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This week's Fly Like a Pro Series is how to manage time.
There are plenty of things that you can change when you are flying an airplane. If you don’t like the ride at a particular altitude, you can climb or descend. If you don’t like how the weather is looking ahead, you can always turn around or go someplace else. You can even choose to not go flying at all and save yourself for another day. The one factor that every pilot deals with that you can’t do much about is time. The second hand on the clock is going to move no matter what you do. Since you can’t change the fact that time is going to pass, all you can do is manage it effectively.
The trouble with time management is two-fold: First, you’ve probably been told by your CFI that you should “never hurry” or “don’t do things too fast” in the cockpit—but no one has explained what “too fast” really means. Second, our perception of time changes depending on our mental state—when we are stressed, time may appear to move very quickly or slowly. So, we need a way to objectively measure how we are performing tasks in the cockpit with respect to time without relying on our own (very flawed) internal clock. Without a methodology to analyze how we are using the limited time we are given in the cockpit, time and task management becomes impossible.
Time Management Isn’t Just for New Pilots—a Case Study
Time management issues and task saturation is something that pilots at every level of experience are apt to struggle with if the right (or wrong) set of circumstances come together. Here is a real life event that happened to an airline crew; this wasn’t an inexperienced crew either—the captain and first officer both had thousands of hours in type and were flying a route that they had each seen hundreds of times. If they can succumb to time pressure, so can you.
The event begins at the gate at a large metropolitan hub airport. As the crew was getting ready for departure, they noted that a line of thunderstorms was beginning to move into the area. That was nothing out of the ordinary for the time of year, really. But, if they were going to get underway without a significant delay, they needed to get the airplane boarded and closed up. The agents and flight attendants got the aircraft loaded, checklists were completed, and the departure was briefed. A quick “welcome aboard” on the PA from the Captain, and the airplane was pushed back from the gate. The crew wasn’t rushing—at least not yet—but they were completing tasks expeditiously.
The first officer started the number one engine during the push back. The captain started the number two engine while the ground crew was unhooking the tow bar. As the start progressed, he cast a wary glance at the rapidly purpling sky towards the west. He noted that the windsock was still hanging relatively limp, indicating only about five knots of wind right down the intended runway of use. The crew completed the after start checklist, the taxi clearance was received, and the crew began to taxi away from the gate.
Here is where things start to happen quickly. The ground controller changed the runway assignment to a much closer runway. This necessitated a quick change in the flight management computer that was completed by the first officer. In the middle of the taxi checklist, the Captain reached down to switch the number one COM radio to the tower just in time to hear their call sign and “line up and wait.” A quick perfunctory brief on the runway change was accomplished by the first officer, who was to be the flying pilot. The aircraft was crossing the hold short line right about the time that the first officer called “before takeoff checklist complete.” At that exact same time, the tower changed the clearance to “cleared for takeoff—keep it rolling for Learjet traffic on a two mile final.” The radio was alive with chatter—it was a very busy day. The controls were transferred to the first officer, take off power was applied, and down the runway they went.
Now things got really interesting! At about 80 knots, the Learjet behind out hero airline pilots announced that they were going around. Within seconds, the controller in the tower told our airline crew to, “turn right 30 degrees as soon as practical”—while they were still on the ground. At the proper rotation speed the first officer lifted the nose and the airplane began to climb… Then it just sort of stopped climbing. The airplane did not want to fly! Now filled with terror, the first officer called for max power. The airplane began to climb slowly, but the hotels and bridges on the other side of the airport fence where looking very close indeed. The traffic collision avoidance system was began calling out “traffic, traffic” due to the proximity of the Learjet on the go-around, only to be interrupted by the ground proximity warning system’s urgent message of, “DON’T SINK, DON’T SINK!” All of the noise practically drowned out the panicked voice of the air traffic controller, who was yelling at the top of his lungs for our poor crew to turn their airplane to the right.
