Staying in the books to stay current.

Some of us don’t like to read directions. Even for challenging tasks like assembling furniture, a suite of home electronics or the boring sections of an airplane manual. The “us” being mostly us guys. We like to think that we are MacGyver; able to use innovation, ingenuity and our ability to solve complex problems using only the resources at hand, particularly during a crisis. After all, from a pilot’s perspective, doesn’t the need for directions show that we are deficient in logic or intuition, and that we can’t think for ourselves? Perhaps it even indicates that we lack the ability to make critical decisions without assistance.

Honestly. Who has the patience to locate the section of an instruction manual that is printed in English, struggle through a poor translation, interpret the funky grammar and then flip through nine pages of cautions and warnings to finally locate the actual directions? Don’t put your hand in this garbage disposal once installed; wires may cause electrical shock and don’t drink the enclosed battery acid. Then it’s: A into C into D, using hardware F, J and M.

If we handed one of today’s poorly written instruction manuals to MacGyver, he’d put it where rays from the sun are absent, insert a model-rocket ignition wire in our nose, hold it in place with a wad of guncotton (nitrocellulose), secure it with duct tape and magnesium shavings from his fire-starter stick, then trigger it remotely with a Morse code text: Dah-dit… Dah-dah-dah… Dit-dah-dah (N-O-W).


I just put a new roof on the chicken coop. My daughter was impressed that I had read the directions on a bundle of shingles. If we read the directions, the ladies are shocked. Skip them and we’re stubborn and boyish. Please, somebody just shoot me.

The instructions recommended an underlayment and the minimum length of a shingle when you shorten one. Also, how much to overlap them, how many, the spacing, and the tolerance for the placement of roofing nails. It reminded me of riveting a metal patch on an airplane. Maybe it’s the aviator in me that necessitates at least a cursory glance at all instructions.

Pilots make hundreds, even thousands of decisions each hour. Most of them are simple and relatively inconsequential. Unless compounded together, like MacGyver’s nitrated cellulose. But some of our decisions are stand-alone critical. Constantly studying the rules, regulations, policies and procedures can be boring and painful. But aircraft manuals present a different flavor of instructions. Perhaps because they’re edited by pilots, there are very few missteps in the translation and transfer of meaning and understanding. It’s all written in pilot-eze; our favorite dialect.

We have learned that approach charts, the AIM, FAR’s and manuals for our airplanes mean exactly what they say. A limitation is a limitation, a rule is a rule and a procedure is a procedure. It’s difficult to misinterpret a Vmc of 90 kts, a 60-psi tire pressure, a DH of 200 feet or the expiration date of an inspection or flight physical to be anything but what they really are. Aviation related instructions, procedures and regulations are clearly defined; not optional assembly techniques with missing punctuation, bad grammar and leftover pieces-parts.

Aviation related instructions, procedures and regulations are clearly defined; not optional assembly techniques with missing punctuation, bad grammar and leftover pieces-parts.

In aviation, we have well-structured ground instruction, realistic simulators and training in all types of airplanes. If something remains unresolved after performing a procedure, it’s because we likely messed up or are in uncharted territory. With enough study, when something that they say could never happen, actually happens, when we stumble into uncharted territory, we can unleash our MacGyver and use intuition, logic and experience to solve extremely complex and changing scenarios. A deficit in knowledge is inefficient and can be precarious. A recent faux pas on my part serves as an example of where logic and intuition were not enough to compensate for low experience in the aircraft, along with having forgotten a “relatively inconsequential” part of the instruction manual.

PACK light

We pushed back from the gate and started the right engine of our 737. After setting the parking brake, we started the left. One of the steps in the after-start checklist is to push the Recall light panel. Once released, if it senses an issue, the Master Caution and the associated light in the offending system will illuminate. The Master Caution and the left PACK (Pneumatic Air Cycle Kit, which is responsible for pressurization and air conditioning) lights were illuminated. But the PACK light would extinguish when we pushed the Master Caution reset.

