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Ralph's Insights

Flight Training Magazine, February 2011 - Insights


by Ralph Butcher

A transferrable skill set

Ask any group of pilots or flight instructors a question regarding flight techniques or procedures and you’ll always get a variety of answers. That’s the information dilemma that frequently causes frustration among inexperienced pilots.

With respect to flight training the solution is simple: Teach the technique or procedure that works in the worst situation a pilot is likely to encounter. That requires a properly designed training syllabus (not just a training outline) and either an experienced instructor or an inexperienced instructors who has proper leadership.

Will students always fly in that manner after earning their pilot’s certificate? Maybe, maybe not. Everyone has individual preferences, but when exposed to a bad situation, those pilots will revert to what was taught and thereby enhance the likelihood of success.

Another important requirement is the building-block approach to learning. A skill set developed for an elementary maneuver must, if at all possible, be expandable in order to teach one or more intermediate or advanced maneuvers.

 I teach constant attitude and power, variable airspeed approaches, which is a good  example of a basic, expandable skill set. When number one for landing and abeam the touchdown spot, the student sets minimum power—just enough so that the engine is turning the prop, not the relative wind—extends the first increment of flaps, and establishes the pitch attitude that will result in the proper final approach speed when full flaps are extended. Now the goal is to fly the airplane to the landing flare point without changing pitch attitude or power. What’s that attitude? The wing’s imaginary chord line will be approximately parallel to the horizon in a metal-wing airplane and slightly nose low in a fiber-composite-wing airplane.

Several factors must be considered for this skill set: when to turn base, orient the base leg, extend the next increment of flaps, play the turn to final, extend full flaps, and compensate for anticipated rising or sinking air. The pre-solo student will seldom be able to do this. When high, power must be reduced; low, power must be increased. 

As training progresses, that skill set is expanded for the emergency forced landing, the worst possible landing situation. Now, there is no power, pitch attitude is decreased further, and the other factors I mentioned become critical. Those factors were introduced during initial training, so proficiency and the proper level of self-confidence is quickly established for this worst-case scenario.

I use that example in order to answer a frequently asked question: “I am instrument rated, but I’m going to start flying a glass-cockpit airplane. Must I change the scan procedure that you taught me for a conventional cockpit? Absolutely, positively, no!

My four-step scan procedure for flying instruments in a conventional cockpit ("Insights: Instrument Flight,” March 2010 Flight Training) is now summarized, followed by its applicability to a glass cockpit:

Step 1: Attitude and Power. Look at the attitude indicator (AI), establish the attitude required for the desired maneuver, simultaneously set power for the maneuver and rough trim the elevator if necessary.  

Glass cockpit: no change.

Step 2: Scan the AI, the turn coordinator (TC) and the vertical speed indicator (VSI)—which I called the Inverted-V when I developed this scan procedure in 1980. If those indications are unsatisfactory, return to Step 1 and adjust attitude and power. During this step, you must also validate the AI with the TC and VSI in order to ensure proper AI operation. In this step you’re using qualitative information: Is the airplane doing what you want—turning or flying straight; climbing, descending, or flying level; and is the AI working properly? 

Glass cockpit:  Scan the attitude indicator, the turn-rate vector located just above the rotating compass card, and the vertical speed indicator located to the right of the altitude indicator (That’s a skewed Inverted-V). Instead of validating the attitude indicator with the vertical speed and turn rate indicators, validate it with the standby attitude indicator.

Step 3: Scan the primary instruments—there are always three for any maneuver: one each for pitch, bank and power. Now you’re using quantitative information (specific numbers) as required by air traffic control, your charts, or your personal desire. When those indications are scanned, you are automatically using the primary instruments.

Glass cockpit: No change, but do note the airspeed and altitude trend vectors that indicate what those values will be in six seconds. They, too, represent trend of motion and help you maintain a specific airspeed or altitude requirement. 

Step 4: Scan all flight and system indications, and trim the elevator for hands-off flight. 

Glass cockpit: No change.

Now you have an expanded skill set for scanning that allows you to easily move up and utilize the remarkable advantages of advanced instrumentation for instrument flight.

