How to Fly an Airplane
Some of you may know that I hold a private pilot’s license. In fact, for the past two months, I’ve been on the adventure of a lifetime. Holly, Smoky, and I left NYC early in December to fly across the continental United States in our 1972 Piper Cherokee 6.
Along the way, we ate chili peppers in Santa Fe; skied Tahoe, Powder Mountain, and Jackson Hole; flew over the Grand Canyon (twice); and landed on top of a mesa in Sedona. Now safely back in New York, I thought it would be high time to share with you some of the aviation practices and lessons that can make you better at whatever you do.
Terminal Error Rate: Zero
One of the unique things about flying is that pilots make gobs of mistakes, but rely on strong systems so that none of those errors end up killing them. For example, every pilot has forgotten to switch fuel tanks at some point. However, their timed test-switch ensures that an emergency tank-switch will get good gas flowing to the engine again. Furthermore, they confirmed fuel quantity visually in the tanks as well as on the gauges before departing. And prior to that, the pilot sumped those tanks to ensure there wasn’t water or other contaminants in the gas.
Cascading errors occur when upstream safeties, like that timed test-switch and all of its preceding checks, are ignored. That’s why picking and choosing which checklists to do is such a no-no for pilots and surgeons alike. Cascading errors occur in your business when upstream decisions make you more fragile. Sure, delegate hiring if you need to. But without having previously slaved over a written playbook for hiring, this move will likely increase, not decrease, your stress. Sure, have your engineering team focus on the new hotly burning fire. But if you haven’t put in place the agile practices to back up such a 180, you could suffer serious productivity loss and downstream talent retention issues.
9 Pilot Practices for Everybody
Imagine if you were free to make all of the errors which humans are wont to, but with no real adverse effects on your business. This is the power of systems thinking. Here are a few common piloting practices that can get you closer:
1. Checklists. Longtime readers will already know my obsession with checklists. Holly and I use them to keep our home running smoothly, and they keep us alive in the air, too. Where people go wrong with checklists - aviators and landlubbers alike - is with adherence and consistency. When you start getting selective with which checklists you use, they lose their magic powers. This is especially insidious with short checklists - like the ones for cruise flight, or your five item grocery list. The cruise list just says to set power, trim, and lean the mixture. But much like your grocery list, you’re almost guaranteed to forget something if you don’t write it down and check it off.
2. Pilot in Command (PIC). The concept of the Pilot in Command is one entirely unique to aviation. The idea is simple: somebody always needs to be flying the airplane. The FAA noticed that when multiple pilots were in the cockpit, scenarios arose where nobody knew who was actually in charge of flying the damned thing! Hard as that is to believe, there’s a lot of automation in airplanes and it’s easy to forget who should take over in the event of an emergency - or just be making the power reductions for descent. Thus arose the practice of Positive Exchange of Controls. When airline pilots use the restroom, or even when flight instructors hand controls over to a student in a little Cessna, a strict three-part protocol is followed. I have the airplane. You have the airplane. I have the airplane. The PIC concept extends to single-pilot operations as well. You may be talking to Air Traffic Control, but they are not responsible for the safety of your passengers. You are. If ATC gives you an instruction that is dangerous, it’s your responsibility as PIC to break any rule in the book to ensure the safety of your flight. The CEO of a corporation, or the leader of a project team, might consider taking on the burden of some of this PIC authority. With ultimate control comes ultimate responsibility. It should work the other way around too.
3. Cockpit Resource Management (CRM). A key factor in the ever-improving safety record of aviation is the practice of CRM. Pilots used to try to complete their flights using brute force. Have an issue? Mull it around for a while until you figure it out. CRM preaches the use of every possible tool at the pilot’s discretion to accomplish missions safely. That could mean relying on powerful iPad apps instead of legacy technology in the cockpit. Or it could mean delegating certain tasks to your copilot or even untrained passengers - like opening a door and sticking clothing in it to ensure egress in the event of an off-field landing. Pilots are now encouraged to talk to ATC even when they don’t have a formal instrument flight plan filed. This “flight following” provides an additional resource one click of the mic button away. There are no penalties for asking for help even on crowded radio frequencies, or even for declaring an emergency to get more attention focused on your flight. The culture of safety overrides the culture of efficiency here, and it works. Are you using every single resource at your disposal to ensure your success? Or are you afraid of ruffling feathers? That fear has gotten a lot of pilots killed.
