Each of us flies for different reasons. Many pilots started (or continue) as enthusiasts interested in airplanes as recreational machines. Others learned to fly as a prelude to a career in the cockpit. For many, aircraft primarily are a means of transportation for business or personal reasons. In fact, if I did not require an airplane for travel, I would not bother to fly any more.
If you seek to use general aviation aircraft for travel, I believe a special approach to safety—implemented through targeted training and consistent flight operations—is required, especially if you are trying to meet any kind of schedule. Unfortunately, our training and operating procedures generally don’t prepare us for these flights. It is possible, however, to achieve high levels of safe utility, even with single-engine piston aircraft, if you employ a few simple techniques to achieve efficiency and reliability while managing risk.
The general aviation fatal accident rate has been stagnant for a decade. While business and corporate operations have a better safety record, the personal flying fatal accident rate has actually increased during that time.
A key issue I believe most hampering our ability to achieve safer utility from general aviation concerns inadequacies in the pilot training system, a topic we’ve addressed before in this publication. While I see some hope on the horizon, thanks to some recent FAA and industry initiatives, following are the key ongoing problems I still believe need to be considered and addressed:
Training Doctrine: The training system is still very much maneuver-based and does not emphasize the practical skills and decision-making processes involved with operating general aviation aircraft for transportation. A true scenario-based training system would be more effective in teaching these skills and processes.
Training Standards: The knowledge and practical test standards (PTS) are still rote and maneuver-based, emphasizing skill sets that either need to be updated or dropped. Newer skills—such as single-pilot resource management (SRM)—need greater emphasis.
Training Curriculum: Most curricula are not scenario-based and don’t make effective use of simulation, distance learning or other technologies.
Training Instruction: Most flight instructors have little or no experience operating general aviation aircraft for transportation. This colors both the content and the manner in which they provide flight training.
Managing Operational risk
Over and above how we train for using general aviation aircraft for transportation, the biggest obstacle to achieving safer utility is effective operational risk management. I’m not just referring to tactical risk management on each flight, as I have written about previously in these pages. Rather, pilots intending to use general aviation aircraft for regular transportation should adopt an overall approach to managing their flight operations like a “mini airline.”
I know many readers may protest about restricting the “freedom” of general aviation to operate as it wants, but approaching our flight operations in ways similar to those employed by scheduled carriers will do no such thing. The operational risk management I refer to can be implemented with hardly a ripple in flexibility even as your operation’s safety and utility are enhanced. While you cannot expect to achieve airline levels of safety or utility, you can come remarkably close.
For example, new airline captains have higher landing minimums until they have 100 hours of experience. You should practice the same policy. Not only that, but you also should reinstitute higher minimums anytime there’s been a significant lapse since your last experience with low IFR or other infrequent conditions. This won’t have much effect on your utility, but will reduce your risk. I can’t remember the last time I had to fly an approach to 200 and a half mile; the next time it’s likely, I will mitigate my risk by landing elsewhere, waiting until the ceiling and visibility improve or changing my schedule.
To provide more specific examples of how operational risk management affects safe utility, let’s use the PAVE risk-management acronym the FAA recommends to conduct tactical risk identification on individual flights. The acronym stands for Pilot, Aircraft, Environment and External pressures.
Since you are generally the sole pilot and “dispatcher” for your flight operation, you need to manage both qualification and aeromedical pilot issues.
Your qualifications includes your basic certificates and ratings, time in type, recent experience and mission-specific skills. Your job is to make sure they match your mission. It should be obvious that an instrument rating is essential for most “scheduled” transportation missions. You also should have sufficient time in-type to ensure aircraft and automation proficiency. In some cases, the specific skills you acquired as a private pilot may be essential on every flight they won’t matter for others. For example, I can’t remember the last time I flew a mission requiring a runway of less than 3000 feet. The Bonanza I fly is a great short-field airplane, but the next time I need a 2000-foot runway, or less, I will anticipate it soon enough to ensure I’m proficient on such fields, with my customary risk margins, before the flight.
Aeromedical issues also should be managed carefully. These include basic fitness, adequate rest, nutrition, hydration, medication awareness, use of alcohol and hypoxia. I spend a lot of time between 10,000 and 12,500 feet msl in a non-pressurized cabin and am judicious about using supplemental oxygen. For example, on a recent trip, I had meetings in Olathe and Wichita, Kan., plus Denver—all on the same day. It was a long day and, although good VFR prevailed, I had to stay at 12,500 most of the way to escape moderate turbulence. In this case, I spent some time on the (oxygen) bottle before descending into the busy Denver terminal area.
Your flying machine of choice must also match your mission profile. The Cessna 172 I owned for nine years was perfectly matched to my travel needs in the Northeastern U.S. in the 1970s. For strictly regional travel, an airplane like it can do the job. Both the Mooney 201 and the Bonanzas I’ve operated since are the minimum-performance airplanes I consider practical for operations throughout the U.S. (including two trips to Alaska).
Beyond the basic airplane, you need to consider equipment. Basic IFR gear is essential and so is an autopilot. In fact, an inoperative autopilot in the Bonanza is virtually a no-go item for me when launching on one of my month-long itineraries. Its impact on workload and fatigue is critical to risk management. I am only marginally joking when I say the autopilot might as well be wired to the gear switch. There should be a section in every high-performance aircraft pilot operating handbook (POH) labeled “non-normal” procedures (as opposed to “normal,” “abnormal” and “emergency”) and an inoperative autopilot should be the first item covered.