AOPA Flight Training
magazine, February 2008 - Insights

by Ralph Butcher

It requires more than knowledge and proficiency

This past Summer I observed an increase in checkride failures due to personal demeanor, extreme checkitis, and a family crisis. Flight training itself was not the problem.

With respect to knowledge, skill, awareness, and judgment; aviation resides on a high plateau that is rarely compromised, but to reach that plateau you must also have the proper demeanor—you must know how to act as pilot-in-command of an aircraft, a responsibility that is shared by all competent pilots from private pilot to airline captain.

At times you must be demanding. Your demeanor must clearly indicate that you will not allow an examiner or a controller to put you in a situation that compromises your skill level or flight safety. Examiners check your knowledge and skills; controllers move aircraft. However, when you feel rushed (behind the airplane), you must act as pilot in command and request a delay—360-degree turns for visual flying; a delay radar vector for instrument flying. Don’t be nice and try to please others. You have a situation that must be resolved before you can proceed. Let them know that.

The family crisis I mentioned is one example of what I’ve witnessed several times in the past: A pilot has a personal problem while in training or before a checkride but says to himself, ”I’ve got to get through this in spite of my problem.” That’s a fatal mistake! Training suffers; checkrides are failed. If faced with that situation or illness, cancel the event. There is no need to apologize or explain the problem, which in many cases should be kept private. Just cancel the event until the problem is resolved. Never fly an aircraft unless you can devote one-hundred percent of your attention to that endeavor.

You must have full confidence in your abilities. Obviously, you can’t take a checkride without your instructor’s recommendation, but if you lack confidence, do not say, “My instructor thinks I should take the checkride, so I guess I’ll do it.” Tell your instructor how you feel and get it corrected. You must be honest with yourself and your instructor. This is no time to act cool or fake it. Be certain that you have reached the aviation plateau before you take a checkride.

You can pass an FAA written examination by using rote learning, but a practical examination (oral and flight) that makes you apply that knowledge and correlate it to hypothetical situations that will be presented on the ground and in the air: flight planning, inflight diversions, weather considerations, and maintenance issues. Training programs that “teach the test” are inadequate for overall success.

What do you do best, and how do you feel when you’re doing it? That’s the feeling you must have prior to a checkride. You’re going to show the examiner how good you are, and you’re not going to let the examiner distract you from your responsibilities— which they are required to attempt as part of the examining process.
You have acquired numerous publications, many of which were mandated by your instructor or flight school. However, as you near the end of your training program and are preparing for the checkride, concentrate on the source documents: federal aviation regulations, Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM), the Airport/Facility Directory, the airplane flight manual, navigation chart legends, meteorology, and the practical test standards that list the applicable checkride tasks.

Two other areas deserve consideration: sleep and radio communications. To excel, you must get a good night’s sleep before the checkride. One of the students I mentioned obtained a total of only seven hours of sleep during the two nights that preceded his checkride. Why didn’t he sleep? Because he was so nervous about the checkride—that’s checkitis! Do that, and you’ll inevitably make a disqualifying mistake. 

The first indication of your capabilities and professionalism will occur when the examiner listens to your ATC radio communications. You should use the phraseology and procedures that are clearly explained in the AIM. That includes the frequent and proper use of the words roger or wilco for non-essential ATC advisories or instructions that you understand—transmissions that do not involve a runway clearance or a heading or altitude assignment, which you must read back.

Your personal demeanor is critical; make it obvious to all concerned that you are the pilot-in-command.  Then, if you’re well rested with no personal problems, your checkride will be successful.
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AOPA Flight Training magazine, July 2008 - Insights

by Ralph Butcher

Your safety depends on it

Meteorology is a science, and while you are not expected to be a meteorologist, you must understand basic meteorology and be able to interpret aviation weather data, a task that became easier with the October 2007 publication of Aviation Weather Services, Advisory Circular 00-45F.

Weather data is available from several sources; I recommend TV’s Weather Channel and the FAA’s Pilot Web at That website contains all re-quired resources: NOTAMs and NOTAM contractions, TFRs, FAA Aviation Digital Data Service (ADDS), NOAA Aviation Weather Center, and NOAA National Weather Service.

