Using The Radio – Some Helpful Tips And Scripts

Everyone starts out flying the same way – with ZERO hours in their logbook. This means we also have ZERO time using the radio for the first time, which is essentially a common-use party line where everyone will be listening. Then the anxiety ramps up when we first need to interact with someone sitting in a control tower or in front of a radar screen in a control center on the other end of the microphone.

The source of this anxiety is that no one wants to sound silly or “dumb” in this semi-public space with fellow aviators. Everyone wants to sound professional and that they belong there with everyone else. With time and practice the flow and exchange will become familiar, predictable and more at ease. Even regular professionals will occasionally stumble and botch a clearance, but it’s just a conversation, nothing to stress about.

Today there are many resources to use to get ready and practice when you get rusty:

  • If you’ve bought a portable VHF aviation radio as a backup radio and you are close to or before / after your flights you can use it to regularly tune into the local CTAF / Tower / Ground / Clearance frequencies to listen in on the radio calls and learn the rhythm, cadence and phraseology used by both the pilots and controllers.
  • At home on your PC or on your mobile phone you can use the Internet resource of LIVEATC.NET, find your local airport (most airports are available) and listen to a stream of the local radio frequencies. They also host archived recordings, so you could listen to the busier times when there are GA and commercial traffic all talking to controllers or each other at a non-towered airport.
  • “Chair Fly” the radio by listening to the clearances and pretending that you are the airplane that ATC is talking to and practice your responses.
  • Refer to the FAA’s “Pilot / Controller Glossary” online or in the back of the FAR/AIM. The bolded words and phrases are the more frequently used, so if you hear something you’ve never heard before look there first.

The FAA also has a video pointing out best practices at non-towered airports:

Non Towered Operations Part 1 Communications

Here is a link to a site that has a number of decent examples (with a few exceptions) of what to do, say and expect to hear when using the radio at towered and non-towered airports:

NOTE: The first example “Departing Non-Towered Field (KLNA)” is not correct and doesn’t make sense. Here is an example of how that script should go using Carson City, Nevada (KCXP) as the example airport:

Tunes to AWOS frequency at Ramp and WRITES IT DOWN
AWOS: “Carson City Airport. Automated Weather Observation 1-9-3-8 Zulu. Weather: Wind 2-5-0 @ 5 knots. Peak gusts 12 knots. Visibility more than One Zero. Clear below One Two Thousand. Temperature 2-8. Dewpoint 5. Altimeter 3-0-1-2. Remarks: Density Altitude 7-0-0-0”
Tunes to KCXP CTAF Frequency
N6514W: “Carson City traffic. Cherokee November 6-5-1-4 Whiskey taxiing from Mountain West, via Delta, Runway 2-7. Carson City traffic”
Runup Complete
N6514W: “Carson City traffic. Cherokee November 6-5-1-4 Whiskey departing runway 2-7, Downwind departure to the Northeast. Carson Traffic.”
N6514W: “Carson City traffic. Cherokee 1-4 Whiskey (turning) Left Crosswind 2-7, Carson Traffic”
N6514W: “Carson City traffic. Cherokee 1-4 Whiskey (turning) Left Downwind 2-7, Carson Traffic”
Climbing above TPA
N6514W: “Carson City traffic. Cherokee 1-4 Whiskey departing the Downwind to the Northeast. 5 Thousand 800 climbing.”
Departs aircraft pattern to the Northeast
When a few miles East/Northeast of the airport and getting close to other airports
N6514W: “Carson City traffic. Cherokee November 6-5-1-4 Whiskey ‘X‘ miles Northeast of the airport, climbing through 6 thousand 200, departing Northeast, Last Call, Carson Traffic.”

I placed the word “turning” above in parenthesis because I would only say that if I were actually banking the airplane in the turn and this is what I try to say every time in the pattern if the radio is clear. This way others would know where exactly I was (the corner of the traffic pattern), banked with my wings up and down I will be easier to see.

Remember that these scripts are not carved in stone and are meant as a framework that can be adjusted for traffic in the area or different situations. Just apply a little logic and common sense. Think about what you would want to hear if someone else were making these calls, but the key is to be concise and brief. Also, avoid using “to” and “for” as much as possible (which is sometimes hard to do for us native English speakers), but can lead to confusion when combined with runway numbers.

Also, it is recommended to avoid using generic terms in the examples such as “Cessna” or “Piper” or “Beechcraft” and instead say the model of the airplane such as Skyhawk, Skylane, Cherokee, Aztec, Citation, Baron, Bonanza, etc. This is because Cessna, Piper and Beechcraft make a variety of airplanes and saying Skylane instead of Cessna tells other pilots (and more importantly ATC) what model airplane it is and its performance characteristics so everyone can develop some situational awareness about whether it is a slow, fast or VERY fast airplane they are sharing the airspace with.

Where this really is helpful is when dealing with a tower departing an airport or when calling TRACON (approach) or ARTCC (center) in flight. If you say “Cessna” N5132R instead of “Skyhawk” N5132R the very next radio call from ATC will be “State type aircraft”. If you make the call saying “Skyhawk” they will immediately know (assuming the controller isn’t new to the job) that the airplane is a C172, just as a (Cessna) “Skylane” is a C182, a (Piper) “Cherokee” is a P28A, a (Piper) “Comanche” is a PA24, etc. This helps avoid wasting time on the radio going back and forth and allows for fewer distractions.

