try to analyze every detail of how this accident might have happened. However, the NTSB has released preliminary information that can help others avoid the same tragic outcome.

At this point we know that they had taken off from Teterboro, NJ, and were flying along a VFR corridor around Manhattan that lies beneath the Class B airspace over New York. Aircraft in the corridor generally have to stay below 1,100’ MSL, so the overcast ceiling at 1,800’ should not have been a factor, and the 7 miles visibility made it a fine day for a sightseeing flight around the New York City area.

The NTSB reports that Cory and his instructor had already flown over the Statue of Liberty when they turned north up the East River. Eventually they reached the end of the corridor where they had to turn around to avoid entering controlled airspace. Doing a 180 degree turn in a small airplane is usually no big deal—coordinated aileron and rudder, with a little back pressure to compensate for the loss of lift in the turn, and pretty soon you are headed the opposite direction. But Cory and his instructor were not flying at a normal cruising altitude with no obstructions. They were flying 800’ above a river with tall buildings on both sides of the river.

Preliminary information shows that they were flying up the east side of Roosevelt Island when they began their turn to the west, giving them a radius of only 1,700’ in which to complete the turn while remaining in the corridor. The NTSB has calculated that this would have required a bank angle of 53 degrees at their cruising speed of 93 knots, producing a load of almost 2 Gs on the airplane. The airplane did not successfully complete the turn, lost altitude and struck a building along the river.

We will probably never know how much planning they did before this flight. On similar sightseeing pleasure flights that I have made in the past, the planning was minimal. Part of the pleasure of this kind of flight seems to be the ability to experience the joy of flying without all the course plotting, weather analyzing, weight and balance computing and flight plan filing that precedes a “serious” flight.

There is a tool called AESOP we can use to carefully assess the possible risks on even a local sightseeing flight without taking much time or reducing the relaxed atmosphere of the day. AESOP helps us take a moment to focus on the various risk possibilities of the flight and plan an appropriate risk mitigating response:

Aircraft – What is the performance of the aircraft we are going to fly? Are there any mechanical problems? Is there sufficient fuel on board?

Environment – What is the current and forecast weather along our planned route? If the weather is marginal, is there a good fall back location in case things go sour?

Obstacles – Is there anything else that could cause us a problem doing this flight with this equipment?

Personnel – How are all crewmembers doing? Did anyone not get a good night’s sleep? Is anyone not feeling well? Has everyone had a meal recently?

Situation – Even though the “S” is in the middle of AESOP, it is referenced last as an assessment of the overall situation. Are we:

            “Green – Good to go?”

            “Yellow – Ragged edge?”

            ”Red – No go (or stop)?”

A pilot pausing for a moment to do AESOP before a sightseeing flight around Manhattan in conditions similar to those experienced by Cory would probably not come up with any risk factors until reaching Obstacles. At that point, the pilot might realize that it was important to consider how to maintain clearance from the controlled airspace, and how to reduce the risk of maneuvering within tight corridors surrounded by buildings. This discussion would hopefully cover the importance of keeping the speed slow during a course reversal to minimize turn radius, while starting the turn on the downwind side of the corridor to maximize the distance available by turning into the wind.

It appears that Cory would have had an additional 400’ turning radius if he had started his turn over the extreme east shore of the river. This would have provided almost 25% more space to accomplish the turn. A much tighter turn radius would have been possible if the airplane was slowed to a comfortable margin over stall with about ten degrees of flaps. Even more space would have been available if the turn was made from the other shore into the 13 knot east wind.

It is easy to get complacent on any flight, particularly a local sightseeing flight. The beauty of AESOP is that it helps to maintain your focus without taking an excessive amount of time. In the minute or two it takes to run through AESOP, you will have an opportunity to confront the possible risks that have led to accidents when other pilots failed to consider them, such as:

  • High density altitude in relation to high gross weight
  • Potential changes in the weather
  • Endurance in relation to headwinds
  • Not having sufficient rest or food before the flight
  • Potential icing or mountain turbulence

AESOP is also a powerful tool a pilot can use to “buy a minute” when unanticipated events occur and things seem to be spinning out of control. In a situation like that, it is easy to make a snap decision without carefully considering all the options. There may not be much time, but usually the pilot can take at least a minute or two to use AESOP to assess all the risks he is facing and the resources available to respond to those risks. Often the use of AESOP will lead to an awareness of risks the pilot had not thought of or resources he had not considered. AESOP is such a powerful tool that many of my corporate Error Prevention clients such as Lockheed Martin Space Systems require their personnel to use a modified version of AESOP before any task or operation.

