Stay Ahead Of The Airplane — Avoiding The Self Inflicted Wound

Pilots have enough problems in the dynamic flight environment without making things worse on themselves. But sometimes pilots impose unnecessary distractions on themselves that compound and aggravate an already challenging situation.

Pilots must have everything in order before committing to the air. “In order” can mean many things. The following are stories that show that wasting time, not being familiar with the airplane, not having the proper charts and even lying to the controller can produce a self-inflicted wound that can lead to an accident. And to prove that this can happen to even experienced pilots, the examples I use are from airline flight decks.

NASA Number: 443877

The copilot was flying and was cleared for the ILS runway 27R approach into Philadelphia. After we were cleared to 2,100 feet MSL, the copilot was trying to get the autopilot to lock on for a coupled ILS to runway 27R while turning right and passing the Speez Outer Marker. During the landing checklist the airplane started descending through 2,100 feet after passing Speez at around 1,500 feet per minute. After I mentioned our altitude was low, being 2 dots below the glide slope, he started leveling off at 1,200 feet. Then the tower asked us to check our altitude because they were getting a low altitude alert. The copilot maintained 1,200 feet until the glide slope was recaptured and continued on to an uneventful landing. It appeared that we lost track of the rate of descent while looking at the ground for a visual reference to our position. Also, the copilot’s attempt to lock-on with the autopilot failed for some reason and this provided an unneeded distraction. Our visibility straight ahead was approximately 2 statue miles, but we could see the ground clearly. I’m not sure if he was looking at the airspeed bug and trying to slow the aircraft or not, but his scan failed to see the low deviation from the glide slope. Doing the landing checklist caused me to not catch our low deviation until 1,500 feet MSL, at which time corrections were put into place to level off. I think a little earlier preparation on base leg could have helped us from being rushed on final. The copilot should have used raw data to manually fly the approach instead of wasting precious time trying to get the autopilot to capture the approach. Once he did that, the remainder of the approach and landing were fine.

The Wound: Wasting time with the autopilot created a self-distraction that resulted in a dangerous low altitude situation. An autopilot can be a great way to reduce the workload, but in this case it got in the way, imposed a pilot-induced distraction and could have caused an accident.

NASA Number: 441955

This was the Captains first trip from Aviano. My second trip from Aviano, and the Flight Engineer was also unfamiliar. Our clearance was issued by ground control just prior to reaching the active departure runway. The clearance to the enroute phase of flight was via the “Vincenza 6B departure.” Our resources included the commercial charts (2 approach procedures and the airport chart). The government FLIP charts (same as commercial), government revisions (which did not have the Vincenza 6B SID), and a government airport book (which had lots of verbiage on the airport, but no SID). At about the same time that we exhausted our onboard resources, I recalled that on my one previous trip from this airport, the Captain had pulled from his collection a photocopy of the VIC 6B departure – the source of which remains a mystery to me. I shared what I could remember from the departure procedure with my Captain. He had me advise the controller that we found the departure procedure. I was a bit leery. His idea worked, but the controller asked if we had the issue showing the right turn at 600 feet, etc. The controller apparently read to us the entire SID. I scribbled it all down, we set our navigation equipment, called for the takeoff clearance, and departed. Our mistake here was our failure to brief what we had just heard (because we had to make a time slot). After takeoff and the first two turns, the Captain acquired and then navigated direct to Venezia, which was about 30 nautical miles to the south (Vincenza and Venezia can sometimes sound the same!). I thought that I had heard “direct to Vincenza” as part of the SID. I figured that I must have misunderstood. After about two minutes and 8 to 10 nautical miles on the southbound course, the controller advised us to turn immediately toward, and fly to Vincenza, which was about 30 miles to the west of the airport. We did, and proceeded without further incident. Flying around without the necessary charts on board is not a good idea.

The Wound: The crew did not have the proper charts but proceeded anyway. The First Officer was “leery” but did not speak up.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Be prepared. Know your airplane and make pre-takeoff plans that will help you avoid distractions while in flight. There is very little worse than the self-inflicted wound.