Sport Pilots and Flight Planning
By Ed Downs
Is there something different about a shiny, new Sport Pilot planning a cross country flight and what we might expect to see from a typical pilot coming out of the pre-GPS world that preceded the late 1990s? It is possible that there is, and pre 90s aviators might be able to learn a thing or two.
As spring fights its way into existence to end a long, cold winter, many are planning flying trips to a variety of business or recreational locations. A lot of aircraft owners are beginning to realize that their passion for recreational flying may dribble over into the more mundane transportation needs for which they have used the airlines in the past. Policy and pricing changes within the airline industry have become increasingly customer hostile, service to cities other than major hubs has been further reduced, and the TCA continues to add significant inconveniences to the travel experience. The fact is, point-to-point travel time for most trips of less than 600 miles is significantly less in the typical S-LSA than by modern airliner. The bottom line is that many more folks will turn to their recreational hobby planes for day-to-day travel needs.
This means more cross country planning and a careful analysis of your planning skills. Interestingly enough, the newly minted sport pilot may have a head start in this area. The Sport Pilot Practical Test Standard stresses that a sport pilot show strength in basic dead reckoning and pilotage navigation. Electronic navigation is optional; that includes GPS or the antiquated VOR system. But the sport pilot industry is not turning out a bunch of DR pros who are a wiz at reading charts. The fact is, the vast majority of S-LSAs being used for training have sophisticated glass cockpit displays with integrated autopilots. Sport pilots may never see or operate a VOR, and certainly not an ADF, but give them a complicated integrated cockpit, a laptop or computer tablet, and watch their smoke! Many Private Pilots are being trained on similar equipment, and we old guys flying “steam gauge” airplanes typically have a portable GPS and tablet to supplement our aging brains. This should be good news; flying should be safer, and cross country flying should be a breeze. But, NTSB statistics, and recent Nall reports show a different trend. It seems as though the modern, highly integrated cockpit is leading to a loss of situational awareness and location confusion, often so severe that actual control of the airplane is lost while confused pilots try to locate and push the right buttons. So what is going on?
To be sure, it is not a problem with advanced navigational and flight systems, but it may have something to do with the reliance now being placed upon these systems. Many pilots, especially the low timers who have been trained in advanced aircraft, do not start the cross country planning process until after engine start. They simply pre-flight the machine, start the engine and turn on the nav systems. A simple “direct to” entry will start one off on the flight with airport data, runway layout, radio frequencies, routing and even weather links displayed in full color. Toss in a moving map display, and the flight becomes a simple “follow the bouncing ball” drill, until something goes wrong or conditions change. It is then that the pilot discovers that they were simply following someone else’s plan for their flight, and that they have no back up plan. Old timers have some experience to fall back on, but the low time sport pilot, or out of practice “old timer” can find themselves confused and lacking solutions. Not a good place to be.
So, how does one optimize the incredible electronics now standard in most S-LSA’s, and/or get the most out of a sophisticated, contemporary, Cessna or Piper type plane? Simple – it is called “proper pre-flight planning.” This means sectional charts, flight logs and an evening spent at home DEVELOPING A PLAN as to how tomorrow’s flight is going to go. Okay, so you do not like paper; take a look at www.vfrcopilot.com. Kevin Carlone, President of the Ed/iT Inc., has developed a software package that enables old timers like me to download and use actual sectional charts (and every FAA update to facilities that you can think of) in a practical fashion that permits one to actually create and print a “travel book” for a flight in a page or strip format that actually fits the cockpit of an airplane. I might also add that Ed/iT subscription prices are significantly less than trying to find and buy all of the charts you need for a long flight at the local FBO. Be it charts from the airport, electronic planning tools (like ED/iT) or any number of other planning systems now available, the planning process prior to engine start is the key to a safe flight. Such planning means that the advanced technology familiar to sport pilots and being learned by “old” pilots becomes a valuable backup tool that ensures correct execution of your plan, not somebody else’s plan. New technology can give you the constant assurances needed to know that your plan is going well, leaving time for your mind to be in front of the plane, enjoying the flight, and not behind the plane playing catch-up.
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