Ace up Your Sleeve

Strategies that help keep fighter pilots alive can work for you, too


In the tumultuous atmosphere of an aircraft carrier, some of the worlds best pilots routinely embark on some of the most dangerous flying there is. Military aviation, especially carrier operations, demands disciplined pilots, well-maintained machines and a hard-headed look at the risk involved in every flight.

Even though most civilian pilots will never experience the critical flying demands that a fighter pilot takes in stride, the stakes are just as high. A wrecked airplane is still a wrecked airplane, and a dead pilot is still a dead pilot.

Over the years the military has learned a lot of things about flying, airplanes and risk assessment by losing a lot of blood, people and airplanes. Although many of those lessons are best suited for military flying, some of them apply equally to all pilots, whether theyre hunting tanks in an A-10, flying across three states in a Baron to attend a meeting or coaxing a Cub to a Saturday morning pancake fly-in.

Holding yourself to proper procedures and strict standards from preflight through touchdown will help your mind stay ahead of your airplane. It will help you retain your technique during periods of disuse. Most importantly, it will give you the best shot at coping with the unexpected should an in-flight emergency arise.

Preparing to Fly
In the military, the system is very structured. To learn new maneuvers or new airplanes, the military uses a stairstep approach. Everything is built on what has come before, so there shouldnt be too many surprises.

The emphasis is on procedures. Its not enough to have a working knowledge of your airplane, for example. You must be intimately familiar with its systems, how they work, how trouble manifests itself and how to respond.

Emergency procedures are especially critical. You have to know immediately what to do. If you have to reach for the book, it may be too late by the time you touch it, much less flip through it to find the right section.

The emphasis on procedures means that preflight is extremely thorough. Every flight has mission-specific goals, and each is thoroughly briefed in a preflight briefing that may last more than two hours. The briefing goes through the mission in detail. Frequencies, weather, tactical requirements, return route to the field and landing order are all specified in advance.

In a two-person cockpit, crew coordination is heavily emphasized. Even in aircraft where only one seat has flight controls the second officer is generally held equally responsible (and culpable) for any flight incident.

The strength of the system relies upon that framework, and to a large extent the militarys approach can be mimicked by general aviation pilots.

Many pilots skip weather briefings, take off with old or missing charts, or lack a clear understanding of what they intend to do during the flight. If youre headed out for practice, think about what you are going to practice and why.

If youre making a business flight or making a personal cross-country trip, brief yourself ahead of time on how the flight will transpire. Dont just point the nose in the direction you want to go and fly away.

If there is more than one pilot aboard, get straight in advance who will handle what. Many flights have come to grief when the non-flying pilot was definitely the senior pilot on board. In times of trouble, an inexperienced pilot may hand the airplane off unexpectedly or the non-flying pilot may abruptly take control.

The Flight Maneuvers
In a carrier landing, an F-14 is put in a holding pattern above the ship to await its turn. After being given a time to leave the holding fix, the pilot must leave the fix within two seconds of the target time, on altitude and on speed.

The jet barrels down the glideslope at 140 knots, with airspeed held to within two or three knots. There can be virtually no deviation from dead center. Altitude must be plus or minus one foot. Every landing is graded, with the grades posted publicly.

By comparison, an airplane on an ILS at the middle marker is about eight feet off target altitude for each dot of glideslope deflection. The longer runways and slower approach speeds make altitude and airspeed much less critical. In addition, the runways at airports are usually not moving.

Put your performance in perspective.

If youre planning to shoot touch-and-goes, for example, have specific goals in mind. Make the second one a short-field approach and takeoff and the third one a soft-field procedure. Consider before you fly what the differences are in technique and airspeed. Decide ahead of time what constitutes an acceptable effort and grade yourself – mentally or on paper – on each one for later review.

If youre making a cross-country trip, hold yourself to particular standards. Dont let your altitude and heading wander even if youre flying VFR in an empty sky. Tell yourself before you take off that youre going to hold altitude to within 50 feet and heading within five degrees – and then stick to it. At the very least, try to operate within the standards of the last practical test you took – or on the next one if youre planning to advance your ratings.

Think that precision is difficult? Military pilots flying in close parade formations fly within three feet of each other.

Pay attention to your arrival times at en route checkpoints and compare them with your ETAs. If you think thats too much trouble, consider the bomb run, in which the weapon must be released within one second of the planned time to have any hope of hitting the target.

Maintenance and Operations
Fighters are sophisticated airplanes, which cuts both ways. They have superior performance, but also require more maintenance than general aviation airplanes. In the military, money is generally not an issue when deciding whether to fix something or defer it. Most airplane owners, however, have felt the urge to delay some repairs at one time or another.

