Consider yourself in this situation: You’re receiving your Flight Review in your own airplane. You’re in the traffic pattern to a runway that is not terribly short, but your performance calculations reveal to be close to the minimum length you personally accept under the day’s conditions. There’s a 30-foot tall line of trees on the approach end of the runway fairly close to the end of the prepared surface. You notice on the instrument approach plate that the LPV glidepath and the visual glide slope are “not coincident,” a hint of obstacles to visually avoid on short final once below Decision Altitude if you were flying the approach. You’re very familiar with and current in your aircraft, and very comfortable flying with the flight instructor conducting your review. As you make the turn onto final approach, it’s apparent that you will easily clear the trees, but that you’re too high to touch down on the first portion of the short runway. What do you do?
If you’re like most pilots with whom I fly as an instructor, you’ll apply power and begin a balked landing (go-around) climb. Return to pattern altitude, re-enter the downwind and try again.
Now consider this scenario: You’re flying into a tower-controlled airport at the end of a long flight with your family to a favorite vacation getaway. The airplane is heavy with baggage, with the center of gravity well within limits but further aft than what is usual for you. The weather is fine and you’re on downwind in a visual pattern to land. About the time you are abeam your touchdown spot, the tower controller asks you to fly a tight base to land ahead of a regional airliner that’s on a five-mile final. What do you do?
Watching many airplanes that are in a bad position for landing over the years, my impression is that most pilots will attempt to make the landing. They’ll throw out the flaps and landing gear, as appropriate, and bank steeply to dive at the runway. Often this results in an excessive rate of descent that threatens a damaging, hard landing. Other times, excessive speed builds in the descending turn and puts the airplane over the threshold flying far too fast, causing it to float a long way during the flare and threatening to make the aircraft go off the far end of the runway.
While performing your Before Takeoff checklist, you notice that switching to the left magneto on your left engine provides a roughly 50 rpm drop from the “Both” switch position, but selecting the right magneto causes the rpm to drop 225 rpm and for the engine to run roughly, with the tachometer needle bouncing up and down. Thinking some of the engine’s spark plugs may be fouled from combustion deposits, you select both magnetos, advance the power slightly and lean the mixture aggressively to increase the cylinder temperature and burn off the deposits. After about a minute, you re-do the magneto check. You find the left mag alone gives a 50 rpm drop, as before; the right magneto alone runs much more smoothly, but still gives about a 150 rpm drop and the tach needle still bounces a bit. What do you do?
My impression – based on 30 years of flight instruction and my own tendencies when faced with seemingly minor issues that appear to have at least partially corrected themselves – is that on a training flight most pilots would reluctantly call off the flight and taxi the airplane back to the mechanic’s hangar. But outside of an instructional environment, I believe most pilots would mentally latch onto the minor improvement seen after aggressively ground-leaning. They’d rationalize that the problem was only a little carbon on the plugs, and that the heat and power of takeoff and climb would burn the rest off. I’d be tempted to make this rationalization myself. After all, it’s running fine when both mags are selected, they’d think, and it got better with only a short exposure to a little extra heat during ground-leaning. What could go wrong?
What’s the Difference?
A balked landing is a normal part of a required Flight Review. If you don’t put yourself in a position to require a go-around while flying with an instructor, the instructor is going to have to manufacture a reason to see you practice the balked landing maneuver. We expect to have to fly a balked landing now and then during a training flight. A go-around is considered routine in a training environment. But we almost never go around outside of instructional flights.
A magneto check is a normal part of every departure, but we almost never see a bad magneto check. We know there’s a “trick” of running the engine at moderate power with the mixture significantly leaned to burn off combustion deposits, and if that trick works – even a little – it reinforces that even more heat should result in even cleaner plugs. So, in normal operations pilots are conditioned to rationalize a takeoff following a bad magneto check, something they would probably never do with an instructor observing their actions.
In our day-to-day flying, we’re far more focused on meeting the objective of making it to the planned destination. Anything less is “failure.” Further, we want to tackle unusual situations and overcome obstacles between us and our objective – it’s in our psyche as a pilot to solve problems and attain goals. A systems discrepancy is a problem to be solved. A request from a controller becomes a challenge, one that we naturally try to master.
Here’s the difference: While a situation in training usually prompts a pilot to make one decision, a similar scenario in everyday flying tends to make pilots make a different decision. More succinctly, in training pilots are pessimists – we expect and look for problems, and make conservative decisions based on what provides the safest outcome or one. In non-instructional, “normal” flying, pilots are optimists – we assume things will always turn out well, and may even get better. We make decisions that we feel will result in the expected or most convenient result, which usually means continuing as planned to the intended destination or “rising to the challenge” when prompted to do something unusual or that requires advanced skill.
I’m convinced that the difference between good decisions and bad ones is mindset, or the proper outlook toward the conduct of a flight. Pilots look for trouble during instructional flights (pessimists) and make decisions based on getting out of that trouble. In all other flying, pilots tend to ignore trouble even when it is blatantly obvious, or they assume that things will get better whether there is evidence to support it or not (optimists). Balked landings, getting a mechanic to check out an indication before you fly, diverting because of weather, failing to run a checklist you’d use with an instructor or evaluator at your side…any number of other decisions you must make every time you take up the mantle of Pilot-in-Command are not limitations on your day-to-day flying, they are additional options you have available to help you master your aircraft and to keep your passengers and yourself safe.
We all just need to be a little less optimistic when we fly. You’ve probably heard it before, but the adage is true: To make good decisions, train like you fly, fly like you train.