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There Is A Modus Operandi for Everything
By Tony Bingelis (originally published in EAA Sport Aviation, June 1996)
You probably are not aware that your flying buddies can often identify you, even at a distance, from the way you habitually operate your aircraft (your modus operandi).
For example, you, like most pilots, will probably have developed your own unique way of preflighting the aircraft, starting the engine, taxiing, operating the radio, making run-ups, takeoffs, let-downs and landings, etc., etc.
It certainly is true in my case. Ever since I received my pilot license I have piddled with my procedures and techniques until they seemed to work better for me. When they did, I naturally continued to do those things that same way and new habits were formed.
However, I would be the first to admit that the procedures and techniques I evolved and use in operating my airplane may not always measure up to the optimum as perceived by some professional instructors and pilots. However, they seem to work and have rewarded me with a 50 year accident-free record.
Although pilots are permitted considerable discretion in the operations of their aircraft, we are all expected to abide by FAA’s standardized aircraft operations and flight procedures. You must admit that FAA’s attempt at standardization is a commendable goal when you reflect on the premise that:
1. YOU should know what to expect of ME, and
2. I should know what to expect of YOU . . . on the ground and in the air.
And yet, in spite of persistent attempts by the FAA, flight schools and instructors to standardize the way we all fly and operate our airplanes, we seem to have a propensity for developing habits and ways of doing things which don’t exactly fit a standardized mold.
Of course, much of this may be because flying is not an exact science . . . there are too many variables.
Three of these variables are obvious. They are the mental, mechanical and meteorological factors that confront us every time we fly. These factors certainly do influence the way we operate our aircraft at any given time.
For example, yesterday the wind was right down the runway - tomorrow it may not be. The technique I used worked good yesterday but may not work worth a hoot tomorrow. That being the case, I expect my next landing won’t be anything like my last one . . . it may even be better.
These thoughts have led me to question why I operate my airplane like I do. I know other pilots use many of the same procedures and techniques as mine, but I also know there are plenty of them who do things somewhat differently.
These operational differences may be due more often to external conditions, habit and impulse than to regulations and training.
Anyway, when it comes to flying, it is a good thing to every so often reflect on why and how we do what we do.
About Pulling The Prop Through
We already know it is a risky thing to do, yet there is some merit to turning the propeller through by hand before starting the engine . . . especially after an engine has been idle for a long time. Naturally, you would assure yourself that the throttle is completely retarded, the ignition switch is OFF and the wheels are chocked.
By turning the prop through 4 or 5 blades you will assure yourself that you at least have compression on all cylinders.
At the same time, you will be more likely to ascertain the security of the cowling, the condition of the propeller blades and that your valves are not leaking.
On The Use of Flaps
The only thing standard about the use of flaps is that the designer approved maximum extension speed for flaps should not be exceeded for the airplane. Other than that, using flaps is a highly discretionary function with most pilots.
As builders, however we have the added responsibility for mechanically limiting the maximum amount of flap travel. To provide a greater amount of flap travel than that recommended by the designer is not advisable because it could be dangerous.
In the event of an emergency, you might learn that you aren’t able to complete a go-around with the full flaps setting. A full flap travel of 40 to 45 degrees should therefore be considered the maximum in the absence of flight test data to the contrary. The general consensus is - if you have flaps use them.
Most pilots, under normal conditions, will use full flaps for landing . . . after all, guess who has to buy the tires?
Naturally, in gusty or crosswind conditions most of us use less flaps and a slightly higher approach speed.
When do you first put down flaps? There are differing opinions about this. Nevertheless, I believe the most logical point is somewhere on the base leg. That way your final approach speed can be stabilized and there won’t be unnecessary cockpit duties to distract you from making a good landing.
After the landing touch down, it is advisable to immediately raise the flaps to better pin the airplane to the runway. Naturally, manual flaps can be raised quickly with one smooth movement of a flap handle whereas you may have to sweat out the slower retraction of electric flaps.
Here is a serious concern. If you have a retractable gear, raising the flaps immediately after touch down can be risky, especially if your flap and landing gear controls are located close to each other.
Many a pilot has, after landing, inadvertently activated the landing gear switch instead of the flap switch. If such a potential exists in your airplane, don’t fiddle with the flaps until after you get off the runway. Then look at the switch you are activating.
It is assumed that good pilots never taxi with the flaps down because they might be damaged (not the pilots - the flaps) by debris swept up by the propeller.
Some pilots, young and old, lower the flaps of low wing aircraft to a full down position when parking the airplane - apparently so they can get in and out of the airplane easier without stepping on the flaps. This is O.K., I guess, but you better be sure you use a check list before takeoff. Full flaps takeoffs can be exciting.
On Fuel Management Essentials
Fuel management is one area where a good modus operandi can save your neck, and the airplane.
There continues to be too many fuel related incidents and accidents. Is there ever a justifiable excuse for running out of fuel . . . other than some mechanical fuel system failure? Bad luck is not a justification . . . neither is inadvertent fuel mismanagement.
First, a bit of advice. Never ever trust a fuel gage! Never! Pilots who habitually dip their fuel tanks with a calibrated stick before the first flight of the day apparently know that.
Refueling immediately after a flight is good insurance. It virtually eliminates the cold weather in-tank condensation problem. Besides that, your airplane will be ready to go when you are.
However, this refueling practice is not always possible because there may not be fuel on your airport, or you may be making numerous short flights . . . refueling after each would be impractical. Those of us who do make several short flights before refueling need to develop a way to monitor our fuel supply.
Fuel flow meters are nice but, remember, we don’t trust fuel gages.
Several pilots I know, this one included, always make an entry in their Aircraft Log Book for each flight. As a handy reference, they also record and circle the tach time and the number of gallons each time the aircraft is serviced.
