Real-World VFR

Am I a good pilot?

April 1, 1999

An innocent question during an evening hangar-flying session triggered it. In the midst of an exchange concerning countless VFR accidents caused by the same mistakes, year after year, Tom Gresham — writer, radio personality, and 400-hour instrument-rated private pilot — asked, "How do I tell if I'm a good pilot?" His question led directly to a long weekend with Tom, giving him some "real-world VFR" dual instruction, and working on how a pilot evaluates his or her skill level. (Gresham's comments are in italics.)

To put it bluntly, there are times when flying is demanding. We, as pilots, have to make decisions based on how good we think we are. That we continue to have accidents on takeoff, landing, go-arounds, in crosswinds, and deteriorating weather indicates that the process of self-evaluation is lacking.

The problem with self-evaluation, for a low-time pilot, is that there is no standard against which to measure. "Not crashing" doesn't seem quite good enough. A flight instructor or high-time pilot has watched many other pilots in action. A low-time pilot may never have seen another pilot fly a plane, and particularly not an experienced pilot. My question — am I a good pilot? — sprang from my realization that I had never watched a high-time pilot operate an airplane.

Tom and I decided that we would get together, talk over real-world operations and the question of self-evaluation at some length, then fly. I would give him real-world VFR flight problems and watch him deal with each challenge. Seeing whether Tom could evaluate his capabilities would come after the flights, when we would each independently write a detailed commentary of Tom's performance, and then compare. We would also set out our numbers for appropriate personal minimums for winds, VFR weather, and runway lengths in his airplane.

Tom has a very attractive 1959 Cessna 182B. I was interested in whether he knew enough about it to keep him alive. I quickly learned that he knew the airplane well.

For our flights, we agreed that the tolerances would be plus or minus 100 feet of altitude and 10 degrees of heading. Handling should be smooth, with no jerking of the controls and, in general, the airplane should always be trimmed in pitch. While these are basic steps, holding altitude and heading — as well as flying smoothly — tend to fall apart when distractions or problems mount.

We planned for Tom to do a normal departure from an airport in Class C airspace, set up cruise as if for a prolonged flight, making use of the controller for assistance in spotting traffic; and then go to an area where we could look at his physical handling of the airplane with slow flight, steep turns, and a few stalls. After that we would divert to unfamiliar airports and do some navigation down low. This is where one winds up VFR when the weather closes in, and the pilot discovers that landmarks are hard to see and people have built tall, hard objects. We would close with landings at a challenging airport.

If at all possible, I wanted to see how Tom really flew when no one was looking, and get away from the checkride "best behavior" syndrome that pilots display. Once we were in the airplane with the engine running, Tom did a number of little things that led me to believe that they were habits: He checked the turn and slip indicator as we taxied, and he handled the checklist comfortably, without the juggling that one sees with pilots who use checklists only on checkrides.

Takeoff was exceptionally smooth. Tom chose a climb speed and held it, leveled off without fuss and dealt with controllers easily, despite being in an unfamiliar location. He made use of the resources available. He had organized the cockpit before starting, without taking too long, so the publications he needed were handy.

Tom made speed transitions smoothly, maneuvered the airplane in slow flight confidently, and knew how much margin he had above the stall. When he stalled the airplane it was on purpose; the break did not surprise him. The only maneuver that exceeded our altitude guidelines was one steep turn. His normal flying generally did not include steep turns, so the rustiness was understandable and it started to make the point that skills not used regularly atrophy shockingly fast. As I suspected, he is the sort who if he doesn't do something correctly, admits it openly and then fixes it — a most healthy attitude. I learned that he went out and practiced steep turns afterward.

Instructed to divert to a nearby airport, Tom set up for the pattern and landing in the fashion prescribed by the Aeronautical Information Manual. Operations at nontowered airports are the source of a lot of disagreements among pilots. What matters in the real world is that Tom kept his attention outside the airplane, looked for other airplanes, and made radio calls while listening to others' calls. Because go-arounds bite pilots in the real world, I waited until well into the flare to call for one. I hoped to have Tom thinking about landing so that I could see whether he could make the mental and physical adjustments quickly. He did. His handling was smooth and certain. To an observer it seemed without effort, despite the fact that a full-flap go-around is a high work load event. Tom anticipated the pitch change as the flaps came up. He accelerated and climbed simultaneously, with a steep enough angle that obstructions would not have been a problem even on a very short runway.

The climb was stopped early and another diversion given, with a remark that the weather had dropped and he had to stay at 500 feet agl. The idea was to see how he handled a high work load — when altitude control and vigilance for obstructions and other airplanes were particularly important — as he got the airplane configured for cruise, sorted out his chart, figured out where the new airport was, avoided flying over a town on the course line, and programmed his GPS. As he figured out where he was, where he wanted to go, and how to get there, his altitude wandered off by more than 100 feet. Of necessity, this situation creates a lot of head-down time. The effect of an altitude excursion was emphasized when he looked up and saw that things on the ground looked big.

My mistake here was trying to punch the keys on the GPS before I had really trimmed the airplane for level flight. As a result, I was trying to control altitude while diverting my attention between the GPS and looking outside. It would have been better to take an extra minute to trim out pitch forces, which would have reduced the work load.

Tom used the GPS to aim at the desired airport, and took advantage of a river valley for ground clearance as we discussed the terrific risk of scud running now that there are so many towers. Whistling along below an overcast used to be an art taught, practiced, and generally accepted. No more. The proliferation of towers has turned scud running into a black art, with more and more of its practitioners swearing off forever after a too-close encounter with a tower — or permanently closing their logbooks after hitting one.

