Proficient Pilot

Total time

December 1, 2003

Barry Schiff was recently inducted into the National Flight Instructors Hall of Fame.

Like most pilots, I am occasionally asked how much flying time I have. As I write this, the total-time column in my logbook shows 26,272.5 hours. This means that in another 27.4 hours I will have been at the controls of various flying machines for exactly three of my 65 years.

Many pilots — especially low-time pilots — are impressed when they hear such relatively large numbers, perhaps too much so. They believe that the hours in a pilot's logbook are directly related to his proficiency and skill, which is not necessarily true. A good friend, John Deakin, who has carefully logged more than 36,700 hours, and I have joked on occasion about how much of our flying time has been spent in the bunks of airliners while being relieved on long-haul flights. It's true. The captain logs all of his flying time (including time spent snoozing). He is, after all, the pilot in command even when absent from the flight deck. And how about all of those hours reading magazines and doing crossword puzzles during cruise flight while the autoflight system and the first officer do all of the work? Yup. That gets logged, too.

It is begrudgingly conceded by most long-haul drivers that the sharpest pilots probably are those who operate short-haul flights, those who make six or eight instrument approaches a day while following an active cold front overlying all of their destinations (see " Hurry Up and Wait," page 101). (On TWA, these were the DC-9 drivers who operated in and out of stations along the Ohio River valley in the winter.)

To drive home the point, I recall when I was a Boeing 747 copilot hopping back and forth between Los Angeles and London on the Polar route. In a given month, I flew three or four such trips, which means that the captain and I each got three or four landings per month. None of them was at night. I recall a two-month period during which we never had to execute so much as one instrument approach. We got very good at cockpit conversation and recognizing ice floes in the Arctic, but proficiency undeniably waned.

Military pilots typically have only a few thousand hours when they request their discharge. Although this might not sound like a lot of flying time, it is important to consider the type and intensity of their experience. This is a good example of pilots who very well might be sharper pilots than those with three times as much time in their logbooks.

One of the negative aspects of accumulating a great number of hours is that such a pilot might begin to believe his own "press releases." The result can be a fatal form of complacency.

In addition to my three years in an aircraft, I have flown 280 different types (my goal is to have flown 300 types). People are impressed by this, too, but this also does not necessarily lead to becoming a superior pilot. Every time I crawl into a different cockpit, I have to remind myself about the type of aircraft I am flying now and quickly adjust to its idiosyncrasies and systems. Flying many different airplanes can lead to confusion in the cockpit. Some aircraft, for example, require that the electric fuel pump be turned on before takeoff; turning on the pump before takeoff in others can result in engine failure. The checklist is my savior, but not everything about an airplane is on its checklist.

When I fly a multitude of different airplanes in a relatively short period, I become concerned that I will forget about something unique to one of those machines, something that will bite when least expected.

Although total time is a valid indicator of sorts, it cannot be relied upon as a sole measure of a pilot's competency. Those who know me also know that I rarely am willing to sit in the backseat of a light airplane unless I have a genuine basis for having confidence in the pilot in command. Moreover, I can assure you that a pilot's total time is only one factor I use to determine if I am willing to trust him with my family in the back seat of his airplane.

Who is safer, the pilot who flies a wide variety of aircraft or the one who flies the same familiar machine day in and day out? That probably is a rhetorical question. A 300-hour private pilot flying his own Cessna 172 might be a better (read safer) pilot than a 3,000-hour pilot who frequently changes cockpits.

I think that too much emphasis is placed on total time (especially by insurance companies) because this is only a general indication of a pilot's competence. A pilot's proficiency depends to a larger extent, I think, on the type of operations he performs and how much recent experience he or she has had in that narrowly defined area of expertise.

The best pilot, therefore, may not necessarily be the one with the tallest stack of logbooks or the one who has flown the greatest number of aircraft. Nor is he necessarily the one who puts on the most thrilling exhibition. (I know a famous airshow performer who has virtually no instrument skills whatsoever.) In the final analysis, safety is a state of mind, an attitude. The safest pilot is the one most likely to complete a fruitful flying career (professionally or otherwise) without ever having endangered his aircraft or his passengers.

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