Time Shortage = Human Error

Take your time, whether its in preflight, fuel planning, weather watching or instrument approaches


Getting rushed or falling into situations where a time shortage rears its head is one of the leading causes of inducing errors. If you are rushed for time, you are eleven times more likely to commit an error.

You are more likely to skip critical items, overlook important details or jump at the first idea that enters your mind without fully looking at other options. Youll ignore important warning signs and generally get that deer in the headlights look. Its prevalent in all segments of aviation. During my recent research into EMS helicopter accidents, I found that time pressure was one of the leading error-causing conditions.

Some time shortages are self-induced. Others are created by a busy ATC system, and still others are the result of rapidly changing weather.

It takes different strategies to try to avoid being pinned into a corner by any of these. But while your goal may be to prevent time shortages, and since Murphys Laws seem to be as persistent as gravity, its inevitable that your mission as pilot in command will sometimes bump head-on into the problem of time shortages. The good news is that there are several strategies for making better decisions when under the gun of a ticking clock.

Avoid the Busy Environments
Face it, you create some of the situations where you feel rushed for time. You can put a stop to most of those situations through good judgment and preparation. Anyone who has tried to fly out of a very busy airport at 5 p.m. on a Friday afternoon knows exactly how insanity doesnt begin to describe the traffic situation.

The best way to avoid getting into a time crunch is to avoid airports that are likely to be congested. This means reliever airports at the start of a long weekend and airports near sporting events like auto races and college football games. It also means airline airports anytime a complex of flights is coming or going.

It gets even worse when the weather drops below VFR and the controllers have to start metering the traffic into the arrival and approach windows. When the weather is VFR at busy terminals, the controllers are able to issue visual approach clearances – and that allows them to move metal.

When the weather nixes visual approaches, the workload goes up considerably for both controllers and aircrews. ATC must vector the aircraft for approaches, and the spacing between aircraft is much greater. Its very easy to get flustered with extended vectors, holding and rapid-fire IFR clearances. The net result is that the radio gets even busier.

There is a world of difference between flying into hub airports during their quiet hours and busy hours. When I flew a 727 cargo jet on 4 a.m. trips into Boston or Los Angeles, the controllers were nice and usually cleared me direct from one end of the country to the other.

While my body really didnt relish being at work at that hour, it was a delight to fly in such a friendly ATC environment. When I got lucky and my seniority number somehow fell into a month of daytime flying, the traffic going into busy airports made me nuts. It was enough to make me miss those 4 a.m. flights.

Last autumn I watched and listened to a Mooney trying to operate at Boston Logan on a busy afternoon. I really felt horrible for the pilot. For starters, he was way over his head operating in the rapid-fire environment of Boston. There just isnt any time to reply back to ATC.

He was obviously flustered, unfamiliar with operating in such an environment, and making a lot of mistakes. He would have been far better off had he flown into one of the outlying airports with a lower workload environment and slower traffic. But he created his own problem with his choice of destinations.

Back when I was a Designated Pilot Examiner, I often noticed applicants get very flustered trying to do things quickly, and without fail, if the preflight started poorly, the rest of the flight (if I let them get that far) usually went downhill. Hey, weve all been there. There are some days when you shouldnt be in the air.

Always start any flight with a pleasant drive to the airport. When you approach that aircraft, you want a completely relaxed mind. If you approach the aircraft in a hurry, you are going to miss items on the preflight, and errors are likely to cascade throughout the rest of the flight.

Try not to approach the flight with a self-imposed time limit. It will make you hurry, and you will start making mistakes that may cascade. Consider that in the preflight contests common at airshows, 85 percent of those who examine the airplanes miss a rag stuffed in the engine induction air inlet. Cowl plugs, bird nests and mud can strangle the engine at takeoff, even after a successful run-up. Clearly preflight is not the time to save time.

