Pilot's tip of the week

Staying Ahead of the Airplane


Subscriber question:

"I'm getting back into flying after some time away, and my biggest problem is I'm just overwhelmed. The instructor keeps telling me to 'stay ahead of the airplane,' but how can I do this when I can't even complete the tasks at hand?"— Mike M.

Wally Moran:

“Each of us has a limited capacity to process and fly. Sometimes the tasks required exceed the capacity available. That’s when the airplane starts to get ahead of us or in other words, we start to get behind. Our goal is to keep the task level below our capacity.

That’s sometimes easier said than done, but here are a few suggestions.

1. We can move some tasks to a less busy time.
2. We can build in more time to complete the required tasks.
3. We can simply eliminate some tasks.

For example, good preflight planning and organization is an example of moving tasks to a less busy time and will significantly reduce our in-flight workload. Having the taxi diagram available prior to calling for taxi clearance is another good example. On the other hand, trying to confirm destination traffic patterns while on final descent is a poor choice of priorities.

How can we make more time to get the tasks done? We can slow the airplane down. We all know that the traffic pattern and approach are a very task-saturated time. It’s a place where we can easily get behind the airplane. If we slow the aircraft down prior to this phase, we have automatically given ourselves more time to complete the required tasks. If IFR, and you are starting to get behind, you can ask ATC for delaying vectors or a turn in the holding pattern. Then, of course, you can always go around.

What do I mean when I say we can simply eliminate tasks? We all know the adage about aviate, navigate and communicate. This means that we have to prioritize our workload. For example, responding to a radio call just at touch-down would not be a good idea. Just eliminate that task until the aircraft is slowed to taxi speed.

When conducting training, I often give pilots a go-around command in or near the flare for landing. It is not uncommon for the pilot to first tell the tower that he is going around and then finally get around to adding the power. Announcing the go-around to the tower is a task that can be eliminated until we have established the go-around properly. So, if you are starting to feel a little overloaded, you may be able to toss a few tasks on the back burner for the moment. Just don’t toss the aviate tasks away, only the navigate and communicate.

So next time you have one of those situations where you wind up behind the aircraft, think about how you could have moved some tasks to a less busy time, eliminated tasks, or provided yourself more time. Then implement those changes on your next flight.”

Which task do you find MOST distracting to your main focus of flying the airplane?

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