Left Seat

Copyright © 2010 Liz Sommers

I flew from the left seat. What’s the big deal, right? That’s where the PIC is supposed to sit!

As an instructor, I almost always fly from the right seat, so it was a big difference for me to fly from the left seat, since I do it so rarely. Not only is the parallax different from the right seat, but the controls are used by the opposite hand. In a sense, it could be compared to driving on the “wrong” side of the road, as I have done in other countries.

I often fly “traffic watch”, but this is also flown from the right seat. This is done is primarily for traffic avoidance. The regulations state that each aircraft should fly to the right to avoid oncoming traffic. We often have several planes in the air at once flying along the same freeways. When flying opposite directions, we each have to alter course to the right. Because of this, we all fly with the freeway off our left wing. (This also mimics a “highway in the sky” where we are each on the right side of the “road”, just like those poor people driving in their cars below us.) Since the reporters are looking at the traffic below us, they can see better when sitting in the left seat, so we fly from the right seat.

I was about to fly a traffic watch flight, but the PTT (push to talk) button was inop on the right yoke. After some discussion with the FBO and the reporter, we decided that I would fly from the left seat, and the reporter would sit in the right seat. While I expected no problem with flying from the left seat, I would have to be extremely vigilant for other traffic, in particular other traffic watch airplanes, since I would be flying the wrong way on a one way street.

During the flight I was even more alert and vigilant in seeing and avoiding other traffic. I made extra calls on Golden Gate frequency (124.3) to the other pilots, emphasizing that I was flying on the left side of the freeway. That part was easy enough. However, when it came to flying the airplane, I felt like a new pilot. I was doing something that I’ve done only rarely in the past several years. It felt odd. My hand coordination didn’t seem to be working as well. I didn’t keep the airplane trimmed. My workload went up, since I was fighting with the airplane more often than letting it fly itself. I was flying every route backwards from the way I usually fly. The checkpoints were different. I had to adjust the distance from the freeway using a different spot on the wing strut. The traffic pattern looked different. I was worried about the landing.

The good news is that the flight went well. I stayed ahead of the airplane. I was able to communicate with other pilots about where I was. Although my skill in trimming was sadly lacking, I did manage to keep the altitude within 20’ for the entire flight. I kept an appropriate distance from the freeway to allow the reporter the best view of the auto traffic below. I flew the pattern well, and had a great landing. At the end of the flight, I was exhausted and exhilarated. It was a challenging flight, and I had met the challenge.

This flight reminded me of several important lessons for pilots. One, we tend to get way too complacent. Two, we should challenge our flying skills on a daily basis.

Don’t become a complacent pilot!

Are you always looking out for other aircraft? It’s your responsibility to see and avoid them. They’ll be in places you might not expect.

Have you become lazy about your checklist usage? Decided not to get a weather briefing because the weather is nice? Do you check for NOTAM’s or TFR’s? Shortened the pre-flight because you were in a hurry?

Here’s some ways you can challenge yourself:

If you always fly normal landings, practice short and soft field landings, no flap landings, short approaches, or power off landings. When was the last time you did a short or soft field takeoff? If you always fly the pattern on 27L, ask for 27R. If you always land on 27, fly a low approach on 27 with a full stop on 33, or land 33 with a normal pattern. In addition to flying a right base entry when landing 33, there are times I have requested, and been able to land straight in 15 and straight in 33. Fly the pattern when they are landing on the 9-ers.

Get proficient at slow flight. Do turns around a point on a windy day. Practice recovery from unusual attitudes. Do some night flying.

If you always fly to towered airports, fly to a non-towered airport. If you always fly to the same airports, try a new airport. If you never fly to airports like Palo Alto, San Carlos, or Reid Hill-View because of the airspace, go fly there! If you have never transited SFO’s Class B airspace along Hwy 101, try it.

If you always to the ILS RWY 27R approach into OAK, try the VOR RWY 27L, or find a back course ILS and fly that! Fly a DME arc. What about an intersection hold?

As always, make sure you have all available information about your flight, find an instructor to go flying with (that’s what we’re here for!) and don’t become a complacent pilot. Remember, a good pilot is always learning. Most importantly, have fun and fly safe!