Technique: Am I a good pilot?

Let's see if you can say 'yes'

January 1, 2008

It afflicts each of us. Every pilot who has pushed a throttle forward for takeoff has, at one time or another, wakened in the chill of the pre-dawn hours nurturing that very private uncertainty:  “Am I a good pilot or do I just think I am?” Some pilots are incapable of the necessary introspection and self-evaluation required for the answer; some deal with it by deciding not to care, too often proving their disregard by creating the most foolish of impacts with the earth; and the majority of us are willing to pursue the question and want to find a working definition as to what a good pilot is so that we might enter that most exclusive of human fraternities.   

As a start, one may seek out the practical test standards issued by the FAA, reading the standards for the successful completion of a flight test. Yet, they are only a beginning in the search, for those standards are, by federal law, just the utter minimum for passing a particular flight test, not a measure of what a good pilot truly is. We all know pilots who have demonstrated the ability to fly to the practical test standards at some time during their lives and with whom we would not risk our own hides by riding in an airplane with their clammy hands on the yoke. 

So we continue the search and find that, over the years, some very good pilots have passed along objective guidelines for determining whether you are, indeed, a good pilot. So let’s view some of the available measuring sticks, recognizing that they are not perfect or all-inclusive. And, as you look at those measures, keep in mind the sage advice of the greats of aviation who have gone before and who made it clear that a truly good pilot is, first of all, honest in self-appraisal. Therefore, are you honest enough to evaluate yourself as ruthlessly as does Mother Nature? She is a hanging judge. Violation of one of her laws of physics or aerodynamics results in instant conviction without appeal, and punishment—not probation or a suspended sentence—follows in seconds should you demonstrate hamfistedness and absence of judgment by stalling an airplane while turning at 300 feet above the ground or attempting to cause an airplane and a cell phone tower to occupy the same airspace. 

The vast majority of pilots have a passion for the world aloft that cannot be hidden and are thus viscerally determined to fly well. It is something taken most seriously and quite personally. Accordingly, your evaluation of your own skill and judgment is a very private sort of thing; so read the following alone, with no one looking over your shoulder as you ride the commuter train home from work. 

What do you know?

When considering the airplane you are about to fly, can you diagram the fuel and electrical systems from memory, and do you know the airspeeds for best rate of climb, maneuvering speed at your weight and 1.3  VSO? Can you recite the first five items of the emergency checklists for engine failure and fire in flight? Do you know how much weight you can place in the cabin when the fuel tanks are full, and do you have the judgment to not exceed that weight? 

When taxiing, taking off, or landing, crosswind or no, if there is a marked centerline, are you always at least straddling it, if not precisely centered, and are your ailerons correctly positioned for the surface winds? On a crosswind takeoff does your downwind tire leave the ground before the one on the upwind side, so that you are positioned to establish the appropriate crab angle to keep you tracking above the runway on climbout? 

On takeoff, do you raise the nose of a nosewheel airplane within five knots of the speed published by the manufacturer? Do you decide on a speed for each section of your climb to altitude and then hold it within five knots, or do you just let the airplane meander upward without clear guidance from you? 

When in cruise are you always determined to fly precisely and, if the air is reasonably smooth, able to hold your desired altitude within plus or minus 50 feet without fixating on the altimeter? 

Do you seek a clearance from an air traffic controller, and never “instructions” because you are the pilot in command of your airplane and the controller cannot tell you how to go about flying it, only how to fit into the traffic flow? Do you keep your comments brief and concise and foreswear the use of inane and redundant terms such as “Roger” or “with you” or “any traffic please advise” when you speak on the radio? Are you always willing to ask a controller to repeat a transmission if you are at all uncertain as to what was said to you? 

Can you make a 45-degree banked 720-degree turn and hold your altitude within 50 feet up or down? Can you enter and recover from a straight-ahead, power-off stall with full flaps or a full-power stall in clean configuration without the ball leaving the center of the race or entering a bank of more than 10 degrees at the break? Can you fly the airplane within five knots of stall speed and never stall it unintentionally, even when rolling into and out of 30-degree banked turns? Can you enter a spin, make three full rotations, and recover within 20 degrees of your initial heading? And is your judgment such that you will never intentionally perform a spin in an airplane that is not approved for doing so? 

