Fly like the big dogs: here are some little things private pilots can do to fly like airline pilots.

Vern Weiss

Private pilots who fly small aircraft are at a disadvantage when compared to airline pilots engaged in commercial airline flying. When you’re a “solo act,” you do not have the benefit of a large support staff taking care of peripheral planning and logistics for each flight. It can pretty much be said that an airline pilot needs only to show up and fly. When done flying, that pilot packs things up and simply leaves the cockpit while a cadre of others deal with baggage, security, clean-up and fueling.

Some of the protocols and habits that they do make their jobs easier, safer and less taxing. I concede that airline operations with two pilot crews permit the tasks to be split up. But I also contend that a private pilot adopting some of those airline methodologies will benefit as well.

Airline Pilots Know Their Airplane

It starts with knowing the airplane. 14,000 hours ago, I took my commercial pilot check-ride in a Cessna 150. I have not been in a Cessna 150 since, but I can still tell you from memory that it uses MIL-H-5606 hydraulic fluid. I remembered that because I had a terrific instructor who treated my prep for the commercial pilot check-ride like what is experienced in a commercial operation. He ground into me the importance of memorizing every C-150 limitation and systems fact. His philosophy was the same as that found in a Part 121 carrier’s training department: The more you know, the better you’ll be managing and controlling the machine. Rightfully, he believed commercial pilots should know all about their airplane whether it was a Boeing 747 or a Cessna 150.

Ask airline pilots the Vmo speed or maximum engine oil temperature allowed on their airplanes and they’ll tell you straightaway. A typical oral exam during an airline pilot’s “PC” (pilot check- ride) generally starts out with systems and limitations questions. The check airman points to a switch on a cockpit photograph and says, “What are the eight things that happen with this switch is armed?” Or “What is the maximum speed with 12 degrees of flaps?” followed immediately by, “…how ’bout at full flaps?” You’d better have the answer. Pilots who are new to the airline training discipline are sometimes blown away by the degree of detail with which they’re expected to recall systems facts and limitations. But when “flying the line” for an airline, sometimes there is no time to stop and look things up, so airline pilots must know the information.

This is typical of what is heard every day on ARTCC frequencies throughout the country:

Controller: “JetAir 463 can you give me 310 knots for spacing into LaGuardia?”

JetAir Pilot: “Uh negative…we’re unable 310 knots at this altitude but we can give you 280.”

How did that pilot know precisely what speeds could or couldn’t be flown at that moment? It was because he knows his aircraft.

So the first thing to give yourself an airline pilot’s “edge” as private pilots is to commit to memory as much as you can about the systems and limitations of whatever you fly. Do so and you’ll fly better, more confidently and integrate into the ATC system more professionally.

Study the Weather Briefing

At FBOs, I’ve watched general aviation pilots zip through cursory weather briefings, then blast off. A comprehensive weather briefing, in airline vernacular, comes to pilots in what is called “a package.” The “package” is created by dispatchers and includes thorough and pertinent weather information. The operative word here is “pertinent.” These weather briefings are not full of extraneous fillers but contain all the data necessary for that particular flight plan.

Before departure, airline pilots study it intensely. Even before their airplane’s wheels start rolling, they know the best alternate airports, best altitudes to maximize ground speed and minimize turbulence and predict the probable approach they’ll be using at their destination. Private pilots who take the time to obtain a thorough weather briefing have a leg up on making the best flight choices. To alter the American Express advertising slogan: Weather. Don’t leave home without it.

This means taking the briefing with you! Don’t obtain a verbal briefing or scribble a few notes on the back of a fuel receipt and consider yourself “briefed.” Most FBOs have printers available in their pilot lounges so print everything out and carry it with you. Don’t forget graphics like radar summaries. Enabling yourself to thoroughly digest it before departure and then referring to it in flight is important. Once airborne, you can determine if the weather is meeting the forecast or not because you’ll have the details to which to compare subsequent reports obtained via radio.

Take Off and Landing Distance Cards

Whether electronically or manually, airline pilots produce a Take Off and Landing Distance “cue card” for every flight and private pilots should too. Before every takeoff, calculate how much runway is needed for takeoff as well as landing. Why would you care about how much runway is needed to land at the airport you’re leaving? In the event that you must return immediately, you will know the amount of runway length you need to land which may render some of the airport runways unsuitable. With “TOLD” information, should the controller ask, “Are you able to depart from runway two-three at intersection Charlie…two thousand eleven feet available?” you can immediately look at your TOLD card and determine if the answer is yes or no. The same is true for the arrival airport. “Are you able to change your runway to runway one-five?” Look at your TOLD data and you’ll have the answer.

Delta Boeing 767 landing at an airport
Photo by: Andrew Cohen
Private Pilots Should Incorporate Airline Checklists

Airline pilots strictly adhere to checklists for every operation and private pilots would do well to adopt this as well. To streamline some of these checklists, airline pilots use what are called “flows.” The tasks for each checklist procedure (Preflight, Cockpit Preflight, Before Engine Start, After Engine Start, Before Taxi, After Taxi, Before Takeoff et cetera) is organized so that everything to be checked or configured falls into a pattern that is easily done without actually looking at the checklist. Then, once the “flow” has been accomplished, the pilot reviews the written checklist to confirm that each item has been accomplished. Generally speaking, flows are developed top-to- bottom, left-to-right. It is a far more efficient approach than singularly looking down to read each item, looking up to locate and accomplish the item, then looking back down to read the next item. Use of a “flow” accomplishes everything from memory but then you look at the checklist in one review, read it to yourself and can check off each item in your head, (“SET..OFF..ARMED..ON”).