Before the next flight, the present tach reading is checked against the log book entry showing the tach hours at the time the aircraft was refueled. This will, at a glance, show you the amount of time flown since refueling . . . and how much flying time remains before you have to refuel.
Incidentally, this practice also provides a means for checking your fuel consumption whenever you want over any period of time flown.
Here’s why a lot of sport pilots service their own homebuilts at airports away from home:
1. They are afraid the attendant might damage the filler neck and fuel tank by wedging the fuel hose against it.
2. Some attendants don’t seem to know where or how to ground the aircraft.
3. Sometimes the fuel is introduced too rapidly and the attendant doesn’t allow sufficient time for the fuel level to stabilize through the baffles. Consequently, your fuel tank may not really be filled.
4. The fuel cap is improperly installed or not installed at all.
5. The tank is overfilled and fuel slops all over the aircraft.
Reason enough for handing your own refueling, isn’t it? When you let someone else refuel your aircraft, it is a good idea to monitor their actions.
You have to switch tanks in flight sometimes . . . but, when? Every hour? But what if you don’t fly for an hour?
I always make my run-up on the tank I intend to use on takeoff. That way I’ll know that it is feeding properly.
I never switch tanks just before takeoff or landing . . . that tank just selected may not be working properly or may be dry.
Why do some pilots turn their Fuel Selector to OFF after the last flight of the day? I believe there is little need to do this. It is a dangerous practice because you may forget to turn it back ON. There is ample evidence that there will probably be enough fuel in the gascolator to start the engine and initiate a quick takeoff. What happens? The engine quits just as you become airborne. In short, never turn the Fuel Selector OFF during normal day-to-day flying activities.
How about the Electric Fuel Pump? If you have one, use it for takeoff and landings as a safeguard against the failure of the engine driven fuel pump.
It is easy to forget to turn your Electric Fuel Pump ON for takeoff and landing (check list anyone?). For that matter, how do you keep from forgetting to turn it off after reaching a safe altitude? (A lighted fuel Pump Switch helps remind me.)
Any time I experience engine failure, my automatic reflex is to turn the Electric Fuel Pump ON and switch tanks - even as I am agonizing over what to do.
There Are Let-Downs and There Are Let-Downs
Today’s sleek fast aircraft are difficult to slow down for traffic entry and landing. Making your let-downs by chopping the throttle to idle rpm and waiting for the airspeed to slow subjects the engine to shock cooling and should be avoided even in the summertime.
If you really have to get down in a hurry, a technique often used is to partially reduce the throttle and make tight steep descending turns. This will permit you to lose altitude quickly under partial power without building up excessive speed.
However, an extra alert scanning for other aircraft is advisable when losing altitude rapidly in this manner.
It is a far better practice to begin your let-down much earlier and at a more leisurely rate of descent.
I find that coping with traffic these days is more of a problem at uncontrolled airports. Unfortunately, the FAA does not seem to be inclined to mandate a standard traffic entry. Too many variables, I guess.
The old optional 45 degree entry was good and still is. Although it is somewhat time consuming, it allows every pilot plenty of time to determine traffic flow and avoid mid-air surprises and I would encourage greater use of the practice.
I think sanctioning straight-in approaches was a bad mistake. Theoretically, an aircraft in the closed pattern has the right of way over the straight-in intruder . . . but some intruders don’t seem to know this, so look out!
Some traffic patterns, usually due to student activity, tend to become overextended so much so that they, too, can be mistaken for straight-in approaches.
In short, you must now look for other aircraft entering on a 45 degree entry, making a straight-in approach, entering on a crosswind leg or most any way that may be convenient to some inbound pilots.
To make matters worse, when the wind is calm or close to it, be prepared to find somebody landing in the opposite direction to you.
On the final approach, how many pilots look way down the runway just in case? You do? It is a good survival practice.
Engine Shut-Down Practices
Are your mags safe? It is always risky to move the prop by hand for any purpose.
To minimize that risk potential, you should every now and then momentarily kill the engine by switching the ignition switch to the OFF position (at idle rpm) to verify that the magnetos are properly grounding.
Of course, the many pilots who habitually shut down the engine by revving it up to about 1200 rpm and pulling the mixture control back to idle cut-off to kill the engine may never know if the mags are still "hot." Sure, the engine will stop but the magnetos may still be ready to fire - even after the magneto switch is turned OFF. This could create a deadly situation if the propeller is thoughtlessly moved.
Before shutting the engine down (after returning from a flight) many pilots turn off most of the on-board electrical equipment like the strobes and nav lights.
It is embarrassing to have the strobe lights continue flashing after the propeller has stopped. Sure, they will go off when you turn off the Master Switch . . . if you don’t forget to do that too.
A Modus Operandi For Radios
As for the radios, I am advised that it is even more important that they, too, be turned OFF before killing the engine.
Many pilots do this manually by turning off each radio, one at a time. However, a lot of pilots also use their Avionics Master Switch (if they have one) to turn off all the avionics with a flick of that one switch.
Before shutting down the engine, turn off the power to the radios with the Avionics Master Switch in order to reduce the risk of a transient spike damaging your radios. This procedure will also save wear and tear on the individual radio switches.
In addition, the radios will already be conveniently preset to the last frequencies and volumes used, and will be activated to the same settings as soon as the Avionics Master Switch is turned ON.
Of course, if you miss turning off the Avionics Master Switch, you may forget the radios entirely and your next engine start will be made with all the radio switches ON. Not a good practice because of the wildly fluctuating voltage present during starting.
A Parting Observation
Will I ever change any of my own aircraft modi operandi? Sure, how about you? After all, there is always the probability that someone will come along and show me a few better, easier or safer ways to operate.