We all hold on to the memory of the first time we soloed – an event that likely took place in a training aircraft flown at a familiar airport. The weather was fair and a flight instructor watchfully stood nearby. Today, many of us are flying larger, faster turbine aircraft and facing far more complex systems and conditions. Yet, one aspect may remain the same: a single pilot at the controls.
It has been said that flying single-pilot IFR is the most challenging type of flying a pilot can undertake. So, how can one person perform the job of two and achieve a safe outcome every flight? Practicing the following seven healthy habits can help:
1. Plan Ahead
The FAA addresses preflight action with a blanket statement in FAR 91.103 stating, “each pilot in command shall, before beginning a flight, become familiar with all available information concerning that flight.”
Airlines and large charter operators accomplish this by enlisting dispatchers to compile release paperwork for each flight containing weather, NOTAMS, aircraft performance and much more. On the other hand, a single pilot operating a turbine aircraft is only one brain and two hands. How can your planning equal the that of larger flying operations? Preparation, practice and discipline.
While many pilots typically only utilize checklists in the cockpit, checklists can also ensure steps are not missed prior to the flight. By developing a custom preflight planning checklist, you can safeguard against information slipping through the cracks. If you have an EFB, you can create this checklist in your notes app.
Receiving your IFR clearance prior to startup is another great way to relieve workload. Do you have access to a transceiver in your hangar or FBO? Better yet, does your aircraft have a ground operations switch which allows you to power only a communications radio and/or some selected flight planning avionics? How about a GPU? Picking up your clearance in advance allows you more time to review your departure procedure, plot your route and take note of any weather or delays that you may expect.
2. Establish a Personal SOP
Along with checklists, it can be helpful to develop a personal Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) that includes more than just weather minimums. A personal SOP sets limits and builds margins into any part of your flight operation – and you can be as strict or lenient as you see fit (within the bounds of the FAR’s and AFM of course).
Pilots can either find an SOP template online to fill out, or draw one up their own and adjust as they go. Some examples of SOP topics: departure and approach minimums, autopilot usage, maximum winds, takeoff performance requirements, minimum fuel requirements, duty times, currency and training flights.
As your SOP develops and your skills and experience grow, it is acceptable to modify procedures. But try to avoid making such changes or exceptions in the middle of a flight. You chose the listed minimums for a purpose, so it’s important to adhere to them while in flight or in making a go/no go decision.
3. Build (and Sustain) Confidence
The FAA and most insurance companies have listed requirements for currency and training in specific aircraft. It is not only important to meet those requirements, but to stay confident in your flying skills while doing so. As the sole occupant of the flight deck, single pilots need to be well prepared for anything that could possibly go wrong. Need refreshing? There are a few routes you can take to sharpening those skills back up.
Consider allotting a portion of your regularly scheduled flights to practice, whether it be non-precision or circling approaches, missed approaches, go-arounds, or whatever it is you wish to improve. This takes self-discipline and self-analysis, but is well worth the extra time and effort.
You can also choose to regain proficiency with a instructor/mentor. Be candid with the instructor. Let him or her know what skills and maneuvers need refinement and then review those procedures and memory items on the ground. Once airborne, continually practice each maneuver until it becomes comfortable again. If you fly the procedure perfectly the first time, feel free to move on to others, but try coming back to it again later in the flight when you are more mentally fatigued. Was your performance still up to par? Remember, you are practicing these procedures because you don’t get the chance to fly them frequently in your day-to-day flying, so take advantage of this time.
Both options are effective and fairly easy to organize. However, certain failures and maneuvers cannot safely be performed in the aircraft, and require the use of a simulator. Whether you opt for a few hours or a full-on recurrent training, there is no substitute for the confidence and skill that these training events can provide. (See “Recurrent Reality Check” by Tom Turner, Twin & Turbine, June 2017)
4. Act Like There Are Two Pilots
Checklists, briefings and call-outs can all be accomplished by a single pilot in the same way that they would be done by a crew: verbally. By verbalizing or talking yourself through a procedure, you reduce the chance that a checklist item will be omitted or completed incorrectly. It helps to imagine yourself listening to your flight transcripts afterward. Is there still active verbal communication? You will also notice that while flying the aircraft or monitoring the autopilot, if you verbalize what you are seeing and what corrections should be made, it will help prevent fixation or checking out.
An additional tip is to understand and utilize all the resources at your disposal, including the people outside of the cockpit. The controller on the other end of the microphone should be used often. Feel free to request information such as weather ahead, delays, expected arrivals or approaches.
Another technique is to keep an ear out for other pilots on your same frequency. By paying attention to what is happening with aircraft ahead, pilots can get alerts on weather, holding or reroutes – possibly eliminating the need to request such information from the controller.
5. Apply Automation
Though some pilots fear the implementation of advanced technology in the cockpit, when used properly, automation can be a single pilot’s best friend. Whether it’s an electronic flight bag, an autopilot, or a fully integrated flight deck, there is a lot to be gained from effectively managing the information these tools can provide.
“Trust but verify.” “Garbage in, garbage out.” Phrases like these are commonly used by pilots of technologically advanced aircraft. The sayings are designed to remind users that computers are logical and can only be as effective as the programmer. When adding a piece of automation to your routine, it is important to regularly practice on the equipment and become comfortable before relying on it in challenging real-world scenarios. Flawed inputs by the pilot will cause flawed outputs from the automation. Better to iron out these potential wrinkles in practice.
When a single pilot and his automation are in sync, it can greatly increase the efficiency and mental capacity of the pilot, leading to a smoother and safer operation. However, dependence on automation can be even more dangerous than not having it at all. Just as you should practice using automation, also practice scenarios in which it fails you.
6. Stay Ahead of the Game
During lower workload phases of flight, it can become easy to let your mind drift. To prevent this potentially unsafe occurrence, keep yourself engaged throughout the flight by continually asking yourself the question, “What’s next?” Look for tasks that you can accomplish well ahead of when they need to be completed. For instance, program frequencies for the next controller, listen to the ATIS or ASOS, program and brief an approach.
Another way to keep yourself sharp on a solo flight is to play the “what if” game. In your head, play out scenarios where certain items could go wrong based on your current phase of flight – and how you would react. Not only will this tactic keep your mind engaged in the flight, you will be better prepared and practiced to actually handle such situations in real-life.
7. Debrief Yourself
Think back to the student-pilot days. After each flight lesson, there was likely time set afterward to discuss the flight, right? Why should this practice disappear? An honest self-assessment is great way to grow and improve from one flight to the next.
Questions you can ask yourself: Was there something you were not prepared for? Did a cockpit indication or instrument procedure confuse you? Did you let yourself do something outside of your comfort zone or SOP?
Every flight provides its lesson(s) in one way or another. And remember, critiques do not need to be negative. Did you have a great landing? Did you shoot an expert approach to minimums? Kudos! You deserve credit where credit is due.
Only one solo flight concludes with a ceremonial douse of cold water or the cutting of a t-shirt. But with consistent practice in these seven habits, one additional aspect from that first solo flight will remain constant: a safe landing and taxi to the chocks with a feeling of accomplishment.