Having been an EMS pilot, I know how the mission can really create a sense of urgency, especially when lives are at stake. Consider this NASA ASRS narrative that clearly shows how rushed preflights can really cascade:I arrived at work for a shift change. After parking the car, I heard one of our hospital helicopters turning on the hospital helipad. I ran to the pad so I could relieve the night pilot and take the flight. We exchanged places with the rotors still turning. When I got into the helicopter cockpit, the aircraft was not ready for flight. We were responding to a multiple car accident with serious injuries incurred.

I do remember pushing the throttles forward. … As we moved forward, my warning lights and horns for low rotor rpm came on. … Upon landing and shutting down, I discovered that approximately 2-3 inches of each tail rotor blade was chopped off. … Problem areas: The quick EMS helicopter responses…

When I was involved in aerial fire-fighting, we typically shot for a six-minute window to get launched. At some fire bases, we were under considerable scrutiny and scorned if we werent airborne within six minutes.

In order to facilitate getting airborne in time with minimal errors, I always showed up at the airport in the quiet hours of the morning. I chose those quiet times because I could do the preflight without being interrupted and without being rushed.

All of the preflight and before-engine-start items were accomplished down to the point of pushing the master switch and engaging the starter-generators. When the siren went off, I was able to jump into the flight suit, grab my water bottles from the freezer, pull the chocks, pull the tethers on the props, turn on the master switch and start the engines.

Everything was done ahead of time so that I was assured that every switch was in the proper location and that the aircraft was completely airworthy for the flight.

You should always start your preflight with a calm mind and good mood. Always allow yourself plenty of time to do the preflight. Even if you have somewhere you think you have to be, remember you got into flying because it was fun (despite what my military instructors insisted.)

Why start off a flight prone to error by rushing the preflight? Take your time and relish the job well-done.

Buying Some Time
I think the Avianca Boeing 707 that crashed after a missed approach into New York is one of the more glaring examples of where a fuel shortage equals limited flight time available, but the same scenario is replayed hundreds of times a year in general aviation airplanes.

By the time the Avianca flight had entered into New York area, it had to land in New York. It didnt have enough fuel to hold or to go to its alternate. The pilots put themselves in the unfortunate position of having no way out. The communication problems inherent in this accident added to the error chain.

What isnt immediately obvious in that accident is the fuel situation really started early in the flight. The flight, en route from Colombia to New York, was given a hold adjacent to Miami when it was barely half way through the flight. The jet held long enough that it consumed some of its fuel for going to its alternate.

When the flight progressed up the coast, it was held once again abeam Washington. When the jet left that holding fix, it didnt have enough fuel to go to Boston, its alternate. As it neared New York, the pilots had no fuel for any other options.

Do not allow yourself to be put into a position where you are pressed for time. The worst case of being rushed for time occurs when you are low on fuel. Since most pilots cant call in an Air Force KC-135 for some aerial refueling, there is nothing you can do to extend your time available other than reducing power. Put the airplane on the ground before its too late. The half hour it takes to stop for fuel is nothing compared to the time it takes to haul an airplane out of a corn field.

Fuel equals time. Whenever possible, plan your trips so that you have plenty of fuel for the what-ifs. And the thirstier the airplanes engine(s), the faster your decision-making has to be to keep up. Its no fun having the clock loudly clicking away precious seconds.

Racing the Weather
Rapidly changing weather conditions are another factor that puts time pressure on you. Fast moving weather fronts or MVFR were the more common culprits in my study of EMS accidents.

For all pilots, there is no excuse for not obtaining a complete weather briefing before you depart on a cross-country flight. Sure, the FARs say you have to, but beyond that its just dumb to dive into a cross-country flight without knowing what the weather is likely to be.

Of course, making that decision isnt an easy black and white problem when the weather approaches the gray zones. How often does the weather service predict icing in the winter? Thunderstorms in the summer?

It seems icing will be forecast anytime there is visible moisture and the freestream temperature is below 10 degrees C. Do you always stay on the ground with a forecast that says, a chance of icing?

You can fly all winter long and encounter no ice despite the forecast of icing conditions. In the summertime, the weather forecasts seem to always have a chance of afternoon thunderstorms. So do you cancel your flights because of less-than-ideal forecasts?

