When you think of flight training you might envision sunny days flying around the Bay or flying patterns at your favorite local airport. You relish fine tuning your timing of the flare, or flying through your own wake turbulence at the end of a perfect steep turn. Chances are you don’t dream of days spent on the ground studying the systems of your airplane. While perfect touchdowns and steep turns may be gratifying beyond description, they are only a piece of the overall puzzle. Understanding the aircraft’s systems are just as important.
If we strip away all of our romanticism, airplanes are just machines….very cool, awesome machines, but machines nevertheless. Just like washing machines, laundry machines, your car or motorcycle, airplanes are machines that require maintenance and may sometimes have something that doesn’t work quite right. Where airplanes differ is that we have extensive ways of monitoring everything that is going on in the airplane to make sure it is working as it is supposed to. Your job as the pilot is to monitor those systems and watch for indications that something isn’t quite right.
A tenant of instrument flying is the “instrument scan.” This is the practice of looking at your flight instruments, cross checking them against each other, and making decisions based on what you are reading. When you’re in the clouds, your eyes are cemented inside the airplane watching and scanning those instruments. An efficient instrument scan picks up on subtle changes to airspeed, attitude, altitude and/or heading and leads the way to proficient instrument flying. With VFR flying, we are taught to keep our eyes outside the airplane and use the horizon to guide us. We then bring our eyes down to the panel to check our altitude or heading to make sure we are doing the right thing. We should also be scanning our systems gauges looking for anomalies. Even VFR pilots need to have an instrument scan to maintain their situational awareness not just of where they are and where they are going, but that their machine is working properly.
So, what systems are we talking about? Just about every powered airplane you encounter will have an engine, a fuel system, and an electrical system. Think of the gauges we may have in the cockpit that concern the engine: oil pressure, oil temperature, EGT, CHT, a tachometer and sometimes manifold pressure. Each of those gauges tells us something different about the status of your engine. Understanding what each of those gauges communicates, and how they each relate to each other is vital to your success as a pilot. A anomalous reading on one instrument may be an early indication that something is wrong, but it could also be a broken sensor! Your job is to scan the instruments, apply your understanding of the system, and make an informed decision how to handle it. Of course, erring on the side of caution is always a good idea.
The electrical system is often the most misunderstood and overlooked system in airplanes. We have two gauges in the cockpit that help us monitor it’s status: the amp meter and the voltmeter. As with the engine gauges, understanding what these gauges tell us is vital to your success as a pilot. To understand those gauges requires you to have a firm grasp on how the airplane stores, generates and uses electrical power. Your knowledge and ability to apply it in the cockpit is the difference between landing before a situation develops, or flying around at night with no radio and no lights.
If you notice something wrong with any gauge in any system, it is not your job to diagnose the problem. You can certainly have a guess at what is going on, an informed guess at that, but stop short of making a diagnosis. Instead, it is your job to troubleshoot, run a checklist if applicable, and make a decision. Take pictures and notes on what the gauges are telling you and deliver that data to an aircraft technician and let them find the problem and correct it.
Next time the clouds are too low to fly, take the opportunity to work with your instructor to improve your systems knowledge. You can never know too much about your airplane. If you see one of our technicians working on an airplane in our maintenance hangar, feel free to inquire about their work. They will gladly give you a tour of what is truly the heart of the airplane and help you become a more knowledgable, mindful, aware pilot.