"Roger CAPCOM, Cleared for Takeoff"
By David Rothenanger, "R + 10", EAA 239700, Warbirds 16483
Propulsion…GO! Life support…GO! Navigation…GO! Flight Controls…GO! Weather…GO!
I watched in amazement at a recent fly-in as a fellow warbird pilot treated his departure in his Yak TD with the attention to detail and procedure that would make NASA proud. His “shuttle launch” had started earlier with a 25-minute walk around that looked more like a pre-buy inspection than a standard preflight. As he walked around his aircraft, looking carefully into every nook and cranny, he discovered a bug splattered on the front edge of the canopy. He quickly ran over to the baggage compartment to retrieve a microfiber cloth that he had stored in a zip-lock baggie labeled “windshield only” and his can of “Mr. Wizard’s” super-spray Plexiglas cleaner (only $18.95 a can). With the bug properly extracted from the windshield, the preflight could now continue. After a couple more laps around the aircraft, our warbird aviator bent over to retighten the laces on his jet-black Piloti race-car shoes, stuffed his flashlight back into his flight suit, put on his gloves, and just prior to jumping in, adjusted the zippers on his survival vest. I wonder if he has a pocket fisherman stuffed in there.
After five minutes of twisting, stuffing, and strapping, he had organized things well enough to attempt a start procedure, so up went his arm in a circular motion as he shouted, “Clear!” His well-examined beast roared to life in a puff of smoke. One side of the canopy bow, he had mounted some sort of PDA he was using for an electronic checklist. About every minute or so he would remove a stylus from his flight-suit sleeve, check off an item on the PDA, and carefully return the stylus to the sleeve pocket, making sure the Velcro flap was securely closed. This process went on for at least 15 minutes before he smartly saluted me and taxied off for takeoff, etching a perfect sine wave of prop blast into the air. He spent another 10 minutes at the end of the runway doing God knows what before taking the active runway. WOW, is this guy anal-retentive, over the top, or what?
I witnessed the complete opposite end of the “attention to detail” spectrum last spring at my home airport. I was washing my T-34 really close to a row of Piper Cherokees parked on the fixed-base operator’s (FBO’s) ramp when an instructor and his student walked passed me. (The instructor is the one with a bad tie, and the student is the one with the dingy Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirt.) As they passed me I asked if I was in the way, and the one with the tie said, “No.” A couple of minutes later I looked up and saw the pair of aviators sitting in one of the Cherokees with all three of the tie-down ropes still firmly in place. Surely they had not forgotten the ropes? I guess our illustrious instructor was just giving a cockpit orientation. I went back to washing, and a few moments later the morning silence was broken by the pair starting the Piper. I stood up and walked over to the front of their plane and gave them the old “shut it off” signal. The one with the tie shook his head no and pointed vigorously to the left. I moved a little closer and continued my signal until he finally shut it down. He jumped out on the wing and arrogantly shouted, “Hey buddy, what’s your problem? I got plenty of room to taxi!” His ego deflated at twice the speed of sound when I told him, “I know you have enough room, but I just thought you might want to untie the plane.” He jumped down and stared in utter disbelief at his yet-to-be-untied mount. (Yikes!)
The level of attention to detail required for a safe flight for the bulk of us probably lies somewhere between the two above scenarios, but if you have to err, it is certainly better to lean toward the “over the top” aviator. I have always believed that the level of preparedness, planning, attention to detail, and organization required for a safe flight is directly related to level of difficulty of the planned event, your comfort level, and your proficiency in the aircraft you plan to fly. If you have tons of hours in your J-3 Cub and you are just going around the patch on a nice, calm, sunny day, you certainly don’t need the same level of planning and preparation that would apply to flying a large warbird formation. If you have flown in the warbird air show at the Sun ’n Fun Fly-In at Lakeland, Florida, or EAA AirVenture Oshkosh recently, I am sure you have noticed our campaign to increase safety through better planning, preparation, briefings, and mission materials. Finding that right balance of preparedness comes to most of us through experience. Some have learned the hard way by finding themselves completely out of ideas when in an airplane in a bad situation. Perhaps our Yak pilot painted himself into a square corner, got burned, and has now committed himself to a shuttle launch every time he flies.
I have always said, “If you don’t have a plan, then you better have a plan for no plan.” Not that I am immune to a big boo-boo, but I have survived more than 38 years of both military and civilian flying without an accident or incident. Yes, I have had my share of emergencies and have put myself in some awkward positions, but I have always (to date) managed to recover from all of my self-induced crises. I think one of the reasons for this success is that I have always strived to have a backup plan that never puts me in a position where I have no remaining options. So yes, I am over the top. I may not be conducting a space launch every time I fly, but I feel best when I am over-prepared. I have been accused more than once of being anal, but perhaps it is because I feel ripe for a screw-up, since I have not had one. I am a real “wussy” when it comes to weather. I do not push it. I also have way more gas than I need, make maps on every cross-country, and check my gear multiple times on final. Yes, I make mistakes, but I try not to make the big ones.
I know how easy it is to just jump into the air with little or no planning or thought about what to do if something goes wrong. This is simply unsustainable behavior. Sooner or later you will get caught unprepared. There is a basic level of preparedness that is required for ALL flights in ANY airplane. One area where this is especially true is the takeoff. How many times have you taken to the air with absolutely no thought of what you would do if your engine quit? The safest approach is to formulate your takeoff emergency plan ahead of time and mentally review it prior to takeoff. In the airline world we brief engine failure on takeoff on the ground before we go. Obviously, the idea here is to have a procedural plan of attack that you can quickly execute if the need arises. Being unprepared here can lead to some very bad decisions and undesired results.
