Safety Publications/Articles

Thinking About Flying

What type of pilot are you?

As an international airline captain I fly with different first officers on every trip. Each co-pilot is equally capable, and all earned that position. All that holds them back from occupying the left seat is seniority.

Many were trained by the military and then hired by the airline after their military commitment was up. Others climbed the civilian ladder, first as a CFI, then flying charters and corporate aircraft, or working for a regional airline. Regardless of their route, every pilot earned his or her seat through determination, hard work, and survival--the last one being the most critical element. I often ask them, "If there are only three categories of pilots, what would they be?" While all viewpoints are valid, I maintain that pilots are inexperienced, experienced, or statistics. In some instances, a pilot can fall into more than one category. (But to qualify for more than one category, you have to avoid the statistics category.)

The inexperienced pilot category seems more obvious than it is. Although a student pilot lacks logbook entries, doesn't he gain experience on every flight? Let's say the airplane enters an inadvertent spin on a student's third instructional flight. Regardless of who actually recovers, didn't that student gain experience that others didn't? So isn't that student now more experienced than some who have soloed or earned their certificate? From this perspective, isn't experience consequential to opportunity? Bear that in mind while giving instruction.

Considering that a student's frame of reference is derived from whatever we teach, it is critical not to deviate from the FAA standard. Early on, we may need to take the controls to allow the student to focus on what is being said. As the student gains confidence, we should take the controls less often. Judgment should always be the determining factor when deciding whether a student is ready to progress to the next level.

Laymen often equate pilot experience to logged flight time, but I believe quality is more important than block time. For example, on a 12-hour flight from Japan to the United States, I get to hand-fly the airplane for about 15 minutes. Compare that to the charter pilot who hand-flies seven legs under instrument flight conditions. Which pilot gained the most experience during the same 12-hour period?

Sadly, logged flight time is the most common pilot screening measure of skill--despite the fact that, once hired, the only flight time that matters is that required for minimum currency requirements.

The experienced pilot category can be best explained by revisiting the scenario in which the student pilot inadvertently spins the aircraft. Now consider the judgment factor: How safe can a pilot be who unintentionally departs controlled flight? That all depends on the student's reaction. Did the student attempt to recover or let go of the controls, screaming, "You got it!" Or worse, did the student freeze on the controls? The possibilities are endless, and instructors should never form opinions based on a single act.

Most likely, any student who attempts to recover the airplane will become an excellent pilot. But the student who freezes on the controls or does nothing is likely to enter the statistic category at some point. Regardless of which category a particular student fits, you and I must constantly evaluate how effectively our teaching techniques translate to student performance. When one method isn't working, find another. If this fails, pass your student on to a different instructor. There is no room for ego in flight instructing.

When something as traumatic as an inadvertent spin occurs, a thorough debrief will help to maximize the benefit. Never pass up a learning opportunity like this.

Regardless of logged flight time or years of flying, pilots should learn something on every flight. I encourage any pilot who thinks he knows it all to trade in his wings for golf clubs before his luck runs out.

So how does a pilot become experienced? The answer is simple: Avoid becoming a statistic. Realize that being good is not as important as surviving. Also understand that judgment has more to do with surviving than anything else.

We make choices to fly in good weather or bad. We choose to fly over mountains or through canyons, or avoid them altogether. We fly with full tanks or minimum fuel. These are reality checks. The good news is that general aviation accidents are declining. Is this because we are flying less? I doubt it. More likely, it is because glass cockpits have improved situational awareness, and GPS has taken the guesswork out of navigation, especially with displays that include Nexrad and enhanced ground proximity warnings. But there is another possibility. With the high cost of flying, perhaps our clients are taking their lessons more seriously.

Professionalism begins with an instructor's first introduction to his client. Instructors must share their knowledge while conveying their authority in a manner that is conducive to learning. Since new flight instructors are generally the ones teaching, it's important to understand that they can learn as much from their students as their students can from them. In this sense, experience becomes a joint responsibility.

Flight instructing is one of the noblest yet most challenging jobs in the piloting profession, and never forget that your student may one day be piloting an airliner in which you are a passenger. A wise captain once told me it's not how well you fly, it's how well you think about flying. I couldn't agree more.

Mark W. Danielson is a retired Navy pilot who currently flies for FedEx. He has been a CFI for 26 years.

By Mark W. Danielson

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