Getting There Safely is Just Part of the Fun!
Your Pilot Safety Checklist to Fly In and Out of an Air Show with Success
By Jennifer Caron, FAA Safety Briefing Magazine Copy Editor
Who doesn’t dream of flying their aircraft to one of the happiest places on earth — an air show! It’s an aviator’s playground of just plane fun — chock full of cool and fun activities to learn new stuff, feast your eyes on some incredible flying machines, swap “so there I was” stories, and uncover a treasure trove of the latest and greatest technology to trick out your bird.
Let’s not forget the food — the incredible food that fuels your fun on the flightline as you gaze at the amazing feats of aerobatic wonders.
The Journey Matters as Much as the Destination
But all that anticipation and excitement can make us vulnerable to destination-focused “get-there-itis” — the desire to get airborne and get there — even if things have changed, such as a clear-sky VFR flight that deteriorates into a bad IMC scenario.
“Simply put, get-there-itis is a pilot killer!” observes Allan Kash, an aviation safety inspector (ASI) in the FAA’s General Aviation and Commercial Division. “It’s a classic behavioral trap, which is an accident-inducing, operational pitfall a pilot may encounter as a result of poor decision making.”
The closer to the destination, the worse the all-or-nothing “itis” gets. You’ve already invested emotions, finances, and time to get to the air show, so why not “shoot the gap” and risk those low ceilings and reduced visibility and complete the flight? Resist the temptation!
Eager passengers, intent on getting to the air show, can also unduly influence your go/no-go decision. They tend not to understand the intricacies of GA flying. “The biggest external pressures I’ve experienced are non-pilot passengers,” notes Kevin Clover, an ASI and FAA Safety Team (FAASTeam) operations program manager. “Their general expectation is that an airplane ride is going to go like a car ride. They can become irritated and even bored by all the things that have to be done or considered to get the airplane in the air.”
The key is to reset your passengers’ expectations early and let them know a diversion or interruption may be necessary. Assign tasks. A busy passenger is a happy passenger spotting planes and reading charts.
Don’t become a victim of get-there-itis. As with any flight or aviation event, preparation, thorough preflight planning, and being conscious of your skillset and experience level goes a long way to preventing the deadly VFR into IMC scenarios and having a safe and successful flight.
Here are some additional tips and tools for air shows and aviation fly-in events in general that you can use to help you make the right go/no-go decision and arrive safely at your destination.
Go/No-Go to the Air Show? 3 Tips You Can Use to Make a Safe Decision
#1 🔥 “Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself.”
You may recognize this snappy lyric, and it’s a helpful mantra you can use as a reminder to perform a self-assessment to fly.
✔️ Am I Rusty or Ready?
Speed, altitude, and power. Practice flying at different airspeeds and altitudes, know your power settings and your personal minimums. You may have to fly faster or slower than normal to mix safely with so many different aircraft arriving at the show. If you’re rusty, get ready. Sharpen your turn skills, short finals, short field landings, and go-arounds, refresh your stall recovery skills, and practice your emergency procedures.
X marks the spot. Many air shows convert taxiways into runways, and you’ll have to land on the spot — literally — on a colored dot on the runway surface. Practice landing on a designated spot before you go.
Head on a swivel. You’ll be flying close to other airplanes in busy, high-traffic airspace. Are you comfortable flying with other aircraft around you? How are your collision avoidance skills?
Keep those hand signals handy. You’ll see ground personnel directing you to aircraft parking by hand signals as you leave the active runway. Check out the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM), Chapter 4–3–25 at bit.ly/AIMweb to refresh your memory.
Buddy-up. If you haven’t flown in a while, invite a qualified instructor or a pilot buddy along for the ride. Even a non-pilot friend can help decrease your overall task workload by watching for traffic, reading the NOTAM, or monitoring the radio.
See it before you fly it. Practice in a flight training device or with a flight simulation program on your computer. A simulated practice run will help you learn the basic procedures before you do it for real. Google Earth is a good alternative if flight sims are not an option. You can also talk to pilots who have already made the trip. Plus, there are plenty of YouTube videos to preview the arrival process. EAA AirVenture has a five-part video series on VFR arrivals and departures on their website: bit.ly/VFREAA.
✔️ FRAT Risk
Use a Flight Risk Assessment Tool (FRAT) to proactively assess your flight risk. They’re available as apps on your smartphone or tablet.
✔️ PAVE The Way
Follow the framework of the PAVE Checklist.
Pilot — Am I becoming fatigued? Am I within my personal minimums? Do I know my experience level flying this type of aircraft? Perform an internal assessment of your readiness to fly using the I’MSAFE checklist (Chapter 8 of the AIM).
Aircraft — Is my aircraft maintained and serviced? Do I know my aircraft’s performance abilities and limitations? What are my fuel reserves, and what will be my fuel status when I get there? Do I know how much my camping gear weighs, for example, for an accurate weight and balance calculation?
EnVironment — Did I perform a thorough weather briefing? Do I know how density altitude on a hot, humid summer day will affect my takeoff and landing distances?
External Pressures — Am I making decisions based solely on flight safety, or am I feeling pressure to arrive as planned?
#2 🛩️ Is My Aircraft Right for Flight?
Preflight preparation of your aircraft is one of the most important steps you can take. Don’t rush it. Your haste to take off can result in something as simple as forgetting to release the tiedown straps to something more serious such as failing to check for contaminants in the fuel (a commonly overlooked item), and can result in a loss of power or engine failure.
