Not everything in the professional world is written in policy, procedure and checklists. Every profession creates a certain amount of local knowledge, and certainly aviation has its share. One of the most attractive features of military or airline flying is the amount of information sharing that occurs. In these settings, critical information is often contained in flight information files, pass along notes or safety bulletins.
However, the most effective information sharing often occurs after the flight, when pilots are simply hanging out together. This is often described as hangar flying, and the more these stories are told, the more information is shared. It is also true that the more often they are retold, just like fish stories, their accuracy may be increasingly suspect! However, these stories give rise to tidbits of local knowledge passed on from pilot to pilot that can make a difference in how safely we fly. Let’s review a few of these, and maybe you can share the most powerful ones you know as well.
The Rule of Threes
The Rule of Threes dates to the philosopher Aristotle and his text “Rhetoric.” Simply put, we remember things best when they come at us in threes. Okay, so Aristotle was not a pilot. However, translated into aviation parlance, this rule speaks to combinations of otherwise seemingly benign events or conditions that add up to more than the sum of their parts.
Commercial and military flight manuals, as well as General Aviation Pilot Operating Handbooks (POH) are replete with cautions and warnings. Each of these bold print announcements promise damage, injury or worse! But what of aircraft issues that do not rise to this level? In the airline world, pilots are guided by a minimum equipment list (MEL) yet in general aviation, these decisions are often left to individual judgement. This is where the Rule of Threes comes in handy.
Let’s look at an airline example first. In an older four-engine jet, one generator fails. No problem, we have three more. Then, 30 minutes later, a hydraulic pressure light on the same side flickers but returns to normal. Hmmm, more serious, but still no caution or warning to send us scurrying home. Finally, an electrical circuit fails intermittently, again on the same side. Hmmm, time to heed the Rule of Threes. Each failure on its own may not rise to the level of aborting the flight, but taken together, something more sinister is going on. The flight crew begins to realize that from these symptoms, they do not know what might really be wrong. So better to land and let maintenance figure out what is wrong before it turns into something more serious. Now how might the Rule of Threes apply to the risk factors associated with single-engine general aviation flight?
Let’s assume that the least risk baseline for planning a single-engine GA flight is a visual flight rules (VFR) trip, in broad daylight, over flat terrain. Now let’s start adding up risk factors. First up, an Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) trip is often safer from a navigation standpoint but can introduce more risk in the event of aircraft failure. Second, night flying is smoother, less congested, and much more serene but also introduces increased risk factors.
And, finally, mountain flying, safely conducted, is especially beautiful but introduces another set of increased risks. Add the combined risk factors of night, IFR and mountain flying in a single-engine airplane, and it may be time to consider the Rule of Threes. Singularly, each risk is manageable; combine any two, and it may still be okay, but add all three together, and the risks involved are significant. Let’s see if there are more rules that apply.
Aviate, Navigate, Communicate
This one has been around since Wilbur likely said it to Orville before he made that first takeoff at Kitty Hawk. However, loss of aircraft control remains the number one cause of fatal general aviation accidents. In the early 1990s, at the B-52/KC 135 Central Flight Instructor Course (CFIC) at Castle Air Force Base, California, the course text contained the bold print admonition “FLY THE AIRCRAFT” at the bottom of each page. The faculty, all very experienced instructors, wanted to remind new instructor candidates that no matter the situation, their first duty was to maintain aircraft control. Since military pilots are expected to do so much more than simply flying the plane, this was a timely reminder.
“Fuel planning, especially inflight as conditions change, remains at the top of the risk-reduction hit parade! So maybe by taking off with full tanks, using the full length of the runway, and cruising at a little higher altitude, we might just reduce our risks a bit.”
Okay, you say, we in GA have a simpler task. Well, not so much. In this age of digital displays, multiple avionic navigation menus and full-featured autopilots, it is surprising how many pilots are still missing this vital first step. Letting the autopilot fly the aircraft to places the pilot cannot recover, spending excessive head-down time typing and retyping instructions, and failing to pay attention to basic airmanship in the landing pattern all have ended badly. And, of course, it does little good to key the mike button and tell the world of your troubles until the aircraft is under control! So the plan drilled into every military pilot trainee is: (1) maintain or regain control of the aircraft, (2) figure out where you are and where you are going, and (3) then tell air-traffic control about it so it can help you get there! Seems like good advice. But there is another set of threes out there.
The Three Most Useless Things
We have all heard that the three most useless things are runway behind us, altitude above us, and fuel in the truck. Think back to 1927 and Charles Lindbergh taking off from Roosevelt field in the Spirit of Saint Louis, loaded down with 450 gallons of fuel, and you get the picture. Recently, my local airport experienced a long-term intersection takeoff situation. Pilots, to their credit, were quite scrupulous about requesting back taxi instructions, to ensure that they had access to each one of the 5,000 feet available. Obviously, these pilots had heard of the first most useless thing.
The second, cruise altitude, is often dictated by the winds. Conventional logic says fly low into a headwind and higher in a tailwind. Yet, altitude also buys us time and distance when things go wrong, especially during single-pilot/single-engine IFR! Now jet fighter pilots often fly ultra-low-level flights. However in a critical emergency, they convert speed into energy and use it to zoom to a higher altitude. However, a typical GA aircraft with a rough-running engine doesn’t “zoom “very much; in fact, not at all! So, a couple thousand extra feet of cruise altitude might provide a few more minutes in an emergency.
And finally, the number one cause of off airport landings remains fuel exhaustion. We covered this situation more fully in a previous article on bingo fuel, but fuel planning, especially inflight as conditions change, remains at the top of the risk-reduction hit parade! So maybe by taking off with full tanks, using the full length of the runway, and cruising at a little higher altitude, we might just reduce our risks a bit.
Staying Ahead of the Airplane
The goal of each of this collection of local knowledge, is to help us plan ahead so we have the most options in an emergency. The ability for pilots to get behind their aircraft does not depend on speed. As Albert Einstein might have said, be it 120, or 2,000 knots, it’s all relative! Think of it this way. When an airshow pilot begins a loop at low altitude, they need to know how it will turn out before they begin! These examples of local knowledge that are a foundation of our profession have stood the test of time. Making good decisions, remaining aware of our situation, and maintaining aircraft control are all parts of the responsibility we take on as pilots. Take some time to remind yourself of the tribal knowledge you have learned at the feet of other, more experienced pilots and fly like a Pro!