U.S. Department
of Transportation

Federal Aviation

St. Louis
Flight Standards District Office

10801 Pear Tree Lane
Suite 200
St. Ann, Missouri 63074


February 2000 




Thought for the month......
Lurking within every radio transmission is the opportunity for accurate information.
It's just hard to find at times.

A Fine Line....One of the challenges we have as aircraft operators is determining where the fine line exists when complying with Air Traffic Control instructions. It's easy to preach the standard line that if we don't feel comfortable with a clearance or instructions, to immediately request alternate instructions. We also know that we should never accept a clearance to do something that we feel is beyond our capability or the capability of the aircraft. That makes perfectly good sense, but recognizing that in the cockpit it isn't always that easy.

Understanding how we make decisions is an important factor. The term "no brainer" is pretty accurate because as we become more experienced at a task we make fewer "conscious" decisions, they become more automatic. However, when faced with a competing change, or some novel event, we have to switch back to our conscious decision making. The point of change becomes the point at which we apply conscious decision making and we might forget about some of the automatic decisions we made prior to that.

Some years ago I had to give a reexamination to a pilot who had an accident while landing his own aircraft in windy conditions. During the landing the pilot found that the gusty conditions were a little too much to handle and ended up departing the runway and went into the grass. Unfortunately, there were some rough spots in the turf and he busted the nose gear and damaged the firewall. That's what classified it as an accident.

On the day of the reexamination the wind was dead calm. We couldn't have bought a crosswind anywhere in the state. It would have been a waste of time and money to go fly since I was supposed to check the pilot's crosswind landing ability, so I asked the pilot to show me what he had done to prepare for this flight. He produced his logbook which had entries of 6 hours of dual instruction, with 3 different flight instructors, doing takeoffs and landings in a crosswind. I knew all the instructors and they all had signed him off as competent.

Next, I asked him to explain how a crosswind landing should be performed. He went into an in-depth discussion on crosswind landing techniques, complete with a detailed pencil drawing. He definitely knew his stuff. He had obviously done a lot of training and studying, and I was satisfied that even if we didn't fly, the intent of the reexamination had been met. But, before I willing to approve the check, I asked him to explain what happened on the day of the mishap.

The pilot said that he realized the gusty crosswind conditions were present, but they were within the manufacturer's published demonstrated limits and he felt confident that he could handle them. The takeoff was routine, he held the ailerons into the wind, lifted off slightly wing low and was able to maintain the centerline on the way out. The flight, although bumpy, was uneventful. He entered the pattern and set up for a crosswind landing. As he turned final he heard a another aircraft call ready for departure and the tower asked him if he could slow down to let the waiting aircraft depart. He said he would, and watched as the airplane lifted off, after which he was cleared to land. As he touched down a gust lifted his wing and the airplane skipped along on one wheel until it went into the dirt. The rest was history.

I asked him what his touchdown speed was and he replied that it was probably just above the stall speed. "Was this how you had planned to land?" I asked. He thought about it for a moment and replied, "No". His original plan was not to use flaps, and to touchdown faster with a shallower angle. "If that was the plan, then why did the aircraft end-up with full flaps at stall speed?" The pilot explained that he changed the configuration to slow his approach to comply with the request from the tower. There was a short pause followed by the pilot's raised eyebrows as the light went on. "I let the tower talk me out of the approach I wanted to make."

The reexamination was complete. The pilot fully understood the reason the mishap occurred and it had nothing to do with his crosswind landing technique. The cause of the accident was the failure of the pilot to continue with the good plan that he had for landing in gusty crosswind conditions. It was still "pilot error", but not the kind of error that term conjures up. It wasn't a lack of competency, but rather a willingness to comply that put the aircraft in the dirt.

Pilots often assume that controllers have more aeronautical experience and knowledge than they do. If the pilot lacks experience, or we're operating in an unfamiliar area, there is a willingness to comply with ATC instructions because "they know what's best." That may or may not be true. They know their jobs well, but they don't have any way of knowing what's going on in the cockpit. In an effort to save money, the FAA didn't order the ATC software with the crystal ball option. If the local controller isn't a pilot, how would they know that we don't necessarily want to slow down in gusty conditions? The only way is if we tell them. Naturally, that isn't as easy as it sounds either.

What exactly is the proper phraseology for refusing instructions from ATC? We can always use the standard "unable", but that has a certain connotation to it that pokes sharply at our ego. If ATC sends up instructions to turn left into a big green nasty looking cloud with lightning coming out of it, "unable" works really well and no pilot would feel wimpy about using it. But what if the tower asks us to slow down on final to allow a departure? Unable? What does that infer? I'm not good enough to slow this thing down?

Critical changes may be difficult for either pilots or controllers to recognize. All we can do is to remain alert and remember that within every transmission lurks the opportunity for misunderstanding or error.

Upcoming Events

Feb. 11&12
IA Renewal and Maintenance Exhibit
Belleville Area College
Granite City, IL Campus
7am to 5pm.

Feb. 12
BFR / VFR Clinic
Scott Aero Club
Scott AFB, IL
Call (618) 256-2170 for information and reservations.

Feb. 17
Go / No Go Weather Decisions
Pizza Inn, Westplains, MO
6:30 to 9:00pm.

Feb. 19&20
FIRC - Greater St. Louis Flight Instructors Renewal Clinic. St. Louis University
Non-CFIs and CFI wannabes are welcome
Call (636)286-9905 for information and reservations.

Mar. 18
Mid-America Airport
Mascoutah, IL
Aviation Safety Seminar.
1:00 to 5:00pm.


Safety Program Manager

1-800-322-8876 x 4835