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Six Rules For Safe Warbird Operation

By Todd McCutchan, EAA 644981

“Organization is the key to success.” This phrase should be placarded in every cockpit. The modern avionics and cockpit design philosophy that many take for granted today are sorely missing from yesterday’s designs. Switches, gauges, and instruments seem to be placed haphazardly with little thought and could be in different places in aircraft just a few serial numbers apart. Warbirds are especially prone to this phenomenon. This places an even higher workload on a pilot whose time in type and proficiency may not be that high. When pilots operate under instrument flight rules or in high workload terminal areas, the difficulty factor increases exponentially. When I began teaching instrument flying, and even more so when I began to fly single-pilot charter in piston twins, I realized how valuable an extra 5 or 10 minutes on the ground can be.

If I slowed down for a minute and began to mentally go through each phase of flight, I found I could get farther and farther ahead of the aircraft. This extra margin saved me a few times when weather, air traffic control, or my equipment decided to provide me with an unwelcome surprise that I now had the time and resources to deal with - thanks to the added preparation prior to takeoff.

It is easy to be overwhelmed by the excitement and anticipation of the upcoming flight and to let those emotions pressure you to hurry through preparations. In the Warbird community, where we often have people interested in talking with us about our aircraft or are giving rides, it’s easy to become distracted and skip over key items.

Slow Down
Force yourself to slow down – Whether it’s the pressure of a tight schedule, the freezing cold, the pouring rain, an inquisitive aviation enthusiast, or your backseat companion, it’s important to block out the distractions and take the time to do a proper job. One of the nicest things about operating Warbirds is the interest and curiosity it inspires in other people. Unfortunately due to this extra attention, our aircraft preflight shouldn’t just be looking for the normal things that may have broken but should include things that could have gone missing and switches/levers that have been moved and are no longer where we left them, and sometimes items that were left just because it was a convenient place to set something down. Extra time and thoroughness should also be taken after air shows, fly-ins, and maintenance.

Prepare
This goes beyond the normal before-start checklist. You should have the charts you’ll need for taxi, takeoff, departure, and emergency return reviewed and readily at hand. Frequencies for start, taxi, takeoff, and departure should be reviewed and tuned as far in advance as possible. Your navigation instruments should be set up for the departure, and if possible, an emergency return. Trash should be removed and all loose equipment stored. This goes double for parachutes in unoccupied seats! More than one aircraft have been lost when loose parachutes or their straps jammed or bound flight controls. Charts should be reviewed and you should ensure that you have all charts, approach plates, etc., from startup to shutdown, including your alternate. Due to mechanical problems or weather, I also try to have possiblealternates and their charts easily reachable in the event they are needed.

Emergency Action Review
This is part of every before-takeoff briefing in two-crew aircraft and is equally if not more important with Warbirds. Mentally review critical airspeeds, rejected takeoff procedures, and emergency checklist memory items. These are rarely reviewed and almost never practiced in the private aircraft world and so are all that much more important due to the much lower proficiency of most operators. You should also know what the minimum safe altitude is for your direction of takeoff/departure and where all surrounding terrain is and its elevation. Safe areas for bailout/ejection should be another consideration with Warbirds.

Plan Your Decent
Prepare for descent/landing while in cruise – Prior to ever reducing power to begin a descent, you should know the weather at your arrival airport, which arrival and approach to expect, have reviewed and set up your navigation instruments, pretuned your radios and frequencies, and reviewed the missed approach procedure. You should have reviewed the airport diagram and know about where you will turn off the runway and the approximate route to your parking area.

The Go-Around Scramble
Be ready to go around/go missed – The vast majority of accidents in the approach/landing phase are made up of pilots who “lock in” to landing mode. It’s important that your thinking is flexible and your decision making is fluid, constantly taking in new information as it becomes available. Continuing a bad approach is a guaranteed way to bend metal. Warbirds can be extra tricky when a late decision to abort is made or wind shear is encountered close to the ground, as the jets usually have long spool times and the higher performance piston aircraft are easily torque rolled at low airspeeds. If it doesn’t look or feel right, it most likely isn’t, and the sooner you abort, the greater the safety margin you’re going to have.

Fly All The Way to Your Car
While accidents are certainly rarer here, there are still numerous things that can and do go wrong. Make sure the aircraft is either chocked or the parking brake is engaged, ejection seats are safe, and magnetos are off before exiting the cockpit. There are almost always curious people who would love to get a closer look at your aircraft, and an accident is the last thing any of us want. A short moment of inattention is all it takes to ruin what would otherwise have been a great flying day.

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