Towers are not often built in river valleys, but valleys have their own hazards, particularly long-span power lines that are virtually invisible. We discussed some rules of thumb for low-altitude VFR because there are days when VFR at 1,000 feet agl, under ice-filled clouds, is far safer than flying instruments in the clag.

A close encounter while scud running the previous year prompted me to finish my instrument rating, and to swear off ever again getting squeezed between the clouds and the ground. Low-level flying is an important arrow to have in your quiver of skills, but I don't want to have to use it.

The second airport was in a valley with short runways and obstructions right at the threshold. It got Tom's attention. That's the real world. When you visit Aunt Hattie, her local airport will have either one runway 90 degrees to the prevailing siroccos or short runways and be in a deep valley. Or both. We made the first landing on the pavement, which happened to be the longest runway. Tom had no difficulty setting up an approach speed of 1.3 times the stall speed in the landing configuration (Vso) on final and holding it into the flare, where he reduced power to idle, touched down, and — with what seemed to be a degree of disbelief — found that only moderate braking was needed. He was used to the pitch attitude that he needed for a normal approach with full flaps and was able to hold his speed with only subtle adjustments. We made the remainder of our takeoffs and landings from the grass runways, using the longer one first, then the decidedly shorter one. All takeoffs used the short-field technique, getting us into the air and over the obstructions handily. We discussed the point that on grass it is not wise to do the type of short-field takeoff taught for a paved runway because of the potential for damaging the nosewheel, so some back pressure is carried during the takeoff roll. This combination of a short and soft/rough-field takeoff is what one may need to do on grass, but the local FAA flight standards district office currently prohibits pilot examiners from combining the short- and soft-field takeoff on a flight test.

Vx in my airplane is 60 mph, which results in a very impressive deck angle. I hadn't done it before, and was reluctant to pull the nose up that high while close to the ground. I'm glad that we worked on that, so that I would know what it could do.

During the flight Tom handled the abnormal and emergency situations without letting himself get diverted from flying the airplane. Near the end he dealt smoothly and professionally with an electrical problem that cost us the ability to transmit, and then he was prepared to describe the glitch, in detail, to a mechanic.

When the work load got high or things were pressing, Tom did something very basic and wise: He slowed down the airplane, rolled in some trim, and gave himself time to sort it out. He gave me the sense that he wanted to be thinking well ahead of the airplane. I was impressed.

A good pilot is rarely surprised — disappointed, perhaps, when an engine fires its cylinders out of the side of the cowling, but not surprised — because of the knowledge, so deep as to be instinctive, that it can happen. A good pilot has prepared for the event and deals with it. An accident may result, but only because the airplane does not have enough performance left to make it to a place where it may be landed without damage. Would a good pilot ever put an airplane into a situation where it cannot be safely landed? Yes. On virtually every takeoff there is such a time. In IFR, over mountains, or at night, there will be places and times when a safe landing is impossible. Therefore, a good pilot takes risks. Appropriate risks. And acts knowing the risks.

A good pilot has the ability to fly the airplane in all conditions that, in the pilot's judgment, may be expected to develop on a planned flight. That does not mean that a good pilot has superhuman skills. A good pilot appropriately evaluates her or his skill level and considers it in making decisions regarding whether to cancel, divert, or carry on. A good pilot knows when to cancel or divert because the demands expected exceed the available skill level.

So a good pilot does not have to hold an ATP nor even be more than a 60-hour private pilot — just someone who can evaluate his or her skills and make appropriate judgment calls by staying within those skills.

Tom and I each wrote our evaluations. What was I looking for? I wanted Tom's evaluation to be on a par with mine, or more conservative. It was. (We also conducted an instrument evaluation and were quite close on our estimates of what his weather minimums should be.)

Had his evaluation of himself been noticeably less conservative than mine, I would spend some time with him finding out why. My initial reaction to a significantly less conservative self-evaluation is that the pilot's ego is writing checks that his skill level and judgment cannot cash, so he or she is at risk of a pushing-weather accident or finding some other creative way to get hurt and tear up an airplane.

So, how did I evaluate Tom? For his VFR operations he is very capable of mentally staying well ahead of the airplane. I suggested that he not fly when the surface winds exceed 25 to 30 mph, and treat a 15-mph direct crosswind as about the most he wants to wrestle. What is important is that he can fly the airplane slowly when it is needed and use the controls to make it respond the way he wishes. I suggested that he treat 2,000-foot runways with obstructions as about the minimum length he should use, longer on hot days. With no obstruction he could go down to 1,800 feet and even shorter if he's been practicing. If out of practice, he should increase the margins about 5 percent per month. He tended to land left of the aiming point on the runway, a not uncommon practice, and something that he wasn't aware he was doing.

In his evaluation Tom did not pick stronger winds or shorter runways. I think that he has been evaluating himself appropriately and will continue to do so. I think that he (and all of us) should fly with an instructor and do a joint evaluation every six months to make sure that that the skills he uses infrequently don't deteriorate, leading him to overestimate what he can do.

Tom qualified as a good pilot — in my opinion — because, in a series of real-world situations, he never took the airplane somewhere that his brain hadn't already reached. In the end, that is what matters.

I did get the answer to my original question on how a pilot can tell if he is a good pilot. Regular checkups with an instructor, particularly with work around the edges of the airplane's performance envelope, should be a part of the normal regimeæand normal expenses — for a pilot who wants to stay sharp.

Rick Durden, AOPA 6841260, has been practicing aviation law for 20 years, holds an ATP with a Cessna Citation type rating, and is a single-engine, multiengine, and instrument flight instructor. He started flight instructing at age 19, and has given more than 2,500 hours of dual.