With summer in full swing, and as general aviation activity is on the rise in many areas of the country, now is the perfect time for pilots to brush up on their flying skills — particularly if it’s been some time since your last flight. You’ll also want to be prepared for some of the unique challenges present with summer flying.
To help, here’s a list of 10 things to keep in mind before your next flight.
1. Loss of Control (LOC)
LOC continues to be the top contributor to general aviation (GA) fatal accidents. An LOC accident involves an unintended departure of an aircraft from controlled flight. Contributing factors may include: poor judgment/aeronautical decision making, failure to recognize an aerodynamic stall or spin and execute corrective action, intentional regulatory non-compliance, low pilot time in aircraft make and model, lack of piloting ability, failure to maintain airspeed, failure to follow procedure, pilot inexperience and proficiency, or the use of over-the-counter drugs, as well as alcohol, that impact pilot performance.
A staple of summer weather, thunderstorms are a powerful force of nature that pilots must thoroughly understand and aim to avoid. They can pop up as single cell storms, develop in clusters with numerous cells, or organize into a squall line on or ahead of a cold front. There’s also the supercell storm that can have severe microbursts, large hail, and significant tornado activity. If you are using weather radar, be aware of latency issues that may exist. NTSB’s Safety Alert 17 and 11 cover NEXRAD latency issues and thunderstorm encounters respectively. Finally, rehearse your plan of action in the event you do find yourself in a thunderstorm.
3. Weather Know-how
Thunderstorms aren’t the only summertime weather phenomena to be aware of. For example, do you know what weather conditions are associated with low-level wind shear? Wind shear can be attributed to passing frontal systems, temperature inversions with strong upper level winds (greater than 25 knots), and thunderstorms. Are you familiar with how sky conditions can change with an approaching front? When flying towards an approaching warm front, pilots may go from higher cirrus and cirrostratus clouds, to alto- and eventually nimbostratus clouds. It also pays to be aware of micrometeorological conditions of your home airport or where you plan to operate. This might mean understanding how airport buildings or structures could impact the wind close to the ground or during taxi, or how warm rising air over a sunbaked parking lot could impact your approach.
Be aware that your approach could be affected by warm, rising air over a parking lot, or cool, sinking air over a body of water.
4. Density Altitude
Simply put, density altitude is pressure altitude corrected for non-standard temperature. In other words, an increase in temperature at a particular atmospheric pressure causes the density of air at that pressure to appear as though it resides at a higher physical altitude. When density altitude is high, the air is less dense. As a result, an aircraft will perform as if it is flying at a higher altitude, which results in degraded climb performance and acceleration. Density altitude is an insidious danger that must be accounted for when performing takeoff calculations. Some mitigation strategies include flying when the temperatures are cooler and/or limiting passengers and cargo to reduce your aircraft’s weight.
5. Currency- Am I Legal?
This is a good time to review what makes you current to carry passengers for a VFR flight. For day flights, you must have 3 takeoffs and 3 landings in the last 90 days in the same category and class aircraft. If it’s a taildragger, those landings must be to a full stop. For night flights, you must have logged 3 takeoffs and landings to a full stop in the last 90 days. You must also have successfully completed a flight review every 24 calendar months. And don’t forget, passenger briefings are not just for the airlines. Before every flight, you must brief all passengers on the use of seat belts, and shoulder harnesses. However, for a more complete briefing, consider the acronym SAFETY:
Seat belts/shoulder harnesses;
Air vents and environmental controls;
Fire extinguisher location and operation;
Exit, emergencies, and equipment;
Traffic and talking;
During the hot summer months, it’s especially important to keep tabs on your physical wellbeing. Be sure to drink water regularly and heed the signs of dehydration which include headache, fatigue, cramps, sleepiness, and dizziness. Also, be sure to get plenty of rest and always assess your fitness for flight. Use the I’MSAFE checklist.
7. Runway Safety
Increased flying means increased chances of busy and/or congested airport ground operations. Be vigilant while taxiing and be aware of your location at all times. To help avoid runway incursions, keep these tips in mind:
Write down and read back all taxi instructions.
Review the airport diagram before taxiing out or landing.
Know the meaning of each airport sign.
Request progressive taxi instructions if you’re unsure of your location.
Another way to prepare for hot spots and avoid runway incursions is with the FAA’s From the Flight Deck video series. These videos highlight dozens of airports around the nation. They provide pilots with actual runway approach and airport taxiway footage captured with cockpit mounted cameras, combined with diagrams and visual graphics to clearly identify hot spots and other safety-sensitive items.
8. Know Your Instruments
When was the last time you had a refresher on aircraft instruments? With the potential for weather conditions to change rapidly in the summer, it’s a good time to review some of the basics. For example, do you recall the three main instruments that operate via the pitot-static system? That would be the airspeed indicator, the vertical speed indicator, and the altimeter. When a pilot understands how each instrument works and recognizes when an instrument is malfunctioning, they can safely utilize the instruments to their fullest potential.
The possible causes of an aerial emergency are about as varied as the number of aircraft and the pilots who fly them. That’s why it’s critical to build your knowledge and regularly practice procedures to deal with that proverbial “anything,” whether it’s the oil pressure gauge whose needle just dipped below the comforting green-is-good range, or a VFR flight that quickly evolves into instrument meteorological conditions.