Proficient Pilot: Attitudes to live by

November 1, 2008

Barry Schiff is an aviation writer and avid, active pilot who lives in Southern California.

While driving to the airport a few weeks ago, I was listening to Leon Kaplan, a.k.a. “the Motorman,” who has a radio talk show devoted primarily to automobiles. He said something quite profound: “The best safety device in a car is a rear-view mirror, a mirror with a police officer in it.”

This reminded me of something I had written many years ago. If you’ll forgive me for paraphrasing myself, I said that a pilot can assure himself of making the best decisions by imagining that an FAA inspector or designated examiner were riding shotgun in his airplane during any given flight. A high degree of safety and effective risk management are virtually assured when a pilot performs as if every flight were a checkride, by assuming that an FAA inspector is in the “rear-view mirror.”

I know that there are many decisions I would not have made had I adopted this attitude earlier in my career. If you are not sure if a particular decision is right or wrong, just imagine yourself making that decision during a checkride. It simplifies the decision-making process.

Here’s another way to look at it. Assume that you are called upon to appear at an NTSB hearing or perhaps before a panel of your peers to explain your actions during a particular flight. Could you reasonably expect these people to approve your decision? If not, then perhaps the decision was a poor one.

A fellow captain at TWA, Bob Pastore, used to go one step further. When he was a first officer, he would challenge willing captains with whom he would be flying to make the “perfect flight,” one in which absolutely nothing would be done contrary to company and FAA regulations irrespective of how minor or irrelevant the infraction. I accepted his challenge a few times and never quite managed to conduct a flight without his saying, “Aha! I gotcha.”

To this day, I occasionally conduct a flight as if Pastore were in the cockpit and observing my every move. I can almost hear him chastising me for making the most insignificant error. Even when flying the simplest general aviation airplanes, the perfectly conducted flight can be an elusive goal, although I often try to get as close as I can.

One of my best instructors was not an instructor at all, not in the official sense anyway. In reality, Jim Taylor was my friend and student.

In 1968, he and I and our wives were flying from Nairobi, Kenya, to William Holden’s Mt. Kenya Safari Club in a rented Piper Arrow. We had advanced a princely sum for our two-night stay there. Unfortunately, some equatorial thunderstorms had formed along our route and threatened to interfere with our plans.

“Hey, Jim,” I said with a manufactured tone of optimism. “It looks like we might be able to head east and detour around these cells.” (The operative word was “might.”)

Jim apparently lacked confidence in my suggestion. He turned slightly toward me, put an avuncular hand on my shoulder, and said, “I think we should head back to Nairobi.”

“But, Jim,” I argued. “That’ll ruin our vacation.”

He looked me square in the eyes and said something I have never forgotten: “In a few years it will not have mattered whether we get there or not. But pushing the weather, especially over an unfamiliar and mountainous part of the world, could make a difference we might not survive.”

I could not offer a valid response and turned the PA-28R back toward Nairobi.

Those words and that attitude have evolved over the years into a philosophy that has served me well. They have taught me that no flight is so important that it has to be made and that the consequences of canceling a flight cannot be as harsh as proceeding when there are valid safety reasons not to.

In other words, sometimes the best flight is one that never gets off the ground in the first place. As someone wiser than me once said, “It is much better to be down here wishing you were up there than to be up there wishing you were down here.”

Sometimes it can be difficult to know if you are making the right decision. I once wrote that every pilot has a relatively accurate instrument for determining whether or not he is about to make or has made a poor decision. That instrument is not in a flight case nor is mounted on the panel. This instrument is in the pit of your stomach. It is a gut feeling that provides a reliable indication that something is not quite right, that you might be exercising poor judgment. It is a reliable instrument to which we often pay insufficient attention.

Another instrument I value is that yellow stripe that runs up and down my back. It seems to widen and intensify with age and experience. No longer is it important for me to be the last to make it in when the field is closing because of worsening fog or to land in a crosswind so strong that it has others scattering for safer havens. I would much rather be respected for something I had the judgment to avoid.

It has been said many times and cannot be repeated too often: “A superior pilot uses his superior judgment to avoid situations requiring his superior skill.”