Its unfortunate that you have to make black and white go/no-go decisions based upon these probabilistic events. The most conservative decision is to cancel the flight, but thats pretty unrealistic. You might as well chain your aircraft to the ramp if you are going to get that conservative.

You will have to use your best judgment to make go/no-go decisions, based on such factors as your trip, the location and severity of the predicted weather and your proficiency.

If you look at the weather chart and see a rapidly moving cold front in the summer, then the chances of getting some strong thunderstorms are good. If you are flying into the Pacific coast areas with an on-shore breeze, chances are good that fog will develop. Keep your options open, and keep updated on the weather.

If youre instrument rated, fly IFR when going cross-country even if the weather is good enough for VFR flying. If your destination starts getting inclement weather, that bad news will often be communicated by ATC.

Regardless of whether youre flying IFR or VFR, staying informed on the weather situation is very important. Monitor Flight Watch on 122.0 for weather changes, or call FSS to get updates. Always keep convenient and handy alternates in mind so you can quickly divert and get on the ground if the situation starts getting too complicated.

Its much easier to sort out problems on the ground than in the air. Remember that as you press ahead you are consuming fuel and leaving yourself fewer options.

Give Yourself Time
I just took a simulator proficiency checkride in the Boeing 727, and one of the best tricks for passing the test was to slow the aircraft to a reasonable speed during the downwind legs so the crew had enough time to set up and prepare for the next approach. It is a technique used by almost every airline pilot going through sim training and can be just as easily used by a general aviation pilot. Dont blast into the pattern at cruise speed only to be unprepared for landing. Slow down early and get ready. It will only cost you a minute or two, and if youre that pressed for time you shouldnt be flying your own airplane.

Use low-workload phases of flight to get the cockpit charts organized. Study the charts in flight so that the navaids, altitudes, crossing restrictions and other applicable items are familiar. Have the charts organized in order and folded so that they open instantly to the region you desire.

Have the back-up charts conveniently available for the just in case. When I start letting down to an airport where there is a possibility of the approach being changed, Ill pull out the charts for the other approaches, just to play it safe.

Use a yoke clip and a good lap- or knee-board to organize your materials. Good organization means you wont waste precious time (and get flustered) while also getting behind the aircraft. Organizing your materials ahead of time helps you remain ahead of the aircraft and better manage your time.

Good cockpit management results in having adequate time, whereas poor cockpit management is a very quick way to get behind the time power curve.

Stay one or two steps ahead of the aircraft. Know the next navigational aid, frequency and radial that you will need. Get ATIS as soon as you can so you can prepare for the approach. Do everything you can ahead of the time at which you absolutely need it to be done.

Finally, be careful of flying with other pilots.

In structured environments like Part 121 flying, each crew member has set responsibilities and each serves to cross-check the other. But flying with someone else in the cockpit requires coordination to make certain that the pilots are assisting each other instead of getting in each others way.

When I was flying the fire-fighting aircraft, the agencies did not have standard operating procedures for multi-pilot crews and I never knew what to expect from other cockpit crewmembers. There were roughly 40 other crewmembers and I think there were about 30 different versions of who did what during an engine start. That isnt good.

Flying with another pilot can be very helpful in high workload environments, but you must establish who will touch what and do what tasks before the flight. The second pilot can be immensely helpful just with the communication and navigation workloads, to include pulling out the right charts and tuning the radios for the approach.

If, despite all your precautions, you find yourself getting rushed, take steps to relieve that time pressure. Ask for a holding pattern (you need to do that occasionally, anyway) or take a long vector (assuming you have the fuel).

If the ATC workload is low, the controller might catch the hint that you are having troubles. In the busy environment, they are concentrating on moving metal.

If you need the help, use the word emergency on the radio and you will get their attention in any case. ATC has a large number of resources to help lower your workload and buy yourself time. You might as well use them.

-by Pat Veillette

Pat Veillette is an aviation researcher who has flown just about every kind of mission there is.


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