Flying just for the fun of it is a wonderful experience, but the risks inherent in flying do not go away just because you are only there to have a good time. In fact, a relaxed situation often leads to a loss of situational awareness, which in turn can lead to disastrous consequences that can spoil the fun of any flight, or worse. Before every flight and when anything unanticipated happens, use AESOP to assess the risks and the resources available to deal with those risks. You will likely come up with something almost every time you use it, and every once in a while it will literally “save your bacon.”


©Jay Hopkins – All rights reserved

Originally published in Flying September, 2002

Everyone loves a magic show. For some reason, the idea that things aren’t really as they seem, that we can be fooled by our senses, is exciting to most people. However, for a pilot an illusion can be serious business. With at least thirteen different illusions working to fool us into thinking things are different than they really are, it is important that a pilot be the master of each of these illusions, so that he won’t be fooled into making the wrong response or even into losing control of the aircraft.

Most illusions can be traced to the relationship between our three sensory systems. The motion sensing system of our inner ear, the visual system and the position sensing system which uses the nerves in our skin and muscles all work together to tell us what our body is doing and which way is up. As long as we are firmly attached to terra firma these systems work well together to provide us accurate information about what our body is doing. In flight, however, we are subjected to forces we don’t usually experience on the ground. Add in restrictions to visibility which knock out the information from our visual system, and we are sitting ducks for illusions.

Our susceptibility to illusions has been put to beneficial use in advanced simulators equipped with a motion base. Many people assume the simulator is replicating the motion of the plane. This is actually not true. The simulator moves in ways to make you feel what you would feel if you were in the plane doing whatever you are doing. The visual system in the simulator completes the illusion. For example, as the pilot advances the thrust levers for takeoff, the simulator immediately begins to tilt back and rise vertically. The pilot inside the simulator can’t tell what it is doing and this motion pushes him into the seat and makes him feel like he is accelerating down the runway. Similarly, when the pilot is braking after landing, the simulator tilts forward to throw him against his harness and make him feel as if he were slowing down in an aircraft.


The fact that the first two illusions start with the word “graveyard” gives you some idea of the typical outcome after falling prey to these illusions. They both are a result of the fact that in a prolonged spin or turn, the fluid in the semicircular canal of the pilot’s ear aligned with the axis of the spin or turn will stop moving. In the graveyard spin, the deceleration that occurs when the pilot recovers to level flight starts the fluid moving again, giving the pilot the illusion he is spinning in the opposite direction. The disoriented pilot will return the aircraft into the spin he just recovered from.


The loss of motion in the canal during a constant rate descending turn can cause a pilot to think he is in a wings level descent. When the disoriented pilot pulls back on the controls to stop the descent, he tightens the spiral and increases the rate of altitude loss.


Once again, the eventual lack of motion in the canal, in this case during a prolonged constant rate turn, is the instigating factor. If a pilot makes an abrupt head movement, he may start the fluid in more than one of the canals moving, making him feel like he is turning or accelerating in a different axis. The disoriented pilot will attempt to “recover” from the perceived rotation, and in doing so may put the aircraft into a dangerous attitude.


If a pilot makes an abrupt change from a climb to level flight, it can make him feel as if he is tumbling backwards. The disoriented pilot pushes the aircraft into a nose low attitude, which can intensify the illusion.


If an updraft causes an abrupt vertical acceleration, it can make a pilot feel like he is in a climb. The disoriented pilot will push the aircraft into a dive. A downdraft can create the opposite effect, with the disoriented pilot pulling the aircraft into a climb or even into a stall.


The rapid acceleration during takeoff or a go-around can make a pilot feel as if the aircraft is in a nose high attitude, causing him to push the nose down with disastrous results near the ground. Likewise, a sudden deceleration caused by a rapid reduction of power can cause the pilot to pull back on the wheel.


A number of visual conditions such as a sloping cloud deck, a dark night with ground lights and stars, or even just an obscured horizon can cause a pilot to attempt to level the aircraft with a false horizon.


If a pilot stares at a stationary light, after a short period of time the light will appear to move. The disoriented pilot can lose control of the aircraft if he attempts to keep the aircraft aligned with the light.