This was a real event. It really happened, and nobody died that day. The airplane began to fly like an airplane ought to and reached the initial level off altitude. Once the crew caught their breath, they noticed that the airplane wasn’t flying as fast as it should be—mostly because the gear and flaps were still down. The airspeed limitations were dramatically exceeded, but thankfully no damage was done. The airplane did miss a day of operation for the required inspections to be performed.
The fact that the gear and flaps were left down was not the biggest problem though—not by a long shot. In the investigation that followed it was found that the crew was so busy as they crossed the hold short line, they had missed the tower informing everyone on the frequency of a windshear alert for their runway. Our stalwart crew unknowingly took off into a windshear, and barely kept the airplane out of the dirt while doing so.
Outcome Driven and Driven by Triggers
There are good psychological reasons why an experienced crew would end up in the position that our crew above ended up in, and we can learn a lot about ourselves as pilots by looking objectively at how they got to a place where superior airplane handling was required to save the day. Understanding pilot psychology can help you avoid a similar fate, or worse.
First of all, pilots are outcome driven. No one gets into the airplane and thinks to themselves, “I think I’ll go out and miserably fail at being a pilot today”—you show up at the airport with the intention of flying in a superior manner and successfully completing your mission of the day. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this mindset, it does present a bit of a psychological trap for the time pressured pilot. When under stress, most pilots revert to muscle memory and instinct, doing whatever seems necessary to accomplish to outcome they have in mind. Have you ever wondered (usually from the safety of your couch) why pilots often don’t go around when it is patently obvious that they should? They have fallen into the trap of being outcome driven. The crew in our case study became overwhelmed by workload and sensory inputs; they simply did the thing that felt the most successful, which was getting off the ground and underway.
Secondly, most pilots are driven by triggers. Think about it: You’re trigger to do the before start checklist might be buckling your seatbelt—it’s just what you do. Once the engine is started, you immediately jump into the after start checklist. In the pattern and abeam the numbers, you lower the gear—that position in the pattern is a trigger for you to complete a certain task. If you think about how you fly, you can probably think of lots of triggers. Triggers that define actions can be a good thing, so long as you are thinking about the actions before you do them. In our example above, the crew was so task saturated that they weren’t acting thoughtfully; they had become automated robots simply reacting to triggers. Push back? Start an engine. Runway change? Accept it. Cleared to takeoff? Go. In a sense, the crew had become so accustomed to reacting to their triggers that the resulting actions became almost too second nature.
Time Management and Avoiding “Just Doing”
Our case study event wasn’t a failure of stick and rudder skills or even professionalism; it was a failure of time management. Time management failures aren’t characterized by doing things too quickly or slowly. Rather, they are characterized by the lack of thoughtfulness and deliberation in how tasks are accomplished. In the beginning of this piece, we acknowledged the oft-given advice of, “don’t do things too quickly in the cockpit.” When the question is asked how quickly is too quick, there is rarely much of an answer.
Well, here is an answer to the question of “how quickly should you do things in the cockpit” that you can take to the bank: Tasks in the cockpit should be completed at a speed that allows them to be completed fully, to be rechecked to verify completion, and to be evaluated for their effectiveness. If you are just doing things and skipping the recheck and evaluate parts of the equation—that is when you are doing things too fast.
All of this calls for some self-analysis on your part as a pilot. When you begin to notice that your sense of time is speeding up or slowing down, that’s a good time to delay your departure, set the parking brake, or take another lap around the pattern. When you become aware that you just read that checklist without bothering to really check anything, that’s your cue that your lack of time management is compromising your safety. When you begin to have the thought that you just have to be off the ground in ten minutes, or else—go back inside the FBO and drink another cup of coffee.
Throttles and Parking Brakes
While there is nothing that you can do to slow the passage of time, there are things that you can do to slow the aircraft’s passage through it! You have a throttle that you can use to slow down, and you have a parking brake to use on the ground. Whenever you feel an inkling that time isn’t on your side, these are your “go to” tools to give yourself some breathing room and to evaluate your though t process. Use them well!