Safety Publications/Articles

Professionally Speaking

The perspective of experience

Learning what real pilots should never try

The other day, I had breakfast with a good friend and experienced pilot who has owned 10 airplanes ranging up through Beech Barons. During breakfast we both talked a bit about the stupid things we did as low-time pilots. The next morning I had breakfast with two other highly experienced professional pilots, and we discussed the same subject.

Most of our discussion involved the usual: thunderstorms, icing, low fuel, instrument problems, and other perils of the skies.

The conversations got me wondering. Is there any way in the world that students can learn the gravity of these perils during training, instead of after they get the certificate?

Some of the stories were enough to scare the bejeebers out of us. There was the time when I landed a Cessna 150 with one gallon in the tanks, after being slightly confused about my position for awhile. In other words, I got lost.

There were two horrible icing stories, one scud-running horror story, and some continued-VFR-into-weather stories. Two constants of these stories became evident:

1. The stories scare us now, when we have thousands of hours, but didn't scare us when we were low-time tyros and flying naively into danger.

2. Most of the stories involved our efforts to do something that we were licensed to do, but not experienced enough to do. Many of them revolved around the dangerous idea that "I oughta be able to do this." ("I have the instrument rating, I'm checked out at night, I am supposed to be able to shoot approaches to minimums.")

One of us had loaded a Piper Archer with ice--at night. Another had been trapped into an approach to minimums with low fuel. Still another of us had continued an IMC flight after an instrument failure because he "had been trained to fly partial panel."

At the time, all of us had learned too few of the old-but-wise statements like, "Deicing equipment is not for flying in ice, it is for getting out of ice." Or, "When in doubt, land." Or, my favorite from an old pro, "If you catch yourself rubbing your sweaty palms on your pants leg, you probably ought not do what you're about to do." On the other hand, we had paid too much attention to statements like, "If you can close the doors on that plane, it'll take off and fly."

In short, we had not been scared yet, so we didn't know any better.

Another common thread: None of us had spent much actual time flying with real pros. That may be the biggest difference between airline pilots and the typical (is there such a thing?) personal pilot. Airline pilots get all those hours in the right seat, and thus learn what real pilots will do and what they won't even try to do.

Maybe student pilots should be taught more about setting their limits based on their own experience.

Ralph Hood, an aviation speaker and writer, has been flying since 1971 and has more than 3,000 hours of flight time. He is a multiengine commercial pilot with an instrument rating. Visit his Web site.

By Ralph Hood

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