Crosscheck This!

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The takeoff regime is so critical, yet often overlooked in importance. In every pilot's mind the takeoff and landing are the most critical phases of flight (the emphasis has always been on landings). In all actuality takeoffs are just as important and can either make or break you. Normally, takeoffs are when you are heaviest, slowest, and closest to stall speed. If a pilot is not spot-on, there is very little room for error. Developing a cross check is of the utmost importance and will keep you from making a fatal mistake. 

It is time to analyze what we all look at while accomplishing our everyday takeoff. Sure we all look at performance data. We ask ourselves a few last minute go/no-go questions, but once we are in the air, what is it that we all do to ensure we are meeting the parameters of our takeoff? The fudge factor is minimal. We have minimum maneuvering speeds. We have flap retract speeds. We have maximum bank angles. All of these ensure our safety and increase awareness. 

Now let's take a look at our instruments. The crosscheck is the most critical thing we can do to ensure a safe, effective takeoff. Everyone has their own way of maximizing their instruments during takeoff. A "tickle check" here ... a "tickle check" there. Experience and continuity are some of the most important tools to increase the effectiveness of that check. Each aircraft is different, but fundamentals of a crosscheck are the same. To illustrate the effect of a detailed crosscheck, I will describe the KC-135 airframe. Most aircraft today have digital and analog displays. This brings up the debate over what is easier to look at, the digital or the analog. So what do you look at more? 

Personally I look at the digital displays before I begin to look at the analog (needles). If the digital fails then it is time to look at the needles. Here are some things to bring in to your day-to-day crosscheck if you have not already been doing so: VVI, AOA, altimeter, airspeed, bank angle, and last but not least visual references. Some of us are so busy staring at our instruments that we forget to look outside. (I occasionally look out to check the surf while flying out of island destinations.) 

Other questions: "How good is your crosscheck at night?" and "Does the crosscheck get worse at night?" The only thing that might reasonably drop out would be visual references. Everything else is still there and sometimes easier to see if you have the cockpit lighting set correctly. The real problem exists when you get so focused on one instrument that everything else falls to the wayside. 

It's easy to get channelized during takeoff. It's also the worst time to be channelized, but we've all been there. We get focused on, or distracted by, something and can't let it go. For some of us it takes us until level-off to get back on the same page as everyone else. Luckily in crew aircraft, there's someone else to back you up. On one dark night I was lucky enough to have the situational awareness to know what was right and what was wrong ... 

This was a typical AOR Sortie. We were taking off with 150,000 pounds of gas. The conditions were standard: night, VFR, and calm winds. The AOR climbout required us to max perform the aircraft due to gross weight and field conditions. We had already flown more than ten times together. To us, the takeoff was another vanilla run. We had nothing to worry about. Because of the dual Aircraft Commander (AC) line, the least experienced pilot wore the AC hat to get experience. It turned out that this night was my turn to takeoff. 

During my right-seat takeoff, as soon as the gear was up the left-seat pilot began yelling "CLIMB! CLIMB!" Immediately I began to worry. First off, I thought I was climbing. And second, there was a lot of yelling going on. I continued to look at everything and couldn't understand what the other guy was yelling at me for. I said I was climbing, looked back at the navigator who said "it feels like we are climbing." This comment and other comments had no affect on the left seater. Apparently he was seeing something that I was not. 

It turns out that he was looking at one thing to verify climb rate. 

I assured him that we were climbing. I said "look at your VVI, the AOA, the airspeed, and your altimeter. If I climb any more I will stall the airplane."

 He was relentless. He continued to yell. I said "look, everything in this cockpit is telling me we are climbing. We will talk about it when we get to a safe altitude." Finally, some quiet in the cockpit. 

I asked him later what he had been looking at. He showed me that the needles on the altimeter had frozen at zero. That stupid little needle was what he was so focused on! Both pilot and copilot needles had frozen. I couldn't believe he was that relentless because of a needle. It was obvious to me that he had become channelized. 

This leads me to ask the question, "What could have happened?" I can only begin to speculate. If I were a brand new copilot I probably would have listened to my aircraft commander and increased the rate of climb--and eventually stalled the airplane. Fortunately for me, and the entire crew, I had enough sense to realize what he was telling me was completely wrong. I averted a near disaster because my crosscheck never fell out. 

Luckily I had enough experience to know the other pilot was leading me down the wrong path. He almost scared me into stalling the airplane. Even I was blown away by the yelling. 

At what point do you tell the other pilot he is crazy? There is no answer to this, but the old additive about when in doubt, comes to mind.