General aviation airplanes are great business tools that improve our efficiency by allowing us to do more work that is productive in the same total time. However, a self-piloted businessperson – primarily an instrument-rated private or commercial pilot who flies him/herself in a high performance single or light twin on business trips – can end up in trouble if they dont use that tool correctly.
Perhaps the most common problem experienced by the self-piloted business flier is fatigue. The flexibility of the GA airplane tempts them into scheduling themselves into situations in which they cannot get adequate rest before flying.
How About This…
Lets say you have a 10:00 a.m. meeting in a city that is a two-hour flight away and the meeting is likely to run until 4:00 p.m. You know it will take about 45 minutes to park the plane, pick up the rental car and drive to the meeting, and you want to allow a little slop time, so you plan to take off at 7:00 am.
Allowing time for the preflight, the drive to airport, weather briefing and flight planning, and getting up and dressed, youre looking at a 4:30 wake-up call. Coming home, youve scheduled yourself for about a 5:00 p.m. takeoff and a 7:00 p.m. landing.
Since you live in a normal house (wives, kids, last out for the dog, etc.), youre going to have a tough time getting to sleep before 10:00 p.m. the night before flying, which means youre getting only 6 hours of sleep instead of your usual eight. In addition, youre going to be making the landing back home after 14 hours on your feet.
You justify this by saying to yourself, Hey, I can do this one day, and catch up on my sleep when I get home.
Lets contrast this crew duty day of 14 hours on 6 hours rest with the U.S. Air Forces standards for single-piloted aircraft. Before reporting to fly, an F-16 pilot must have 12 hours off duty away from the base, with at least 8 hours of continued uninterrupted rest. Remember, here were talking about mid- to late-20s pilot in top physical condition – not a mid-50s business executive carrying a little more weight than the drivers license shows. Then, the Air Force requires that the F-16 pilot complete the last landing of the day within 12 hours of reporting for duty. Our example executive is exceeding that by 2 hours.
Granted, an air combat hop in an F-16 is much more demanding than a cross-country drone in a Bonanza, but the F-16 pilot is going to show up for the flight a lot fresher and more rested, and will be much more alert and responsive at the end of the flying day.
Now, lets throw in a curve or two. Start with some unanticipated tailwinds on the trip out. Makes it sound better, right? But you arent going to find out about them until you wake up at zero-dark-thirty and get your weather briefing, by which time your rest period is done. You may show up a bit early for the meeting, but you cant use those winds to get an extra 20 minutes of sleep.
In addition, your trip home is now likely to end another 20 minutes later. Further, you find that the lunch break goes half an hour over the hour planned and the end of meeting is now looking like 4:30 p.m. Then, at 4:20, you realize there are still a couple of outstanding issues that another hour of haggling can resolve. You congratulate yourself on having chosen to fly yourself, since the airline schedule wouldnt have allowed you this flexibility, and press on.
Next thing you know, its 5:45, the meeting is finally wrapping up, and your colleagues invite you to join them for dinner before going. Now you realize youre getting hungry – youd planned on having dinner at home around 8:00 p.m., and you realize that you wont even be on the ground by then. Realizing that flying while hungry is a bad idea, you accept. After all, you normally go to bed around 11:00 anyway, so if you dont land until 10:00 thats OK.
Lets run the clock forward a few more hours – its 9:45 p.m., youve been awake for over 15 hours, youre 20 miles out of the home drome, and the ATIS reveals the weather is 200-. You are about to shoot an ILS to minimums, at night, while you are at the end of an unusually long and demanding day.
Whats wrong with this picture?
Lets try another scenario. Well say the days schedule has gone like clockwork, right up until about 2:00 p.m., when you discover that you and the other side of the meeting have been singing off different sheets of music, and the differences are irreconcilable. Both sides have wasted a good bit of time, money and sweat, and each side thinks its the other sides fault – and says so, in no uncertain terms.
At 3:00, you decide that if you stay another minute youre going to say something you may later regret, so you stuff your papers into your briefcase, bid them adieu, and head for the airport. Youre an hour ahead of schedule, but you are angry, frustrated, and cant keep from thinking about all the opportunities you had to either read the tea leaves better or make your own position clearer.
When you hit the outer marker, your mind is operating at top speed, but its focused more on the meeting than on putting the gear handle down.
