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#142 Nordo

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December, 2012

The first time I ever flew behind a modern flat panel display it was a Garmin 1000 in a brand new 182.  The owner had asked me to help him learn to land his new airplane.  He had no problem with the display.  In fact, he gave me a bit of a tutorial on it during our first flight.  I think I helped him with his landings, but more importantly, we succeeded in uncovering what is now a commonly understood drawback of these PFD’s and MFD’s.  This pilot had a tendency to look too closely at that display.  Since it could show traffic (if that traffic had a transponder), he was beginning to assume that the traffic shown on his screen was THE traffic.  We all know about this disturbing tendency.  I’m certainly not the first aviation writer to cover this subject.  This debate has roots that go way back and it’s useful to know about those roots.

Pilots twenty or thirty years ago were all taught that they shouldn’t count on all

No flat panel display in this Cub!

airplanes being equipped with radios or those radios being properly used to announce position in a pattern or elsewhere. That made sense, and most newly trained pilots were doing a pretty good job of keeping their attention outside the cockpit so they could spot those NORDO (“no radio”) aircraft.  But something has changed.

You can now somewhat safely assume that there will not be a NORDO aircraft in the traffic pattern.  I said it was a somewhat safe assumption.  I didn’t say that there would not be one such airplane in that pattern.

I was one of them just a few weeks ago.  Ferrying an airplane back to Sisters, I decided to swoop in to Sunriver and get a bit of practice.  My PTT switch had been threatening to quit and it did just that.  Another guy taxiing for takeoff had no idea I was there.  As he reached the end of the runway which he was mistakenly using as a runup area, he took his time.  So I went into “lurk” mode, staying overhead and close, ready to swoop in and land.  He concerned himself with his pre-flight check and never did a 360 to check the sky.  I’ve left that one off myself.  I may not again.  Then he took off and I swooped in right behind him, did a little work on the runway and turned it into a touch and go.  Climbing on course, I overtook him and gradually flew past. I even waved at him. He never saw me.

“…I even waved at him as I went by…”

It’s pretty obvious that this pilot was not thinking about NORDO aircraft.  Was it because he had a Garmin 1000?  I don’t think so… he was flying a J-3 Cub.   Maybe he was depending on that radio.  You know, the one on which I couldn’t be heard.

We have an issue with pilots not keeping their heads out of the cockpit.  It is not a simple issue.  It’s important to deal with all the reasons for this shortcoming:

TIS (traffic information service) displays have a tendency to lull a pilot into thinking that they display ALL the traffic.  They certainly don’t.

Because the MFD shows so much information, a pilot will tend to fixate on it as it displays terrain, navaids, instrumentation and the location of the nearest ATM.  But it’s not just the modern, complex stuff that pilots are becoming dependent on.  One of my most talented occasional students still panics when I cover her turn and bank, airspeed and turn off her GPS.  She shouldn’t.  Whatever happened to “fly the flippin’ airplane”?

Modern flight instruction adopted the integrated method of flight instruction many years ago.  Every maneuver is taught with both attitude AND instrument reference.  This encourages the pilot’s attention to be on the gauges right from the start of primary training.  No amount of “lip service” on the part of flight instructors will lessen the baggage this technique creates. And even an airplane such as a J-3 with “steam gauges” can con a flier into failing to look out the windshield.

Also, the diminishing number of aircraft either not equipped with a radio or equipped with one that’s not functioning has had a disturbing tendency to keep our heads inside and not looking for traffic.  And if that weren’t enough, an incredibly high percentage of pilots who are equipped with a radio announce their position incorrectly!  They tell you that they are North when they are South.  They call “right downwind” when they are left and they even call the wrong airport or runway! No wonder we can’t find ‘em!

Interestingly, it’s instrument training that offers hope to remedy the problem.  Instrument training stresses “the scan” and the scan, properly adapted to VFR flight in simple airplanes, will keep the pilot’s head out of the cockpit except for necessary scans of some instruments, most notably the oil pressure gauge, which is the most important gauge in most airplanes.

In another article in the Tailwheeler’s Journal, you’ll see an article concerned with landing pilots having “tunnel vision” because the normal landing is so challenging to them.  It’s the same issue.  We should all keep our heads on a swivel.  It only takes one time, one missed collision, to make this practice one of the most important you will ever develop.

Happy Swooping (and scanning!)