One example of the disastrous results of falling for one of these illusions occurred when the captain of a commuter airliner initiated a missed approach in poor visibility while still looking out the window to try to spot the runway. The somatogravic illusion caused him to feel like the aircraft was pitching up excessively and he pushed forward on the control wheel to “correct” for the nose high attitude. Even though the copilot tried to warn him, they were at such a low altitude that they impacted the ground a few seconds later.

There are a number of ways a pilot can avoid falling prey to these illusions. We are at risk primarily at night and in instrument conditions when the visual element of our orientation is eliminated. The most basic rule is to avoid getting into instrument conditions unless you are instrument certified and current. When in instrument conditions, keep a good scan going and fly as smoothly as possible. Don’t make any control inputs unless you are looking at the attitude indicator. Keep all turns at or below a standard rate turn and make gentle pitch corrections. Also try not to make any sudden head movements, especially down or to the rear. If you have a reliable autopilot, engage the autopilot before looking for charts or doing anything else that might distract you from your scan and allow an illusion to play its tricks on you.


If you were keeping track, you have noticed that I have only covered eight illusions so far, even though I said there are thirteen. The final five illusions are strictly visual illusions associated with landing.


Each pilot has a mental image of what a runway should look like based on the size of the runways he normally operates from. When approaching a runway significantly narrower than what he is used to, the pilot will feel like he is higher than he actually is and may fly a dangerously low approach. On the other hand, a much wider runway makes the pilot feel like he is lower than he really is and can result in a high approach, a high flare and a hard landing.


In an effect similar to the runway width, a pilot approaching an upsloping runway will think he is higher than he actually is, while a downslope will have the opposite effect.


A pilot approaching a runway at night over water or a dark area with no lights may feel that the aircraft is higher than it actually is and fly an approach below the normal glide path.


Atmospheric haze creates the illusion that the pilot is farther from the runway than he really is, while rain on the windscreen makes the pilot feel like he is at a higher altitude. In either case the pilot may fly a lower than normal approach. As the pilot penetrates a fog layer on the approach it can make him feel like he is pitching up and cause him to steepen the approach.


A pilot approaching a runway at night with few or no lights in the surrounding area can be led to believe he is closer to the runway than he actually is. Also, straight lines of lights along roads can be mistaken for a runway.

The key to avoiding these visual illusions, besides maintaining a general awareness of how they work, is to carefully familiarize yourself with all available information about the airport and to make use of all available navigational aids to improve your situational awareness. Once again, it is important not to make any sudden or abrupt control inputs. Finally, if it becomes evident that you have fallen prey to an illusion, go around and then use the information you have gathered to compensate on the next approach.


©Jay Hopkins – All rights reserved

Originally published in Flying January, 1997

It has probably happened to every pilot at least once. My turn came during a time when I was flying charter in Learjets. So many of our flights were at night that I was beginning to think Learjets couldn’t fly in the daylight. On this particular flight we were on our way back to Houston from Atlanta at 3 am. At that time of the night there isn’t a lot of chatter on the radio, so it is possible to go quite a while without hearing anything. Still, as we cruised peacefully through the night skies, it gradually occurred to me that it had been a long time since we had heard anything. Finally I decided to give ATC a call to make sure the controller hadn’t fallen asleep. His response shocked me. During our last transmission our mike button had stuck. Ever since that transmission we had been jamming the frequency, and we had been totally out of communication with center.

When most of us think of loss of communications, we probably think of the classic situations like a radio failure, a total loss of electrical power, or a stuck microphone. Analysts at NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System examined the causes and effects of a loss of communication capability, and published their findings in an ASRS Directline report. It turns out there are many ways pilots can find themselves out of communication with ATC. For example, the pilot can set-up the audio panel incorrectly. The volume control on the radio can be set too low. During a change of frequency, the controller can assign the wrong frequency, the pilot can tune the wrong frequency, or the pilot can forget to switch to the new frequency. The pilot can use the wrong radio. The ATC facility can experience radio failure. The frequency can be so congested the pilot can’t get though. And of course, the pilot can fall asleep. Pilots have been incommunicado for as long as an hour, but the average length of time is about 7.5 minutes.

Over half of all interruptions to communications occur because the pilot didn’t set the radio or audio panel correctly. Digital radios with their flip/flop frequency selection are a great tool for the pilot, but they also introduce a new level of complexity into the cockpit which can lead to errors. One pilot switched radios because of a loud noise on the radio he was using. In the process of switching he inadvertently left the approach control frequency on the preselect side of the radio he was switching to. The controller had to delay seven other aircraft during the time it took the pilot to realize his mistake and call approach.

