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Speeding Up the Computer

(the one between our ears)

By Gene Benson

Have you ever noticed a difference in how quickly a computer can perform some functions as compared to others? There is a reason for that, and it is often due to caching. A cache is a smaller, faster memory, closer to a processor core, which stores copies of the data from frequently used main memory locations. That computer situated between our ears, more frequently referred to as our brain, does not work in the same way that our laptop does, but sometimes the result is the same. We humans can quickly recall information or procedures that we use or practice frequently while less frequently used items take longer to access.

We seldom need near-instantaneous recall in our daily lives. But as pilots, there may be a time when a couple of seconds can make the difference between being the hero for saving the day and ending up in the accident analysis section of my website. Some events that do require instantaneous recall would include having a loss of engine power just after taking off, needing to execute a go-around when close to the ground, responding to an unintentional stall followed by an incipient spin, recovering from an unusual attitude, and in-flight fire.

The responses to these, and other critical situations, should be discussed and practiced, to the extent safety allows, frequently. These are not things that we experience regularly. Our memory of proper procedures fades with every passing day regardless of how well we might have performed during our last training session.

One of the main reasons that the airlines have such a good safety record is the extensive training done regularly. The airline industry has more engine failures, more rejected takeoffs, and more go-arounds than most people believe. We do not hear about them because they are handled properly and in a timely manner.

We do not have the resources for training and simulation that the airlines have, but we can still keep a sharp edge on our procedures by participating in a formal recurrent training program that exceeds FAA minimum requirements. If that is not a viable option, we can take more review flights with a competent flight instructor specifically targeting those events that require a fast response to a critical situation. If a suitable simulation device is available, most of that training can be done gobbling up electrons instead of avgas. If none of that seems feasible, simply sitting in a chair, pretending to be in an airplane, and running through emergency procedures can be surprisingly effective in “caching” this vital information into our brains.

Of course, “caching” the correct information and procedures into our brains vital. The airlines have an established procedure for just about anything that might happen. Their procedures have been developed with input from pilots and engineers and have been extensively tested in simulators. We generally do not have that level of detail in our procedures, but we can do a great deal to prepare. Our first resource is the airplane manual published by the manufacturer. Any emergency procedures provided by the manufacturer will have been thoroughly tested. If the manufacturer provides a procedure, follow it unless there is some irrefutable reason to do something different.

But what if the manufacturer does not provide a procedure for a particular emergency? If you are flying an older airplane, you will probably find the emergency section somewhat lacking. One example of a procedure often needing more definition is what to do in the event of an inflight fire. There may be an instruction to turn off the fuel and the master switch and to land as soon as possible. That sounds good, but there is no guidance regarding the fastest way to descend and a few seconds can make the difference between life and death when fire and smoke are filling the cockpit.

If you ask ten pilots what is the fastest, safest way to lose altitude in the event of a fire, you will probably hear ten different procedures. If you question those same pilots on the basis for their procedure, you will hear some stammering and various, unsure and often made-up answers. Unfortunately, if you ask five flight instructors the same question, you will probably get five different answers followed by the same stammering when asked the basis for their answers.

Inflight fires are more common than we would like to believe so having a procedure, including the quickest was to safely descend “cached” into our brain is important. If the airplane manufacturer has not provided a procedure, the next step would be to contact a user-group for the type airplane. Groups such as the American Bonanza Society and the Cessna Pilots Association provide excellent resources. In the absence of any verifiable guidance, general information is provided in the FAA’s Airplane Flying Handbook Chapter 17 and on page 50 of the Private Pilot-Airplane Airman Certification Standards issued June 2018.

So let’s equip that amazing three-pound computer located between our ears with some recent information on emergency procedures for each kind of airplane that we fly. Many accidents can be prevented if the pilot is able to identify an emergency situation and very quickly initiate the appropriate actions.