Here I’ll give you a very brief feel of the things we do throughout the year, up to and on the day of flying to make sure we fly safe and have a great experience. As pilots, we do this all the time as part of our routine. But for those of you who don’t know, this will give you some background to see what goes on behind the scenes.
As you can well imagine, the plane is a very important part of flying. Putting the obvious aside, we really like to make sure our planes are well taken care of.
Sure you can buy expensive planes worth several hundreds of thousands of dollars, just like cars, cottages and sailboats. But, for $30-40K you can get a very nice plane – about the same price as most of the sedans on the roads today.
Every certified aircraft has to have a full inspection at least once a year by an approved aviation mechanic. These people are the pilot’s partner in safe flying. I often take a couple of days off work during the annual inspection to learn from them as they go through their detailed inspection. And, I get to do the grunt work like unscrewing access panels, vacuuming, and cleaning parts.
The annual inspection involves going through a checklist of over 100 items. There is the typical battery operations, lights and electricals working, cleaning spark plugs, greasing bearings and shocks, checking tires, etc. We also check the compass, switches and circuit breakers, radios, first aid kit and fire extinguishers, seatbelts, emergency locators, engine gauges…and the list goes on.
We also look inside the wings and fuselage for signs of bends, stress, dings, cracks, rust and corrosion. Imagine you have a piece of metal in your hands and you bend it back and forth and back and forth…eventually it breaks. We don’t want those types of stresses to build up on our aircraft. For the same reason, every five years we send away our metal propellers for a special electro-magnetic inspection that is like an MRI or x-ray to see that there are no stresses inside the propeller.
An aircraft oil change is much more than just an oil change for a car. The oil gives us a look into how well the engine is working. We see how clean it is. We also take apart the oil filter and look for any contamination or particles that are signs of engine wear. The oil may even be sent away for a chemical analysis that might also show engine wear. As you can imagine, clean oil is important to keep the engine well lubricated and operating properly…so we change it about every 50 hours of flying.
Manufacturers and Transport Canada regularly issue “Airworthiness Directives” (ADs) about things that need to be look at on airplanes. During the annual inspection the mechanic looks at all the ADs related to our aircraft type, and related aircraft, to make sure they are all complied with. These are like recall notices for cars, but as the owner of the aircraft we are the ones responsible for making sure they are followed (and we pay for it ourselves).
We also make sure that all the log books for our flights, airframe, engine and propeller are all kept up to date. We also make sure all the paperwork for the aircraft registration, emergency locators, and insurance (just like a car) are all up-to-date and paid for.
As you can see, safety is the priority in keeping our plane operating properly.
Equally important is to make sure that we as pilots are safe too. We also have to go through “inspections” regularly. For those of us over 40-years old, we have to have a full medical examination every two years. Commercial pilots need to get this done every six months. Our “medicals” are similar to when you go to your doctor for your regular check up, but we go through a whole host of other items too. Eyesight, colour blindness, hearing, breathing volume, eating habits, peeing in a cup, etc. are all the familiar things…and sometimes even bloodwork and stress tests are added for good measure. We also have to go through a ECG heart test every two years. An aviation medical doctor is just like your family doctor, but with specific training of what to look for in pilots. Just like with our airplanes, our aviation doctors go through a very long checklist of things to look for.
Pilots also need to keep up their skills. We like to make sure we fly regularly to keep our skills sharp. There are also rules we need to follow regarding that we’ve flown enough in order to take passengers and we’ve had some time with an instructor or go to training seminars to “keep the rust off.”
As you can imagine, flying requires a lot of attention to detail, can be a little bit stressful at times, and requires good physical health. Besides our regular medicals, we try to eat right and keep in good shape. Exercise and proper foods are important to be healthy, but also to managing stress. For those of us who aren’t flying for a living and work at other jobs to pay for our flying, we try to also make sure other stresses of life, home and work, don’t have a negative impact. Again, exercise and eating right become even more important.
