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Feature Story

The Operational Challenges of Owner-Pilot Flying

Ask any employee or worker who answers to a supervisor, manager or owner, and he or she will probably tell you that saying “no” to any boss can be intimidating. Oftentimes, a boss doesn’t even hear the word, even when it might be the smartest response. And sometimes that same boss who has trouble hearing the word “no” is the one who flies the company plane, which can present a real safety dilemma.

Such is the situation for the owner-pilot who flies the company airplane solo.

“A key to safe single-pilot IFR is knowing when to say ‘No, I’m not flying today,’” explained Ray Higgins. And it takes sticking with that no-go decision, added Higgins, whose Higgins Aviation provides Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-designated examiner and mentor pilot services for a range of single-pilot business aircraft, including the Eclipse Aerospace 500 very light jet, Cessna Aircraft’s 400-series twins and H awker Beechcraft’s King Air, Baron and Bonanza. Higgins underscores the challenges of single-pilot instrument flight rules (IFR) and cites as a major factor an observation also emphasized by astronaut and retired Navy Capt. Gene Cernan: professionalism.

“Professionalism in the cockpit has nothing to do with whether you get paid to fly,” Cernan said. “Professionalism is a mindset to do the very best you can every time you fly.”

Or, as Higgins put it: “The difference between a pro and an amateur pilot is how you think – not whether you get paid.”

Approaching piloting as a responsibility equal to any executive-suite responsibility is key to flying safely; the cockpit is no place for mental clutter caused by thinking about business responsibilities or other outside issues.

Use All Available Tools

NBAA offers tools to help the owner-pilot meet the challenges of flying at the same level of proficiency the person shows in business.

“The single-pilot operator hasn’t the benefit of others looking at what he or she plans to do,” noted Doug Carr, NBAA’s vice president of safety, security, operations & regulation. “There isn’t the built-in back-up of a flight department staff that looks at the pilot’s plans and suggests changes or improvements,” Carr continued. “But there are other ways that single-pilot owner-operators can check their plans and avail themselves of some back-up eyes.”

NBAA’s LBA Flight Operations Manual Template provides a useful risk-assessment tool to help decide when it’s time to say “no.” It also provides guidance to help light business airplane (LBA) operators and owner-pilots organize their company’s flight operations.

“The risk-assessment tool raises points that too often pilots don’t directly consider,” Carr explained. Employing the risk-assessment tool also takes the pilot a long way toward weighing conditions for the flight and an opportunity to fill in the flight plan – that is, both Plan A and a valid Plan B.

The “self analysis” aspect of the risk-assessment tool helps paint a picture of conditions, considerations and pilot-oriented information geared to help the pilot recognize those times when flying isn’t wise – whether because of fatigue or stress, illness or distraction, or issues of weather en route or at the arrival airport.

“We encourage the use of the risk-assessment tools to raise the pilot’s awareness of a risk that may need a closer look – which, in turn, may entail making plan changes.

“Once you’ve made the ‘go’ decision, what’s your alternative? What is likely to cause you issues – particularly on the opposite coast? That’s when a ‘Plan B’ comes into play,” Carr said. “Those Plan Bs are critically important, because the owner-pilot is the only one to make the decision when to use Plan B and how to execute it.”

So Many Variations, So Much at Stake

Consider the many varieties of businesses whose owners fly a wide range of aircraft on disparate missions; they generally share two common denominators: first, a commitment to performing at their highest – in their businesses and in their cockpits; second, their comfort with operating solo, in business or in flying, rain or shine.

Similar to the sole proprietor or single owner of a business, single-pilot operations make that individual responsible for handling everything under all conditions, normal or abnormal. Single-pilot IFR raises the stakes, adding the pressures and tasks of instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) to the flight tasks of visual meteorological conditions.

By using today’s plentiful resources, the owner-pilot can improve the odds of an uneventful outcome – the most-desirable kind.

Consider these other methods for aiding the solo pilot facing IMC conditions:

  • Pre-flight planning and prep: Develop a Plan A that takes into account your aircraft’s capabilities, pilot currency and recency of instrument experience, conditions and airport considerations;
  • Then, develop a Plan B around each issue: aircraft equipment failing, weather below minima at the destination, weather inhospitable in between origin and destination, time of day and mental fitness;
  • Organize the cockpit for your flying needs before engine start, including updating tools such as charts or databases;
  • Brief the weather, the departure, the weather again, the expected arrival, the weather – again – and the clearance. Then, if conditions are not too taxing, depart;
  • Treat each segment as a defined task to completion, then focus on the next task, continuing from the departure, cruise transition, arrival transition and approach.

Train, Train, Train

Practice – it’s what makes perfect, according to the old line. In single-pilot IFR, practice can help you stay sharp and skilled at the normal and unusual tasks typical of the fluid conditions of a trip in the gauges.

According to John Carroll, the FAA Safety Team leader for the agency’s southern region and a presenter at last fall’s Cessna/NBAA Single-Pilot Safety Standdown, the most common operational problems he sees from such operators are runway incursions, altitude and airspace deviations – many of which can be traced to solo pilots incorrectly inputting data into avionics. “You have to be your own safety net,” Carroll said. “Check and re-check.”

Remember: Safety and training authorities reject logged time alone as a basis for determining currency.

They suggest several steps:

  • Fly regularly with a “flying coach” – a flight instructor focused on helping you maintain best practices;
  • Stay sharp. Rather than trying to get sharp just before a trip, experts recommend working with a flying coach before any trips after laying off flying for as little as two weeks;
  • Regularly participate in type-specific training in the aircraft and, if available, a simulator;
  • Annually participate in a safety program focused on human factors and judgment processes – something like the Cessna/ NBAA Single-Pilot Safety Standdown for light business airplane pilots;
  • Then, practice.

Jim Lara, a member of NBAA’s Safety Committee and an active single pilot of an LBA (a Beechcraft Baron) suggests a practice minimum to help the single pilot stay sharp:

  • Fly at least 10 hours a month – and once a week;
  • One to two hours must be in instrument conditions;
  • After not flying for a couple of weeks, immediately go fly, simply to knock off the rust;
  • Practice with a certified flight instructor when you’re behind more than a couple of weeks or can’t get the IMC needed for valid practice.

And when you return to flying after a layoff, be prepared, Higgins stressed: “Every time you go, first think: Are you ‘here’ mentally? Feel up to this flight? Are you prepared for the flight?”

Answering “yes” means the boss doesn’t hear him or herself saying “no.”

For More Information

Download NBAA’s LBA Flight Operations Manual Template at

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