How to Stay Ahead of an Airplane

Where ever you are – be there!” This is a direct quote from Mr. Joel Smith who is a training coordinator for the Boeing 747 fleet of Northwest Airlines. Joel is a former student of mine, and he invited me to sit in on one of his CRM training sessions one time.

Joel had a room full of veteran captains and first officers and trust me, nobody’s attention wandered during his innovative seminar. I always say that I learn more from my students than they learn from me, and, that day, it was certainly true. Joel said a number of things that day that I remember, but the most important thing he said was the simplest. He said, “Where ever you are – be there!

When you climb into an airplane — whether it is a 747 or Piper Cub — you must channel all your attention, energy, and resources to the situation at hand.

Place yourself in the proper frame of mind and do not let self-distractions interfere with the flight. This is the first line of defense toward maintaining situation awareness and learning how to “stay ahead of an airplane.

I have adopted a few other little sayings that help keep me ahead of the airplane. Here are the others:

  • Routinely do routine things
  • Protect Critical Commodities
  • Avoid the Self-inflicted Wound
  • Prioritize your Problems

My next short series of articles will illustrate these simple rules on how to stay ahead of the airplane, by using stories from pilots who did not stay ahead of their airplane. I do not find fault with these pilots, because we all make mistakes, but I use their public record stories to show how important it is to stay ahead of an airplane. The first key is to…

You learned to use checklists when you began to fly, but with their training days behind them some pilots take the attitude that procedures and checklist are only for beginners. They think that checklists are great when you are first becoming familiar with the airplane, but with experience you can skip some steps. This attitude is not an “experienced” attitude, but a “complacent” attitude.

The quickest way to lose awareness is by neglecting to check routine items. Listen to the words of this pilot who landed gear-up because he did not do the routine things routinely.

NASA Number: 447611

The approach was completely normal with no unusual circumstances or distractions. The only remarkable point was that on running the checklist, as printed on the panel behind the yoke, I held off on the landing gear because the aircraft was about 7 knots faster than the Vlo (landing extension speed) with 10 degrees of flaps. Without exception (but one) I check my three green lights at about 50 feet, but today I did not. I had a new set of tires put on the aircraft a couple of days before that had a higher profile than the pervious ones. I was at the 50-foot point, concentrating on the pending flair and neglected to double-check the three green lights. No gear warning horn or light sounded and later it was discovered that these warning systems were inoperative. They were inoperative due to a previously incorrect installation during a repair. Other than the pilot flying’s ego, there were no injuries of any kind sustained. There was one passenger on board and we both evacuated to the side of the runway immediately after touchdown.

The pilot stated that he was running the checklist, but he “held off” on the landing gear because he was going too fast. This raises so many questions: why was he going so fast at that point in the checklist? Why didn’t he just reduce speed? Why were the flaps down before the landing gear? In light airplanes we use the flaps for drag and slower/steeper approaches. If drag is needed, the landing gear should be used first because it is mandatory. Flaps are optional. The gear warning horn was inoperative, but that would have been discovered during a proper preflight inspection. There were so many departures from routine in this short story.

THE BOTTOM LINE: When it comes to maintaining awareness — don’t reinvent the wheel. Get back to basics; use checklists. Follow standard procedures and read through the airplane’s information manuals periodically.