Maintaining Consistent Procedures

Procedurally-consistent pilots are safer, don’t work as hard while flying and less prone to mistakes. Airline pilots fly every visual approach the same. They drop flaps at the same predetermined spots, lower the landing gear and complete checklists at the same point all the time. The same goes for precision and non-precision approaches. One ILS approach is done exactly the same way as another. I have watched private pilots make so much work for themselves because they don’t establish predetermined profiles for each stage of flying. Some pilots raise flaps and gear at vastly different times on takeoff as if they’re not quite sure when they’re supposed to do it. That is not a good habit to get into. Do you raise the landing gear at the same time on every takeoff? Determining a profile for every maneuver and sticking with it will make your job a whole lot easier. The beauty of flying consistent profiles is that regardless of whether everything is going smoothly or if you’re in the middle of an emergency (i.e. engine failure), everything is done pretty much in the same way. Ask a good instructor to sit down with you and develop profiles that you can use all the time based on your aircraft operations manual.

Have a Kit Bag

It’s called a “kit bag” and every airline pilot carries one. They also carry their charts and manuals in it, though with the advent of electronic flight bags, there is now more room in kit bags for other stuff. In my kit bag, I carry what is handy to have while on the road. Office supplies, tools, stamps, a stapler, Band-Aids, General Foods International coffee, fingernail clipper, a Swiss Army knife … anything and everything I might need or want to have access to while I am glued to a pilot seat. It takes a while to develop one’s personal inventory of what to carry in a kit bag; it’s trial, error, experience, and everyone is different. I flew with one co-pilot who had his kit bag filled with an arsenal of vitamins and herbs because he was really into that. Private pilots, too, should make up their own kit bag and have it accessible all the time while flying. Of course, the TSA has made much of what we once could carry in kit bags verboten if one has to pass through an airport check point. But most Private pilot operations involve only FBOs so you can still carry anything you need to conduct life on the road without fear confiscation at TSA airport checkpoints. One of the handiest things I used to carry I cannot anymore: a knife, fork, and a spoon. It was amazing how often I had to resort to using my own flatware while grabbing meals on the road.

Take It Slow

Slow up! Why are private pilots in such a hurry so often? Do you always taxi fast? Why? Do you start your take-off roll before you’ve lined-up on the center line of the runway? Why? I assure you that the additional 3 seconds it takes to square off with the center line is not going to be a liability. Rarely do you see an airline pilot “hot-dogging” with fast taxis and shortcuts. Pilot operations are deliberate, stable, defensive and done at an appropriate speed. They do that because they know hurrying can cause things to mount up rapidly and bite you.

Don’t Be Afraid to Cancel

Why are some pilots so afraid to cancel their trip? Flying magazines often talk about “get there-itis” and you know what they’re talking about. I concede that airline pilots can become impatient when delays are caused by inefficiency and stupidity, but impatience is scarce when safety issues might be compromised. If it is going to take a long time to get de-iced, so be it. If there are delays for planes headed to your destination airport and ATC has issued a ground stop; so be it. If the weather is deteriorating you won’t find any objection from an airline crew when the flight is canceled. It is taken in stride and they simply head to the hotel. Don’t push the envelope because it is not worth it. As a private pilot, it is prudent to adopt the same philosophical attitude about canceling. If there is the slightest doubt that the flight can be made safely, call it a day and come back tomorrow. That’s what the airlines do and their safety record confirms that it’s a good idea.

Don’t Let Passengers Distract You

Although light planes don’t have separate compartments for passengers and flight crews, private pilots should (figuratively-speaking) “close the cockpit door.” Aside from present day security edicts, airline crews don’t want distractions in their cockpits, which is the reason they started putting doors on cockpits on larger aircraft in the first place. Although there is no door separating you from your passenger,s you can mentally “tune them out” from interrupting, annoying and distracting you. You’re not driving a car, you are operating a fast moving aircraft so you should not treat your pilot’s role as you might driving an automobile by engaging in conversations and entertaining your passengers. Advise your passengers that below 10,000 feet the cockpit is “sterile” (no talking unless it is of operational necessity). That’s the way it’s done on commercial aircraft. If you never fly above 10,000 feet then the cockpit should remain sterile throughout the entire flight. Is that extreme? Absolutely not. Below 10,000 feet is where there is the greatest likelihood of other traffic and where things happen fast, especially when approaching B, C or D airspace or uncontrolled airports. You don’t need someone prattling on with conversation when you should be focused on taking care of the business of piloting the airplane.

In Conclusion

Private pilots certainly cannot duplicate everything airline pilots do, but by simply adopting some of their routines, habits and behavior, pilots who fly alone can improve their own safety and efficiency.

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