This well-known bit of aviation-speak, although short on detail, conjures up the image of a pilot being overtaken by in-flight events and in need of doing something about it fast.
All pilots fall behind on occasion and the shorter the lapse, the better. Recognizing that you have fallen behind the airplane may start slowly with a generalized feeling that all is not right with the flight, or you may be jolted into awareness by a blown altitude or an off-course navigation indication.
Distraction, fixation, a miscommunication, equipment problems, turbulence, a challenging crosswind on final—these and many other conditions can cause a pilot to fall behind the airplane.
Suppose a pilot, preoccupied with flying an assigned heading after takeoff from an airport in Class C airspace, violates an altitude restriction. That’s fixation. In a rush to correct the error, the pilot misses a radio call from the departure controller who is pointing out traffic. That’s distraction.
Struggling to maintain control in rough air or deviating to avoid an inadvertent encounter with instrument meteorological conditions can prevent a pilot from preparing for the next phase of the flight. That can make you play catch-up the rest of the ride, leaving you unable to locate an upcoming visual checkpoint on a cross-country or unprepared to enter the traffic pattern at the destination.
Remember your first flight in the left seat? Everything seemed to be happening at once; it may have been a bit overwhelming—your first experience feeling that you were behind the airplane. It was easier the next time, and it wasn’t long after that flight that your flight instructor mostly sat hands-off during the flight.
But then it was on to adding on new piloting responsibilities like communicating, navigating, and managing simulated emergencies. You learned that managing these new tasks means dividing attention with one objective—flying the airplane—always the top priority.
You found it reassuring to realize that scenarios that used to make you fall behind the airplane no longer overtax your abilities, but don’t fall into a complacency trap. Switching to a different model trainer, taking on more challenging flight conditions, flying with a new navigation system, or venturing into a new realm like night flight are challenges that can put your ability to stay ahead of the airplane to the test.