From the Flight Deck: Rules

From the Flight Deck: Rules

Rules are made for people who aren’t willing to make up their own.

— General Chuck Yeager

Having slipped through the audits, reviews, simulations, tests and safety nets, a gremlin laid in wait…. for years. Waiting for the paths of a cavalier pilot and an obscure catalyst to intersect. One that would allow demonstration of its dominance over physics, geometry, thermodynamics, aerodynamics and luck. When the impossible happens, the bean counters will not be aboard. As the ground or icy waters approach, when the face of the boogeyman fills your windshield, the designers, engineers, attorneys and sales team are in their cozy cubicles. Having done their honest best with the available data, they will be shocked that a shifty little variable festered into such an issue.

It’s not in the manual because it’s never happened, and it can’t happen. A statement claiming an absolute should raise an eyebrow – and the hairs on the back of your neck. Predicted results. Maximum demonstrated values. Forecast pressure-vessel cycles. Wing attach bolt lifespans. Hypotheses, educated guesses, historically-based predictions, metallurgical test results and safety factors. Weather minimums, currency requirements and flight physicals. Rules are based on a compilation of calculated risks, probabilities, past occurrences and expectations. Test pilots and astronauts know that unforeseen variables are constantly introduced into our lives. And that some of them will be well outside of the tolerances and safety factors from which we based the rules. And that those rules are, therefore, only as good as the results they produce. As the pirate/ philosopher Captain Barbossa espoused: “The code is more what you’d call guidelines than actual
rules.” If the rules will produce an
unsafe result, we are authorized to modify them, deviate from them or ignore them all together.


The thing about breaking rules, however, is that if you decide to deviate, it had better be a flawless performance; one that brings a tear to the eye of women, children, dogs, cats, bean counters and the Feds. “In an in-flight emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot in command may deviate from any rule of this part to the extent required to meet that emergency.” That’s from the FAR’s of course, but you could justifiably add most other non-aviation related rules to the list that we may find necessary to break. And the “immediate action” part is a bit misleading. Immediate decision would be more accurate. When we lose an engine at 25k and need to land gear-up… on a private beach… twenty minutes later… that’s not so much an immediate action as an immediate decision. And perhaps the words ‘in-flight’ should be removed from that FAR altogether. Are they saying that we can’t violate FARs during a fire on the ground, while not in-flight? It takes knowledge, experience, courage and confidence to break rules. Remember, not all the rules were written by non-pilots that may have never resolved a life-threatening, in-flight event. In fact, most of the rules came from folks like you and me that have seen things happen, been through bad things, have survived and then, afterward, while at zero airspeed in the comfort of their homes, have come up with ways to prevent the bad things from ever happening again (there’s an absolute) or ways to execute a better plan when they do, in fact, happen again (and there’s the more-likely reality).

Save the Day

As the PIC, breaking rules to save the day is the last thing we want to do. Even following the rules to save the day is near the bottom of our fun-list. That’s because we know that saving the day is never a sure thing. We could easily mess it up, screw the pooch – become the squirming hatch-blower. Wandering outside the box by breaking rules is a gutsy move. We’d much prefer a smooth, uneventful and pleasurable flight. One in which we can enjoy the act of flying the airplane, the pleasure of our companions, and the view. Please Lord: no ice, no thunderstorms and no issues with the machine or passengers that require me to break the rules. Let it all go according to plan. But, we know that things happen. So we spend every flight paying close attention to the instruments, the sounds of the airplane, the weather and the millions of “what-ifs” as each potential landing zone passes out of range or our destination weather deteriorates.

We keep track of everything: our location, the time, fuel, weather and the condition of our passengers, crew and cargo. Thinking logically, calmly and intuitively. Creating the best outcome under the conditions presented. Understanding what the machine needs and both the how and the why of procedures and rules. That’s what we do in order to stay safe. Is it sometimes difficult? Yes. Does it distract from daydreaming and looking out the window? You bet. Does it make our passengers think we are anal? Probably. The variables when flying an airplane are almost infinite, so we give it our full attention and we make decisions. We try to limit the variables to those that have acceptable risk and for which we are proficient in the permutations that could arise. If we work at it, always learning and thinking ahead, the task is manageable.

Outside the Envelope

IMG_4635If you operate your machine often enough, through design changes, modifications and fixes, and through changes to the airspace environment, you can get a feel for what really matters– to the airplane (anthropomorphically speaking) and to your performance. A safe and illuminating way to get a feel for the airplane, and push both your and the airplane’s performance envelope, is in the sim. T&T readers have access to very realistic and high-quality simulators. After completing the standard syllabus, feel free to do extreme things that you’d never do in your airplane. Try some aerobatics in which you stall or exceed g-limits. Explore the coffin corner, attempt a dead-stick landing in the weather, a total electrical failure and a gear-up landing. Have the sim operator put an inch or two of ice on the plane. Land on a runway with poor or nil braking and take off on a runway shorter than your accelerate-stop distance. Hand fly an ILS all the way to the runway with 500 RVR. These exercises will give you a feel for what it looks like if you violate the rules. How about some violent control reversals or uncoordinated flight control use, or a continued takeoff after an engine failure below decision speed? Simulate the landing gear failing to retract and practice fuel computations with the gear down. Any of these situations can be caused by human error, instrument calibration, the failure of a component or just plain bad luck. Seeing these in the simulator will help you think outside the box–and the envelope.

The more easily we recognize an irregular event, or when we fly outside of normal parameters, the fewer surprises we will face. And the more likely that the flight will remain within the laws of physics and rules of the Feds. Consistency and proficiency will help to insure this outcome. Was this the airport of intended landing or did we divert? Did we arrive in the terminal area with the amount of fuel intended? Did the descend-via RNAV arrival get us frazzled and make us feel behind? Were we rushed in loading the approach and setting it up? Are we behind because we accepted a turn to final at eight miles when we should have intercepted at twelve? How precisely did we fly the final approach course? Are we scrambling to get the gear and flaps out as we wait for the speed limitations and then chasing the LOC, GS or VNAV? At the airlines we emphasize flying a stable approach–even to the point of having several mandatory “stable” callouts. We must be configured, within airspeed tolerance vs reference airspeed, and maintaining lateral and vertical approach parameters. If not, we are required to abandon the approach. And finally, how consistent are our landings? We judge them, as do our passengers, by touchdown point vs target, smoothness and the deceleration during roll-out. Next is recognizing precisely how the airplane will react at different weights as we reduce power in ground effect, how we manage the crosswind, execute the flare, and finesse the touchdown.


Most anyone can learn to fly and land a basic airplane. Mastering the tasks of operating a complex machine in the weather, however, requires training, practice, planning and discipline. We can’t eliminate mechanical failures, control the weather or manage the actions of others, only our own proficiency and choices. Consistency helps to limit the variables of a flight, and it makes it easier to recognize deviations from our proficiency zone and to remain within the rules. From arrival at the hangar to parking at the FBO, keeping operations consistent will help us recognize when things are not right. Even then, stuff will happen. If you need to save-the-day, stretch the envelope or break some rules, everyone will be glad you’re a bit anal about the process. Especially when the boogeyman fills your windshield.

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