The multi-tasker

Chances are you’ve heard the expression, aviate, navigate, communicate. It refers to the order in which things should be accomplished in an airplane. Put in more broad terms, it states one should concentrate on first flying the airplane, then ensuring the navigation is correct and the airplane is going where we want it to go, and finally, communicating with air traffic control as necessary.

Aviate, navigate, communicate is good advice, but it’s not a full picture. Multi-tasking in the airplane is one of the hardest skills to learn. It’s an intangible that doesn’t require rote memorization. Instead, it must be developed and fostered over time. But that doesn’t mean there’s no way to learn it.

The expression is one way to do that. But I find it to be incomplete. It’s obvious we want to keep the airplane upright all the time (so long as we’re not doing aerobatics). But beyond that, in what order do we accomplish things?

As a student it can often be hard to know what to take care of first. Consider this scenario: You’re flying toward a towered airport and are told to enter the pattern on a mid-field downwind. Upon arrival you are cleared to land, which requires a radio response, but you also need to configure the airplane now that you’re abeam your landing spot. Oh, and of course you need to make sure you are flying parallel to the runway, that you have the proper fuel tank selected, that your passengers are briefed, your seatbelt is on, and all the lights are on.

Clearly this is a busy time. So how do you know what to do and when to do it? The easy answer to multi-tasking is to do each thing earlier in the process so they don’t pile up all at once. Using our pattern example, the appropriate lights should have been turned on about 10 miles from the airport. I would recommend the same for the fuel tank, the passenger brief, and the seatbelt check. Flying parallel to the runway should be second nature at this point, and only requires a glance now and then to ensure you’ve judged the wind appropriately. Now you’ve simplified the situation to only have two simultaneous tasks–configuring the airplane and acknowledging the landing clearance. Which do you do first? Remember the expression? You configure the airplane first, especially early in your training. By the way, one of the reasons you’re taught a consistent way to set up an approach, usually something like 1,500 rpm, carb heat on (if applicable), fuel pump on, 10 degrees of flaps, and a roll of up trim, is because it makes these actions mere muscle memory at a busy time.

As you become more experienced all the busy tasks close to the airport will become more comfortable and you can alter the order as you get into your own groove. But in training, make sure to aviate, navigate, communicate.

Thus, the key to avoiding chaos in the cockpit is to break out all the required tasks into a long chain instead of one clump. There will be times when this can’t be avoided, such as on an instrument departure in a complex airplane (on a recent flight I counted seven individual tasks that had to be completed between when the wheels left the ground and 1,000 feet, not including flying the airplane). But for the most part, flights can be broken out into manageable chunks.

A good way to practice this is to force yourself to be busy all the time. On cross-country flights you should constantly be doing something, from cross-checking the instruments, to ensuring that you’re on course, to checking enroute and destination weather. If you get in the habit of doing things earlier in the process, such as obtaining the weather 20 miles out instead of seven, you’ll find that everything becomes much more manageable. To make sure you don’t forget to do something, make yourself a detailed checklist that’s broken down by miles from the airport instead of phase of flight.

But if things do start to pile up remember aviate, navigate, communicate, which I’ve always found to be correct. Because although it may seem like an annoyed controller is your first priority, that is almost never the case. Take care of the airplane first and everything else will fall into place.

-Ian Twombly

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