Pin the Tail On the Donkey

Not to editorialize or anything, but just what good are all those hoops that we all have to jump through for the Practical Test Standards? These trained animal acts in which we’re all called upon to perform on the day of our checkride are not exactly geared towards improving judgment, or decision-making skills … or … are they?

As our own Dr. Paul Craig points out in his book “The Killing Zone“, the very nature of general aviation flight operations, versus those of transport category flight crew, automatically creates a more hazardous environment. We use smaller, less well-equipped facilities and equipment, and we conduct more takeoffs and landings (the most hazardous phases of flight) per hour, to name just two… Also, the comparative rigors of training in general aviation, as well as its safety-related infrastructure, are pretty slim. Yes, there are emergency procedures in the PTS, but nothing like the kind of hurdles that airline crew must surmount in real simulators, and at regular intervals. For proficiency as general aviation pilots, compared to the airlines, perhaps we’re a bit like that car spewing a blue smokescreen on the freeway in front of us — we’re on the deferred maintenance program. Sure, we have BFRs and WINGS (how many of you really participate in WINGS), but once we pass muster on Checkride Day, we get our license to learn and improve … or atrophy. Yes, we meet the metrics of the tasks at hand, on that day. But how can evaluating one’s skills at following a recipe — and all the ingredients to which we’re introduced during the entire syllabus preceding that day — help to keep us safe?

Don’t get me wrong. Having a seasoned professional to gauge our knowledge and skill in areas of operation critical to flight safety is in my book a good idea. But are there PTS maneuvers involving night flight while fatigued, or in a hurry to get home in unexpected marginal weather? How do ground reference maneuvers or slow flight improve airmanship or presence of mind? Unlike Part 135 (air taxi) or Part 121 (airline) pilots, our Part 91 checkrides are a once-only affair (assuming you pass, that is, or seek to acquire additional advanced certificates or ratings). Hence my question: so, what good are they? As you may have already guessed, yes, there is some element of playing devil’s advocate here, and this is no monomaniacal diatribe against the PTS bible. I hasten to add that I am not a Designated Examiner; I’m not even a CFI. So I must profess my ignorance of whatever legitimate significance there may be for that certain indefinable something that would allow an experienced pilot (or one accordingly astute at reading between behavioral lines) to infer, merely by peripheral observation of mundane PTS tasks, another pilot’s judgment and decision-making skills.

As I always say in regard to any argument, be it political, or domestic … there are always two sides to every story … so let’s hear the other one.

Let’s start off with steep turns. In this and every other maneuver, you get into multi-tasking in a big way. You’re not just riding the roller coaster; you’re managing its energy. This is true in steep turns, and especially in more advanced maneuvers such as lazy eights and chandelles…

  • You have to be aware of what is happening on a moment-by-moment basis, and the consequences of your flight control inputs upon all axes of motion.
  • You also sharpen your abilities to maintain your orientation in three dimensions, including your attitude as well as where you are.

Keeping altitude within plus or minus 100 feet, within five degrees of a 45-degree bank, ten knots on airspeed, and ten degrees on heading rollout, while scanning for traffic, and responding to distractions, is no cakewalk.

  • You learn that stall speed increases in a banked turn,
  • that airframe loads increase, and
  • you learn about the reduced lift and the need for some back-pressure and
  • that added power is the only way to maintain both speed and altitude in a steep turn.

This is where we also get a peek into some of the darker recesses of the flight envelope, like…

  • the overbanking tendency of the wings, when they’re wracked way over and the very actions prescribed to counteract that overbanking, namely:
    1. opposite aileron simultaneously with the application of inside rudder, and
    2. the potential loss of enough energy to maintain sufficient altitude and airspeed, and that in this particular flight environment
    3. we are flirting with the spin.

The mini-bottom line here is that if your flying precision gets good here, like Sinatra’s song about making it in New York, it will also get better droning along on your next cross-country.

Lesson number two (not that these are in any particular order) is the even more seemingly moronic choreography called ground reference maneuvers. Actually, I think I should have started out on the offensive with that one, first, because even as a student pilot, I wondered (not rebelliously at that point, just out of curiosity) just why it was that we had to do these things. In this ring of the circus, it isn’t so mysterious: yeah, you learn to divide attention (that again) between airplane control and your path over the ground, while maintaining coordinated flight. Sure, I know the wind is going to push me around. Well gee, excuse me, but aren’t traffic patterns enough for that? Apart from admittedly improving my ability to make an airplane do what I want it to, with today’s population-density and current (ahem) reactionary climate… It seems these kind of low-altitude gyrations in areas not accustomed to airplane traffic may only serve to put a frown on American Gothic, if you get my drift (no pun intended). Hmmm. So much for presenting the other side… Well, let’s try the next one, then.

Flying at “critically slow airspeeds“: now what’s that buy us? Talk about playing devil’s advocate (or dancing with him)… If we learn to fly really slowly above 1500 feet, to the point where the controls get mushy, and then become comfortable with it, well… What exactly does that imply about the situation where we are trying to get into a short field and we’ve got our best short-field approach speed nailed, but then encounter low-level turbulence and wind shear? The lesson to me is that on days like this — fly nervous! Keep your hand on that throttle, and your reflexes on high alert. A stall at too low an altitude may prove to be beyond either your abilities, those of your airplane, or both. (The Devil doesn’t look so good, at this point.)

The stall’s sinister offspring: the spin. Here is one maneuver that’s already fallen off the FAA’s merry-go-round, but this is one that probably shouldn’t have. (Sigh … I warned you about my editorials.) The problem was that too many good deeds didn’t remain unpunished. In this arena, the fatality rate in the practice area rivaled that of the battlefield. This battle once raged, but now seems to be in its dotage. Now, we’re admonished to maintain attitude control and coordinated use of the flight controls in a stall — we get near the edge, but not beyond. The ultimate goal here, at least to me, isn’t so much practicing how to get into a spin as how to get out of one. Heck there’s even one or two brand new airplanes that have been certified without spin testing (of course Cirrus Designs’ planes do come with a full-plane parachute). The problem is of course that you have to get invited to the party in order to risk getting egg on your face (or the proverbial lampshade on your head), but it’s far better that than a face plant into your dashboard. I saw a picture in the FAA safety tent at Oshkosh once that, well … let’s just say it made a lasting impression. Perhaps there are more graves on their side than mine.

The last item for my ostensible hit-and-run diatribe will be, aptly enough, the go-around. We do them in training; we know the drill. This is the means by which you save the day when something isn’t right at the last minute, when things happen fast. Then we get out into the real world … where we seldom do them, except with an instructor. One day, something goes wrong just as you’re about to land (a deer, another airplane pulling in front of you, whatever) and you add full power, but forget to take away the flaps and carburetor heat. The go-around isn’t the villain here, obviously; it’s how infrequently we do them. But this could be said for anything. Which about wraps it up, doesn’t it?

BOTTOM LINE: We’re not about to see a revolution, at least not in how we fledge from the nest with the FAA’s seal of approval. Aside from the present national priorities and historical precedent, there are just too many of us (and too few of them) for anything but a highly standardized system like the one we have now. Unfortunately it’s less than perfect and our knowledge and wisdom are assessed during oral questioning, and our airmanship is judged along the somewhat unimaginative lines of a script that we perform as consistently as possible. Yes, there’s certainly room for improvement. In spite of the drawbacks, however, the lines do have meaning. But only if we practice them! Don’t forget what you learned — and when you do, go up again with someone who’s job it is to remember. But always practice, practice, practice!