Usually long before we get to the airplane, we are thinking about the flight we are planning to do – and there is lots of preparation! This planning is usually done the day, or a few days, before we going flying. Pilots really like checklists (as do our mechanics and doctors) so we don’t forget anything. We use these checklists in planning our flights too. Some of the things we do include:
- Thinking about which airports we want to visit. There is a book called the “Canadian Flight Supplement” (CFS) that lists all the airports in Canada. It shows us things like: how the runways are oriented, how to fly around the airport, what radio frequencies to use, fuel availability, who to contact to use the airport, and special instructions. We’ll not only look at all this detail for the airports we plan to visit, but for airports along our planned route just in case we might have to make an unscheduled landing – like for a pee stop.
- As you can probably appreciate we need to keep all of our maps, GPS databases, books and reference material up to date. We don’t want any surprises that we’ve flowing into a restricted area or that a runway we planned to use at an airport was closed a month or two ago.
- Looking at forecasts of weather to see what is happening. This isn’t just a check of “The Weather Channel”, although they are a good place to start. We usually look at the NavCanada special website that is set up for detailed weather analysis. We’ll look if there are any big storms or weather fronts approaching along our flight path during our flight times. From this we get an idea if we can actually do our planned flight, and if we do go what the cloud layers and visibility might be, and how bumpy or smooth we can expect the air to be.
- From our weather check, we’ll also get estimated winds and temperatures. We’ll use these to do long calculations on: how long it will take (flying into a strong headwind is slower), what direction we need to fly (winds from the side will push us slightly sideways), how much fuel we’ll need based on distance and wind, which runway we’ll use (we like to land into the wind), and how long the runway needs to be (warmer temperatures often means we need longer runways).
Luckily today there is lots of software on iPads and our GPS that helps us with all of this information and calculations. So instead of dealing with all sorts of big folding maps and books in the cockpit, we only need an iPad. Of course, we keep those maps and books in our flight bag just in case the iPad runs out of battery.
It’s finally arrived. The day we are going flying. We’ve done all the prep work. But, we still need to do some important last minute checks.
As pilots the first thing we do is look at ourselves and make sure we are safe – did we get enough sleep, focused on the mindset of flying, physically in shape, are we stressed, no medications (as even over the counter drugs such as antihistamines can affect us), etc. Check…we’re good to go.
Then, we’ll go on-line or call NavCanada to get a weather up date. We have one last look at clouds, temperature, winds, precipitation, thunderstorms, etc. effecting our route. We’ll make sure it’s within the capabilities of ourselves and our plane. In addition, we’ll update our flight calculations paying attention to any major changes. We pay very special attention to making sure we have enough fuel to do the flights and we’ve got enough fuel stops planned at the right places.
Another thing we check out with NavCanada are NOTAMs – “Notice to Airman”. These are important “news flashes” of changes at airports that aren’t in the CFS, recent runway closures, frequency changes, navigation aides that aren’t working, and restricted areas that “pop-up” (often because of visiting politians, military training, or fires). As pilots, we want to pay special attention to these NOTAMs.
When we arrive at the airplane we do a “walk around” to check out it out. We’ll take off any covers, check all the flight control surfaces (wings, flaps, elevators, ailerons), make sure there are no dings from hail or some careless person moving their airplane or golf cart around, check the landing lights and coloured navigation lights, antennas, fuel and oil levels – we’ve got a checklist for all of this.
Pilots will also explain to their passengers on what the different parts of the airplane do and the safety precautions – where the fire extinguisher and first aid kit are, not touching the controls unless you’re told to, how to get in and out of the aircraft, how to use the seat belt. If we’re flying with a fellow pilot we talk about how we will share the roles such as who is flying, who will be talking with air traffic control on the radio, and who will be navigating. Even as a pilot it’s always more fun to share the load with another pilot.
When everyone is inside and the doors are closed, this is where the pilot gets more focused. They will follow a checklist (yet another one!), to do a pre-check of the instruments and gauges, starting up the plane, doing a “run-up” to check the engine is working properly, and talking to the airport controller for instructions. As a passenger this is where you should be quiet and let them focus on their job. Hopefully they will explain things along the way. But, a good pilot always welcomes an “extra set of eyes and ears” from passengers. If you see something that isn’t right, on the ground (such as another plane or person near you), or in the air (such as another plane), speak up. Safety is important.
With all that done…
…it’s time to go flying!