Now, a third scenario. You wake up at 4:30 a.m., pick up the phone, and discover theres light to moderate rime and mixed icing in clouds and precipitation from the freezing level (which is at the surface at your destination) up to 14,000 feet. The forecasts are confirmed by PIREPS, and only the jets are flying. Your Twin Comanche is a very capable airplane, but its not certified for known icing, nor is it turbocharged.
If you get in your car right now, you could be there by noon, but you know youd be whipped when you got there, and theres no way you could get home tonight – which means youd have to blow off tomorrow for the trip home. The only airline that flies into your destination couldnt get you there until about the same time as driving, and you have no idea if you can even get a seat at this point since youd have to make a connection via a commuter through a hub.
Getting home tonight isnt even a glimmer of hope, as the last flight you could catch leaves about the same time youd be getting out of the meeting. There wont be any way to contact anyone to postpone the meeting until they arrive there, which means a lot of folks are going to be annoyed at you for being a no-show and forcing them to reschedule the meeting.
There are a number of strategies that will help you stay out of trouble. First, try to keep your crew duty day down to something relatively normal – at least for you. If you normally get up at 6:00 am and go to bed at 11:00 p.m., try to find a way to stay within those bounds.
Recognize that landing at 11:00 p.m. may not be enough, as you can get just as dead falling asleep on the drive home from the airport as you can by descending into the terrain on final approach. Just because your airplane gives you the theoretical means to avoid making it an overnight trip, dont feel compelled to cram too much into one day.
The hundred bucks or so you spend in overnight expenses by flying out at a reasonable hour after work the day before is cheap life insurance (as well as tax-deductible). If the meeting runs later than will allow a return at a reasonable hour, consider yourself lucky youre not on the airlines, and recognize that your seat will still be there, ready when you are, tomorrow morning at 8:00 a.m.
Perhaps you cant afford the overnight for reasons other than cash – you have other things to do, places to go, or people to see on adjoining days. Or maybe the weather was too grungy the night before to fly out, but will be acceptable the morning of the meeting.
Fine – hire a competent pilot or flight instructor to ride with you or even fly your plane. While youre getting your brain fried dealing with unhappy customers or disagreeable collaborators, your partner-in-flying is checking his eyelids for light leaks in a recliner at the airport. When you get back to the airport frustrated and tired at 8:30 p.m. for the two-hour flight home, you can happily say, Glad youre flying the leg home – Im just not up to it.
Sure, it will cost you a couple of hundred in expenses, but thats one of the prices of doing business. And its still probably cheaper than the full-fare ticket you would have had to buy if you werent flying yourself. It also makes sure that someones checking the weather and preparing and filing the flight plan that you were going to during the last meeting break but forgot to until walking out to the airplane (Duh!), thus saving you half an hour or so in departure delay.
OK, where are you going to find this person? The best place to look is the local FBO. Instructing tends to be a little slower during the week, especially considering that just about everyone who can afford to take flight instruction has a real job five days a week. Theres probably a perfectly good CFI (maybe even an instrument instructor) just sitting around hoping someone will call.
While this person may not be all that familiar with your plane, thats not a big problem – youre going to be sitting in the right seat keeping an eye on things. You will find that using someone else as sort of a human autopilot is a lot less work than flying the plane yourself, but you will still be able to keep a good enough eye on what that other person is doing even if youre tired or distracted.
Where youre likely to get buried (maybe even literally as well as figuratively) at the end of a long day of business and flying is the basic stuff like maintaining a heading or stopping your descent at a given altitude while worrying about setting up for an approach or talking with the controller. By giving the basic flying tasks to someone else, you dramatically reduce the demands on your attention.
Sure, you dont like the idea of turning over your plane to someone you dont know well, and who doesnt know your airplane that well, either. Think about it this way – youre not turning the plane over, youre just letting an experienced pilot have a turn at the controls while you watch. From an insurance and FAA standpoint, you can still be the pilot in command. At the same time, your friendly time-hungry instructor can still log PIC time as the sole manipulator – everyone wins.
In fact, on the legs you fly, you have the opportunity to log some dual time, maybe get an instrument proficiency check or biennial flight review signed off. And who knows – this young upstart might even spot some bad habit youre developing and nip it in the bud.
