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Left of center

Writer Mark R. Twombly pilots a Citation based in Southwest Florida.

Writer Mark R. Twombly pilots a Citation based in Southwest Florida.

Try as I might to be conscientious in all things I do as a pilot, I find that I'm no better in the airplane than I am in my ground-bound life, which is to say that I'm a slave to some bad habits. And, just as that great philosopher "Unknown" has observed, it ain't exactly easy to shake loose of those shackles: "Bad habits," he opines, "are like a comfortable bed—easy to get into, but hard to get out of."

Some other great observer of the human condition has noted that the first step toward solving a problem is recognizing it. Looking in the mirror and identifying the imperfections is the biggest obstacle we general aviation pilots face in correcting our own bad flying habits. We've grown up with ourselves, and we've gotten used to that image in the mirror, warts and all.

Moreover, since most of us fly single-pilot airplanes, there's no official crewmember in the other seat to identify and point out our foibles, thus illuminating the bulb in the brain that lights the way to redemption.

Sure, we all occasionally fly with a pilot-friend, and sometimes even an instructor, but that doesn't necessarily foster the kind of cockpit atmosphere that leads to enlightenment—the identification of poor piloting habits.

Flying with another pilot is analogous to primary pilot training. Unless you train regularly, you spend an inordinate portion of each lesson just getting back to the point you were at when you finished the previous lesson. Likewise, unless you fly with the same person frequently, you spend a good chunk of the flight just getting used to each other again. That doesn't leave much time to pick up on the subtleties of each other's performance.

Human nature also works against us in these circumstances. Until you get to know someone well, and they you, there's a natural reluctance to point out each other's shortcomings as a pilot, regardless of how noble the intentions. Let's say you've invited a friend who is a pilot along on a trip. You know each other well enough, but haven't flown together very often. There's bound to be a bit of tension in the cockpit, if only because you don't really know what to expect from each other.

All goes pretty well for the first 30 seconds. Then you turn off one taxiway onto another, and your friend speaks. "Probably should pull the power to idle before applying the brakes and turning," he says matter-of-factly.

An awkward pause hangs in the air before you respond. "Yea, I know," you say through clenched teeth, "but I got a little distracted setting up the flight plan and almost missed the turnoff." He may be correct about the taxiing technique—not that it's your habit (or is it?)—and you shouldn't have had your head down messing with the avionics while taxiing anyhow. Regardless, you hear his comment as arrogant criticism rather than objective critique.

Such is the delicate nature of interpersonal communication in the cockpit. It's easier for an instructor to critique because that's the expectation, but there are limits. Listening to an endless string of observations about mistakes in your technique or procedures gets old very quickly. A few minutes of that and anyone will react by shutting down the ears.

And so it goes. We fly on as a crew of one, and the bad flying habit or two that should be identified and rectified instead remain firmly in play. That was my story for years. And then....

Capt. Bill and I have been flying together as a for-hire crew for several years, but until recently it was only occasionally. A few months ago the flying ramped up, and we've been spending a lot of time together in the cockpit and on the road. Sure enough, familiarity breeds communication. And critique.

It came to my attention recently (Capt. Bill pointed it out) that I lined up left of centerline on final approach, and maintained this left-of-center orientation all the way to touchdown. I was a bit surprised when he noted it, but it was impossible to deny. The proof was right there outside the windshield. And, by gosh, next time I flew I did the very same thing, and he pointed it out again. Twice in a row. There was no denying it—it's a habit.

Thinking back, I could recall only a single instance when someone said something to me about being left of the centerline on final. I was visiting a friend out west who had bought a Mooney, and he invited me to fly it. All went well until I turned final. "You're lined up to the left," he remarked. It was obvious that he was correct, so I scooted right.

Apparently, I soon forgot about it and resumed my left-of- center habit. That is, until Capt. Bill began to get on my case.

Now each time I fly I try to remember to stay on center, but it doesn't always happen. I'm focused on other aspects of the approach—reference airspeed, glide path, and power setting—and I haven't yet opened up a permanent spot in that list for centerline.

It's not easy to erase habits that have prospered for years, but I'm working on it. Like that great philosopher Mark Twain once said, "Habit is habit and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time."

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