Of course, there are also exceptions to this “model specific” practice, such as when flying a Mooney (they basically make the same airplane – small and fast) or Cub (usually low and slow) or Sling or Tecnam, etc.

Overall the best practice, particularly when operating from non-towered airports, is to think about how your radio transmissions will come across to everyone listening and consider what YOU would want to hear from others to help develop YOUR situational awareness about what is going on around you. Besides, what you broadcast will likely be chronicled on the Internet in perpetuity, so be nice.

Mythbusting – You Don’t Need Both Strobes And Beacon Working To Fly

This is another topic that appears on many forums with a lot of poor assumptions being made by both pilots and instructors (but with very little in the way of facts, research or references) to back up an assertion that if one is working, but the other is not, it is still legal to fly the airplane.

Unfortunately, what contributes to the continued assumptions is that the answer isn’t as clear or obvious as it could be, since § 91.205(b) (a.k.a. ATOMATOFLAMES) uses the phrase “an approved aviation red or aviation white anticollision light system“. The generalized word “system” and the conditional word “or” leave room to the casual reader to believe having one is good enough. In addition, when referring to a copy of a C172 POH under Section 6 “Weight & Balance / Equipment List” it lists both the Flashing Beacon and the Wing Tip Strobe Light with a “-S” suffix for “Standard Equipment and not with a “-R” for “Required Equipment”. However, it should be immediately obvious that there is no way the FAA would allow airplanes to fly if those safety lights were not working.

Larger, commercial airplanes would typically use an MEL (Minimum Equipment List) that could provide relief usually through the use of a backup system, but an MEL is not typical for General Aviation aircraft – although it could be if one was approved by a local FSDO.

There Is No Debate Regarding Whether This Airplane Is Legal To Fly With An INOP Strobe Light.

Like many appliances installed on airplanes, the lack of a functioning beacon or strobe light will not cause the airplane to fall out of the sky, but we don’t yet have a clear answer even though we’ve looked in the two places where we would expect to find one.

To find clarity on this we need to start searching other official sources and when we do we should eventually land upon a Letter Of Interpretation issued by the FAA on this very topic when in 2010 someone asked this very question of the FAA. Known as the “Murphy 2011 L.O.I.” it addresses two questions that were asked, with one specifically about whether if an airplane that is equipped with both types of lights, one working and the other isn’t, would it still be legal to fly?

The FAA Letter Of Interpretation discusses the intent of the regulations for both the requirement for the equipment as part of the certification of the airplane as well as the need for both to be operational by writing, “Because the strobe light and the rotating beacon are both approved anticollision lights, under § 23.1401 ( a)(l ), they are part of the same anticollision system.” and further stating, “Moreover, because section 91.209(b) does not contain an exception for alternative sources of anticollision lighting, turning on the anticollision beacon would not relieve a pilot from the requirement to turn on the anticollision strobe lights.

No one enjoys scrubbing a flight over something relatively small like a missing compass correction card, inoperative NAV light at night or one defective strobe, but we need to remember the intent of these regulations are for the safety of flight and were, more often than not, written in the blood of those who flew before us.

(Don’t) Line Up And Wait – Non-towered Airport Ops

The common ATC directive for an airplane at a towered airport to “line up and wait” is regularly used to facilitate efficient traffic flow, but at a non-towered airport this should not to be performed because, you know, safety. There also several other procedures the FAA wants to make clear.

In addition to Part 91.126, FAA Advisory Circular 90-66 was created to focus on non-towered airport flight operations and covers best practices for communications, flow and supplement information found in the AIM, paragraph 4-3-3, Traffic Patterns, and the Chapter 14 in the PHAK.

The AC is not a long read, but the primary take-aways from it are:

  • The FAA does not regulate traffic pattern entry, only traffic pattern flow. Traffic pattern entry information is advisory, provided by using this AC or by referring to the AIM and the PHAK .
  • Left Traffic unless indicated otherwise by visual markings, light gun signals, airport publications, or a published approach procedure.
  • See And Avoid and keep lights and strobes on. Radios are not required, so there may be older NARDO airplanes working the pattern.
  • Straight-In Landings are okay if coordinated with existing traffic and not creating a safety issue.
  • Pilots conducting instrument approaches (typically straight-in) need to be alert and DO NOT have priority over other VFR traffic and should be ready to communicate on CTAF, discontinue the approach, and enter a traffic pattern as needed, based on the traffic saturation to maintain aircraft separation and aviation safety.
  • Don’t argue on the radio. If you disagree with what another pilot is doing, operate your aircraft safely and wait until you are on the ground to have that discussion. You may block transmissions from other aircraft that may be departing or landing.
  • Turning Crosswind once beyond the departure end of the runway and within 300 feet below traffic pattern altitude. Pilots should make the turn to downwind leg at the traffic pattern altitude. I take issue with this guidance and outline my reasons below.
A typical takeoff into rising terrain in the mountains.