✔️ Change it, check it, top it off. Check your service bulletins, airworthiness directives, maps, charts, and tire pressure. Change and top off your oil and clean your windshield.
✔️ Know before you go. Review your aircraft’s systems and emergency checklists.
✔️ Preflight checklists are your friends! Use a physical preflight checklist. Never work from memory so that you won’t skip over anything. Always exit the aircraft, move around it methodically, allow plenty of time, and avoid interruptions and distractions.
✔️ Hush the Rushers. Let your passengers know upfront that it will take some time to do the preflight.
#3 🌩️ Build a Plan A, a Plan B, and maybe even a Plan C Before You Fly.
Pressures such as get-there-itis will tempt you to delay your recourse to Plan B until you’ve already entered IMC while trying to maintain VFR. It’s also contributed to pilots overflying enroute fueling opportunities and running short of fuel at the destination. Think about what would happen if the “go-to” option is no longer available. Have a backup plan and decide to reach for it before an emergency is underway.
Don’t Fly on Fumes
Leave early and plan to arrive before the airport closes for the afternoon air show. Build time into your plan for an extra fuel stop or to make an unexpected landing. A flight to an air show requires careful fuel calculations and reserve decisions to avoid arriving on fumes.
✔️ More fuel means more options. Plan to have extra fuel on board in case of landing delays, holding, or a diversion to another airport. What would you do if the airfield was congested or closed? Tip: refuel when you arrive at the show, or you’ll be waiting behind pilots anxious to fuel up and fly out when the show is over.
✔️ Know where to find nearby airports where you could get some lunch, explore, or perhaps even take a short nap in the pilot’s lounge until conditions improve.
Clip This to Your Kneeboard
✔️ Documents current? Do you have your pilot and medical certificates, and are your VFR/IFR currencies up to date? How about your aircraft insurance?
✔️ Know the NOTAM. Download it and print out a copy or two for your cockpit. Air show flight restrictions and schedules can change before kick-off. Check NOTAM effective dates in advance.
✔️ Visit air show websites to find out what to bring, opening/closing flight plans, aircraft parking, hours, and locations for weather briefing and flight planning services.
✔️ Print out your aircraft parking sign. Tablets are not an option for windshield display.
✔️ Bring tiedown gear and covers! Summer weather can be unpredictable with high winds, rain, and mud. The FAA recommends tiedown anchors — Single-engine: resist 3,000 pounds. Multiengine: 4,000 pounds. You can buy them onsite, but better to be prepared and bring them with you.
✔️ Bring batteries. Carry extra power for your headsets, iPad, EFB, and ADS-B. Are you running the latest software update? Download it now.
✔️ Don’t forget your prescription meds.
Take the No Out of NOTAMs
NOTAMs are your ticket to flying in and out of an air show safely and successfully. Your arrival/departure and landing and taxi procedures, radio frequencies, the different airspeeds and altitudes you’ll need, airport details (such as the hours it’s closed for the daily air show and special flight procedures in effect at nearby airports), safety notes, and temporary flight restrictions are all found in the NOTAM.
Don’t just glance at the NOTAM. Immerse yourself in it before you fly. A contributing factor to air show accidents is insufficient preparation in reviewing the NOTAMs before the show.
Print copies for your kneeboard, keep a spare copy for your right seat, and sign up for arrival text alerts (if available). Air shows change their NOTAMs from year to year, so grab the most current copy. For example, last year, the FAA updated EAA AirVenture’s NOTAM to include ATC-assigned transition points for GA arrivals to reduce holding and manage increased traffic.
Fly-in, Touchdown, and Fly Away
Confidently fly the approach into any air show by following all published arrival and departure procedures and instructions from air traffic control (ATC).
✔️ Be on the lookout. You’ll have traffic all around you from all directions, so be vigilant. Do not fly side by side or overtake other aircraft — fly nose to tail and single file. Prepare for VFR holding if the airspace goes IFR.
✔️ Hang up the mic. Respect and follow the ATC procedures in place, which may require you to communicate solely by rocking your wings.
✔️ Practice makes perfect. Here’s where your pattern prep pays off as you maneuver with short approaches. Be prepared for specific landing instructions.
✔️ Go around for safety. If you cannot comply with ATC instructions, say “unable” and ask for alternate instructions on frequency. Yes, everyone’s watching, but don’t be pressured to continue an approach you cannot do. It’s better to land and walk away.
✔️ Touchdown. Once you land, monitor the ground frequency, display your windshield parking sign, and watch for ground staff volunteers to direct you to aircraft parking. Keep your eyes peeled for conflicting traffic, including pedestrians. Stay alert until your aircraft is safely parked and tied down. Perform a thorough post-flight inspection to spot any obvious damage, deflated tires, or unexplained fluids.
✔️ Fly Away Day. Check the weather. Review the NOTAM departure procedures. Monitor departure ATIS or AWOS/ASOS before taxiing, and watch for traffic. Listen only, follow the runway signs and ground staff to the active runway, and pack your patience to line up and wait for clearance. ATC may call you by color and type or by your call sign so check the NOTAM for details.
Follow ATC instructions until you leave the airspace and continue on your way with a flight bag full of safe, fun, and unforgettable air show memories to last a lifetime. See you at the next air show!
Jennifer Caron is FAA Safety Briefing’s copy editor and quality assurance lead. She is a certified technical writer-editor in the FAA’s Flight Standards Service.