Your “over the top” game plan for engine failure on takeoff should include answers to the following questions: How fast can I go, lose an engine, and still stop on the remaining runway? At what point in the climb out will I retract the gear? What altitude do I need to achieve to execute a 180-degree turn back to the runway? What is my best glide speed? Will I land gear up or gear down? Will I attempt a restart? What are the airplane-specific procedures? Will I open the canopy prior to touchdown? Where are the good emergency fields located on the departure end of the runway? It is a good idea to survey the departure end of all runways at your home base so you can designate emergency landing areas. Google Earth is a great tool for this. I routinely look at Google Earth images of en route and destination airports as part of my cross-country planning procedure.
Speaking of cross-country flying, it is really easy to launch into a cross-country flight with one of those nifty GPS navigators and wear the label off the “Direct To” button when hopping across the countryside with little or no preflight planning. While I certainly fly in my local area without much navigation planning, if I go somewhere, I am guilty of dragging out the maps and doing it the old-fashioned way. I have a software program that prints route maps and a navigation log, and I use it all the time. My primary method of navigation is flying VOR to VOR and backing it up with GPS navigation…okay, okay, I will come clean; I, like all the rest of you, use my GPS as a primary source of navigation, but I am anal enough to back it up with basic navigation, VORs, and a paper map. Call me crazy for doing all this if you like, but I put myself into a self-induced scramble several years ago on a long cross-country flight. My GPS quit in marginal visual flight rules (VFR) conditions, and I had not prepared a backup navigation plan. Now I am forced to be “over the top” with navigation planning. I am resisting the temptation to laminate all of my sectional charts.
When I am droning along with map in hand, I spend time playing the “what if” game. I routinely look for possible emergency landing fields. I find one that I can make, and when I am out of gliding range to that one, I find another. I think about how I would approach that field and assess other things to include the wind direction, the location of power lines, type of terrain, and the location of houses near my landing area. I practice using the “Nearest” button on my GPS to find emergency airports and determine if I am in gliding range. I routinely use VFR flight following, as it keeps me in radar contact, and air traffic control would be a very valuable asset in an emergency. I realize that all this sounds a bit paranoid, but this contingency planning has kept my engine running smooth as silk. (This is kind of like taking an umbrella to the game to keep it from raining.)
I have had several engine failures over the years, but they have all been in multiengine aircraft. Some people will tell you that a multiengine aircraft is safer than a single engine, and others believe that if you have two engines, you just doubled your chances of one of them quitting. One thing for sure, if you are not proficient with engine-out procedures and you lose one, you’ve got big problems. I have never had an engine failure in a single-engine aircraft. I hope I don’t, but I have a plan if I do.
Now don’t get the idea that something has to break for you to get into trouble. We have far too many warbird accidents every year. Pilots continue to ground loop, run off the runway, run out of gas, fly into bad weather, run into one another, and simply crash into the ground in a perfectly good airplane after saying, “Hey, watch this!” to their adoring passenger. I don’t know about you, but when someone says that to me I reply with, “Whatever you are planning on doing, don’t!” If you want to impress me, please take me back to the ramp where you found me. Sadly, we lose an average of 10 warbird pilots a year in fatal accidents. Most of them can be attributed to pilot error and could have been prevented.
When you read about how someone landed gear-up it is easy to say, “How stupid. I would never do that!” but none of us is totally immune from this happening to us. I am completely paranoid about this happening to me, because I do not have a spare 30 thousand bucks to fix the problem, and the excuse that “The hatch just blew!” won’t fly on this one.
It is very important to form good, solid habit patterns and exercise them all the time to avoid getting your name on the “I am stupid list.” For example, my habit pattern for ensuring I get my gear down is to retard the throttle on downwind until I get the gear-warning horn, put the gear down, listen for the warning horn to quit, look for three green lights, look at the gear in my gear mirrors, and then on short final I recheck the three green lights and recite, “Gear down.” I also close the throttle prior to touchdown to ensure I do not have a gear-warning horn. I do this sequence every time! Paranoid? Anal? Over the top? Perhaps, but I have yet to make the stupid list and still have 30 grand in the bank.
In the military, we were taught to, during each phase of flight, perform a specific flow of events that closely matches the checklist. We would complete this flow and then take a quick peek at the checklist to make sure we had not missed anything. The idea here is to build a strong habit pattern you can repeat every time. The airline world uses a challenge-and-response method to run the checklist, and many in general aviation use the checklist as a “to do” list. It really does not matter what method you use as long as you “Git-R-Done”—especially biggies such as “gear, flaps, fuel, mixture, and prop.” (That is, by the way, my pre-landing mantra.)
The point of all this of course is to get everyone to think a little more about the way they operate their aircraft. Are your planning, preparation, and game plan sufficient? Are you ready for that bad thing to happen to you? Are you up to speed on your specific aircraft systems and critical emergency procedures? (Perhaps it would be a good idea to dust off the old flight manual and do systems and procedural reviews.) Do you exercise good habit patterns when you fly? Are you using your checklist? Are you striving to improve your flying skills? Take the time to be self-critical and ask yourself, “What am I doing?” “Why am I doing it?” and “Where am I going?” Flying safely is all about planning, organizing, managing risk, operating in your comfort zone, and being ready for the unexpected. Are you ready?
As I stand in the grass next to the runway on this beautiful Sunday afternoon, I notice that our intrepid Yak pilot has finally started his takeoff roll. He climbs out within a knot or so of his best rate of climb speed and smartly retracts the gear when he can no longer land on the remaining runway. His head is spinning back and forth like a nervous hoot owl as he surveys the area for emergency real estate. After completing his after-takeoff checklist and adjusting the pocket fisherman in his survival vest, he executes a smoothly coordinated turn to roll out precisely on his departure heading. The smooth hum of his radial engine slowly disappears into the warm afternoon air. Godspeed, John Glenn!