The turning crosswind advisory within 300′ of TPA (usually 700′ AGL) can be difficult at many airports, especially in the mountains where climb rates can be anemic and/or there is rising terrain off the departure end of the runway. The more common approach practiced is to wait until no less than 400′ of altitude has been gained before turning crosswind. This comes from TERPS which applies to instrument departures and how obstacle clearance is calculated. In addition, based on consistent data from the AOPA Air Safety Institute Accident Reports (formerly the Joseph T. Nall Reports), while more accidents occur on landing, more deaths occur on takeoff and allowing 400′ provides some altitude in case of a loss of control issue and allows for additional traffic to depart safely without having a very lengthy departure leg.

As for the whole ‘line up and wait’ controversy, it is addressed in a different advisory circular, FAA AC 91-73 Taxi Operations. Not really the place where one would expect to find such information, but it is outlined in Appendix 1, paragraph 5, for non-towered airports where it says, “Pilots should not line up on the departure runway and hold any longer than absolutely necessary.”

It was a long walk, but we finally got there.

The primary reason for not lining up and waiting at a non-towered airport is because there is no one watching your back if you do so. The runway is a dangerous place to be and sitting on the runway waiting for takeoff with no view of the final approach is just an unnecessary risk easily avoided by just waiting another 30 or 60 seconds.

For a couple useful videos regarding un-towered airports, these may be beneficial:

Un-towered airport radio basics.

The only issue I have with the video above is that he uses the generic term “Cessna” in his radio calls. This is not as helpful as it could be if he were to be model specific and say “Skyhawk” or “Skylane” or “Caravan” or “Citation” since Cessna makes multiple types of airplanes with multiple performance profiles. Saying “Skyhawk N123AB” on the radio gives everyone an idea of how fast you are likely to be departing, approaching or navigating in the pattern. I have more info on radio etiquette here.

Many times a pilot can adjust their plans if they know they might be inadvertently cutting off a faster airplane when they could extend a downwind, teardrop into the downwind or perform a 360° turn to provide spacing.

In addition, when contacting TRACON or ARTCC and using the generic term “Cessna” or “Piper” the next response from ATC will almost always be “State type of aircraft”. Saying “Skyhawk” immediately informs them that the airplane is a C172, just as Skylanes are all C182s, etc.

The FAA’s video about do’s and don’ts at non-towered airports.

The Departure Briefing – Having A Plan

One pre flight item that is typically overlooked, brushed off or (sometimes) not taught at all is the Departure and Emergency Actions Briefing or the Pre Takeoff Briefing.

Not to be confused with a “SAFETY” briefing that should be performed just before starting the engine, the departure briefing is typically made after the ‘run up’, before moving out of the run up area and approaching the hold-short line.

The goal of a departure and emergency actions briefing is to quickly declare the planned runway used for takeoff, course of flight and altitude(s) expected. Then a quick overview of what could go wrong on take off and what actions will be taken.

Departure and emergency action briefings can and should be specific to the airplane, the airport (naturally), the pilot’s capabilities and the flight being performed that day. The basic format is to have a plan for something going wrong at typically three important points during takeoff – the takeoff roll, immediately after getting airborne, and airborne but with no runway left to land on. Then the fourth item talks about the “Improbable Turn” back to the runway which, for those who have not practiced it, should not be performed at low altitudes and could simply be wrapped up by saying, “I will not attempt a return to the runway until I have at least 1,000 feet of altitude.”

There should be an expectation by every pilot each and every flight of aborting the takeoff and staying on the ground where it is far safer than flying with a problem. If something doesn’t look right, sound right or feel right, the goal should be to stay on the ground.

“Whenever there is any doubt, there is no doubt.” – Robert DeNero in ‘Ronin’

For example; a simple VFR departure briefing could be summarized as such, “We will be departing runway two seven with a downwind departure to the East climbing to seven thousand, five hundred.”

Quick. Easy. Simple. Everybody knows what runway we’re using (important for situational awareness especially at airports having runways with common departure points), how we’re leaving the terminal environment and what our planned or initial altitude will be.

It should then continue into the four parts of the emergency actions briefing with items one and two essentially the same every time, while three and four should be dynamic and specific to the airplane, airport (and runway configuration) and pilot’s ability/proficiency.

If I’m departing runway 27 at KCXP in daytime VFR conditions, my emergency actions briefing will sound something like this, “When we have an engine failure or any abnormality during the takeoff roll we will immediately pull the throttle to idle, apply brakes, avoid obstacles and taxi off if we can. When we have an engine failure or any abnormality immediately after takeoff we will land on the remaining runway, avoid obstacles, apply brakes and taxi off if we can. When we have an engine failure after takeoff with no remaining runway, we will bring the throttle to idle, mixture OFF, magnetos OFF, add flaps as needed, master switch OFF, cabin door UNLATCHED and perform a soft-field landing within 30° of centerline. Lastly, I would not attempt a return the runway unless I had “

Please note I’m using the word “when“, not “if” in these briefings. Flying long enough will invoke the law of averages and something will eventually happen where this plan will be put into action.

