Proficient Pilot


October 1, 2003

Retired TWA captain Barry Schiff has logged more than 26,000 flight hours.

A group of local flight instructors huddled in the corner of the pilot's lounge at a local flying school. They were nursing cups of coffee while waiting for the morning fog to clear and the day's training activities to begin.

One of them lamented that it seemed as though many of today's pilots are more interested in bells and whistles than in flying the airplane. He had observed pilots so fascinated with digital presentations and distracted by information overload that controlling the airplane suffered in the process.

"Whatever happened to airmanship?" he asked. "Some of these 'techno pilots' probably can't fathom how Lindbergh flew all the way from New York to Paris using only a compass and a clock."

Just what is airmanship? Webster defines it as "the art or skill of handling, operating, and navigating an aircraft." I would add that it includes exercising good judgment, maintaining situational awareness, and having the ability to cope safely with changing and challenging conditions.

There unfortunately is no valid way to measure airmanship, but there are some interesting ways to test how well a pilot knows and flies his airplane.

A month ago I was administering a flight review to a pilot who considered himself to be a notch above average (don't we all?) and willingly accepted my challenge to prove it.

While Allen was checking his magnetos before departure, I reached into my tote bag and pulled out six of those handy "failed instrument" covers developed and sold by Sporty's Pilot Shop. Grinning smugly, I covered not only the attitude and heading indicators of the Cessna 182 but also the airspeed indicator, altimeter, vertical speed indicator, and turn coordinator.

"Hey, what are you doing?"

I told Allen that if he knows his airplane as well as he thinks he does, he wouldn't need these instruments during a daytime, VFR flight. He looked at me as if I were crazy and shrugged. "I'm game if you are."

"Just control your airplane with attitude. As the Great Bard might say if he were a flight instructor, 'The wing's the thing.' Just relax, fly, and enjoy not having to shift your attention between the cockpit and the outside world. Let's begin with a short-field takeoff." (This should not be attempted without an instructor in the right seat.)

Allen initially performed better than I had expected. His liftoff was slow but safe, and a peek behind the suction-cup cover revealed a speed only 6 knots above the best rate-of-climb speed (V Y). (Pilots tend to underestimate airspeed following failure of the airspeed indicator, preferring, it seems, to err on the high side with too much instead of too little.)

I then asked Allen to maintain what he perceived to be 4,500 feet. He leveled off at 3,700 feet. Most of us have difficulty estimating altitude no matter how long we have been flying. The lower the altitude, however, the more accurate is the estimate. When we eventually returned to the 1,400-foot traffic pattern, Allen leveled off at 1,300 feet.

Although holding a given altitude without an altimeter or VSI should be relatively easy, many pilots have difficulty because they either forgot or never learned to keep the bottom of the wing parallel to the horizon (which is slightly easier with high wings than low).

The only time that Allen became noticeably uncomfortable during our hourlong flight was when I asked him to make a power-off approach to a landing from pattern altitude. He had difficulty establishing a normal-glide attitude and overcompensated by holding the nose much too low (and 15 knots too fast). His problem, he said, stemmed from rarely making power-off approaches and not taking note of the pitch attitude when he does.

Allen admitted that it took time to become accustomed to not looking inside the cockpit as frequently as he usually does, but it eventually gave him a sense of freedom. He began to feel more "at one" with his airplane. He was so bubbly about the experience that he wanted to try it at night, even though it would not serve much purpose. He just wanted to see what it was like.

After dinner, we made a short flight under starry skies and with the cockpit lights turned off. Allen said that it was aesthetic. What did serve a purpose, however, were the approaches I asked him to make with the VASI lights turned off (with the assistance of the tower controller) and then with the landing lights turned off. During our last approach and when over the runway threshold, the mile-long stretch of runway lights were turned off (by the controller at my request), which could really happen for a variety of reasons. Allen immediately reacted with a go-around. This is what I would expect from someone scoring high on airmanship. (More difficult is taxiing on a strange, poorly lit airport on a moonless night with inoperative landing and taxi lights.)

Do the hours in a logbook translate into a proportional amount of airmanship? Not necessarily. It can have the reverse effect and instill complacency. It depends on the pilot and the type of flying he has done. Experience is only part of the equation.

My previous airline, TWA, used to advertise, "If 50 years of experience across the Atlantic has taught us anything, it's that you can't rest on 50 years of experience." Nor can pilots afford to rest on their laurels. (See " Turbine Pilot: Scary Situations," page 121.)

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