Of course, you need to stay proficient at hand-flying the airplane. I do this by flying every other approach and terminal operations with the autopilot. In between travel missions, I also make periodic proficiency flights where I emphasize manual rather than automated operations.
Beyond basic equipment, I consider moving map GPS and weather data link essential equipment for safe utility. Portable non-IFR approved gear is fine as long as you don’t use it as sole or primary. Instead, use it as much as possible to enhance situational awareness. For example, I will only execute an NDB approach in actual IMC conditions if I am able to monitor the approach on a moving map.
The basic airplane and its working equipment are critical to safe utility and so is aircraft performance. This includes your fuel/range profile (e.g., payload tradeoffs) and density altitude performance, especially for takeoff.
You need to establish usable, practical limits taking account of your aircraft’s “safe utility performance envelope.” For example, I have six hours’ endurance in the Bonanza at the altitudes and power settings I use. I try to land with 1.5 hours remaining unless I am certain fuel will be available at the destination and then I will land with one hour remaining. In 4.5 hours, I can cover 700 nm and I use this capability a lot during my extended itineraries. Having more fuel than required allows a pilot to circumvent weather easier or trade it for greater payload. Since I usually fly either alone or with a single passenger, I always launch with full fuel.
The range/endurance concepts embodied in the sidebar and graphics on the previous page can be useful when deciding what type of airplane to use for transportation, or even when conducting flight planning and deciding how much fuel to carry. It’s obvious more range and/or greater endurance translates into greater flexibility. What’s not obvious is the favorable impact a faster airplane can have on fatigue, the ability to circumnavigate poor weather or simply meeting your time and scheduling commitments.
Takeoff performance is another important issue for non-turbocharged single-engine piston aircraft in the intermountain West, where many of my missions take place. At locations like Telluride, Colo., and Jackson, Wyo., density altitude considerations are critical, especially in the summer. Once airborne, it’s less of an issue. For example, at the reduced gross weight I normally use for some flights, I routinely cruise at 16,500 or even 17,500 feet (with supplemental oxygen) even though my airplane isn’t equipped with a turbocharger.
We generally think of environmental factors as the greatest obstacle to general aviation’s safe utility. Rightly so. These include weather, terrain, night flying and airports.
Weather is a huge factor, of course. The primary elements affecting safe utility include convective activity, icing and widespread low IFR. The first and last hazards generally can be dealt with by changing departure times and/or routings. Using the range-performance issue cited earlier, pilots often can use this capability to fully mitigate some convective hazards without significantly affecting utility.
For example, let’s say you’re flying a 478-nm trip from Denver to Kansas City (APA to MKC). You could avoid a large convective area on your direct route by deviating over Dodge City, Kan. Even though it’s offset nearly 120 nm from your direct route, it only adds 41 nm to the trip, or about 15 minutes in the Bonanza.
Terrain also is an issue for a lot of us. For example, on trips to Telluride, I don’t use the Telluride airport (TEX) since it sits at more than 9000 feet msl and is surrounded by inhospitable terrain presenting few landing choices, along with often strong orographic turbulence. I land instead at Montrose (MTJ), where the elevation is less than 5800 feet, the terrain is more hospitable and the rental cars are cheaper. On the leisurely one-hour drive to Telluride, I’m enjoying the stunning scenery while mentally planning my next article, chapter, scene or the meeting in Telluride.
I’ll admit I’m afraid of the dark. At this point in my flying career, I will go ahead and continue to a night landing from a daytime launch if all other risk factors are low (duty day, aircraft operation, weather, terrain and destination airport facilities). If everything is perfect, I may even conduct a short second segment but it’s not likely because I’ll probably be tired, cranky and thirsty by then. I will not, however, launch anymore at night if it’s the first flight of the day. You have so many more options when you can see things.
The most insidious operational risk category for travel in general aviation airplanes may be external pressures from passengers, family, business associates and schedule-related issues. This pressure can be subtle or it can be overt.
My own process for dealing with this is to construct flexible schedules and ensure all other parties are kept informed about my decisions. For example, if my first week out includes business meetings running from Monday to Friday, I often will begin the trip on a Saturday or even the Friday before the weekend. I have the luxury of conducting most of my work pretty much anywhere I want, including hotel rooms. I often can also conduct book research and other peripheral activity at intermediate stops if that is an option, which it frequently is. I always have understandings with clients and potential clients regarding scheduled meetings and in almost every case we mutually agree in advance on a Plan B if we need to change meeting times or dates. Often they’re the ones asking for options.
Putting It All Together
There are a number of ways you can structure and organize the process and procedures allowing travel in your general aviation aircraft while achieving safe utility. For example, if you’re the type who prefers written yet simple procedures, you might want to create your own operations manual for your “flight department.” The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA—www.nbaa.org) has a product for members called the Light Business Airplane Flight Operations Manual Template that can help you create one. Such a manual can be especially useful if you fly turbine equipment or have multiple pilots.
But it’s not necessary to create a formal document to govern your flight operations if you’re flying a single-engine piston airplane. Instead spend a little time thinking about your current flight operations using the “PAVE” guideline, then make a list detailing how you will conduct or change them. Follow up with risk assessment and mitigation to complete the risk-management cycle. Then sit back and enjoy the utility your airplane provides. After all, that’s what it’s for.
Robert Wright is a former FAA executive and President of Wright Aviation Solutions LLC. He also is a 9500-hour ATP and holds a flight instructor certificate. His opinions in this article do not necessarily represent those of clients or other organizations that he represents.