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A real pilot story that ended in a stall spin accident, and 14 flight planning checklist tips every pilot should know


  •  By Dan Sobczak
     August
     2019
  • Editor's note: This content does not constitute flight instruction. Consult a certified flight instructor in your area for proper flight instruction.


Four backcountry pilots who spent a day flying to remote airstrips in Central Idaho shared their story with the AOPA Air Safety Institute about what happened when one of the pilots made the mistake of attempting a go-around on a one-way airstrip, resulting in a stall/spin accident.

Todd Simmons, president of Cirrus Aircraft Customer Experience, his brother Andrew Simmons, and friends Jeff Smith and Jim Richmond -- all experienced backcountry pilots -- discussed their experiences and lessons learned during a conversation with Richard McSpadden, Executive Director of the AOPA Air Safety Institute in a thought-provoking Real Pilot Story video.

While I won't summarize the story -- you need to watch the full video for that -- the group discusses some important considerations when flying in the backcountry. Watch it now by using the embedded player below. The interview is well worth 30 minutes of your time.



Flight planning checklist tips


Considering the subject matter of the above ASI video, I wanted to share some thoughts unrelated to that accident that Greg Brown, a long-time flight instructor and author of the Flying Carpet column in AOPA Flight Training magazine, shared while discussing his own planning process for a flight he made to a "new to him" high elevation airport -- Telluride (KTEX) in Colorado.

Greg's overall guidance can be very helpful to anyone planning a flight where aircraft performance, locale, and density altitude (such as in the backcountry, at high elevation locations, and mountain flying) are critical factors to understand before any takeoff can occur.

The Rocky Mountains west of Denver, Colorado. Photo by Dan Sobczak.
  • The Rocky Mountains west of Denver, Colorado. Photo by Dan Sobczak.

With Greg's permission, I've outlined below some of his main points. I also highly recommend you read Greg's complete write-up of his flight to Telluride in the Flying Carpet (a Cessna 182Q) at GregBrownFlyingCarpet.com. Each point has some essential questions to ask yourself, or other important elements to consider, when planning your flights.

While some of these may or may not be applicable to a specific flight that you may want to do, these flight planning checklist items are good tips for planning any flight to a "new to you" airport. They are applicable to pilots of all experience levels, regardless of your number of hours flown.


Part 1: The Planning Process


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Review the maps. What is the surrounding terrain for the airport to which you'll by flying? What is the best way to approach and depart the airport?

Flight Chain App - NTSB Aviation Accident Reports - Helping pilots learn from accident chains

Is the airport accessible under the right conditions? Can you safely get in to the airport when flying a non-turbocharged airplane? Can you safely depart a high elevation airport in summertime?

Flight Chain App - NTSB Aviation Accident Reports - Helping pilots learn from accident chains

Review takeoff performance unique to the airport location. What kind of climb performance will you achieve after takeoff? Can you takeoff without climbing? Can you safely descend after takeoff if you find yourself unable to climb?

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Review forecast temperatures and density altitude. What do the forecasted temperatures look like? How will that play out on your density altitude charts?

Flight Chain App - NTSB Aviation Accident Reports - Helping pilots learn from accident chains

Review performance charts. Are you a test pilot? Is your aircraft brand new? If both answers are "no", then you may want to consider increasing (doubling?) what the charts say to build in extra safety margins, should the performance not be what you expected.

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Maximize performance of your aircraft. Take off when it's coolest early in the morning, and fly the airplane as light as possible, such as taking minimal luggage, removing unnecessary equipment from the aircraft, fueling up with less than full tanks and an adequate safety reserve.

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Review weather factors unique to the area. What are the prevailing winds? Where will any downdrafts be? How will these elements affect your flight, considering the possibility of limited aircraft performance?

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Review traffic factors unique to the area. Is the airport non-towered or tower controlled? What is the typical flow of traffic like? When is the most traffic likely to occur?

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Review feedback from others familiar with the area. Does it all sound doable? Now get pireps from people or flight instructors there at the airport location by phoning ahead and talking to some folks who are familiar with the area and any preferred procedures.

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Review noise abatement procedures unique to the airport location. By following noise abatement procedures, you can help keep airports open. Often one of the first complaints to surface when people start talking about closing general aviation airports is noise from aircraft flying overhead.


Part 2: The Pilot's Skills


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Review your total experience versus your recent experience. What kind of recent experience do you have at your destination airport? What about in a similar environment?

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Review the local conditions' effects on performance. Understand how local conditions will affect your aircraft, airspeeds, and the overall feel of your aircraft, especially at higher elevations.

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Always fly the same indicated airspeeds for airport operations regardless of elevation. If you approach a sea-level airport at 60 knots indicated, you approach a high elevation airport at 60 knots indicated too. But be sure you understand how approach speeds, takeoff distances, turn radius, and other aspects of flight are affected by local conditions or high elevations, even though you'll still be flying the same indicated airspeed.

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Review high density altitude procedures. Know and follow your aircraft's procedures for density altitude. Realize that leaning the mixture, takeoff roll, and climbout will be affected. Recognize that flight will feel different than what you're familiar with at your home airport or lower elevation airports.

Lastly, in addition to each of the above points, always be prepared to not go, or to stay over at your destination if any of those parameters get outside your safety range and personal minimums checklist that you adhere to when flying.


Final thought


In the ASI video mentioned previously, McSpadden and the four pilots talk about the training that general aviation pilots receive early in the flight training process, the importance of being proficient in recognizing stall regimes, and then pose the following question:

Is the training that general aviation pilots receive for stalls and spins sufficient in helping them understand how quickly a stall/spin scenario can happen?

McSpadden suggests additional training that pilots can pursue to become more proficient in recognizing stall scenarios quickly and responding appropriately:

"If you think about most of the stall training that most of us go through, you know it's coming. Your instructor takes you up, let's do power on, let's do power off stalls... you know it's coming, you know to react. That's why I'm such a fan of upset recovery training, where you get with people that do this for a living, and they'll put you in that situation without you being aware of it. They'll throw it on you, so that suddenly there you are in this situation, and now you have to deal with first the shock of it, and then the reaction of it."

Upset recovery training with an experienced flight instructor can be a much more realistic way to simulate an unexpected stall, and help you understand how you'll react and recover should you unexpectedly find yourself beginning your own real pilot story some day.

Stay sharp!
The Flight Chain App team



Flight Chain App and its companion blog www.AheadOfThePowerCurve.com are committed to reducing general aviation accidents, helping improve aviation safety, and growing the pilot population.




  • Dan Sobczak is the founder of www.FlightChainApp.com, a mobile app that helps pilots learn from accident chains by making NTSB reports more convenient and easier to digest. Dan received his private pilot certificate in 2003.

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