June 1, 2005
The vagaries of individuality. One of our most fascinating traits can be one of our most frustrating as well. Need proof? Watch two people make an omelet and you'll find that every one of us has a unique way of getting the job done.
One person might get dressed by putting on a shirt first, then pants. Another may start with socks, then pants. In the end, both get dressed and they look the same, but they do it differently. Who is right or wrong? Neither.
In aviation, the FAA has strived to try to get pilots to meet a common standard of performance. That standard is spelled out in detail in the practical test standards (PTS) for the various ratings and certificates. In the end, all pilots have to perform to the same standard, but they don't necessarily have to get there the same way. Even if two pilots fly the same aircraft, using the same pilot's operating handbook (POH) as a guide, there may be subtle differences in technique. Ask any instructor how many different ways there are to do something, and you'll likely get a response along the lines of, "There are as many different ways of doing something as there are pilots."
In more structured environments, every aspect of every flight is carefully detailed in a manual. Airlines, corporations, large pilot-training programs, and the military all spell out in pain-staking detail how they want their pilots to perform what procedures and when. And in the end, it is still amazing just how differently we all fly the same.
At the airlines, subtle (or not so subtle) deviations in style from one captain to the next can drive first officers mad. One captain may want to taxi with both engines running, while the next may want single-engine taxi; one captain may be perfectly comfortable with the first officer initiating checklists on his own, while another will only allow the checklists to be completed when said captain is ready; some captains hand-fly all their approaches, while some won't use the autopilot's navigation mode to follow the course. All of the above can be turned around such that the first officers are driving the captains crazy. Some pilots are so relaxed it takes an awful lot to get them worked up. Others are so uptight that everything must be just so.
From the time you start to share flights with fellow pilots, you see a number of differences in the way other pilots conduct themselves. You may see such differences sooner if you fly with more than one CFI. By nature, we tend to be more comfortable with what we learn first, and in flying this is reinforced by the fact that so much of what we do gets repeated on every flight (the walkaround and engine runup, for example), and is so often taught to us by someone we generally like and want to please. Since we don't know any better, we tend to do what we are taught.
Watching other pilots can be instructive because they have been exposed to a different background than you have. When I was teaching, I flew with a pilot who was a new renter at our school, and he seemed to verbalize everything, to the point that he missed a few radio calls, and I just wanted to take my headset off. When we finished our first flight together, I casually asked him about it, and he said that's what he was taught. He asked if I had a problem with it. I didn't, but for the missed calls. I suggested that he whisper instead, and he said that was a good idea. But some of what he did I liked, and I began to incorporate it into my own lessons.
In a nutshell, this is a difference between procedure and technique. A procedure is something that you don't deviate from, that must be followed for some reason. In the POH, an example of a procedure is the short-field takeoff. Within the procedure of adding power to the engine, releasing the brakes, and climbing at the designated speed might be more than one technique: It might be as simple as one pilot taking a quick glance at the instruments before releasing the brakes versus another pilot verbalizing the actual indications on the engine instruments. Both techniques are valid, and neither is wrong, but neither is actually a part of a procedure either.
People often are nervous about flying other pilots after getting their certificate, for fear of embarrassing themselves. Wrong attitude! We all can learn from others, and we should be open to new suggestions and learn when to offer them. As we gain more experience in anything, we tend to do it faster, finding shortcuts that save us time. As a low-time pilot, you might see a few shortcuts you didn't know existed. But as a more experienced pilot flying with someone who does not have a lot of time in his logbook, you might notice that such pilots tend to be slower, more methodical. They also might have some practices that they have learned (or figured out) along the way to minimize mistakes. Don't be surprised if you find something that you can use in your own flying that makes you a better pilot. That chatty pilot I mentioned earlier did two things I really liked. On takeoff, he would say "airspeed alive" during the takeoff roll. It was one thing to glance at it, like most of us do, but it was another to say it aloud, which makes it more likely that the information is actually going to register in your brain if the instrument doesn't work. The other thing he did that I liked was to verbalize his airspeed on final every 500 feet, keeping himself (and me) aware of speed, so he wouldn't get so slow as to stall.
The key with technique is not to try to be the "best" or to be "perfect." Technique is something that works for you, something that you like to do (or not do), something that you can back up with a logical reason. It needs to be something you are comfortable with. Procedure, where dictated, can't change. When the book says something must be done a certain way, it's almost always in the name of safety, and you need to follow the book.
But in the end, when all the Cessna pilots do a stall, or all the Piper pilots do a steep turn, or all the Beechcraft pilots do a single-engine approach, odds are they conform to the spirit, if not the letter, of their appropriate PTS and POH. But they may all do so differently. And somewhere, in the right seat of an airliner, a first officer will have to learn yet one more technique to perform the same procedure she's done a thousand times. She'll shake her head, and when she can't take it anymore, she'll upgrade to captain, and the cycle will start anew.
Chip Wright, of Hebron, Kentucky, is a Canadair Regional Jet captain for Comair.
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