The amount of information can be intimidating, but if you use ADDS and the follow-ing outline, the applicability of that information will make sense. When weather is obviously favorable, some steps can be omitted.

● Seven days prior to your flight: Start monitoring the Weather Channel’s weekly planner at 20 minutes past most hours.

● 48 hours prior: Check the 48-hour prognostic chart.

● 36 hours prior: Check the 36-hour prognostic chart and the day-two convective outlooks (AC)—published twice daily. The AC depicts areas of possible severe thunderstorms (levels 4, 5, and 6), rated as SLGT, MDT, or HIGH; and areas of general thunderstorms (levels 1, 2, and 3).

● 24 hours prior: Check the terminal forecasts (TAFs)—valid for 24 hours, published four times daily—and the day-two AC .

● 18 hours prior: Check the TAFs, the area forecasts (FAs)—valid for 18 hours, pub-lished three times daily—and the day-one AC—published five times daily.

● 12 hours prior: Check the TAFs, FAs, 12 hour prognostic chart, and day-one AC.

● As you get closer to flight time, validate the TAFs and FAs by comparing them to the METARS, the actual weather conditions—published hourly. This step is critical! If the forecasts are accurate—the actual weather is equal to or better then the forecast weather—continue. If not call FSS for an outlook briefing and ask if an amended fore-cast has been issued.

● If the forecasts are valid, check for aviation hazards. Those reports are contained in Convective Sigmets, Sigmets, Airmets, Center Weather Advisories (CWAs), and ur-gent pilot reports (UUAs). If none exist, check the winds aloft forecast (FB) and plan your flight.

● 6 hours prior: By this time you know whether or not conditions seem acceptable, so perform the second critical step: Call FSS to get a second opinion of the weather situation. Ask for a standard briefing.
Flight safety is compromised if you use only FSS for a weather briefing. You should use internet resources to determine the weather situation, and then use FSS to validate your knowledge. During the briefing, you will readily identify information that supple-ments or corrects that knowledge. If conditions are acceptable, file your flight plan.

●. Prior to departure: Check the Weather Depiction and Surface Analysis Charts—published every three hours. You can also access the United Surface Analysis Chart for your area. While more legible then the Surface Analysis Chart, it is only published every 8 hours.

If isolated or widely scattered thunderstorms are forecast and you’re planning a VFR flight, check the NEXRAD radar charts and the Radar Summary Chart—published hourly—to ensure that your planned route is clear of convective activity. Call FSS for an abbreviated briefing; check for last minute weather changes and new TFRs or Pireps.

Caution! Ignore the textual Radar Weather Report (SD/ROB). It is derived from the WSR-88D NEXRAD radar without human intervention. That information can be up to 80 minutes old and should only be used if no other radar information is available. 

●.  Finally, revalidate your weather knowledge during flight. Check your groundspeed to validate the winds aloft forecast, and contact En Route Flight Advisory Service (Flight Watch, 122.0 mHz) to obtain timely information for your flight—weather and Pireps. In-strument pilots must report unforecast weather and anything that affects flight safety. If all pilots made those Pireps to Flight Watch, others would benefit.

Instrument pilots must carefully evaluate thunderstorms and freezing levels. ATC’s WSR-88D Doppler radar displays precipitation and non-precipitation targets, a vast im-provement over the old radar systems, but flying with thunderstorms present is fool-hardy unless your airplane has airborne radar or your planned route will obviously avoid isolated or widely scattered storms. To determine freezing levels, look at the freezing level graphics forecasts: initial, 3-, 6-, 9-, and 12-hour. The initial and 3-hour forecasts are updated hourly, the others are updated every 3 hours. Then look for Pireps and Airmet Zulus, which predict freezing level heights and moderate icing.

AOPA’s Air Safety Foundation reported that pilot error causes 85 percent of all accidents. Don’t become a statistic. Your safety requires proper weather knowledge, good judgment, and sound decisions. Use your resources!

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