If its a twin youre flying, just remember that the leading root cause of light twin engine-out accidents is lack of recent training in engine-out operations. Finding a multi-qualified instructor may give you the opportunity for a little engine-out training somewhere along the route. Whens the last time you lost an engine just as you pulled them back to climb power? It will only add about 30 seconds to your trip if the instructor does this, and gives you back the engine as soon as you get the situation under control. And it wont add any extra time if you lose an engine about five miles from the marker.
Either way, youre getting valuable training and practice at no extra charge. In fact, youre getting to write it off as a business expense!
Theres another problem with flying yourself, and that is unless you are an extraordinarily experienced and trained businessman-pilot with an unusually well-equipped airplane in which you maintain the highest levels of proficiency and recurrent training, there are going to be days that you and your airplane cant hack the weather, whether its icing, low ceiling/visibility, or convective activity.
Usually, this sort of weather is predictable at least six to twelve hours ahead, so you have some advance warning that you can move to an alternative plan. The key to making this happen is thinking ahead; as soon as you decide to fly yourself, your next step should be to work out an alternate transportation plan that can be activated on six to twelve hours notice.
Whether thats a refundable ticket and reservation on an airline flight, or driving the day before, or a more capable chartered aircraft on which you call at short notice, the existence of an alternate way to make it to the meeting is absolutely essential. Planning alternatives relieves the almost unbearable pressure to take a very big chance and go, rather than do what you really know is right by canceling your own flight.
Or maybe today is the day you taxi out and, when you select right magneto, the engine quits. And the airline cancels the backup flight. And theres a prison break halfway between here and there, and the state police have all the interstates shut down. Some days you just werent meant to go, and thats the way it is.
Whats Plan B?
If you are in the situation that you absolutely, positively have to be there, and your plane is the only way to do it, you have not done yourself justice – anyone as smart and successful as you are should know that you always have to have a fallback, an out, an exit strategy. And if theres no acceptable alternative to being at the meeting, make sure you plan to travel far enough ahead of time that an unexpected disaster can be circumnavigated and you can still get there in time.
Where the decisions get hardest is when things deteriorate en route. Youre already in the air, and the weather turns sour or a mechanical problem starts to rear its ugly head. This is when get-there-itis becomes a factor. Its a close relative of the well-known get-home-itis but it is sometimes even more compelling, as this is business, not personal, and that can make it seem like theres more at stake.
At this point, just think about what the people at the other end would say if you called and told them, Folks, I know Im supposed to be in Cleveland, but Im in Cincinnati. The airliner diverted for a mechanical problem, and theres no way Im going to get there today in time to do what we want to. Either we can move the meeting back to tomorrow, or we can try again next week. What do you say?
No one would question that the situation is entirely beyond your control; whatever inconvenience was occasioned, theyd take it in stride. Approach it the same way if its your airplane instead of Uniteds – it is beyond your control, youre just not going to be there, and thats the way it is.
By making that your attitude, you are in a better position to make a good judgment on whether to continue. Your attitude will communicate itself to the folks at the other end – the situation is beyond anyones control, and acceptance without recrimination is the only way to deal with it.
The mental trick that allows you to do this is compartmentalizing your mind. When youre at work, you shouldnt be thinking about flying, and when youre flying you shouldnt be thinking about work. This involves establishing imaginary mental compartments within your own head, which are self-contained, and which shut out anything not in that compartment. You may find you already do this between home and office. (Incidentally, building a home/family compartment and keeping flying and work out of it is a great way to improve your spouses attitude toward those other areas, and to enhance your own enjoyment of quality time with the spouse and kids.)
Build yourself separate flying and work compartments, and dont allow one to intrude on the other. This is a process that requires considerable mental discipline, but if youre the kind of person who is successful enough to afford to fly yourself around on business, and to have achieved the level of pilot performance necessary to do that sort of flying, mental discipline should be one of your strong points.
Take that as a reference point, and work on the technique.
Flying yourself on business can be rewarding, both financially and personally. Its a way to make trips you couldnt make any other way, often to save money, and an opportunity to get out of your office compartment for a few hours.
But it requires an understanding of the limitations imposed on you by the elements and your airplane, and those you must impose on yourself. By planning ahead, having alternate plans, managing your rest/duty cycles, and getting help in the flying tasks when needed, you can make it just as safe as it is rewarding.
-by Ron Levy
Ron Levy, an ATP and CFI, is an Assistant Chief Flight Instructor at American Eagle Aeronautical Academy.