For those of us who fly for business or pleasure, a well-developed set of habit patterns are critical. Good checklist and radio discipline are the hallmarks of professional flying. When Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger calmly guided his stricken jet into the Hudson River, his actions reflected a disciplined style of flying we should all emulate. One specific area, converting ATC instructions into accurate pilot inputs, is critical and helps us escape one ATC readback we all want to avoid, to copy a phone number to call the tower after landing.
The No. 1 source of pilot deviations is, you guessed it, altitude deviations. This was true of the airlines as well, so they did something about it. The professional world relies on a series of standard callouts to avoid altitude deviations, professional embarrassments and accidents. Airline and former military jet pilots transitioning back into general aviation are often fairly or unfairly accused of some egregious sins, such as using the rudder pedals as footrests and wondering why their CFI doesn’t just do all the talking on the radio while they fly! One thing they are not guilty of, though, is poor habits.
This is especially important in the airline business, where pilots often fly with pilots they have never met before. Their checklists, procedures and especially the verbal callouts are all standardized. Deviations from these standard procedures are called out early, often and most notably without malice.
Full-featured autopilots have made single-pilot IFR much easier. In GA, we either fly alone, fly with other pilots or fly with passengers who may or may not really appreciate all that is going on around them. When given a new altitude by the controller, we are required to read back the clearance to ATC. However, commercial pilots don’t stop there. Each altitude is accompanied by at least three verbal callouts. These are worthy of consideration by GA pilots, even when they fly alone.
Let’s say you are cruising at 8,000 feet and are cleared to descend to 4,000. After you have read back the clearance to ATC, say out loud (but not on frequency):
“Out of 8,000 for 4,000” and set the pilot display/autopilot to 4,000 or write it down.
Then, at 5,000 feet, announce “1,000 to level” or “1,000 to go,” check your vertical velocity, and compute the lead point and pitch angle target for the level off.
And finally, at your level-off lead point, or 100 feet above, announce, “Leveling at 4,000.”
Okay, isn’t this a bit weird you are alone in the aircraft? Not at all. A habit is not really a habit unless you do it all the time. What you practice when the flying is easy and the weather is good will be what you will do when the ceiling is low, fuel is tight, and the clearances are coming hot and heavy. This disciplined approach is the focus of commercial training programs, and their accident and incident rates are significantly better than GA in part because of this.
If you have another pilot on board, ask them to confirm your altitude calls and inform you of any deviations. If you are flying with a non-flying passenger, explain the altimeter face to them and what you are doing. And if you are flying with passengers, it’s okay to use your best Capt. Sully voice. There is no law against sounding cool while being safe, and it will put them more at ease!
Another good habit is verbalizing your checklists. A checklist is either complete or incomplete. Calling the checklist complete verbally is a great memory jogger. Remember, one of the last checklist items before you land the aircraft likely has the words “gear down” in it. Nice to know you got that one done.
The same kinds of callouts help you establish and maintain a stabilized final approach and accurate positional and altitude awareness, critical to a safe approach and consistent landing.
Verbalizing your “first” gear down call and glideslope interception are a good start. As you descend, make verbal altitude callouts, for example: “Out of 2,000 for 250” (assuming in this instance 250 is the DA), or “out of 1250 for 250” (1,000 above). Or, if you prefer, “1000, above” and “approaching minimums” at 100 above DA. These remind the pilot of the task at hand, specifically repeat the critical altitude, and allow your co-pilot/passengers to crosscheck what you are doing.
At 500 to 1,000 feet AGL, consider adding a “stabilized” approach call to your repertoire on every landing, VFR or IFR. If you are on glidepath, within 5 knots of your approach speed, and configured for landing (second time we checked that pesky landing gear), you should continue the approach. If not, a go-around is the better choice.
So how to do all this? Get out a sheet of paper and write down the callouts you think are important. Confer with your airline colleagues on the FBO front porch or the hangar next door and ask how they do it. Keep it concise and decide to do it on every flight for at least one month, just to try it out. Good habits take time to develop. The goal is to develop some practical habits that work well for you and do them all the time.
A couple of final notes. Don’t be afraid to verbalize even when you are alone, and remember that you aren’t officially crazy until you begin to argue with yourself. Make sure you do a GUMP check every time you land (third time we checked that landing gear). And don’t forget to fire up Hulu and watch Tom Hanks do his best Sully impersonation so you can get that cool, calm and collected captain’s drawl just right.