How to Make Sure You Have a Great Flight
We all have off days, and sometimes it just seems nothing goes right when we get into the cockpit and take a flight.
Whether it’s fumbling through the pre-flight check, muddling your ATC readbacks, or bouncing down the runway when landing, it can be frustrating and knock our confidence. But it can also escalate into a serious lapse that risks life or the aircraft.
It need not be this way if we take the time to prepare in full for every flight.
What can you do to make sure you have a great flight as a pilot? These tips will help you follow a pattern that will make sure you’re well prepared and set up for the flight.
1. Be physically prepared
Making sure you have a great night’s sleep and eat well before the flight can be one of the most important steps. Climbing into the cockpit when you’re tired, weak from hunger, stressed from being busy, or not in the best health can lead to serious problems once in the air. In my own experience I once flew after missing lunch and experienced a terrifying moment when my blood sugar clearly hit a low point and I began to shake and had a buzzing in my ears. I found it difficult to focus, and really didn’t know whether to pick a field and hope for the best, or hope I could teach my passenger to fly in a few seconds. It’s really not worth the risk.It’s also important turn up in plenty of time before the flight so that you’re not rushed, or stressed by being stuck in traffic or not able to gather all of your equipment.
2. Don’t risk it in adverse conditions
Weather is the cause of too many aviation accidents. Know your limits, and be ready to say no when it is marginal and you’re not comfortable with how it might deteriorate.Check en-route and destination forecasts and make sure your route gives sufficient height clearance, and come up with a plan for diversions if it does deteriorate (check the diversion airport forecast too!).
3. Mentally rehearse the flight
That includes the route, landmarks and no-fly zones (particularly in VFR), radio frequency changes, and the layout of the destination airfield. What will happen at each stage in the flight, and what will you need to do?If this will be a training or renewal flight, mentally prepare for what you will be tested on and rehearse how to perform the maneuvers, emergencies, checklists and questions you may be asked. One of the most confident I’ve ever felt flying was when I had made the time to go through everything I’d have to demonstrate on a biennial check ride and talked through it out loud. I then repeated the process and had a very enjoyable flight on which nothing went wrong. Compare that with the time I was running late at the office and dashed to the airport for a check-ride without any preparation and expecting to get through it quickly. In reality I was flustered, forgetful, at risk of letting the plane get ahead of me, particularly on final approach, and just didn’t enjoy the experience.
4. Get ahead of the plane whilst still on the ground
Set up the cockpit and your seating position well before even thinking of starting the engine. Input radio frequencies in advance, and note down alternatives on your kneeboard. Set up your GPS route and check it is correct. Note down the route and other information on your kneeboard so that you have all of your information handy instantly should you need to find it.
5. Stay alert
Use your time in-flight to stay alert and ready for action. Monitor your flight instruments, particularly engine and oil gauges, fuel tanks and flow, and perform FREDA (Fuel, Radio, Engine, Direction and Altimeters) checks to keep on top of the state of the aircraft. Monitor the correct radio frequency, and know your position (whether on a map or GPS) clearly so that any deviations don’t catch you by surprise or lead to a loss of situational awareness.
6. Stay ahead
As well as staying alert, time en-route can be used wisely to prepare for the next steps in the flight. Know what your next heading will be after reaching your upcoming waypoint. Input the next radio frequency if your radio has two channels. Make a plan of when you will perform checks, when you will begin your descent, when you need to look out for a landmark or high ground. Doing this ensures that there is no confusion about what comes next, which can be fatal when entering busy airspace or being unsure of an unfamiliar area.
7. Plan your arrival before you take off
It can be overwhelming when flying to a new airfield that you’re not familiar with. Most will have specific instructions on how to join (overhead or straight into the circuit), which direction to fly circuits, which villages to avoid overflying, and obstacles that could cause a problem.Before taking off, get the latest charts for the airfield and rehearse in your head the way you’ll arrive and what calls you’ll need to make on the radio. Use an online satellite map like Google Earth to see what the villages and other landmarks look like. And make notes on your map or kneeboard to keep handy when you do arrive.
These tips are nothing new, and chances are your instructor will have tried to drum it all into you many times during your training. But it is easy to let it slide and fall into a pattern of familiarity and not preparing fully; of always arriving at the airport at the last minute and never having time to fully plan and prepare the flight ahead. You owe it to your passengers, to other aviators, and to the people on the ground, to be a safe pilot. And if we’re fully prepared, it means we will enjoy our flying much more, and not have the frustrating days when nothing seems to go right.