It may sound like a lot to say, but it really isn’t and is more of a practical conversation of planned actions and I’ve adopted a new and easy (for me!) method of remembering all the items needed for these briefings. My left hand!

Another briefing example which I typically use when flying out of KMEV in Minden, Nevada from runway 34 can go as such;

“We will be departing runway three four with a downwind departure to the South climbing to eight thousand. When we have an engine failure or any abnormality during the takeoff roll we will immediately pull the throttle to idle, apply brakes, avoid obstacles and taxi off if we can. When we have an engine failure or any abnormality immediately after takeoff we will land on the remaining runway, avoid obstacles, apply brakes and taxi off if we can. When we have an engine failure after takeoff with no remaining runway, we will bring the throttle to idle, mixture OFF, magnetos OFF, flaps as needed, master switch OFF, cabin door UNLATCHED and perform a soft-field landing within 30° of centerline since we have empty fields to the North. When we have an engine failure and at least 400 feet of altitude we will immediately unload the wings, turn left with 45° of bank to land on runway one two and announce our intentions to other traffic in the area.”

If you have more than one runway available, especially if they are not parallel, they should be considered for use in an emergency return – altitude and pilot ability permitting of course.

Looking at the wording of the briefing and imagining the actions of each possibility, it should make logical sense and be easily recited with very little practice (especially when looking at your left hand!). It’s not meant to be a perfect script, it is meant to be a quick talk about common sense actions that will likely need to be taken, set expectations for the departure and get everyone in the correct mindset. This way when something does happen we simply do what was briefed a minute ago.

If there are potential landing areas beyond the airport environment they should be included in the briefing. For example, “…If no runway remains for landing, we will bring the throttle to idle, add flaps as needed, mixture OFF, magnetos OFF, master switch OFF, cabin door UNLATCHED and perform a soft-field landing in the vacant lot to the right of centerline just past the runway…” or in a congested area, “…perform a soft-field landing on the highway in the direction of traffic avoiding the apartment complexes.”

All of this would not be complete without mentioning the “Impossible Turn“. The so-called “Impossible Turn” or “Improbable Turn” is something that can be used under certain situations and depends heavily on the wind/weather, the airplane’s current altitude, the pilot’s response time to the emergencyand the pilot’s proficiency, experience and familiarity with the airplane being flown. This is something that should be practiced at altitude, with about a five second ‘startle response’ time factor included because it involves more that just a 180° turn, which would only just parallel the departed runway, and warrants a more detailed discussion in another post.

Remember that many GA pilots die in the traffic pattern with the most dangerous part of the pattern not the base-to-final turn (a.k.a. Graveyard Corner), but rather the takeoff and climb phase of flight which, year over year, tends to be two to three times more deadly even though far more people crash on landing. A comprehensive Joseph T. Nall Report for 2019 (the most current at this time) can be found here.

Three times more deaths on takeoff than landing in 2019 despite almost 3X more accidents on landing.
More breakdown on the takeoff accidents.

Prior reports can be found here on the AOPA website here.

Having a plan before takeoff is very important and can help prevent becoming part of an NTSB report and a statistic in future accident graphs.

Mythbusting – You MUST (Not) Monitor “Guard” 121.5

This is one of the more obscure topics that pops up from time to time about an old FDC NOTAM and requires careful reading of the topic and the language used to understand it better.

There are some pilots and instructors that will reference a NOTAM from 2004 declaring that anytime an airplane is in the air it should have its second radio tuned to 121.5 and open listening to the guard channel.

However, a carful reading of the NOTAM will dispel that myth.

First of all the NOTAM’s first line says “NATIONAL AIRSPACE SYSTEM INTERCEPT PROCEDURES.” Right away we are talking about a specific circumstance.

It references what pilots should be doing when intercepted by military aircraft and references AIM 5-6-2, but since 2004 this has moved to AIM 5-6-13.

Something Has Gone Very Wrong With Your Flight If You See An F-16 Flying Alongside.

In the body of the NOTAM text the sentence that gets the attention where the conclusions are drawn from states, “ALL AIRCRAFT OPERATING IN UNITED STATES NATIONAL AIRSPACE, IF CAPABLE, SHALL MAINTAIN A LISTENING WATCH ON VHF GUARD 121.5 OR UHF 243.0.”

While the NOTAM says all aircraft operating in the NAS, the operative words here are “IF CAPABLE”. So, what does that mean? Technically capable? Workload capable? It is open to interpretation.

A solo pilot flying cross country may have the second radio installed, but could be busy with their primary task of ‘flying the airplane’ and using the second radio to get weather from their next airport where monitoring Guard is not practical, regardless of the “IF CAPABLE” wording. Is a task-saturated pilot “capable” of monitoring Guard in addition to their more immediate duties. Probably not. This “capability” can and will vary from pilot to pilot on the same flight plan.

There may be plenty of time to monitor Guard on a long cross country for a solo pilot flying VFR, but change that same cross country to a busy weekend with many other airplanes in the same airspace or a single pilot IFR flight setting up for an approach and the “capability” to add another frequency and divide attention to yet another task goes down dramatically.

To date there have been no enforcement actions documented where pilots have been cited for not monitoring Guard and it would be a difficult thing to prove.