4. Personal minimums. The FAA says I can fly in two-mile visibility in uncontrolled airspace. They also say I can take off with a 1,500' overcast ceiling, and they say I can fly at night in parts of this country so pitch-black you can’t see which way’s up and which way is down. They say I can do all of this on a private pilot’s certificate with no instrument rating. That doesn’t mean that I do it. The establishment of so-called “personal minimums,” which are your own hard and fast rules for how you operate your aircraft, is a key and evolving part of how a pilot flies. For example, I don’t fly in less than six miles of visibility, and I don’t take off without 4,000 AGL (above ground level) clear of clouds. Just because you’re allowed to operate a particular way doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hold yourself to a higher (and safer) standard. You might be able to get around a particular disclosure - but should you?
5. Flows. Not all checklists are call and response. That is often too slow to be useful. In these scenarios, pilots employ flows which enable quick action, and then back them up with checklists to ensure they haven’t missed anything. Emergency procedures are done this way, as are some in-flight adjustments. This bias to action is commonly viewable in something called a downwind check, or GUMPSS check. The pilot audibly says “Gas Undercarriage Mixture Props Seats and Switches” while moving their hand to the relevant controls. Digging out a checklist on downwind in the pattern would be more dangerous than not doing the checklist at all. The “flow” fills that gap, enabling a bias to action without gut-shooting the power of the checklist. Can you empower your employees to take corrective action and then batch your double checking?
6. Staying ahead of the airplane. Instructors commonly cite this habit as critical for pilots looking to progress to faster and more complicated airplanes. These slick beasts have trouble slowing down in a hurry, requiring descent planning. They have more complex systems, requiring monitoring leading indicators for failures, not lagging ones. (Think rising cylinder head temperatures, not black smoke coming out of the firewall.) Even in small training aircraft, pilots are encouraged to think about which frequencies they’ll need next and program them into the backup radio. Personally, I like to write down our destination airport’s elevation, pattern altitude, and relevant frequencies (weather, tower, ground, unicom) on my kneeboard while we’re cruising along. Sure, my iPad has all of that information in a few clicks. But I know I’ll be task-saturated during approach and landing, and I’m always grateful to have it at a glance. How can you stay ahead of your airplane? Stockpiling blog posts when you’re in a creative mood? Maintaining inbox zero? Writing your investor updates proactively instead of waiting until you’re asked for them?
7. Flight Planning. Your PIC authority lets you break rules in the interest of safety of flight. But it also charges you with properly planning your flight. How’s the weather? Is it above your personal minimums? How about on the return trip? Have you never flown into this airport before? Maybe there’s a video on YouTube so you can get oriented to the environment. How do your minimums need to change to account for all of these factors? One of the unique ways pilots plan for weather is using time to determine trends. We will first look at a trip a week out. Then four days out. Then two days out, one day out, and the morning of. Because of our long time tail, we are able to build a mental model of how the weather is moving. We fly into improving, not deteriorating situations. Does your everyday risk analysis incorporate time-scales?
8. Post-Mortem Analysis. Morbid focus on accidents seems like something to be avoided. However, the aviation world embraces this spotlight fully. Entire organizations like the AOPA’s Air Safety Institute are dedicated to producing videos about fatal crashes. Often you will hear the last words of a pilot on frequency - this is something we get used to. Blogs speak openly about accidents in order to tease out patterns that can save lives. In my opinion, the aviation world does a far better job than the startup world at this type of post-failure analysis. While there is endless ink spilled on celebrating failure in startups, there is little effort placed on preventing future failure. In fact, the opposite is often true. What would happen if we treated failure with a little bit more respect? Lives aren’t at stake, but livelihoods are.
9. Aviate, Navigate, Communicate (in that order). In an emergency, we are taught to ruthlessly triage our priorities into three categories. First, fly the airplane. Then, point it where it needs to go. Last, talk to ATC. This kind of safety-driven focus on priorities is sorely missing in today’s business environment, where our focus is too often determined by what matters to everyone else. Case in point: your inbox, which is quite literally a list of things other people would like you to do. Fine, you can’t ignore it. But what are your Aviate and Navigate that you put up front and protect?