Proficient Pilot

Always learning

July 1, 2002

Retired airline captain Barry Schiff has been flying and teaching for nearly 50 years.

A 100-hour private pilot called me last month to express his consternation. He bemoaned how discouraged he felt because of how relatively little he knew about flying airplanes.

"The more I learn," he said with frustration and resignation, "the more I discover there is to learn. How does an inexperienced pilot survive long enough to become truly proficient?"

I could have responded with that time-worn platitude about how a private pilot certificate is a license to learn. But I have always contended that any license, whether an airline transport pilot certificate or a Boeing 747 type rating, also is a license to learn. Striving to further develop airmanship and become what I call a "master airman" is an endless process, and danger lurks for those who believe that they have arrived at what is arguably an unreachable goal.

Although any training or additional rating adds to a pilot's experience and understanding of matters aeronautical, I have always considered obtaining a flight instructor rating and teaching others to fly as the most effective way to richen one's experience, for it is from your students that you shall truly learn. The process of explaining something to others helps you to better understand.

I recall, for example, one student questioning my explanation about why an airplane turns.

"Wait a minute," he said. "The horizontal component of lift is a sideways force, so banking an airplane should only cause it to move sideways in the direction of bank. What causes the airplane to yaw and change direction?"

From the mouths of babes, I thought. Only a student would ask such a question that, in all honesty, I could not answer.

Many instructors and pilots attempt to preserve their egos by creating an incorrect yet seemingly logical answer to pacify someone because they don't want to reveal their ignorance. But a good instructor will say something like, "That's an excellent question. I don't know the answer but I will attempt to obtain it and provide you with an explanation before our next lesson."

The idea is not to allow ego to get in the way of learning something new. The quest for truth, clarification, and understanding often requires that we swallow our pride and make an effort to learn.

Following through with the challenge posed by my student, I was advised by a Lockheed test pilot (who also couldn't answer the question) to contact Irv Culver, a respected aerodynamicist and designer. "If anyone can explain this to you, he can."

After I reached Culver on the phone, he explained that when an airplane banks (intentionally or otherwise), it does begin to move sideways in response to the horizontal component of wing lift. "But as soon as the airplane begins to slip toward the low wing, the relative wind shifts and comes somewhat from the side. And because an airplane is a giant weather vane, it yaws into the wind, or turns. The airplane behaves like a large weather vane because that's exactly what it is. Its tailfeathers, or its horizontal and vertical stabilizers, make it a very effective weather vane. In effect," he continued, "a banked airplane is in a constantly self-correcting slip. It is the sum of all this yawing into the relative wind that we call turning."

It was stone simple. My student was grateful, but more important, it gave me added insight into the dynamics of flight, something of which I would have been deprived had my instinct been to fake an answer to deflect my student's challenge.

Rod Machado, aviation educator, humorist, and a columnist for this magazine, is one of the best pilots I know, and yet I have never had the privilege of being in the same airplane with him. How do I know he's the best? Simple. Given his obvious stature and respectable knowledge of matters aeronautical, he nevertheless does not hesitate to call others with questions regarding various aspects of aircraft operation. He is an excellent pilot because he is unwilling to knowingly allow gaps to remain in his already-vast mental database of knowledge. "One never knows," he says, "when some tidbit of information might come in handy." Machado relishes the joy of learning.

More recently, an instrument student questioned me about why pilots are required to time and adjust the outbound leg of a holding pattern so that the inbound leg to the fix is one minute long. "Wouldn't it be a lot easier," he asked, "to time the outbound leg for a minute and allow the inbound leg to be whatever it is? Wouldn't this accomplish the same purpose with less confusion and mental gymnastics?"

I thought about this, constructed some patterns on a chart, and concluded that my student was correct. Why, I pondered, doesn't the FAA require that pilots time only the outbound leg? After several calls to FAA's Flight Standards Office in Washington, D.C., I learned only that this is the way it has always been done, an example of bureaucratic inertia. So now I have begun a one-man campaign to change the holding-pattern timing requirements, although I doubt if my effort will have any effect on simplifying a procedure developed so long ago.

Irrespective of how many logbooks we have filled and experiences we have survived, I have discovered that we are all student pilots, and becoming and working as full- or part-time flight instructors helps us to discover just how relatively little we know.

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