Small Operator Safety

Small Operator Safety

June 24, 2019

Single-pilot operators can adopt the same level of attention to detail and planning done by much larger flight departments.

Far removed from the image of the country doctor using his airplane to visit rural patients in the 1950s, today’s single-pilot operators and small flight departments often find themselves performing many of the same missions as much larger operations. That means flying sometimes challenging operations in difficult weather conditions, or to unfamiliar airports, or even across oceans. These missions require single pilots or two-person flight crews of companies with a single airplane to adopt the same level of attention to detail and planning done by much larger flight departments that have the benefit of dedicated dispatch department.

Fortunately for these smaller operators, multiple resources are available to help them take a similarly comprehensive approach to their flying. Flight planning apps, online weather resources and third-party handlers are all useful tools, although the most important factor remains the pilot’s own attitude toward their mission.

Expanding Your View

In addition to performing owner familiarization flights and flying clients around the US, JetSwiss Aviation Director of Flight Operations Robbie Moon has twice flown a single-engine Pilatus PC-12 over the North Atlantic. That may seem a daunting prospect, but Moon is quick to note that his strategic approach to flying remains constant, regardless of the mission.

“A good night’s sleep is huge, as is approaching each flight with a professional attitude,” Moon explained. “What changes are the tactical aspects for each flight – the flight route and purpose, passenger needs, weather conditions, aircraft performance.”

One of the tools Moon relies upon is the popular flight planning app ForeFlight.

“It’s really good about notifying pilots about things they may have missed, such as TFRs and weather changes,” he said. “It’s an extra set of eyes, so to speak.”

Brad Pierce, president of Restaurant Equipment World, operates his Cirrus SR22T on frequent, weeks-long cross-country trips with multiple stops to visit clients. He begins each trip by checking destination weather forecasts several days before his planned trip. He also utilizes several resources, such as and the National Weather Service, to have a clearer picture of expected conditions.

“If I’m flying to Colorado next week, I’ll look at what’s happening today in Idaho,” Pierce explained, “Typically, the day before, I pull more specific information. Then, at the time of filing, I get the updated briefing. Sometimes I’ll listen to the Live ATC tower feed at my destination for icing reports.

“I prefer a blended report of several forecasts in the area,” Pierce continued. “If there’s a military field nearby, I also look for that report because military forecasts tend to be less ‘optimistic’ than civilian airports. They present the worst-case scenario.”

David Keys, chair of the Small Flight Department Subcommittee of the NBAA Domestic Operations Committee and chief pilot for Peace River Citrus Products, utilizes a flight risk assessment tool (FRAT) tailored to unique aspects of his operation.

“Our principal uses a wheelchair, and we also fly our jet from a 3,700-foot runway near our largest plant,” he explained. “A customized FRAT is extremely beneficial, because we don’t have a third set of eyes to review what me and my copilot have determined. A crew’s motivation will always be to do the trip, and we’ve caught ourselves a few times.”

Third-party trip handlers and safety management system (SMS) providers also offer important resources, although such services may stretch the budget of smaller operators. “Delegating tasks to other folks so that you can focus on flying the airplane is very helpful,” Moon noted.
Keys added that his subcommittee is examining alternative methods to provide small operators with those extra eyes.

“Subscribing to a third-party SMS can be costly, so we’re looking into developing some form of a peer review system,” said Keys. “We haven’t yet determined the best mechanism for that, but it’s a priority for us this year because it’s important to have an outside perspective at times.”

Maximizing Resources

While such tools can be useful for small operators, it’s critical that pilots remember the necessity of developing safe and effective personal procedures. That includes bearing the responsibility for maintaining currency. Unlike many larger operators that benefit from structured training programs, owner/operators and smaller flight departments are typically left to arrange their own.

“One of the biggest gaps I see in the owner/pilot community is how to give yourself a good pre-takeoff briefing and a good approach briefing,” said Thomas Turner, executive director of the American Bonanza Society Air Safety Foundation. “Airline schools generally include such guidance, but taking a similarly methodical approach can be a challenge for single-pilot operators.”

“You need to check certain boxes during recurrent training, and the time it takes to check those boxes will determine how much additional time may be available for the ‘extras,'” Keys added. “Fortunately, our training provider asks ahead of time for areas we’d like to cover and then works that into our recurrent program. Last time, we examined how short we could land our airplane.”

Pierce emphasized the importance of developing a collaborative relationship with your training provider. “Pilots who fly less often also tend to train less often,” he noted. “If you’re comfortable with your trainer, you’ll also feel more comfortable broaching subjects your ego may prevent you from admitting to a stranger.”

Turner suggested pilots add two steps to their post-flight process. “Do a quick walkaround after landing to check any gross discrepancies that must be addressed for the next flight. Issues like oil leaks and low tires can be examined while I’m at my meeting, and hopefully resolved before I’m back at the airport and under pressure to leave.

“Also, critique your own performance,” suggested Turner. “Ask yourself what went well and what you might have done better, and plan to address that on your next flight.”

Moon emphasized the relationship between training and networking with other pilots to gain knowledge. “There’s no substitute for time-in-type, and experience is key over book learning,” he said. “Conversations with other pilots who have time in the same airframe can help you grow, and those lessons tend to ‘stick’ more.”
Ultimately, adopting personal procedures comes back to a pilot’s attitude and mindset toward the job of flying.

“Every flight comes down to competency and proficiency, which requires you to continuously reevaluate your personal minimums,” said Pierce. “A day of flying is much different than a day of meetings followed by a nighttime flight. If you don’t have a plan ahead of time, you’ll be behind the airplane – hanging onto its tail – before you know it.”

Review NBAA’s single-pilot resources.