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Reviving Pride In Piloting

Airmanship is an elusive quality. It implies much more than good stick-and-rudder skills. Just ask the airlines. They interview hundreds of qualified pilots, but only a few get job offers. Those who do get hired unquestionably exhibited good airmanship. So, what is airmanship, and how can you teach this essential pilot characteristic to your students?

First, good airmanship is not the exclusive domain of professional pilots. All great pilots have certain defining qualities and characteristics, regardless of whether they are students flying small, single-engine trainers or airline captains flying Boeing 777s around the world. Airmanship is the sum total of these characteristics.


Our piloting style, or personal level of airmanship, defines how we operate an aircraft from the beginning stages of preflight planning until the wheels are being chocked at our final destination. It is based on many factors, including our skills, our knowledge, how we plan, and how we react when things don't go as we expect. Recent research suggests that the safest pilots are those who possess certain coping patterns for dealing with stressful situations.

As instructors, we have only a relatively small number of hours in which to teach our students good airmanship. Thus, from the moment you meet your student for the first time until the last day you fly with him, you have the opportunity (and the obligation) to inculcate him with as many of these characteristics as possible. Good airmanship is taught by example, by demonstration, and by offering your students the knowledge that you've gained through your own experiences.


One of the most basic elements of good airmanship is good piloting skill. Keep in mind, however, that above-average piloting skill doesn't necessarily make a pilot any safer. The majority of accidents are still caused by lapses in judgment. Students should know and believe the old axiom that superior pilots are those who use superior planning to avoid having to use their superior piloting skills. However, a certain minimum level of piloting skill is required, and that level is defined in the practical test standards.

You can help to build good airmanship by setting reasonable standards during training. From the start, you should emphasize the need for accuracy in holding headings, altitudes, and airspeeds.

No one likes to fly with a sloppy pilot. But you also should be concerned with smoothness as well as accuracy. Smoothness is rarely taught specifically these days, but smoothness during level-offs and maneuvering keeps the passengers (or instructor) comfortable.

Finally, with increasingly busy skies comes the increased threat of wake turbulence. This is where fundamental stick-and-rudder skills such as coordination exercises, unusual attitude recovery, and even aerobatic training can be very useful. All military pilots receive basic aerobatic training, whether they are going to fly fighters or transports. And the airlines are increasingly adding unusual attitude/jet upset recovery to their simulator training syllabi.


Good airmanship also means that a pilot has adequate aviation knowledge, including knowledge of the federal aviation regulations (FARs) applicable to the particular operation being performed. Whether they're working on their private or commercial certificates or obtaining additional ratings, your students need to know very clearly what they can and cannot actually do with the aircraft.

Studying the regulations tells only half of the story. Knowledge of specific cases gives an understanding of how the regulations really work. For example, can a private pilot propose to his coworkers that they take a weekend flight to a distant city to attend a football game, and then have the coworkers also promise to share the expenses? The answers to these real-life questions are found in the interpretations of specific cases rather than in a literal reading of the regulations. Good pilots make it a point to know both. (The answer to the above question, by the way, is yes. The pilot can share operating expenses with his passengers, provided that he pays not less than his pro-rata share and that the expenses cover only such things as fuel, rental, and tiedown fees.)

Along with knowledge of the regulations, students must have knowledge of aircraft systems. Specifically, your students must know how the systems work, how they interact, how they can fail, and what circumstances require extra care. Here again, real-life operational knowledge is sometimes more useful than book knowledge. Take, for example, the typical fuel system of a high-wing aircraft with fuel caps on top of the wing. During preflight inspection, particular attention should be given to the rubber seals around the fuel caps. Why? Because more than a few pilots have found out the hard way that fuel can siphon out of a wing tank at an alarming rate. This is the kind of systems knowledge that is operationally useful, but rarely found in the pilot's operating handbook. As an instructor, it is your duty to share this type of knowledge with your students.

Having adequate knowledge also means learning about new technology when it becomes available. All pilots need to be comfortable with modern technology, especially now that aircraft are becoming more automated and computerized. Even the now-common Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation receivers are sophisticated and varied pieces of equipment.

With this in mind, a pilot must have the self-discipline and motivation to keep acquiring new knowledge. The only way to keep up to date with changing regulations, airspace, and technology is through continuing education. Reading magazines, taking recurrent training, pursuing a new rating or certificate, and even attending a safety seminar are all excellent examples of continuing education. When was the last time you took one of your students to an aviation safety seminar?


Sound judgment is probably one of the most important characteristics of a pilot who exhibits good airmanship. But how do we teach good judgment? There is no easy answer. What is known is that students learn from our example, and if we demonstrate poor judgment, more than likely our students will, too. To encourage good judgment, be cautious and orderly when you fly. Help your students to select go/no-go criteria and then stick to them. Pose scenarios to your students and see how they react. Set the example by setting high standards for yourself and then consistently doing your best to meet those standards.

What exactly is judgment? Some would say that it is the ability to predict what the aircraft (or the pilot, for that matter) can and cannot do in a particular situation. Pilots acquire this type of judgment mostly through experience. But without many hours in the cockpit your students will have only a limited amount of experience from which to draw. In this regard, your task is to try to give them as many widely varied experiences as possible during the allotted training time. As you introduce new experiences, emphasize how the same principles can be applied to other situations.

Good judgment also means always having a plan B-an alternate course of action-in the back of your mind, and you should have more than one. As a pilot, you must continually monitor the progress of the flight, evaluating at each step whether you should continue with the original plan or switch to a backup. This means actively soliciting information from all available sources. Pilots make good decisions based on good information. As with a computer, garbage in produces garbage out. So be sure to show your students how to obtain the preflight and en route information that they need to make sound decisions.

Finally, one of the single most impor- tant (and often overlooked) elements of judgment is having the courage to say, "No." It sounds too simple, but the fact is that numerous incidents and accidents might have been averted had the pilot in command just said no. But this is a difficult position to take. Making the safest decisions may not make you very popular at the time, but every- one will be glad to avoid an incident or accident. Safety has never been a popularity contest.

Saying no usually means delaying, discontinuing, or canceling the flight (often with substantial financial or personal consequences). In practice, this means landing for fuel when the flight could have been completed but without adequate reserves. It means delaying the departure until the weather clears up. Moreover, a pilot must have the courage to say no to precarious operations-for example, illegal charters, low-level flight (buzzing), or unauthorized aerobatics. Further, the best pilots must have the courage to decline making a flight in an unairworthy aircraft rather than accept it just to "make the meeting."


A pilot with good airmanship is a true professional, regardless of whether or not he makes his living by flying. He takes pride in his piloting ability. He has the skills, knowledge, and judgment to fly competently and safely. He has the presence, confidence, and manners that inspire trust in his passengers. He is responsible to his passengers, his aircraft, and himself.

Airmanship is an older, less popular term than professionalism. It's rarely talked about these days. But airmanship is not gone, though it may have been forgotten. Remind yourself that in addition to teaching good procedures, you should be teaching good airmanship. Think of it this way: When your students ask you which brand of head- set they should buy, you're likely to recommend a product with superior craftsmanship. Now make it your goal to ensure that the head that's wearing the headset belongs to a pilot with equally superior airmanship.

By Christopher L. Parker

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