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The art of airmanship

You may not find these traits in textbooks, but they'll make you a better pilot

If you spend some time hanging around your local flight school, then you're bound to overhear countless aviation terms bandied about.

But one term you probably won't hear these days is airmanship. Indeed, airmanship seems conspicuously absent from mainstream aviation discussions. One has to wonder whether that's because it's just not politically correct or because it's just pass�. But we all should consider the notion that airmanship is what's sorely missing in aviation today.

If you look it up (believe me, it's hard to find in the aviation texts), in the strictest sense airmanship refers only to basic stick-and-rudder skills. Used in a sentence it would sound like this: "Jamie has great airmanship; did you see the way she landed that airplane with the crippled landing gear on one wheel?" In this example, skill is one part of airmanship. One has to have definite flying skills to bring a crippled airplane safely to Earth. Smoothness, or how softly you exercise the flying skill you have, must accompany this skill. No one appreciates a pilot who "manhandles" the controls and gives them a rough ride.

However, I would suggest that this definition is too narrow, and that its meaning should be expanded to include not only smooth stick-and-rudder skills, but also the qualities of command, leadership, and discipline. It is the sum of one's book knowledge, practical experience, and decision-making abilities.


Good airmanship means exercising good command. As pilot in command, you are the captain of your ship. It really doesn't matter whether you're the captain of a Cessna 152 or a Boeing 777; your command authority is the same. As PIC, you are directly responsible for, and the final authority regarding, the safe operation of your aircraft. In an in-flight emergency requiring immediate action, you may deviate from any general operating or flight rule to the extent required to meet that emergency. Those two short sentences simultaneously grant you both an awesome responsibility and a humbling authority. But the feds realize you cannot have one without the other-you cannot be expected to accept the burden of command without the authority to meet its demands.

Now, what does all of this have to do with you? Here's an all-too-common example. Let's say you're a new private pilot on a weekend VFR getaway cross-country flight with some close friends, and the weather's closing in. Perhaps you received a bum forecast, or perhaps you didn't want to hear what the briefer was telling you-it doesn't matter now. You're low on fuel, you've exhausted ATC resources, and there are no airports within range. Do you try to climb up through the soup or do you make an off-airport landing, thus preserving the safety of your passengers, yourself, and the aircraft?

Of course, the latter choice may come with a certain amount of financial fallout, perhaps an inquisitive letter from the FAA-and most worrisome of all, the potential public embarrassment. Now, you may have other options besides these two, but with so many variables, no one can tell you what to do in a situation like this. Suffice it to say it's a decision none of us are lining up to make, but the accident files are filled with variations of this same story. Fortunately, precautionary landings usually work out rather well.

Applying your knowledge

Practical knowledge is another aspect of good airmanship. You've got to know how to apply what you've learned in the books and put that knowledge to use. For example, you should be able to effectively use your onboard equipment, whether that is a fancy radio, a GPS, an exhaust gas temperature gauge, or an autopilot. All of these items are resources at your disposal for cockpit resource management. Good airmanship dictates that you be able to effectively use all of the equipment available to you. And that means you don't just know how to turn it off and on; be able to really use it, understanding its functionality and capabilities.

Take the autopilot, for example. If you're fortunate enough to be flying an airplane that has one, do you know how to use it? Do you understand all the modes, from altitude hold to vertical speed to intercepting and tracking a course? Has your instructor taken the time to train you on how to use it? And, why on earth (or in the air) would you ever want to use the autopilot anyway? And when would you use it? If you can't immediately answer those two questions, then read on.

A fatal general aviation accident a few years back captured worldwide media attention. Although fuel was not an issue, in other respects this accident was just one of the many variations of the weather predicament described earlier. It occurred at dusk, over water, in marginal VFR conditions. The pilot of that aircraft became spatially disoriented and eventually lost aircraft control, resulting in the tragic loss of three young lives. Perhaps the autopilot could have kept the airplane right side up until such time as conditions improved enough to once again allow flight by reference to visual cues, although no one knows for sure. But if there was ever a time to engage the autopilot, this would have been one of those times. Sadly, knowing how and when to use onboard equipment is one aspect of airmanship that seems to be overlooked these days.

But this gap in training is not limited to smaller general aviation aircraft. In the business aviation world, newer aircraft are being fitted with truly amazing technology. For those older pilots who learned flying by reference to needle, ball, and airspeed, this newfangled automation presents quite a challenge. For varied reasons, some of these older pilots are unable or unwilling to learn how to use it, or they just plain don't trust it. Unless absolutely necessary, some of them fly the jet by hand. Meanwhile, in the back, the boss and his wife are being reminded about the last time they took the kids on the Space Mountain ride at Disneyland.

Adapting to automation is part of any job, but for pilots, good airmanship means learning and using new technology. As you progress in your aviation endeavors, remember that if you fly the airplane the way it was designed to be flown, you'll generally make life easier for all involved.


Airmanship is synonymous with leadership. As captain, you are the pilot in command, the leader, and your passengers and/or crew will look to you for guidance and direction. If you don't provide it, you may be in for some eye-opening results. So please don't delegate this crucial responsibility.

Here's an example from the business aviation world. The mission was simply to reposition the business jet from its home base to an airport a couple of hours away. Since it was merely a repositioning flight, there were no passengers; only the captain, first officer, and flight attendant would be onboard, so they could depart at their leisure. Neither the captain nor first officer had been to this airport before. Although there was an instrument approach available which would allow a descent to 200 feet above the ground, the captain had two concerns. First, given the choice, he didn't like landing at unfamiliar airports at night (because you don't have a good sense of the surrounding terrain, among other reasons) and second, the weather outlook wasn't good. The captain had been checking the forecast a few days before the flight and knew that low ceilings and visibilities would be a possibility.