However, should a pilot monitor 121.5? Absolutely! There are several benefits to having it monitored on a second comm “if capable.” For example:

  • Helping ATC to locate/triangulate an activated ELT (surprisingly common).
  • Being alerted by ATC if you switched to your next frequency incorrectly/haven’t checked in.
  • Being alerted by ATC if you failed to squawk VFR (1-2-0-0) when they released you.
  • You using Guard to ask ATC for another frequency if they gave you a ‘next’ frequency not appropriate for your area of flight (it happens – I’ve heard airliners calling ATC on Guard because they needed an appropriate frequency).

An interesting discussion of this topic can also be found on an AOPA forum where a former FAA Principal Operations Inspector discusses this issue with a member posting something as ‘fact’. Definitely worth a read.

Also, for a very good primer on NOTAMs the FAA has a presentation in PDF form available here.

The Best S-A-F-E-T-Y Briefing – IMHO……

Before a flight begins, more importantly before the engine(s) start, there are a number of items that need to be addressed not only by rule, but also for safety’s sake and good sense.

First is to declare who will be Pilot In Command of the flight. Someone (i.e. a rated pilot) is required to be in charge and taking responsibility for the flight and it can’t be a random passenger. In addition, when there are two pilots (or more dangerously, two CFIs) at the controls there needs to be a clear understanding of who is calling the shots.

Better to settle this argument before the flight begins.

After that, the acronym S-A-F-E-T-Y allows the PIC to cover major points of safety (conveniently enough) that everyone in the airplane needs to be made aware of and also covers items the PIC is required to make before the flight begins. Note that this is not the same as a departure briefing which is typically made just prior to takeoff and is another topic entirely.

S – There are normally three ‘S’s. First is to brief passengers on how to use and ensure the security of safety belts and shoulder harnesses. Second is to point out that there should be/will be no smoking on the airplane, usually while pointing to a ‘No Smoking’ sign. While there is no regulation prohibiting it in General Aviation, think of the smell, smoke, increased risk of hypoxia and potential deadly distraction from a dropped cigarette. Hopefully the airplane is new enough that you don’t have to explain why there are still ashtrays by the seats when you make this declaration, but I like to call the old lighter port “the new USB charger port.” Third, while pointing at that sign also point out that everyone is required to obey all other signage and placards posted in the airplane (e.g. “Spins Prohibited”, “Maneuvering Speed”, etc.).

A – Air vents and controls. Point out the various air vents around the airplane including the cabin heat, cabin vent, defrost and (if equipped) air conditioning controls and how they operate (push/pull/twist). Also tell them NOT to touch other controls that may look similar and be in close proximity (e.g. mixture control).

To the new non-pilot passenger the mixture or prop knob is similar enough to cabin heat or cabin air so as to be indistinguishable. And they’re not far apart!

F – The fire extinguisher. They are not required in General Aviation (unless required in the AFM/POH Equipment List), but there should be one onboard. Point out the location of the fire extinguisher and declare whose responsibility it will be to fly the airplane and who will be fighting the fire. It is also a good idea to discuss that the extinguisher is probably (check to make sure) a Halon type and not the same ABC chemical type as you will typically find under the average kitchen sink (think “instant IFR” as the windshield is coated in white powder). Which means it will displace the breathable air with Halon gas to extinguish flames and all occupants should be told to hold their breath before deployment.

E – Exiting the airplane, emergency landings and emergency equipment (if any). Discuss location of all exits, how the doors operate, emergency release pins – if any, and should there be a forced landing the doors will be cracked opened prior to touchdown. If someone thinks shoving something in the door crack to keep the door open is a good idea (it isn’t) – just watch this video. After touchdown everyone should exit and meet 50 meters (150 feet) behind the airplane. Make everyone aware of any emergency or survival equipment and assign someone to retrieve it after an emergency landing. Oxygen systems and flights over water require more briefing points and can be included here.

T – There are two important talking rules in aviation. The first is the ‘Sterile Cockpit Rule‘ which, while specifically aimed at commercial operators, has considerable benefits for General Aviation pilots in the busy terminal environment and should be summed up simply as, “no unnecessary talking during taxi, takeoff and landing, but if you see something safety related – call it out.” The second is the Positive Three-Way Exchange of Controls. This procedure ensures that everyone knows who is flying the airplane at any given moment and does not contribute to confusion and an event such as the one linked to here.

This would warrant breaking the sterile cockpit rule and speaking up.

Y – Your questions? Simple enough. This is the time to clear up any confusion and ensure everyone is comfortable with the information just provided by the PIC. Don’t let the flight continue if your passengers look puzzled.

There’s nothing that says you can’t print out a shortened version of this and keep it on your kneeboard. And after you’ve repeated it a few hundred times you won’t need the cheat sheet. 🙂

Engine Failure In Flight – My ‘A-B-C’s

Over the years of receiving and providing instruction on this I’ve developed what I’ve found to be the best method (so far) of how to handle this emergency and all the DPEs I’ve sent my students on to test with seem to agree. The acronym A-B-C-D-E covers everything.

