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American Ninja Pilot

6 Basic Risk Mitigation Steps to Hone Your Flying Skills

by Paul Cianciolo, FAA Safety Briefing Jan/Feb 2018

On the popular TV show "American Ninja Warrior," competitors tackle a series of challenging obstacle courses on their continuing quest for physical excellence. To be a winner, participants must be at peak performance and have a solid plan for dealing with whatever hurdles come their way.

But let’s try putting it in aviation terms. Do you have what it takes to become the next American Ninja Pilot? All you need to do is takeoff, cruise, land, and taxi your aircraft safely while staying in compliance with regulations to win. Sounds easy, right? Not so fast.

While “winning” can sometimes be easier for new pilots — those with a fresh certificate and newfound understanding of the rules — it can be a riskier endeavor for pilots that think they know everything about flying. So, on your quest for aviation excellence, up your flying game by checking out these six basic risk mitigation steps outlined by some of the FAA’s flying ninja masters.

1. Maintain Proficiency

Poor training in any skill set increases the potential for an undesirable outcome. Just like athletes, pilots must continually train to be at their best.

“Don’t assume the skills you had a couple months ago are still present,” counsels Aviation Safety Inspector (ASI) Shawn Hayes, acting manager of the General Aviation and Commercial Division’s Airmen Certification and Training Branch. “Practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.”

That perfect practice Hayes refers to is unique to every pilot, because no pilot is proficient in all situations. Self-assess your aeronautical abilities. Then work on those less-than-perfect skills with a flight instructor.

“If it’s been more than six months, then it is time to get back to basics,” notes ASI Heather Metzler, FAASTeam Program Manager at the FAA’s Little Rock Flight Standards District Office. “Every GA pilot should consider creating a training plan with an instructor, and flying that plan at least every six months.”

Another great way to maintain your proficiency is to earn a set of WINGS. The FAA’s WINGS Pilot Proficiency Program allows pilots to maintain currency and proficiency in the basics of flight to enjoy a safer and more stress-free flying experience. There are online courses, local in-person seminars, and webinars available at FAASafety.gov to improve your skills and knowledge. As an added bonus, completing a WINGS phase satisfies the FAA flight review requirement.

Fasteam wings

2. Plan Each Flight

Planning is an essential step that GA pilots can take to avoid pilot errors. Plan each flight before it takes place, even when you’re flying to a familiar airport. Preflight planning enables you to gain situational awareness and make an informed go/no-go decision.

“We all probably remember our ‘chair flying’ days when we were student pilots,” explains Hayes. “It doesn’t end there; trust me. Try to rehearse a flight before you accomplish it.”

Flight planning should not only include the route of flight; it should also include a review of pertinent airport diagrams. It’s essential to take time during the preflight planning process to review airport diagrams, especially any “hot spots” that you might encounter along your taxi route (more on this later). Even the best ninja warriors take time to practice each obstacle course before a competition.

flight planner

3. Use Set Procedures

You can’t remember everything; after all, even a ninja is only human. That’s why using and adhering to checklists and set cockpit procedures is so important on every flight. Routine use of set procedures to complement mandatory actions can greatly reduce the risks arising from human errors.

“Mitigating risk at an individual level can be as simple as using a checklist, mnemonic, personal minimums, and a flight risk assessment tool,” advises ASI Jeffrey Smith, FAA’s Flight Standards Service Compliance Philosophy Focus Team member. “The key is that your strategy needs to address the hazards and risks unique to you and your flight. The method needs to be repeatable and used routinely. Make sure to evaluate your performance after each flight to see if your risk mitigation is working.”

assessment tool

Use of a flight risk assessment tool or FRAT is one strategy that every ninja pilot should use.

“A comprehensive FRAT can help make sure you have adequately considered the areas or risks pertinent to your flight,” notes Smith. “You should use the tool every time you fly so it becomes a natural part of your preflight, even when pressed for time.”

There are many free FRATs out there. The FAA Safety Team (FAASTeam) developed one that is available on the App Store for iOS devices at bit.ly/FAAST-FRAT. If apps don’t appeal to you, the FAASTeam has a Windows and Mac spreadsheet version available at go.usa.gov/3sJWA.

Other basic, risk-mitigation strategies include setting up anticipated navigation and communications frequencies before you taxi, copying clearances from air traffic control, maintaining a sterile cockpit during critical phases of flight, and using proper taxi procedures including appropriate taxi speeds.

4. Prevent Taxi Confusion

Now that you made it through the course, don’t trip up at the finish line. You’re better than that!

Taxi confusion most commonly occurs when a pilot is taxiing at an unfamiliar airport. Low-visibility conditions increase the potential for confusion. Request progressive taxi instructions when taxiing at a controlled airport. Progressive taxi instructions are an excellent mitigation strategy to ensure compliance with taxi clearances and avoid runway incursions. Have access to the airport diagram when taxiing; it’s the same diagram used during your preflight planning.

Also pay attention to any “hot spots” on airport diagrams, which highlight complex runway/taxiway configurations and can help prevent confusion at these locations. Make the use of airport diagrams a standard operating procedure to prevent getting disqualified from the game for prematurely crossing a line.

5. Ensure Situational Awareness

Make sure you know what is going on around you at all times, and that starts during your preflight planning. If you reframe your situational awareness to cover all phases of flight, you are more likely to reduce pilot errors.

“Be keenly aware of what’s happening around you,” explains ASI Kevin Clover, the FAASTeam operations team lead. “Mix that together with your life experience and all you’ve learned about aviation. Then, take appropriate action to keep things safe. Or, in short: Perceive, Process, Perform.”

To help perceive the airspace around you better, add a little technology to your arsenal. The use of ADS-B offers real-time precision and shared situational awareness. Free traffic, weather, and flight information are available on Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) In receivers that can receive UAT broadcasts. These services are available across the nation to aircraft owners who equip with ADS-B In.

6. Manage Aircraft Lights

This one may go against your ninja instincts, but you want to be seen. GA pilots often overlook daytime use of aircraft lights. Exterior aircraft lights make an aircraft operating on the airport surface more conspicuous. Aircraft lights also allow others to have some idea of the pilot’s intentions. Proper use of aircraft lights should be a defined step in your set standard operating procedures.

“Make yourself as visible as possible,” echoes Aviation Safety Analyst Brad Zeigler. “Good aircraft lighting isn’t just for night flight. Anti-collision lights, strobes, and landing lights increase your visibility during the daytime too.”

aircraft lights

Winning is Everything

We all know that takeoffs are optional, but landings are mandatory. In contrast to ground-based activities, once you accept the challenge and become airborne, your only option is to finish the “race.”

To prevent a loss of control, use the six basic steps outlined here to mitigate your risks.

  • Maintain Proficiency
  • Plan Each Flight
  • Use Set Procedures
  • Prevent Taxi Confusion
  • Ensure Situational Awareness
  • Manage Aircraft Lights

They can help prevent a hazard from causing harm and reduce risk to a more tolerable or acceptable level. The best pilots train year-round in order to earn American Ninja Pilot status. So before you set a course and take off for Mount Midoriyama, make sure you cover all the obstacles … and the basics.

Paul Cianciolo is an associate editor and the social media lead for FAA Safety Briefing. He is a U.S. Air Force veteran, and a rated aircrew member and volunteer public affairs officer with Civil Air Patrol.