An instructor reported a loss of communication due to congestion on the frequency. “There were many calls at the same time to other aircraft by the tower, so I turned off the speaker switch to tell the student to descend to pattern altitude.” The speaker was only supposed to be off for a moment, but the instructor got busy looking for traffic and forgot to turn it back on. Finally aware it was far too quiet in the cockpit, the instructor discovered the speaker switch was still off. The tower controller reported he had been calling them for five minutes.

Aircraft radio problems or complete failure of the radios were the second most prevalent cause of a loss of communication, accounting for one third of all reported cases. Radio problems were particularly prevalent in general aviation aircraft, which often have older radios. Hand-held portable radios were used on several occasions to reestablish communications after radio failure. However, one pilot discovered that the digital frequency windows contain a trap for the unwary pilot. He experienced total electrical failure, and after trying to get his radios back, he remembered that he carried a portable transceiver for just such an occasion. He pulled it out, connected the headset, and attached the radio to the external antenna cable. You can imagine his disappointment when he went to enter the desired frequency and realized that it was unavailable due to the inoperative radio panel. He tried 121.5 but got no response, so he waited until he broke out into VMC and then located an airport visually. His handheld unit was useless because he hadn’t written the frequency down.

A blocked frequency due to a microphone, radio transmitter or audio selector panel stuck in the transmit mode accounted for about 15% of all communication problems. In this situation there is an additional factor—everything being said in the cockpit is also being transmitted over the frequency selected and pilots in the throes of a communication failure may not use the best language. After a pilot reestablished contact following a stuck mike, the controller asked the pilot to contact the facility supervisor by telephone. It seems that the pilot had made some comments about his aircraft and radios while he was in the process of figuring out the problem. The supervisor stated that they had to go to a backup frequency because of the pilot’s language!

One interesting aspect of this problem is that the phase of flight in which the loss occurs varies greatly between general aviation and air carrier operations. For airline pilots, the problem is intimately tied to the boredom experienced during the long periods of time spent in cruise flight and the reduced levels of attention this may produce. Perhaps the ultimate example of this was the crew of three who were eating dinner and failed to hear repeated calls from ATC, including some relayed from other aircraft. They managed to arrive overhead Atlanta (their destination) still level at 35,000 feet!

General aviation pilots don’t have as many communication problems during cruise flight, perhaps because they often fly single pilot and thus must maintain a much higher level of awareness than crew members who fall prey to the Copilot Syndrome and assume someone else is listening to the radios. It is during the increased workload of the approach and landing phases that the general aviation pilot is more likely to experience communication problems. It was also discovered that, as with accidents, the pilot with low time in type is much more likely to have a problem with communications. It is very easy to picture the inexperienced pilot being able to handle the radios during the low workload of cruise flight but making mistakes during the high workload of the approach and landing phase.

Since over half of all communication problems are related to pilot error in operating the radios, and since many of these are related to inexperience in the aircraft, we can have a significant impact in reducing these types of problems. The first and most obvious advice is not to operate an aircraft until you are completely familiar with the audio system. Pilots are known to jump in an unfamiliar aircraft without an adequate checkout, and even if the pilot does spend some time getting familiar with the aircraft, he may not dedicate much of that time to the radios. After all, radios are basically all alike. You turn them on, you tune them, and then you push the mike button. However, throw in an audio panel and some digital frequency swapping radios, and all of sudden things are not as easy as they seem, especially in a high traffic environment with lots of frequency switching required.

Proper flight planning is critical in the communications arena. The more frequencies you can note ahead of time and have available for instant access, the less time you will waste scrambling through charts trying to find the frequency you need. As the pilot who couldn’t retrieve his frequency after a power failure discovered, you should write down each frequency you use in the order you use them. I simply write the frequencies in a column, starting with my original clearance. Each time I receive a new frequency I add it to the bottom of the list, so I always have the current and previous frequency available.

Finally, it is important to maintain an adequate level of situational awareness. Tuning radios may not be the most exciting thing we do as pilots, but the consequences of a mistuned radio or audio panel can be serious, both for ourselves and the aircraft around us. Even when things get really busy, take the time to focus on the task of getting the proper frequency into the correct radio and then check to make sure it is right. And remember that if your communication problem is due to a stuck mike, every word you are saying is being transmitted for everyone on the frequency to hear.