When the dreaded phrase “Your engine just failed” is uttered by an instructor or DPE performing the A-B-C-D-E steps below will cover everything important and should be easy to remember. This procedure has been developed from instruction I’ve received along with refinements over the years from other instructors examples or real-world situations.

A’ – Airspeed

Simple enough – Establish your airspeed for ‘best glide‘ in the airplane you are flying. You should already have this memorized or use a quick-reference card with data taken from the POH like the one I use below for one of the airplanes I fly from time to time.

Example Skylane 182S V-Speed Reference Card.

‘B’ – Best Place To Land

Your new runway. I recommend to my students that when they establish best glide that also begin a slight bank to the left – no more than standard rate – so they can look around and below to find a suitable place to land. Usually pilots will get tunnel vision and just look straight ahead to declare their new runway, while the best place to land might be below or just behind them.

Ideally everyone should be periodically looking around during climbs and cruise for potential landing sites, but the reality is that this doesn’t always happen especially when busy and nervous during checkrides.

Once that new runway is identified try and identify where the winds are coming from so you can land into the wind, just like you would at an airport (ideally). Then work to spiral down at best glide near where you would expect the downwind-to-base corner of the pattern might be so when you’ve completed the remaining steps and you are low enough you should be in a good position to land with most of that new ‘runway’ available to you.

‘C’ – Checklist

This is the point when you run through the engine checklist items to ensure all the ‘fuel and spark’ items have been checked to ensure something simple is not preventing the engine from running normally (e.g. mags on ‘both’ or switching from a dry to a full tank of fuel, etc.).

Normally this is performed via a ‘flow’ and the paper checklist is brought out if there is time or read aloud by the passenger (or DPE) to ensure no items were missed. However, there may not be time to spend on a paper checklist if it took too long to get to this point and/or the altitude is too low. Remember that altitude = time and time = options. The sooner these steps are accomplished and the less altitude lost will allow for less panic and more preparedness to be accomplished.

Using the flow of ‘up and over’ or ‘over and down’ on most training airplanes will cover everything on the POH’s checklist.

‘D’ – Declare

At this point it is clear that the engine is not restarting, the airplane has betrayed us and the insurance company now owns it, so our goal is to land safely and return home with a thrilling tale to tell everyone at Thanksgiving.

Time to declare an emergency and take the ‘searchout of the phrase ‘search and rescue‘. This may vary from what others teach, but I’ll explain why I’ve found this is the best procedure so far.

First; push that ELT activate button on your instrument panel. Let it start talking on the Guard frequency (121.5MHz) for you. In addition to the siren it wails on 121.5MHz, most ELTs also broadcast on 406MHz with a GPS location, so don’t waste your time trying to talk on Guard, let the ELT do it for you because it will do a better job AND it will broadcast continuously while you are busy with other things such as landing the airplane. Another reason is that ELTs don’t always activate on impact or may be damaged on impact, so I steadfastly maintain that it is better to have it transmitting early and often, long before the airplane hits the ground.

Don’t Be Shy. If You Need To, Activate That ELT Immediately.

Next, punch in 7-7-0-0 in your transponder, so that when ATC hears that siren on 121.5MHz they also see the emergency code on their radar letting them know this is likely not an accidental ELT activation (which is common).

Lastly, talk to a human and say the magic words, ‘mayday-mayday-mayday’. If you are on a CTAF frequency there may or may not be someone listening and if there is they’re probably not going to be much help. Therefore, I recommend getting on the TRACON or ARTCC frequency covering that region and bust in with a mayday call. Since there is always someone on duty, make their day “interesting” and it will also help ATC connect the dots from the ELT wail on 121.5Mhz, the 406MHz GPS position report and the 7700 code appearing on their radar. Get a quick ‘mayday’ call out with the best position report you can manage under the circumstances and then move on to the last and most important step.

I don’t recommend attempting to keep conversing with anyone (ATC, other pilots) on the radio unless you have the time. The goal, again, is to take the ‘search’ out of ‘search and rescue’ and work to land safely.

Now, the one caveat to this is that there are some very old airplanes out there that don’t have a remote ELT activation button on the instrument panel and I fly a couple of these with students to this day. In those cases it will not activate until impact (maybe and hopefully), so switching to 121.5MHz and making a mayday call after putting 7700 in the transponder is the only best option. With enough altitude it may/should be heard by ATC or other pilots in the area to raise a level of alertness to your situation.

Look Ma! No Remote ELT Activation Switch!

If you can manually active that ELT I also don’t recommend trying to talk on 121.5MHz since you can’t talk over it. In addition, as I mentioned above, there are frequent false activations or people accidentally broadcasting on 121.5MHz, so they are either not heard, ignored or frequently mocked by others (“meow”) listing in on Guard. Please watch this informative video from AVWeb below:

‘E’ – Execute The Landing

You’ve done everything you can at this point and now it’s time to land the airplane and ensure you and your passenger(s) walk away from it.

You should start by securing the engine; shutting off the fuel supply and throttle/mixture controls and grounding the mags by switching them to ‘OFF’. Always refer to the POH for the specific procedure, but, again, the ‘flow’ will likely cover everything on the list – then back up your flow with the checklist if there is time. You want to ensure you’ve done everything you can to keep fuel and spark away from the hot engine.