And this is where my inexperience in the 737 bit me in that minimal sunshine area. Referencing the QRH (Quick Reference Handbook) for a PACK light, you find a note that says: “If the PACK light extinguishes when the Master Caution light is depressed, the primary or backup controller has failed and this QRH procedure does not apply.” It doesn’t say, which procedure does apply, however. And it also doesn’t say which controller it’s talking about: the pressurization controller or the temperature controller.

Also, the procedure is intended for use inflight because it has no “if-then” decision tree for applying the procedure on the ground, and it’s the only procedures listed under PACK in the QRH. Well then, what procedure does apply? The QRH doesn’t say, so next we went to the PACK section of the MEL (minimum equipment list) for clues.

A Nuisance

There are 16 PACK system items filling the same number of pages in the MEL. Of course, they start out with the actual PACK as the offending component. But the list of 16 items also includes outflow valves, trip warning systems, shut-off valves, ram air systems, rate of climb indicators, temperature controllers, pressurization controllers and on, and on, and on. Get the picture? However, about eight pages into the PACK section of the MEL, buried in a note under the Flight Deck Temperature Control Systems heading, there is a note that says: “After engine start, a nuisance PACK light may illuminate during a Recall check. If the light extinguishes during the Master Caution reset, refer to the Operating Manual. Dispatch is permitted if the light can be reset.”

The POH of the Beechcraft Duke, the personal aircraft of author Kevin Dingman, is written in easy-to-understand pilot-eze, unlike the instruction manuals for furniture assembly.

Hum. A “nuisance” light? I’ll need to look up nuisance in the AIM. In this Captain’s defense, my experienced FO and the maintenance technician called to fix our PACK after we returned to the gate were also unable to chase this rabbit to the proper QRH and MEL resolution. The instructions didn’t intuitively lead you along a path to the answer. I hadn’t remembered the relevant part of the instruction manual from initial training and my precarious faux pas cost the passengers an hour delay. Now, that’s a nuisance.

Locusts & Linguistics

I’ve often written allegorically; tacitly struggling to sneak the epiphany into your repertoire that eventually, everything that can go wrong in your vehicle, will go wrong. Those responsible for promoting GA (thank you for that, by the way) hope that we writers use judgement and restraint when highlighting the risks in GA so as to avoid a biblical level of alarm: locusts, frogs, boils, etc. But those that fly the airplanes ask us to tell them the sometimes-terrifying stories that we and others have encountered so as to avoid a similar mistake themselves. No one wants locusts, frogs and boils.

Like everything, it’s a balance. The crew, the payload, the environment, the machine and the airspace system are the variables in our flying equation that we must properly balance. We will make mistakes. Machinery will act up, malfunction and break. The weather will deteriorate. When things happen, the equation must be rebalanced and solved again, sometimes, several times in the same flight. We can learn how to balance risk and the variables by reading the instructions.

No Fudging

The Boeing 737 Quick Reference Handbook. Not all instructions intuitively lead you along a path to the answer.

Our balancing skills, once attained, are not indelible; they fade with time and lack of use. Most of us need constant study, review and the use of those skills to maintain proficiency. Some areas have room for us to fudge, some do not. Some are inconsequential and some are critical. We’ve learned that you don’t compromise with fuel, weight and balance, fitness to fly and the mechanical condition of our machines, for example. Reading the manuals, following their recommendations and using sound judgement is how we become knowledgeable, proficient and learn where not to fudge.

There are gotchas-a-plenty waiting to compound themselves on top of any self-inflicted faux pas like a nuisance warning light. Occasional review of the manuals will help us better understand our systems and to keep our hand out of a garbage disposal. Last month, in our Jet Journal section, I described how we can use litanies to assist with a go-around by reviewing phase-of-flight specific procedures in advance. This month, let’s add a review of the operating manual, if only a few pages at a time. It will be fun and mostly painless. It’s written in pilot-eze after all. That’s what MacGyver would do.

Authors note:
It’s time for EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. At the convention (KOSH July 24-30) you will find pilots, engineers, designers, artists and visionaries from many different genres. I encourage you to attend and be inspired by their MacGyver-like ideas, abilities and and accomplishments.

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