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I trained and flew with a corporate captain who nearly drove me crazy. This pilot never stopped thinking about what he was doing and always challenged the inputs from around him, including mine. His mind was a perpetual sponge continuously absorbing and processing information. He flew smart, very smart. He pushed me to do the same.
Like blood out of a stone, it didn't work but while trying, he changed my approach to flying, forever.
I’ll call my favourite mentor "Captain Smart." He frequently tested me when it was my turn for the pre-flight inspection. I'd find a bolt lying on the tarmac or coffee dribbled under the aircraft looking like an oil leak.
Don’t be a deadhead
The worst thing you could say to Captain Smart was, "Nobody taught me that."
It was like announcing, "My brain doesn’t function on it’s own. It’s empty except for information provided by others."
Smart was always learning. He expected me to be as inquisitive. He made sure I was. We’d be cruising along on at 35,000 feet and he would suddenly ask something like, "What trips a circuit breaker: excessive heat, voltage, amperage, time or magnetism?"
The answer could be "any of the above," but in the older airplane that we were flying, it was "heat and time." It was useful to know that our breakers were not "all protecting." They only tripped when the heat and time limits were exceeded. They were designed that way to avoid nuisance disconnects.
Recreational aircraft may be less complicated than a turboprop but it’s impossible to learn all about them from flying instructors. Be inquisitive. You’ll enjoy what you discover and you’ll remember better than anything you were told.
Captain Smart challenged everything. He couldn’t help it. His mind was always active so he put it to good use.
Whenever the mechanics worked on the airplane, he was there. He didn’t ask their permission. It was the only airplane he flew. He knew more about it than they did. They accepted him as the pilot part of the maintenance team. When they were done, he’d test fly the airplane.
Smart questioned the weather forecast. Everything had to fit. Same for the clearances issued by air traffic controllers. Soon I was questioning them too. I had to; I knew he’d ask me if they were correct or not.
This all sounds time-consuming and a royal pain in the butt. It’s not if you’re willing to tackle this "continuing education" a little at a time. After a while, you’re not just flying; you’re understanding.
Talk to yourself
Smart taught me a form of "challenge and response" as part of our two-pilot system. As co-pilot, I’d read the checklist items and he’d respond. There was not much automatic about the 1970s vintage turboprop we were flying. The checklists were long but we developed a rapid pace.
To keep the routine from becoming routine, Smart occasionally failed to respond. It was my job to notice and re-read the challenge. I tried skipping an item once he had the lists memorized and was always paying attention.
Recreation pilots don’t need to read their checks out loud but my point is, we always used a list.
Before takeoff and on final approach, Smart had special checks. On the runway, I was required to say, "We are cleared for takeoff; the runway is clear; our initial altitude limit is..."
To see if my mind was in gear, Smart would add something, "What is the most likely thing to beat us on this departure?"
"The crosswind from the left on the wet runway."
To this day I can’t pull into position for takeoff in any aircraft without taking a deep breath and saying to myself, "So, what might kill you this time: low static rpm, deer crossing the runway, the gusts beyond that building or a door popping open?"
I can hear Captain Smart saying, "Think ahead or fall behind."
Smart never forgot that the passengers were our reason for flying. We often carried the president of the company. Smart could think like a passenger. He’d know when they were getting restless and send me back to talk to them. I didn’t have far to go. Eight-passenger turboprops are not long or tall. I’d squat and ask if they were comfortable, give them an updated estimate of our arrival time and offer them something from the galley. I’d make a return visit whenever bad weather or turbulence was expected or if there was something scenic below.
It’s easy for pilots to forget what it’s like being a passenger. Take a minute during a flight and try to think what they are thinking. You’ll be their favourite pilot if you anticipate just one of their questions.
Be you own simulator
Corporate flying is a world of hurry up and wait. Many of my trips with Smart departed early in the morning. We’d fly company personnel to a North American destination, wait all day and fly them home. During the first part of the wait, we’d clean up the cabin, restock the galley and flight plan the return trip. Then we’d have lunch. None of this was unique.
In the restaurant, we’d toss emergency drills at each other.
"What’s the procedure for the co-pilot if he smells smoke in the cockpit?"
"Call it out to the captain; declare an emergency with ATC requesting instructions to the nearest suitable airport; grab the extinguisher; if the smoke continues to build after the captain shuts off the unnecessary electrics, discharge some but not all of the extinguisher into the fire."
"How many seconds of discharge are available in our fire extinguisher?"
"OK, but you missed the first step."
"Not according to the book I didn’t."
"So, not in the book, not in the mind?"
"What did I forget?"
Before declaring an emergency, turn around to see if a passenger lit up a cigarette."
When I asked Smart for the captain’s responses to emergencies, he never missed. He had practised them during lunches for years.
If there was time after lunch, we’d review the non-emergency drills while sitting in the cockpit with the aircraft manuals in our laps. As the co-pilot, I’d read the checklist out loud and the captain would touch the appropriate switch and respond. After a while, we’d switch seats and do more. I soon knew and understood both crew actions during all emergencies.
Recreation pilots don’t get paid lunches on company time but they still need to know the basic emergencies. Try reviewing them while sitting in your airplane on a bad-weather day. This works for rental pilots too. You can practise at home, sitting in a chair, having lunch.
Captain Smart was good but he had a fault. He occasionally flexed his exceptional knowledge in the face of us lesser aviators. Like the time I was working the radios while Smart was flying the airplane. The radar controller delayed giving us a descent for our destination while he handled a minor problem with two other aircraft.
Over our open intercom, Smart said to me, "Break in and ask for the descent."
I punched the transmit button, "Centre, Alpha Bravo Charlie requests descent."
"Standby," the controller replied impatiently. He continued to work the other traffic.
When our descent clearance finally came, I accepted it. Instead of lowering the nose, Smart throttled back but held the nose level instead of lowering it. The big propellers on the turboprop quickly cut our speed. We descended at the normal rate but at half the speed.
"He could have given us a descent earlier," Smart explained as we crepted toward the airport. There was no need for our passengers to suffer through a steep descent."
Our sudden slower speed created an aluminum logjam of inbound airliners behind us. The controller had to pick up his pace in a hurry. It was a lesson for him and me.
"I hope we aren’t scheduled to come back here soon," I replied.
"The landing gear is down and locked," I announced, "we are cleared to land, the runway is in sight and the runway is clear."
"I can see that for myself!" Captain Smart barked in reply. "Do you think I’m blind?"
"Blind, no;" I answered, "belligerent, yes."
We were conducting an ADF approach to minimums with one engine out and half our systems disabled during a simulator session at Flight Safety International in Wichita, Kansas. We were at the end of three days of classroom and simulator sessions for our annual certification. We had proven that we could work as a team through every imaginable emergency. After countless approaches with correct commands and responses, Smart’s outburst was a tension breaker. It was time to get the simulator "on the ground" and celebrate.
If you have good memories of favourite aviation mentors, have you contacted them lately? They will appreciate that you remember their help. I keep in touch with Captain Smart via e-mail. That way, if he asks me a question, I can take my time finding the answer.
Garth Wallace flew for 12,000 hours as a bush pilot, charter pilot, flying instructor and corporate pilot in Canada. His laughter-filled books are based on the characters he met and the fun flights he survived.