Turbine Pilot: The right attitude

Professional aviation for private pilots

January 1, 2008

Insurance underwriters are willing to provide professional aviators with high liability limits and attractive terms for coverage, but they restrict what is available to owners of personal aircraft even when the applicant has a good flying record. Insurers like the organized way in which corporate and airline pilots approach their aviation activities, while they view nonprofessionals as less disciplined and even somewhat disorganized. Unless an applicant’s broker presents contrary information to the insurance company, nonprofessional aviators are likely to have difficulty obtaining coverage commensurate to their net worth, even if they are willing to pay high premiums. 

Good insurance coverage is not the only reason for approaching private flying with a professional attitude. Safety is the primary benefit, followed closely by the greater utility and satisfaction that come from a well-executed and personally rewarding flight.  Adopting the culture of those who fly for a living has significant benefits. 

What is a “professional” attitude? What characterizes the culture of those who fly for a living? At a basic level, what is “culture,” and can it be acquired by the private pilot who is unable to fly as frequently as those who are paid to go aloft?

In response to these questions, several professional pilots offered their perspectives on habits and procedures they found helpful in their successful careers. In total, the five aviators had flown more than 75,000 hours. Only one was military trained; the others  amassed their experience through the classical route of civilian flight instructing and flying charter. One had recently retired as a senior captain for a major air carrier, and had elected to remain in general aviation as the owner of a highly successful training academy he initiated several decades ago while pursuing his airline duties. Each chose to emphasize planning and procedures rather than piloting technique. Even though their logbooks were the size of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, all of them downplayed the importance of total flying time.

Personal SOPs

Bill Jardine, director of operations for a FAR Part 135 charter company with four business jets, has been flying professionally for more than 30 years. In addition to his captain duties on a Dassault Falcon 50, he is co-owner of a Beechcraft King Air. 

“Private pilots should establish personal standard operating procedures [SOP],” said Jardine. “Their SOPs should be written in the form of their own operations manual, which can be concise—maybe only four or five pages—as long as it documents the steps the pilot takes in approaching basic tasks such as assuring the aircraft’s airworthiness prior to flight, checking his or her currency, being weather aware and adequately planning for the trip,” he continued. “Personal SOPs must be a way of life. Following them is the culture I live. They are like the air I breathe.

“Trip planning is an essential part of my personal SOPs. I plan so that I know what I have to do before I need to do it. When considering a trip, I start early and I keep a sharp eye on contingency planning—playing the ‘what if’ game. What if the weather turns out to be worst than forecast? What if there is a strong crosswind at the destination or a failure of the radio facility needed for the approach? If I have any doubts, I regroup rather than continue. Whether on the ground or in the air, if a pilot has doubts about proceeding with a flight the action to take is simple. Just don’t do it,” he cautioned.

Like other professional aviators, Jardine focuses on the weather picture several days before an intended flight. Using a variety of sources ranging from The Weather Channel to professional weather services, he looks at overall weather patterns to get an idea of what he is likely to encounter. Closer to the expected departure time, he augments his general overview with aviation-oriented weather products. 

“Good weather information is available to everyone who flies,” he observed. “I make a point to be conscious of weather patterns that are likely to impact my trip. That awareness is an integral part of my life as a professional aviator, and I urge all pilots to establish an SOP for weather planning.”

Training

When discussing the culture of professional aviators, Capt. Richard Greene emphasized the training procedures of his former employer, a major domestic and international air carrier.

“Training is as much a part of an airline’s business model as is carrying passengers,” he noted. “In transitioning to a new aircraft type, the company starts its pilots with ground school and then moves them to procedural trainers and other training aids so that pilots know their equipment before they get into a simulator. After obtaining a type rating in the simulator, they are assigned pilot duties under the supervision of a check airman for a minimum number of hours.

“Many private pilots lack a firm understanding of their aircraft and the procedures needed to obtain the best level of efficiency and safety,” said Greene. “The airlines make it a point to start with the fundamentals before proceeding with the details.  That foundation is essential to the concept of recurrent training.” Successful initial training leads to successful recurrent training. “Many private pilots lack that basic step in the training process,” added Greene. Also, the airlines train every six to nine months and they train to proficiency, which is a concept that private pilots need to embrace. Too often, the private pilot has a limited idea of what constitutes true proficiency and feels comfortable with marginal training. 

“The reality unfortunately is that many aircraft owners do not want to be challenged with regard to training,” continued Greene. “The attitude of  ‘I have been flying for 30 years’ does not cut it. There is much to be said for the substance of one’s background.”

“Taking a flight review every two years is not a substitute for effectively refreshing knowledge and skill. As a minimum the nonprofessional should take annual recurrent training, and most insurance underwriters require  this for owner pilots. But I recommend a refresher with a good CFI every six months. Remember, professional pilots flying charter must take six-month checkrides, regardless of how frequently they fly,” continued Greene.

