February 2015 - Page 2 Aviation Articles

The Top Five Skills a Pilot Must Learn (Besides all That Airplane Stuff)

On the first day that I met my instructor who ultimately helped me earn my Private License, he said something that has stayed in my mind until today. He sat me down and said, "Look. Anyone can be a pilot. They have taught monkeys how to fly. It is not difficult at all. I will teach you how to be a safe and proficient pilot, that is the part that takes work that you have to be willing to put into it."

Now that I’m attending a flight university, I have met a lot of different people who are serious in their pursuit of becoming a professional pilot. I have also met several who have dropped out of the program within the first few months. It isn’t the fault of the program, or the flight instructors, but it is because these students had it in their minds that being a pilot is a way to avoid getting a "real job" and had no idea how much work they need to put in to achieve what they wanted.

I’ve come to learn that there is a big difference between being a professional pilot, and having piloting as your profession. You can pass a checkride or earn a rating with a little effort, but the true professional pilot continues to learn and challenge him or herself every day. You never stop learning as a pilot. There are skills that every pilot must be proficient with, such as navigation and maneuvers, but there are also several life skills that pilots must strive to achieve and exemplify.

1. Good Study Habits. A friend and I were discussing a mutual friend who seems to breeze through any portion of his training with no effort. My friend said, "He reads too much." Truly, the friend that appeared to learn so easily had just dedicated way more time to reading and learning the material than we had. Pilots are often berated with a whole lot of information in a very short amount of time. If a student can effectively learn to study and absorb the information they will have a much easier time as they work their way through their careers.

2. A Willingness to Make Mistakes. Every pilot will make mistakes in their career. It is just a fact of life. With such complicated systems and flight rules, it is impossible to not mess up eventually. It feels terrible when you do mess up, and you may wonder if learning everything is just too much for you. The only way to deal with such instances is to learn from your mistakes and move on.

3. Quick Decision Making. There is very rarely a flight that goes completely according to plan. Pilots quickly learn to expect the unexpected. It can be something as small as unanticipated instructions from ATC to an engine failure. In my Multi-Engine Ground class the other day, the teacher was talking about minimizing the typical reaction time to an engine failure. He said an inexperienced student would spend 7-10 seconds processing what just happened before they begin to act. Those can be valuable seconds, which could ultimately save your life.

4. Punctuality. Nobody wants to hire someone who is perpetually late. Being late is a way of telling the person who is waiting that your time is more valuable than theirs. Whether is be for classes, a flight lesson, or a meeting with a potential employer, you had better always be punctual and arrive prepared. It makes you look better and more on top of your priorities.

5. A Sense of Adventure. Let’s face it, piloting can be a very fun and interesting way of life. The best pilots appreciate it for the fascinating profession that it is, but never forget to preform their best while in the cockpit. There are opportunities to travel many places, meet new people, and to enjoy the beauty of the world from above. Because of how monotonous training can seem at times, the ability to keep in mind why you started this journey in the first plane is essential.

I hope that this list has helped inspire you to work harder in some aspects of your life, or to reevaluate your priorities. Do you have any skills you believe a pilot should possess? Post them in the comments and let me know what you think!

Should We Keep 121.5 Alive?


Photo: CC BY-SA 3.0

Pilots are trained to use the radio frequency 121.5 in the event of an emergency. Emergency locator transmitters (ELTs) broadcast over 121.5 to notify search and rescue of a downed aircraft. FAA radio facilities, Civil Air Patrol, and often pilots monitor 121.5 as a way to receive distress signals. So why does the FCC, and subsequently the FAA and NTSB, want to ban something simple that could potentially save lives?

The answer lies in the advancement of modern technology – the increased use of the more accurate satellite-based 406 MHz ELT, and the decision of major search and rescue company COSPAS-SARSAT to cease monitoring 121.5 in 2009. But does the introduction of a more reliable system mean that everyone should be required to use it? And should we go so far as to ban the use of an emergency frequency so commonly known to help pilots?

Since 1973, the FAA has required almost all aircraft to have an emergency locator transmitter (ELT) on board. ELTs are small transmitters that emit a signal and provide a way for search and rescue (SAR) to locate a downed airplane, increasing the survival odds for a pilot and passengers. They can transmit on either 121. MHz or 406.025 MHz. It’s commonly known that the 406 MHz ELTs are much more accurate, but a good portion of the general aviation fleet still uses 121.5 MHz ELTs.

121.5 ELTs
Many ELTs commonly used in aviation are designed to transmit an analog signal over the frequency 121.5 when activated, allowing anyone that is monitoring the frequency to hear the distress signal and notify appropriate search and rescue teams. These 121.5 ELTs are inexpensive and simple to use, but they aren’t without their problems.

If an ELT is in the ‘armed’ mode, it will become activated during a crash and transmit a noisy alarm over the frequency 121.5. But sometimes a hard landing will set it off, or it can be accidentally activated during ground operations. More often than not, ELTs are activated in non-emergency situations, and ATC and operators spend a lot of time tracking down false ELT signals. In addition, finding the signal requires homing in to the strength of the signal – a difficult and inaccurate task when the signal accuracy is only limited to about 10 miles.

406 MHz
A 406 MHz ELT transmit a digital signal, which allows for a code to be transmitted along with the distress signal. This code has details about the aircraft, including its registration number and a point of contact.

406 MHz ELTs are more accurate, pinpointing the location of a downed aircraft to within one to three miles, decreasing the potential search area drastically from the of a 121.5 transmitter. And false alerts are less of a problem with 406 MHz ELTs, too, meaning authorities can act immediately upon receipt of a distress signal, instead of spending their time trying to determine if it’s a fake signal or not.

Why Ban 121.5?
It’s easy to see why the 406 MHz ELT is better. What’s less obvious is why we should ban the use of 121.5

The NTSB thinks that the use or 406 MHz ELTs should be mandated. In a 2007 Safety Recommendation letter, the NTSB described the downfall of 121.5 emergency locator transmitters and recommended that the FAA mandate the installation and use of 406 MHz transmitters in all aircraft before major search and rescue organizations COSPAS-SARSAT ceased its monitoring. They NTSB believes that without a mandate, pilots will refuse to upgrade to the 406 MHz units, making it more difficult on search and rescue and possibly creating undue risk.

The FAA agrees, but finds it more difficult to mandate. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association has stood strong against the 121.5 ban, saying that it’s too costly for the approximately 200,000 general aviation pilots to upgrade, and that the decision regarding which ELT to use should rest with the pilots themselves.

In the meantime, the FCC is also considering a ban on 121.5 ELTs. In 2013, they opened up a comment period regarding the banning of 121.5 ELTs, and again AOPA opposed in this letter, stating that the FCC needs to leave aviation safety matters to the FAA. It remains to be known if the ban will come into play, but pilots should expect it to happen eventually, and more importantly, for their own safety, pilots should probably just upgrade to the 406 MHz ELT of they haven’t already.

Could - or should - the ban of 121.5 ELTs mean the death of the 121.5 frequency altogether? After all, the frequency is used for more than just ELTs. It’s an emergency frequency in which a pilot can declare an emergency, and it’s still monitiored by FAA facilities, Flight service stations and the civil air patrol. And many pilots still monitor it, which can be helpful to other pilots and ATC if they do hear something on that frequency. And pilots are taught to switch to 121.5 if they’re intercepted for some reason, such as inadvertent flight through a prohibited area.

What do you think? Should we just accept that new technology is better than the old and move on? Or should we fight to keep 121.5 alive?

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