Type Clubs Lead By Example with Standard Operating Practices
This article appeared in the May 2019 edition of EAA’s Sport Aviation Magazine. It is used with permission. For other articles by Charlie Precourt, please visit EAA.org and join for a full subscription.
Imagine a year when there are no fatal accidents in general aviation. Does that seem impossible? The airlines achieved that many years ago, and so can we if we focus on the right things in our safety pro- grams. In fact, the overall trend in GA accident rates over the last few years is very encouraging. AOPA’s Air Safety Institute published its annual GA Accident Scorecard recently (see www.EAA.org/ extras), revealing fatal accidents from 2008 to 2017 are down more than 30 percent. Nevertheless, there were 185 fatal accidents in 2017, so we still have a long way to go. But, there are many developments in safety programs across GA that can keep the trend going.
One such development that I’ve advocated through a couple of type clubs is establishing standard operating practices (SOP). When I flew for both the U.S. Air Force and NASA, we had what we called standard operating procedures. They were the law for our flying. That is, we had to follow them procedurally because the folks that paid our salaries said so. The objective was to ensure we all used the same playbook, minimizing the risk that one of us might develop a bad in-flight habit that increased risk to the organization.
One way to think about SOPs is to recognize the difference between procedure and technique. For example, you have to follow the manufacturer’s pilot’s operating handbook (procedure)where it says to lower the landing gear before landing. If you don’t, you are in for a bad day. However, it does not tell you exactly when to lower the gear; that’s left to technique.
In the middle, between procedure and technique, is a best practice. In this example, lowering the gear just before the final approach fix is a “standard practice.” It is the generally accepted “best” place to lower the gear. In GA, however, aircraft owners don’t generally answer to a boss, so I prefer the term practices instead of procedures.
However, whether or not someone is paying us to fly, following best practices just makes sense. If you have a good set of practices, they enable you to do things the same way every time, leaving lots of brain cells to manage the unusual, the things that might go wrong. The safest approach to accomplishing a flight task is one that leverages consistency. On the other hand, if you are inconsistent, doing flight tasks differently each time, you’ll always be struggling to keep up. So, in my involvement with the safety committees for both the Malibu Mirage Owners and Pilots Association and the Citation Jet Pilots Association, there has been broad acceptance of recently developed standard operating practices.
The good news in this development is that a culture of safety is growing broadly across most sectors of GA through these type club initiatives. Perhaps more importantly, there is much to learn from each other about the effectiveness of these various initiatives. EAA has seen a four-year drop of 47 percent in fatal accidents among homebuilts! So, there must be something right going on there — a major focus on appropriate transition training before flying a new homebuilt (as a standard operating practice) is paying off.
So, what is covered in the SOPs these type clubs have developed? The following outlines the kinds of standard practices other type clubs have set up and represent SOPs you could establish for yourself regardless of the type of aircraft you fly. You just have to fill in the blanks for your particular type and commit to sticking to them in your flying. These are notional and are practices (not mandatory procedures). They don’t tell you how to fly your aircraft; they give you things to think about when you do. If you take a bit of time to set your own SOPs and then stick with them, you’ll be a far safer pilot. Here are some ideas:
Set the maximum number of hours of flight time during a calendar day and rest hours off between flying days. One example is a maximum of eight hours in the air and a minimum of 10 hours off until flying again.
Establish best practices for what you will carry as cargo. One example is no lithium batteries in the baggage compartment.
Flight Planning and Preparation
What are your limitations for the types of flight you’ll take on? Consider SOPs such as designating a suitable alternate airport for all flights. Another might be for first flights after significant maintenance, such as no flight at night or in IMC until a day-VMC functional check flight has been done.
Runway Field Length Guidelines
Establish an appropriate minimum field length for your aircraft and commit to not going into shorter fields. Consider sea level operations and high-altitude airports as well.
What should be your maximum wind conditions for taxi, takeoff, or landing? Maximum acceptable crosswinds on landing? Set them in your SOP and stick to them.
Consider establishing practices like no non-operationally necessary conversation below 10,000 feet MSL, during any segment of an approach procedure, or during the last 1,000 feet before leveloff during climb or descent. Also consider declaring “minimum fuel” when the fuel state becomes less than fuel to destination plus 45 minutes at current burn, even if flying day VFR.
Approach and Landing
Consider establishing personal minimums in your SOPs for things like visual approaches. Perhaps use a 1,500-foot ceiling and 3 miles’ visibility for day and 5 miles for night, even though these exceed the FAA’s requirements.
Pilot Limitations, Training, & Currency
FAR Part 91 rules allow us to fly with pretty marginal levels of currency. Consider setting your own SOP to something more appropriate for the kind of aircraft you fly and the kind of flying you do in it. For example, consider these ideas as SOPs:
- If you have less than 100 hours of time-in-type or have not flown at least 15 hours as pilot in command in the last 90 days, use a minimum planned fuel reserve of one hour.
- Also, if flying IFR in this situation, use a minimum visibility for takeoff of 1 mile.
- On instrument approaches, increase the published minimums by one- half mile visibility and add 200 feet to the decision altitude or minimum descent altitude.
- Perform landings at a weight that allows a full stop in 60 percent of available runway length.
- Consider an SOP that establishes you will fly with a CFI on a refresher flight before flying as pilot in command if you have not logged at least an hour of flight time and one takeoff and landing in an aircraft of the same type within the preceding 45 days.
Wherever there are “techniques” associated with things like takeoffs and climbs, cruise, use of autopilot, power settings, and approaches and landings, you can write down your preferred technique as your own SOP. Describe each maneuver in enough detail (speeds, altitudes, power settings, configurations, etc.) to define a routine you will use each time. This ensures you fly consistently each flight and leverage the power of the standard operating practice, that is, to give you the bandwidth you need should you encounter an unexpected event or an emergency.
SOPs are among the exciting concepts underway to make safety programs work for us. Hats off to type clubs like MMOPA and CJP and many others that are taking the initiative. But even if you’re not in this kind of group, you can still set up your own SOPs. Let’s all look forward to our first year in GA without a fatal accident — and let’s make it soon!
Charlie Precourt is a former NASA chief astronaut, space shuttle commander, and Air Force test pilot. He built a VariEze, owns a Piper JetPROP, and is a member of the EAA board of directors.