Why Pilots Shouldn’t Always Try To Be Perfect
Article appeared in Flying Magazine September, 2016 by John King
“We’re going to be in the Hudson.” It was Captain Sully Sullenberger announcing that they were going to deadstick U.S. Airways 1549 into the Hudson River. It is a story most of us are familiar with. After the loss of both engines in their A320, they first intended to return to La Guardia, and then decided they couldn’t make it. Next they were offered Teterboro Airport and they said, “We can’t do it.”
Ultimately, they pulled off the “Miracle on the Hudson”—ditching with no fatalities and no major injuries. They skillfully missed bridges and steered themselves to be near operating boats so as to maximize the chance of rescue. They didn’t have time to make precise calculations. They didn’t have the guidance of a localizer or glideslope. Their primary resource was the view out the windscreen.
Why were Captain Sullenberger and First Officer Jeff Skiles able to do this? They knew how to fly by TLAR—“that looks about right.” They were both flight instructors and Sullenberger was a long-time glider pilot.
In contrast Asiana 214 was unable to successfully complete, with both engines running, a visual approach, when the ILS was out of service, to runway 28 left at San Francisco International. Their Boeing 777 struck the seawall short of the runway. Three passengers died and 187 were injured. The pilots weren’t accustomed to making approaches without an ILS.
TLAR (pronounced T-LAR) is a skill that every pilot should have for several reasons. One is, like the pilots of U.S. Airways 1549 and Asiana 214, sometimes you just won’t have all the resources that you are accustomed to. If you have TLAR skills, you can safely get by without them.
Of course, developing TLAR skills is part of every pilot’s primary training. That’s why we practice engine-out emergencies. But it might be a good idea to take your TLAR development a step further for operations around airports, which is where most accidents happen.
You might pay special attention to what 1,000 feet AGL looks like out the window. You can use the runway length to gauge what a mile on final looks like. The standard three-degree glidepath is 300 feet per nautical mile, so you might focus on what 300 feet AGL looks like when you are on a one-mile final.
Another thing to focus on is what the pitch attitude of the airplane looks like when you are at the proper approach speed and configuration. Likewise, you will want to pay attention to what the power setting on final approach should sound like. Plus, you’ll want to be able to keep the airplane yawed into the relative wind by being aware of side forces instead of having to rely on the slip-skid indicator.
Your TLAR in-the-pattern graduation test would be to fly the airplane completely around the pattern with the altimeter, the airspeed indicator, and maybe more instruments covered. (It would be a really good idea to have an instructor with fully-developed TLAR skills with you.)
Having TLAR skills saved the day for Martha one time when she was flying a Cessna 340. When her pitot tube clogged in flight due to dust-turned-to-mud in precipitation, her knowledge of appropriate pitch attitudes and power settings made approaching and landing the twin without the airspeed indicator a non-event.
Another reason for developing TLAR skills is that they allow you to take action quickly without having to first make precise calculations or change your flight plan in your GPS. In all of life, timeliness is often better than perfection. It is especially true in flying. Striving for perfection can sometimes lead to paralysis and inaction, and can distract you from situational awareness.
Sometimes all we have time or resources for is a roughly good job. If you have to make a diversion for weather the first thing to do is make a turn to an approximate heading for your new course. If you know your ground speed in miles per minute, a quick look at a chart can give you a good idea of how long it will take you to reach your new destination. Using quick estimates will keep you from continuing to head towards the bad weather while you are figuring out the details of your new route and entering it in your GPS.
Always having an alternative is one of the most fundamental risk management tools in aviation. But an alternative plan is not really an alternative if the pilot is unwilling or unable to take action to go to the alternate.
Sometimes the need to have everything planned out in detail deters a pilot from taking timely action when they need to. There was a pilot who had spent months planning a trip from the Midwest to the West Coast. He talked to other pilots about exactly what route and altitude he should be flying on each leg. He created a flight log with every leg planned out in magnificent detail.
On the leg crossing the Rockies, he ran into icing conditions, but continued with his planned route even though a simple diversion would have gotten him out of the icing. He and his wife died in the crash.
His friends told investigators they thought he had spent so much time and energy planning the legs in detail that he wasn’t able to adjust mentally and divert when circumstances required it. Although detailed planning is a wonderful thing, having TLAR skills in addition gives a pilot the confidence to quickly create and execute an alternative plan when they need to.
There is a misconception that pilots have to be perfect and precise all the time, and of course, there are times when precision is critical. For instance, when flying an approach procedure in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). But as we have seen, there are times when being willing to be approximate can be less risky than shooting for absolute precision.
Sometimes implied precision can lead a pilot to not have sufficient margins. It used to be that on the knowledge test the FAA would ask for very precise answers requiring interpolation on airplane performance charts. This falsely implied that the pilot could rely on those precise numbers in their own flying. The reality is the numbers were generated in ideal conditions and are unachievable in everyday flying. It’s far better for pilots to pick the more conservative conditions rather than interpolating.
There is a concern that modern aviation technology is luring pilots away from maintaining TLAR skills. The digital precision of GPS is indeed very fetching. But it takes time to program the avionics and a failure leaves a pilot who has no TLAR skills with no alternatives. Maintaining TLAR skills is important. A pilot with no TLAR skills is like a painter who can only paint by the numbers. They may look like a good artist, but without the numbers they are helpless.