How Much Do You Need to Know?

It’s been a normal flight and your mind thinks ahead to your upcoming quick turn.  Looking across the cockpit you notice the right boost pump annunciator is illuminated.  You mention the condition to the other pilot who remarks; “That can’t happen.  The boost pump can’t activate on it’s own without tripping a Master Caution.”  Is he right or is he wrong or does it matter?

I spent 7 years as a Flight Safety Instructor on the Excel.  I have the Normal, Abnormal and Emergency Checklist inside my head, can draw system schematics from memory and quote page numbers of the PTM and AFM.  Sure, it is nice to have that knowledge but there is so much more that could be know about an Excel.  What if I was also and A&P or even had a degree in aeronautical engineering or aerodynamics?  Wouldn’t that be even better?  Certainly there has to be a cost/benefit ratio in there somewhere.   


“Given Enough Time and Information, Any Problem Can Be Solved”

As pilots we provide a service by helping our clients travel safely, quickly and comfortably from point A to point B.  This in itself has certain logistical problems that must be worked out.  The better we are at solving those problems and meeting the demands or our clients, the more successful we are likely to be.

In addition to the logistical problems, operating in a “fluid” environment means we are often required to solve problems on the go due to things such as schedule changes, weather and aircraft malfunctions, just to name a few. 

So that brings us back to the question of how much do you need to know.  For this article we will just look at the scenario of an aircraft malfunction in flight.  Once airborne, our time is limited, sometimes extremely limited.  Other times we are only limited by the amount of fuel we have on board.  

Speaking of fuel on board, let’s look at a situation where we notice a 350 pound imbalance of fuel between our left and right tanks.  Our problem can be defined as, most immediately, reaching a fuel imbalance that is beyond limits and secondly, the possibility of not being able to reach our destination if the fuel is leaking overboard.  If you happen to be on your way to Bermuda you may have to act very quickly.

In order to solve our fuel imbalance problem let’s look at a typical problem solving model: 




Step 1, Determine The Problem:

The first step of our problem-solving model tells us to determine the problem and I would add to that, the cause(s) of our problem.  Was the imbalance created when we were fueled?  Is it a result of running the APU?  Is one engine using more fuel? Is it a gauge error, or is it leaking overboard?   (See Lynyrd Skynrd's Crash)


 The answer to any of those questions may or may not be obvious and unless the situation is critical, now is the time to utilize CRM.  According to one study, groups of three to five people perform better than individuals when solving complex problems. The research, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggests that groups of three people are able to solve difficult problems better than even the best individuals working alone.

So who do we bring into our problem solving situation?  For starters I submit you have 1- The Pilot Flying, 2- The Pilot Monitoring, and 3- The Abnormal/Emergency Checklist.  Aviation checklists are the envy of the modern world.  If you don’t believe me just read“The Checklist Manifesto” by Atul Gawande.  Persons 4 and 5 might be Team Excel and your director of maintenance on the Sat Phone.  Check out my article on In Flight Emergencies to see all of the people contacted in dealing with my last situation.

On to Step 2, List Possible Solutions:

If it turns out we are in fact leaking fuel we now must decide whether to balance by crossfeeding or to land before we exceed the limit of 800 pounds.  If we determine it is not leaking we have at least a few options.  Among them, crossfeed, turn the APU on or off,  increase/decrease power on one of the engines or maybe you can even think of more.

Step 3, Decide On The Best Solution:

Probably everyone would agree that crossfeeding makes the most sense in this situation 

Step 4,  Implement the Solution. 

Turn the crossfeed knob.

Step 5, Re-Asses: 

Is the fuel being transferred correcting the imbalance?  Did you turn the crossfeed knob the correct direction?  For years Flight Safety taught there is no way to tell if the plane is actually transferring fuel other than by looking at the gauge because there is no way to know if the motive flow valve on the receiving side closed.  While that may be true, it is a little known fact that you can tell if the motive flow valve closed.  Simply look at the oil temperature on the engine of the receiving tank and you will see it increase a significant amount.  This due to less fuel now going through the fuel oil heat exchanger. 

Back to Step 1: 

If by crossfeeding you have not been able to correct the imbalance it is likely you are leaking or the gauge is not functioning properly and may be time to start the whole problem solving process over 

While our problem solving model has 5 steps, on certain occasions it is necessary to go from step 1 directly to step 4.  Say for example if we were leaking fuel on our way to Bermuda or  what if a Trust Reverser deploys while climbing out of Eagle?  In those cases you don’t have time for a brain storming session.  Rather someone needs to act immediately, activate the emergency stow switch, ensure the affected throttle is at idle and reduce speed to 140 knots or below until stowed or turn back towards land.


In conclusion, How Much Do You Really Need To Know? 

In our example how much did you really need to know?   Did you really need to know how to tell if the motive flow valve has closed or how many pounds per hour crossfeeding will transfer in order to solve the problem.  The answer is while it is nice to know if would likely have no bearing in correcting the situation.   


This leads me to believe that what every pilot really needs to know are:


  1. Memory items
  2. Limitations
  3. How to effectively use the checklist
  4. How to effectively use the problem solving model
  5. Time management
  6. Resources you can call on for additional information 

Everything else is icing on the cake!


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Mark Mealey

components, K2 User Groups


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Pilot-ol-ogy is the magazine of  XLPilotStaffing, a company created by Mark Mealey in 2013 to take the hassle out of finding a contract pilot for your flight operation.  Whether you need a contractor to fill in for vacations, training, illness, or personal reasons, XLPilotStaffing is here to help.