Next prepare the cockpit and passengers for the landing; passengers with coats balled up in front for padding (if available), passenger seat slid back from the dash, seat belts/shoulder harnesses tight, and doors ajar.

One side note on the ‘doors ajar’ step is that there are some training videos that suggest putting something (like a coat) in the door opening to keep it from closing again. However, this may not be such a good idea, so it is not something I recommend. Consider this event from SoCal Flying Monkey when they had their door ajar during flight:

Putting A Jacket In The Door To Keep It Open May Not Be Such A Good Idea…

I’ve experimented with opening a door in flight and found that not only it is had to open (for obvious reasons), but it is also difficult to close. The wind acts with pressure and with suction in the opening of the door jamb to make both actions difficult.

Another suggestion I’ve heard often is to open the doors and rotate the handle down to prevent them from closing and latching again. This is a suggestion that only works for certain model airplanes with specific types of door latching mechanisms and is not universal advice. Experiment with your airplane on the ground to see if this would work for the type of airplane you are flying that day.

With the engine, cockpit and passengers secure it is time to perform the best soft-field landing you’ve ever made. Extend flaps as needed and in the last few hundred feet just before landing, turn off that Master electrical switch.

Once the airplane has come to a stop, do what you briefed your passengers to do before the flight (S-A-F-E-T-Y) on how to exit the airplane and where to meet, then assess the situation. Use your emergency kit and radio as needed to assist in your survival and rescue.

Many people are extremely optimistic on how soon they will be rescued and return to their comfy couches, but the reality is not as rosy of a picture. Remember the “Rule Of Threes” when it comes to survival:

  • You can survive three minutes without breathable air (unconsciousness) generally with protection, or in icy water.
  • You can survive three hours in a harsh environment (extreme heat or cold).
  • You can survive three days without drinkable water.
  • You can survive three weeks without food.

Unless the landing was on a freeway (not usually the best option) it will be some time before emergency services can mobilize with either helicopters or off-road capable vehicles and make it to your location. And the further off the beaten path the landing was will only make it more difficult to ultimately locate and reach your position.

One last note regarding the landings is that it is important to try and prevent any injury upon landing. Even something as relatively minor as a broken arm or clavicle can severely limit mobility at a time when mobility is paramount. Also the very real likelihood of shock, compartment syndrome or internal bleeding will shorten the time before professional medical services are required to prevent death. So, don’t neglect basic first aid skills, survival training and flying with a “go bag” or some form of survival kit.

Refer to this publication from the FAA and CAMI (Civil Aerospace Medical Institute) with lots of great information and instruction regarding aviation survival skills.

Engine Leaning – Not Just For Mountain Flyers

Since I began my flight training amongst the Sierra Mountain Range around Lake Tahoe with airport field elevations over 4,000′, ‘leaning the mixture’ was something I was taught from the first lesson – even though I really didn’t understand what I was doing until later on in my training.

From Pratt & Whitney “The Aircraft Engine and Its Operation”

What surprised me when I began teaching students was that most pilots were not leaning the fuel mixture, either because they weren’t taught by their previous instructor or they just didn’t have a good understanding of what the mixture control does and it was ‘safer’, in their mind, to just leave it alone.

Using the mixture control is an integral part of engine management from start-up, taxiing, run-up, through cruise, changing altitudes, descent and after landing. Even those pilots working and training at sea-level should be using the mixture every flight.

The benefits of leaning the mixture are multiple:

  • A cleaner burn of the fuel/air mixture prevents fouled spark plugs.
  • Reduced fuel consumption – Saves money/greater range.
  • Efficient fuel/air burn provides more engine power.
  • Faster warm-ups for cold climates or first flight of the day.

For a quick explanation of engine leaning this short video from Aviator Zone Academy is a decent start:

For a slightly longer and more detailed explanation of what’s going on in the process when you lean a typical, normally-aspirated training airplane (e.g. C172 or P28A), this is a very good video from CFI Cyndy Hollman:

Mixture Leaning 101 from CFI Cyndy Hollman

If you’re interested in even more details and an in-depth explanation of the engine leaning process, this 90-minute presentation from industry expert Mike Busch (a.k.a. The Savvy Aviator) should answer many questions:

An Excellent Reference For Understanding Engine Leaning and Performance.

One thing to note is that most small General Aviation airplanes typically only have an EGT (exhaust gas temperature) gauge and not a CHT (cylinder head temperature) gauge to assist in leaning. Mike Busch points out that this is not really the best tool for leaning as it primarily indicates ‘best power’ and the cylinder head temperature is a better tool, but we can only use the tools available to us in the airplane we are flying.

Important Note: About mid-way through Mike’s video he extols the virtues of running ‘Lean of Peak’, however his example is from what he flies in his Cessna Turbocharged T310R light-twin airplane, a Continental IO-550 engine with performance fuel injectors running at ~80% power – This is not typical. And in order to do this effectively it requires very precise engine monitoring and the POH or an STC should allow for this while most training airplanes do not. The Cessna Skyhawk 172R/S models using the Lycoming IO-360 engine, for example, specify the leaning to be set for 50°F ‘Rich of Peak’ using the installed EGT gauge. So, unless your airplane has advanced engine monitoring, performance mods and differing specifications, defer to the airplane POH/AFM.