Taking a few cues from military operations, however, can help reduce repair bills for light plane owners.

First, know the systems of the airplane intimately. If a gauge or annunciator light signals a problem, know how that warning system works and how to crosscheck whether the warning is in error.

Knowing how each system works will allow you to understand whats going on inside the machine and make a better judgment on how the malfunction affects the safety of the flight. It allows you to troubleshoot the problem to some extent yourself and explain the symptoms more accurately to the mechanic. That translates to less down time and lower bills.

Know and observe the operating limitations of the airplane. Exceeding gear or flap speeds or using unapproved power settings can spell trouble. Descending through turbulence with the airspeed indicator in the yellow arc can mean a spar repair sooner rather than later. Think the few minutes you save will pay that bill? Think again.

Perhaps most importantly, define for your airplane what constitutes an up-gripe and a down-gripe. That is, know what kinds of malfunctions ground the airplane.

Do this in advance so you wont be as willing to fudge on the definition when a problem crops up as youre getting ready to leave on an important flight.

Assessing the Risk
Whatever youre trying to do, assess whether its worth doing.

If the airplane is mechanically marginal, do you really need to shoot a few touch-and-goes? If youre feeling a little tired or distracted, do you have to get that IPC today, or can it wait for a few days?

It may not be worth pushing into marginal weather to visit relatives, but it may be worth making the same flight for instrument practice with an instructor. Tackling a short, narrow airfield may seem foolhardy – unless the engine has stopped making noise.

Consider also the insidious problems that can creep up on the pilot, the airplane and the system.

During periods of tight defense funding, for example, the need to maintain operational readiness puts stress on the whole system. A shortage of spare parts may mean that an operational component has to be swapped from plane to plane. That puts added pressure on the maintenance staff and sometimes leads to sloppy mistakes due to fatigue.

If your maintenance budget is strained, consider what it might do to the safe operation of the airplane. And it doesnt just mean repairs you know youre deferring. Many well-meaning mechanics who sense financial pressure on the owner wont even bring up looming maintenance issues. You may get maintenance that follows the letter of the law, but you may be wasting the opportunity to have your mechanics trained eye looking out for your welfare.

In the military, the farther you are down the command food chain the less say you have over what you do. Some civilian pilots also feel like theyre put on the spot. The boss needs to get to Peoria pronto. The student needs to prepare for a checkride in two days. Your mother-in-law wants her grandkids at her birthday party tomorrow.

One sentence should be all it takes to remind whoever is pushing you to fly that you have the final say over the safety of the flight: I dont feel up to it today.

The ability to back out of a flight is always there before takeoff – up to a point. Certainly anyone who uses the sinus infection defense too many times will be looking elsewhere for flight responsibilities, but use it if the weather is too bad, you dont feel proficient, the airplane is suspect or youre too tired. Better to arrive late, after all, than to never arrive.

Remember also that, despite all the preparations, sometimes theres no way to prepare for something until it happens. The need to maintain altitude and airspeed should be deeply imbedded. Knowledge of the systems is essential. The well-known mantra fly the airplane first applies here, because without maintaining control it doesnt matter much what else you can do.

Never Stop Learning
Part of the reason military pilots adapt to such a structured flying environment is that discipline is such a part of the militarys culture. People are conditioned to follow orders and therefore expect to be given specific procedures. They dont have any ego problems when they follow edicts sent down from above.

In addition, a critical pillar of military flying is that the pilots are in the business of flying their aircraft. Thats all they do.

Most general aviation pilots have other responsibilities that enable them to afford the cost of flying, but they can still tap into the mindset. Visualizing your flying during those fleeting periods of daydreaming can help. So can mentally going over checklists or performance numbers while standing at the microwave waiting for the coffee to get hot.

Its also important to pick the brains of the best pilots you can find. Pilots who are really good know all kinds of things youll never find in a POH. By associating with them, learning how they think, and talking about the strategies they use, you have a better chance of becoming one of them.

Since my retirement from the Navy, Ive caught myself regressing just a bit. Although I am still very methodical, I do occasionally miss a step during preflight or rely on memory instead of a checklist. Its clear that military-like discipline does not come easy in the more casual environment of general aviation.

Knowing that, however, is the first step on the way to ensuring that you dont become too complacent.

Most of the tactics fighter pilots use to optimize safety are logical to all pilots. Because they fly close to the edge, fighter pilots learn to believe in them. Maybe its time for you to become a believer, too.

-by Dale Snodgrass

Until his retirement from the U.S. Navy last year, Capt. Dale Snodgrass was the highest-time F-14 pilot, with 4,800 hours in the Tomcat and more than 1,200 carrier landings.


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