There is truth in the old adage that 99% of flying is routine while the remaining 1% holds the potential for events that cause those who fly to hold themselves above mere ground-bound mortals. My 37 years of military flying might have distorted that ratio a fair bit given the complexity of high-energy fighter aircraft and the uncertainties of combat, but rest assured we all earn our right to be proud of our wings every time we fly.
The requirement that a single-seat fighter pilot be able to handle rapidly evolving emergency situations and complex systems diagnosis sets a high bar for any who join that group. However, the lessons we learned and techniques we developed for making fighter aviation significantly safer than in yesteryear have direct applicability to general aviation.
Prioritization and compartmentalization are two important skills that every pilot should have. These skills amount to the ability to look at a complex problem, quickly determine the most critical elements, and mentally set aside those things that can wait so as to deal with highest priorities first. While this does not sound like rocket science, the art is in the doing!
The technique for dealing with the immediate onslaught of information, such as when that caution tone or caution light presents and different gauges or displays go haywire, provided the title for this piece.
All flight training will, at some point, involve what is called situational emergency procedures training, know to military aviators as SEPT. We do this type of training in a simulated cockpit that has all the dials and switches for our particular aircraft. None of the switches and dials do anything, some are just decals on a wooden dashboard, but the presentation allows the SEPT victim to reach for the appropriate switch or lever, while telling the instructor what and why they are doing so.
One of the most common mistakes new trainees make is that of trying to act too fast, before they have fully and correctly analyzed the situation at hand. Herein lies the titled technique. After blurting out a quick and incorrect answer, the instructor would admonish with: “rather than try to react instantly, maintain aircraft control, analyze the situation, then take appropriate action. The best thing you can do is to reach up and wind the clock. This will give your nervous energy some place to channel itself, while your brain takes in the full situation.”
Winding the clock might seem like an archaic notion, but, amazingly enough, even our most modern aircraft have the same clock we flew with as far back as the 1960s. The Waltham A-13A aircraft clock and timer is a wind-up device that only uses power to light up at night. Unless your emergency involved some type of catastrophic impact to the instrument panel, you could count on at least your clock to be functioning normally. Thus, reaching out and winding it was unlikely to cause any worsening of your evolving emergency and would distract your brain from the need to take some poorly-thought-out action, too quickly.
Now, in most aircraft there are a few emergencies that will require immediate, reactive actions. In fighters, we call these Boldface Emergencies. For each type of fighter, we memorize, to the letter, the few key actions that have to be instinctive, to prevent disaster. For all other emergencies, there is time to reach out and wind the clock while assessing all instruments and lights to fully understand your situation.
For your aircraft, know those Boldface or Critical Action Procedures, but for all other emergencies, take the time to maintain aircraft control, “wind the clock” while you analyze the situation, then take appropriate action.
Mike Hostage is a retired USAF pilot with 37 years of experience, flying a wide variety of aircraft. An instructor pilot for more than half of his 4800 flight hours, Mike is currently qualified in a Cirrus SR-22T and regularly flys his two homebuilt sailplanes.