This I know: if you see something with your own two eyes, you can avoid it. Happened to me just this morning. I began a turn off a road I use quite often (that’s important) and nearly encountered a concrete berm the engineers felt was important to add since I’d been there last. Fortunately for me, I was looking outside and forward. And lucky for me the car’s brakes are new. No damage done.
It works the same in an airplane. Even in instrument (IFR) conditions I scan outside the airplane as a cross-check of my instruments, looking for traffic, towering clouds I prefer to fly around and of course, the runway.
I do this even though I fly what the FAA calls a “technically advanced aircraft” (TAA). I’ve got nearly as much information in my cockpit as the Asiana Airlines guys who, despite more than 20,000 hours of experience and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of TAA allowed their B777 to fly into a rock berm at San Francisco International airport last July. After an all-day hearing on December 11, and despite the fact that the NTSB refused to state a cause for the accident (pending even more research) the reason these pilots hit that berm instead of landing is appallingly clear: they relied on their TAA and not on their pilot instincts; instincts borne in the seat of their pants and through interpreting what their eyes were telling them.
After reading a transcript of the cockpit voice recorder I’ll cut the junior first officer a break. He was sitting on the jumpseat, and pointed out the excessive sink rate and deteriorating airspeed to his captains no less than four times in the last three minutes of the flight. His comments were acknowledged, but no changes were made. Hmmm….
How does this pertain to GA flight? Consider it a cautionary tale. If you fly with what I like to call “pretty pictures,” more often known as EFIS, PFDs or MFDs, or even Garmin / iPad GPS moving maps on your lap or clamped to your yoke, please remember this: those are just representations of the world outside. GPS isn’t always reliable. Maps of terrain can be offset slightly (do you test this by occasionally flying directly over an obstacle?), RAIM can fail. I’ve seen the pretty boxes of my virtual glideslope on my EFIS not consider the trees that have grown up and into a runway’s clear zone. And ADS-B or even active traffic systems can’t pick up aircraft without transponders. I know from looking out my windscreen that plenty of traffic opt out. And autopilots, auto-throttles, FADEC and the like? They are only as good as the pilot’s knowledge of their intricacies and fallacies (this is what really bit the Asiana pilots in their collective butt).
Bottom line, my TAA gives me wonderful capabilities, but they are only as good as my complete understanding of how to use them, and when. Above all, I was taught to use my kinesthetic senses and my eyes looking outside the aircraft when I fly, no matter the conditions. Call me old-fashioned, but it works.
Oh, and I listen to my co-pilot when he tells me there might be a problem. Even pinch-hitters (non-pilot co-pilots who fly with you all the time) can perceive issues before they become big problems in flight. They are great traffic and ground-spotters, and they’ll tell you when they think you are fatigued, too. So listen and respond.
Want to know more? Don’t just read the pundits. Look over the raw NTSB records at www.ntsb.gov. There’s plenty for a GA pilot to learn there.