Greene practices what he preaches. His flight school, Century Air Academy, located at Essex County Airport in Fairfield, New Jersey, requires its students to take ground school courses before proceeding with their first flying lesson.

Consistent opinions

A flight department manager who preferred to remain anonymous reinforced Jardine’s comments on SOPs. His company, which flies Bombardier Challengers under Part 91, documents all procedures used in normal and emergency situations, following industry best practices. Also, like Jardine, he entered corporate aviation without the benefit of military flight training. He began his flying career as a certificated flight instructor, building sufficient flight time to obtain a position as a corporate pilot.

Reflecting on the similarities between professional and private flying, he said, “Professionals live aviation every day. They are involved. Private pilots also can be involved on a consistent basis, through their reading and recurrent training, even though they are not in the cockpit every day.

“We fly two-person crews—it’s a requirement of the aircraft we operate, but that probably would be our choice regardless of aircraft type. We brief as a crew before and after each leg of a flight, and we have a strict checklist discipline. The private pilot flying solo can brief using the discipline of checklists and mental reviews before each phase of flight, such as takeoff, entering the traffic pattern, flying downwind, and prior to shutdown. The flight department ops manual is our standard. All our checklists and procedures are documented in there, and we strictly follow that standard. It’s our discipline. It is fundamental to our culture as professional aviators. Remember, culture is what you do when no one is looking. 

“I recommend that all pilots establish personal minimums, but I caution that they must be realistic. Recognize that stuff can happen. Read accident reports, and consider the down side of what could happen. Place yourself in the same scenario as the accident pilot, and think about what you would do to avoid the accident, possibly by adhering to your personal minimums. Document those minimums as well as your personal procedures for owning and operating your aircraft in your own ops manual.

“Finally, I urge all pilots—private as well as salaried—to develop a keen awareness of their situation. What conditions—weather, workload, ATC demands, possible equipment malfunction—exist and how might the situation change? Consider the ‘what ifs.’ Pay particular attention to details, assess the threats, know recommend-ed procedures, and follow them,” concluded the flight department manager.

An all-encompassing process

Bill Wagner served as a carrier-based A–4 pilot in Vietnam before entering civilian life, first as a flight instructor and charter pilot for a Midwest FBO, and subsequently as chief pilot and manager of a two-aircraft corporate flight department. He currently captains a Cessna Citation X in Part 135 operations for a leading management company. He also owns a Cirrus SR22, which he flies for personal travel.

“Aviation is an ongoing process. There is always something to learn,” said Wagner. “Private pilots, like professionals, must stay involved and keep learning. Aviation is an integral part of my life, as it is for all the pros I know. You can always tell when you are with dedicated aviators—when an aircraft flies over, they look up.

“Professionals have excellent training facilities, with great ground school instructors and full-motion simulators, and our employers as well as the FAA require us to refresh on a consistent schedule. Though such facilities are not always available to private pilots, there are other ways to maintain currency and continue the learning process.

“There is a wealth of outlets for refreshing knowledge that are available to all aviators. In some cases there are better training aids for low-end GA avionics than for some of the more sophisticated equipment found on the latest corporate jets. For the non-salaried pilot who wants to fly like a professional, there are many resources. Just look at [AOPA Online] and all the courses offered by the [AOPA] Air Safety Foundation.

“Join aviation clubs,” continued Wagner. “Interact at annual meetings, read their monthly magazines, and search their Web sites for material. Like the professional, make aviation a part of your life. Create a personal ops manual that documents a systematic process for doing so. Keep track of the elements of informal and formal recurrent training that you will follow throughout the year.

“Find excuses to fly. Pros are fortunate—their jobs keep them active. But the private pilot also can stay sharp without logging 25 hours per month. Frequency of flight is more important than total hours. A half hour of pattern work during the week when you don’t have a destination to reach is better than a four-hour cross country several times a year. Plan flights for practice—it keeps your mind thinking aviation and reinforces your access to flight planning and weather tools even when you don’t go aloft. Plan for recurrent training every six months, using a different instructor from time to time. A review by someone new often fills out your portfolio of knowledge and skill.

“Few private pilots have the time or resources to fly as often as a pro, but they can develop the culture of the professional aviator.”

Benefits

Documenting an ongoing process for expanding knowledge and skill will help with insurance renewal; add to your safety; and give you a solid basis for obtaining utility, enjoyment, and fulfillment from your flying. Whether a private pilot or a salaried professional, nothing is quite as satisfying or adds more to an aviator’s confidence than a well-planned and well-executed flight.

John W. Olcott, past president of NBAA, heads General Aero Company, consultants for the business aviation community. He is a 10,000-plus-hour pilot with multiple ratings.