Flying versus driving

When you see the statement, “Flying versus Driving”, what is your first thought? For most, the obvious comparisons of time, fun, and convenience of general aviation flying to the alternative of driving probably come to mind first. But this time my intention is different. I want to discuss the mechanics of flying and suggest that all too often, pilots stop “flying” their aircraft and fall into a mode of just “driving” their aircraft. Go sit in view of a general aviation runway for an hour or so and you’ll see what I mean.

As pilots, we are obligated to keep our skills sharp. As aircraft owners, we have the best opportunity to do just that. We don’t have to schedule an airplane, worry about rental hassles, or wonder if the maintenance has been done. That’s one of the major benefits of ownership. Yet how many airplanes do we see out on the ramp or in the hangar week after week, month after month, that are rarely flown? And then, when that owner does come out to fly, it’s often like watching an air show of the worst kind. The obligation to stay sharp is one thing. Meeting it is obviously another.

Do you remember when you were first learning your flying skills? How much fun it was to go out and practice maneuvers and pattern work? My favorite flying exercise was landings. I loved shooting landings. And after all these years and hours, that hasn’t changed.

In my early years some of my flying buddies would rent planes and fly an hour each way for that hamburger. I did that once in awhile, but that wasn’t nearly as much fun as staying in the pattern for an hour or two.

What is it like when you fly now? Is the fun in flying the plane, or is it fun because you’re just flying? There’s a big difference, but you can have both. The trouble is, too many pilots are digressing to the latter. And when that happens, often the fun of flying goes away, too. I perform a considerable amount of recurrent flight training during the year and, unfortunately, I’m seeing too many pilots who just drive their airplanes.

It starts with preflight. The drivers look but don’t see; almost as if they don’t really care about it but they don’t want anybody watching them to think that they’re not a safe pilot. The preflight is not what you can show to someone else, it’s what the plane is trying to show you that’s important.

And then there is the checklist. Is the checklist a “cheat-sheet” to remind you of what you are supposed to do? Or is it a list that you check once you’ve done everything just to be sure that you haven’t missed anything?

I am a staunch advocate of developing a particular “flow” through the cockpit and across the panel for all checks at different phases of flight, always doing them first by memory, then referring to the checklist just to be sure you got everything. Now it’s really a “checklist” instead of a “to-do” list.

On take-off, do you nail the centerline and rotate so that the plane smoothly leaves the ground and automatically stops at the attitude for the desired climb speed? Or does it hop and skip down the runway until it finally leaps off the ground whether you’re ready or not?

If you use flaps for take-off, does the plane sink when you retract them or do you smoothly compensate so that the passengers don’t even feel it?

Can you consistently maintain the centerline on departure or do you just wind up where either P-factor or the winds take you? Is the ball always in the center?

If you had an engine failure at 50 feet above ground right after take-off, what are the “immediate action steps” to best deal with the situation in your airplane? Not just the rote steps like “lower the nose.” I’m talking about the other things that can extend your particular airplane’s “air time” and soften the landing. What is the lowest altitude after take-off, in your plane, at which you’ll be able to turn around safely and make it back to the runway, if the engine packs it in?

Can you fly a nice square pattern, smoothly reconfigure the airplane for the final approach and consistently touch down where you want to on the runway? Or do you just point it at the numbers and if you arrive within a 1,000 feet of it you’re happy?

Are your flare-outs smooth and progressive to the ground or do they look like a sine wave?

Can you do a forward slip to the runway, kick out and touch down smoothly on the spot? Can you cut the throttle abeam the numbers and dead-stick it to a predetermined spot? Can you do it three times in a row?

Can you establish a stable crab, sideslip, or any combination you choose to deal with a crosswind? Can you take that configuration to the flare, then maneuver as necessary to maintain centerline and touchdown without any sideward motion? Or do you just stick it anyway you can in a crosswind and hope the nose-gear will do its thing and save your bacon?

I think you’re getting the picture. Such examples can be used for every phase of flight and for trips under VFR or IFR. I emphasized the phases of flight that occur in the pattern because nearly 60% of all general aviation accidents occur either in the takeoff or landing phase.

I am convinced this is because there far too many pilots “driving” their planes instead of “flying” their planes.

Which are you doing?

Guy R. Maher has been actively involved in aircraft sales and type-specific training since 1972. With more than 12,500 hours in general aviation airplanes and helicopters, he currently flies an IFR EMS helicopter, is an FAA Aviation Safety Counselor, and provides consultation and testimony on operational and safety issues for legal proceedings.

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