The day before the flight, the captain spoke with the first officer and suggested they leave at noon the next day. The first officer told the captain that both he and the flight attendant needed to run errands, and suggested they leave at around three; after all, it was only a few hours later. Knowing they'd be on the road for a few days, the captain yielded to the later departure time. The flight departed about 3:30 the next afternoon, and it was dark by the time they arrived at the destination. The weather at the destination was worse than forecast; it had deteriorated to less than one-quarter mile visibility in fog, with calm wind and overcast ceilings of 200 feet. They shot an instrument approach to minimums with the first officer flying. At the missed approach point, only 200 feet above the ground, and with only the obscured green threshold lights barely visible through the dense fog, the captain ordered a go-around. The copilot delayed for an instant, then complied. With the inherent spool-up lag of the engines, the jet was probably only 100 feet above the runway by the time it started climbing.

Now the captain had to make a decision he shouldn't have had to make. He could wait for the weather to improve (unlikely), he could try the approach again and probably miss (likely, there was nothing wrong with the first approach), or he could go to the alternate. The logistical problems were considerable. The transportation, hotel, and passenger arrangements were all predicated on the destination, not the alternate. The captain decided to try the approach again. This time, when they arrived at the missed approach point, they could make out the runway, so they continued and landed firmly. The wake turbulence from the first approach may have stirred the fog just enough to increase the visibility in the touchdown zone for the second approach.

The next day the captain did two things. First, he checked the weather observations and discovered that if they had departed at noon, as he suggested, they would have arrived in daylight and the weather would have been two miles' visibility with an overcast ceiling of 600 feet, allowing an easy approach and landing. Second, he told the first officer that he knew with certainty what had failed on the previous day's flight and it could be summed up in two words: the captain. He told the first officer that as captain, part of his command responsibility was to lead. By yielding to the later departure time, he had failed to lead, and that had almost led to mission failure. Next time, the captain asserted, he would not be so accommodating, and his experience and judgment would be the overriding factors in deciding the departure time. Next time, the captain decided, he would exercise better airmanship.

Even if you do not aspire to a business cockpit, you'll need to exhibit leadership qualities in your personal flying. Passengers aren't shy at voicing disappointment if weather threatens to force a change in plans. More than one pilot has flown into a bad situation after relenting to someone's frustrated or disappointed reaction to a no-go decision.


Finally, good airmanship means exercising self-discipline. As a pilot you can exercise discipline over a wide range of activities, from always performing a preflight to always checking the weather, but one of the most fundamental actions of self-discipline is that you always follow the rules-even when no one is watching. But some pilots choose not to follow the rules; they rationalize their disobedience with an assortment of bogus reasons. "Exceptional" pilots know the rules don't apply to them, because they were written for "ordinary" pilots. Pilots who push the limits are convinced that because the rules have built-in safety margins, it's perfectly safe to exceed them when you absolutely need to. Still others are relieved by the fact that since no one's watching, there's little chance of getting caught.

Scud running, flying below minimum safe altitudes, and showing off are probably the most common infractions. It's sad, really. As engines become extremely reliable, airframes become stronger and lighter, and radio and navigation equipment becomes more powerful and sophisticated, we're still fighting one of the most persistent and stubborn causes of accidents: pilots. Aviation safety experts have a term for this behavior: procedural intentional non-compliance, or PINC for short. Although it rhymes with "pink," its true color is more likely crimson, because it poses a real danger to pilots and their passengers.

Safety experts will tell you that in order for PINC to occur, there must be three elements in place. First, there must be a reward, which is the motivation for the violator. Second, there must be a situational assessment where the risks are weighed; and third, the contemplated action is unlikely to produce any negative reactions from peers. Let's look at each of these three elements.

The reward can be anything that is of value to you, whether it's emotional or financial. Examples of common rewards range from making the birthday party with your friends by landing at the socked-in destination, to impressing your girlfriend with an aileron roll over her house, to bringing the airplane back in bad weather so you can make it to work the next day.

In the situational assessment you weigh the risks of the contemplated infraction against the outcome. There has to be a feeling that by ignoring the rules, the outcome will likely be successful. The process usually begins with a mental dialog. Can I handle this? Do I have the skills, experience, and onboard equipment to perform this safely? Then you mull over the possible outcomes. Could anyone be hurt if I do this? Will the airplane be damaged if I pursue this course of action?

The last element involves your fellow pilots and your passengers. How will they react? Will they even care? It's only when you're confident that no one will criticize you or complain that you start thinking about bending the rules.

Not all PINC events lead to disaster. But one can only tempt fate so many times. Now that you know about PINC, you can recognize it. To counter the temptation to bend the rules, be aware of your own personal motivations and rewards. If you find yourself having any of the dialogs described above, pull the plug on those thoughts and remember that the regulations are absolute minimums and were written to help keep pilots out of trouble. Finally, remember that flying is about the personal satisfaction you get from your own skill and performance. The sense of accomplishment you feel after a flight comes from making the right choices, even if sometimes those choices are unpopular. Exercise superb airmanship by exercising self-discipline and sound judgment.

Starting a new tradition

Airmanship used to be about basic stick and rudder skills. If we widen that definition, we can change the perception of what it means to be a great pilot. In the end, airmanship really is about pride-pride in learning as much as you can about the history and pioneers of aviation, developing your knowledge and skills to the best of your ability, honing your command qualities, and fully accepting the duties and responsibilities that come with exercising the privileges of your certificate.

By reviving airmanship, we can further define those expectations and responsibilities for all aspiring aviators, and restore pride and professionalism to our part of the aviation world.

Christopher L. Parker is a CFI and an aviation author, speaker, and FAA remedial training specialist. He is director of aviation and chief pilot for a California corporation operating the Bombardier Challenger worldwide.

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