Everyone Loves GPS – Until It Fails

The Global Navigation Satellite System is amazing. It allows us profound situational awareness and navigational guidance. However, it is so pervasive and reliable that many pilots have forgotten the basics of pilotage, dead reckoning and how to use the non-subscription-based radio navigation aids available on the ground.

The need to stay proficient in pilotage by being able to interpret what is seen on a sectional chart and correlate that into the world seen outside the windscreen is critical to safe flight.

Many pilots rely so heavily on the GPS and the magical ‘magenta line’ that it has become a meme:

Too True For Many Pilots.

The GPS system is more fragile than almost everyone realizes and we are just one good solar flare away from the global GPS system becoming crippled or completely unusable until replacement satellites could be launched and re-orbited. Space junk is another threat, but will typically not cripple multiple satellites at once, just affect positional accuracy and reliability for a while. Another frequently recurring issue is the military jamming GPS for their training purposes, which will affect all pilots in a wide area, not just military pilots.

NOAA provides a Space Weather and GPS status monitoring page here to see what solar and atmospheric impairments may exist and affect the system.

If any of this sounds like fantasy and fearmongering just take the recent Starlink satellite failures on February 3rd, 2022 which were the result of a solar storm that pushed about 40 of the satellites back into the atmosphere, burning up on re-entry.

Relying on GPS and airplane automation has become such a problem in decades past through today that airplanes have crashed and hundreds of people have died because the pilots didn’t understand why their systems failed and then they failed to simply fly the airplane.

The term “Children of the Magenta Line” comes from the 1997 speech from American Airlines captain Warren Vanderburgh discussing the overreliance of automation by pilots who forget the basics. Another example of this occurred on May 31, 2009 when an Air France flight crashed killing 216 people.

What would your reaction be if your GPS simply failed from jamming, loss of reception from a couple satellites reducing its accuracy or the antenna cable became disconnected in flight rendering it useless?

What To Do Now?

As a pilot you can increase the safety of yourself and passengers by maintaining proficiency with a sectional chart and those free-to-use VORs/VORTACs. Also, take the initiative to go flying with a CFI from time to time. Those flights can be educational, fun and then applied toward your WINGS account and reset the clock for your flight review.

As I’ve learned from others in the past and tell my students now, “Use all the tools available to you, but never forget to ‘aviate, navigate and communicate’ – in that order.”

NEVER Say This On The Radio

When operating out of an non-towered (a.k.a. uncontrolled – a.k.a. ‘pilot controlled‘ – a.k.a. ‘out-of-control‘) airport there is a lot of responsibility on each pilot to know where the other airplanes are in the pattern, approaching and departing the area, and on the ground. It is also important for pilots to announce their position and brief intentions.

The Aeronautical Information Manual section 4-1-9 specifically addresses best practices at airports without towers.

The upshot is that those approaching within 10 nautical miles should be monitoring the CTAF/UNICOM to begin developing a mental picture of the traffic, their situational awareness of the area’s activities and to announce their position and intentions.

Everyone wants to have a drama-free arrival and departure and this can be accomplished with good communication and friendly behavior. Remember, if you need or should make room for another airplane in a better position it is just more time in your logbook.

This can fall apart quickly when a pilot transmits one of the most hated phrases in aviation today, “Any traffic in the area, please advise.”

This is a real trigger.

There are three very important reasons why this is inappropriate and potentially dangerous:

First; When there is more than one person in the area they usually try to politely accommodate the request, key the mic and end up transmitting at the same time as others creating undecipherable interference which ends up wasting everyone’s time on the one common-used frequency which informs no one of anything.

Second; Since many small un-towered airports in a region may use the same CTAF frequency, any such request can reach multiple pilots “in the area“. Looking at a sectional for the area around Reno, Nevada you can see multiple airports using one frequency (122.90MHz) as their CTAF. From experience I know that with only a couple thousand feet of altitude radio transmissions in the vicinity of one airport is easily received between several of them.

Third; It is an arrogant and lazy transmission for a pilot to make. It is an attempt by the pilot making this call to shift responsibility onto everyone else to make their positions known because they were too lazy to spend a couple minutes listening and developing their own situational awareness.

In addition to the reasons above, non-towered airports usually (but not always) exist in class ‘G’ airspace and have no requirement for airplanes to have radios (or even electrical systems for that matter). Therefore, any pilot making this request is relying too much on a response and can very easily miss the 1947 Piper J-3 Cub on short final that doesn’t have a radio or a busy student pilot in the pattern configuring to land that didn’t hear the request.

The FAA allows us pilots a great deal of freedom with our piloting privileges, and with that freedom comes the responsibility to be situationally aware of our surroundings, ‘see and avoid‘ other traffic and to make responsible radio calls to assist our fellow pilots in knowing where to find us in the sky.

Quick, clean, and appropriate communications on the radio make for the basis of enhanced safety for everyone in the air and on the ground.