Can you recover from an in-flight upset beyond 90 degrees of bank by initially pushing forward on the stick or yoke, rather than pulling, and rolling to level flight without losing more than 100 feet? Do you have the judgment and common sense to refuse to perform any aerobatic maneuver in an airplane that is not approved for aerobatics? 

Do you do what you know?

Are you aware in your heart of hearts that there are other airplanes in the sky, and do you spend at least half of the time you are aloft in VFR conditions looking out for them? 

Are you aware of the deep-seated fears of flying and falling that affect the majority of your passengers? Are you willing to never intentionally frighten a person who rides in an aircraft with you, knowing that those who do so are best branded as sadists? Do you cater to and pamper your passengers, seeking the smoothest ride possible, explaining what you are doing and even bringing along things to make the flight more pleasant for them such as snacks and water? 

Do you know in the depths of your aeronautical soul that aircraft engines do fail, and do you plan your flights with a healthy respect for that potential? 

When landing, are you conscious that the greatest risk facing you is not being too slow on final approach, but rather being too fast? Do you always fly the last quarter mile or so of final approach at 1.3 VSO, plus or minus five knots, unless there are gusty winds and then add absolutely no more than one-half the gust factor? Are you aware that the best way to manage the energy that must be dissipated on landing is to touch down at the slowest speed possible for your particular airplane, and do you generally consider a normal landing to be made with the use of all of the flap deflection built into the airplane by the manufacturer for that purpose? Can you make a go-around from a full-flap landing without risk of stalling the airplane? 

Can you touch down within plus or minus 100 feet of a spot you have selected?  Can you do so, two times out of three, after a power-off approach from an 800-foot high downwind? 

Do you do what you say?

Are you willing to make a go-around if things are not exactly right on an approach even knowing that there might be comments from aeronautical idiots who do not understand that a go-around is a symptom of good judgment? 

If you are instrument rated, are you willing always to remain at or above the published minimum altitude for the approach until you have the runway or the required environmental signposts in sight and not “bust minimums” in hopes of seeing something? 

Are you honestly able to drive all the way out to the airport with your family, load the airplane, and then cancel the trip or postpone it for at least 24 hours because some element of the weather, the airplane’s condition, or your health does not fall within your personal performance envelope? Can you, right this moment, write down the minimum ceiling and visibility in which you are willing to fly, VFR, day and night; the maximum wind you will tolerate on landing or takeoff; the minimum runway length you will accept for your airplane, at gross weight on a 90-degree F day if there are trees at each end of the runway; what equipment on your airplane you feel is acceptable to be inoperative and still depart; whether you would be willing to fly with your family with an upset stomach, headache, flu, or within 12 hours of consuming alcohol; and, if instrument rated, the minimum ceilings and visibilities you will accept for precision, nonprecision, and circling instrument approaches? 

Are you willing to avoid flight below 1,000 feet agl in the vicinity of people and houses and busy highways because you know of the horrendous proliferation of towers, the fact that, post 9/11, many people react badly to airplanes flying low, and that almost everyone has a cell phone camera and is using them to help the FAA catch pilots who are dumb enough to conduct public buzz jobs? 

Are you aware of the noise that your airplane generates and the effect it has on the citizens who vote? Do you make a conscious effort to minimize that noise level by avoiding low flight and waiting until final approach to move the propeller control forward? 

Are you as good as you think?

Can you fly a complete traffic pattern with the airspeed indicator covered, or make a landing at night with no instrument or landing lights? 

Do you always look up when an airplane passes overhead?

Do you possess a true humility about yourself in the vastness of the sky and recognize that being a good pilot requires always being willing to learn and to practice skills that otherwise quickly erode? Are you therefore willing to take recurrent training on a regular basis, at least annually, and to attend safety classes and Internet sessions to keep your judgment and skills at the high levels your family deserves and that meet your personal requirements? 

If you can look yourself in the mirror and truthfully say that you can answer at least 90 percent of the questions “yes,” then the chances are that you fit the definition of a good pilot, and the eyes of the true aviators who have gone before are smiling down on you.

Rick Durden is an aviation attorney in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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