Using the PAVE checklist is necessary when flying off pavement in Montana’s last, best airspace.

Richard G. Wissenbach

It’s hard to beat flying from Montana’s Bitterroot Valley. It seems only logical that a state known as the “Last Best Place” would also have some pretty incredible flying. It doesn’t hurt that it borders Idaho, “A Pilot’s Paradise.” I would expect every pilot has a place near and dear to their heart, and the opportunities that abound in the Treasure State have a firm grip on mine.

A fellow pilot and I jokingly speak of the “Home School Course.” It consists of three airstrips, each with varying degrees of difficulty. We feel that if you can become comfortable going in and out of these technical strips, you can land anywhere. Each has its peculiarities and challenges and there isn’t a whole lot of room for error.

Montana's Bitterroot valley - - Using the PAVE Checklist as a Pilot

Life in the early 1990’s was simply wonderful. My wife and I were married in the fall of 1989 and had a newborn the following year. She was totally supportive of my desire to become a Commercial Pilot and our first loan was for $4,500.00 to finish out the payment of a 1966 Cessna 150G. A great year to be manufactured, I might add! While $6000.00 doesn’t seem like much these days, to an A&P making six bucks an hour, it was plenty.

While I’m definitely not as young as I once was, I also like to think I’m not as dumb as I once was. As youth, it seems like we’re invisible and in retrospect, we realize it is nearly miraculous that we get through some things unscathed. It’s a very thin line that often separates us from our follies and near disaster to experiences that shape our future.

Three hundred feet or so from our fifty by ten-foot trailer mansion was a small field, and it wasn’t long before the ditches crisscrossing it were filled in with the help of a shovel and wheel barrow. Piney Field was activated early one spring day 26 years ago. While 900 feet may seem short, it had a good slope to launch from and it just wasn’t a problem to clear the power lines at the bottom, 1700 feet away. I was now a bush pilot and had it all figured out.

While I didn’t get a whole lot of flight time each day that I flew to work, the one way out and no-go-around landing option was great experience for the logbook. I was now a living breathing bush legend, at least in my own mind. Asphalt lovers were pavement pilots and there was green grass growing under my tires.

Learning To Use the PAVE Checklist

For good reason, there is an emphasis on incorporating the PAVE checklist into preflight planning. Risk is mitigated when we perceive hazards. Trust me when I say it absolutely must be an integral part of our decision-making process. As Father’s Day has recently passed, I shudder to think of what the outcome could have been when I didn’t comply with the all important External Pressures located at the end of the acronym. Faith, Family, and Flying would have been nonexistent if I would have flunked out, which for all intents and purposes I should have. It may be located last, but it’s certainly not the least.

My sweet wife was very patient with my flying. I think part of it may have been that fact that she was a stay-at-home mom and we only had one vehicle. It was difficult hauling the laundry with the wheelbarrow and shopping on foot was out of the question, especially with town 10 miles away.

To put it mildly, she was not overly enthused one morning when I informed her she wouldn’t have the car that day as it was raining and I would have to drive. My spouse was all of a sudden a wonder weather woman, as she looked out and let me know that I had flown in way worse conditions than that. She didn’t seem to be able to comprehend the excessive tailwind on takeoff concept either. Patience is a growing process and at that point in the game, it was merely a seed that had scarcely thought of germinating. I overreacted in a huff and rushed out the door. I hated being late and while this argument wasn’t the hill I wanted to die on, it very nearly turned out to be just that.

Airstrip in Montana's Bitterroot valley - Using the PAVE Checklist as a Pilot

I untied my trusty bird, pushed down on the tail and spun it around pointed toward the east, ready for takeoff. The 100 horses were off and running and with a quick magneto check so was the pilot. It didn’t take but a couple hundred feet or so for me to realize that getting airborne was never going to happen. I’m not a swearing man, but there’s no doubt a few choice words entered my mind. I quickly got on the brakes and that’s when the real acceleration happened. The airplane started sliding downhill and it was totally out of control. I was simply along for the ride. It pointed northerly, it pointed to the south, and it nearly swapped ends, all the while headed down the sloped airstrip. I believe is was at that moment where I prayed really hard, probably contributing to the aircraft miraculously coming to a halt, just before crashing off the bottom of the field. I was far below what I ever kept mowed or free of rocks. How I missed the fences as well, I’ll never know.

It took a while for me to stop shaking and a real effort to taxi back up the strip. In fact, there was enough time for it to sink in my head that I could never again give in to external pressures in that manner. You see, there were actually two items in the PAVE checklist that were violated. Two strikes, not a good position to be in. The Environmental Conditions alone should have been such that the takeoff should never have been attempted. The pilot and aircraft survived that one but had the takeoff not been aborted precisely when it did, the results could have been catastrophic. While I don’t recall whether or not I had a nice hot meal that night, the recollection of the experience is still warm and fresh in my mind. The PAVE checklist is meant to be!

Every pilot has a responsibility to set and live by standards. What are your minimum standards? Do you find yourself relaxing them at times? Have you ever caved to external pressure? Let’s each look within and evaluate the risks as part of our preflight action. The PAVE checklist is not only the way for the next generation of pilots but a path we would do well to find ourselves on. Pilot (Personal), Aircraft, enVironment, and External Pressures.

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