Southeastern Florida-based pilot and aviation writer Mark R. Twombly has been a pilot since 1970.
Want to make a pilot feel great? All it takes is to say, "You're good." There may be a better compliment to pay a pilot, but I can't think of one.
The power of those words was brought home to me at a dinner attended by several pilots. We were talking about air-to-air photography, about what it takes to get the really good shots, the ones in which the airplane is bathed in a golden light, which glints off the huge prop disc and casts a tiny shadow behind every sharply focused rivet head.
We agreed that it takes a photographer with the right stuff, the ideal blend of aesthetics and skills — an artist's eye for composition and lighting; a technician's understanding of shutter speeds, f-stops, and focal lengths (and, these days, digital camera programming); and a pilot's instinct for aircraft maneuverability and control. It takes something else, too, something beyond the direct control of the shooter: a skillful hand in the cockpit of the subject aircraft.
Outside the pages of this magazine it's rare to encounter a pilot with the experience, much less the skills, to safely (no scares), efficiently (a minimum of wasted flying time), and successfully (great shots from a variety of angles and positioning) fly the subject aircraft in an air-to-air photo mission. So it's a treat when it happens, and it had happened that morning.
Jeff flew the subject aircraft, and did an excellent job. It was safe and efficient, and we got great shots. That evening a group of us celebrated over dinner. During a lull in the dinner conversation, I got up and walked over to where Jeff was seated. "You know," I said to him in a low voice so the others wouldn't overhear, "it's too bad there aren't more pilots like you who will actually get up in the middle of the night for a dawn-patrol photo mission, and fly tight formation for the camera. You're good."
His eyes lit up like he had just been handed a winning lottery ticket. This is a guy who has done and flown it all in a 30-year career in general aviation, and yet here he was sporting a foolish grin because he had been paid a compliment on his piloting skills. I think he was so taken with the remark because he realized I wasn't trying to massage his ego. I'd meant what I'd said. Compliments are in pretty short supply in the self-important pilot community, so it just doesn't get much better than sincere recognition from a peer.
I was once on the receiving end of such a compliment and, like Jeff, I was taken by surprise. It came from a pilot who was a passenger in my airplane. Our three-leg trip took just under five hours, and when it was all over he commented that the airplane and the pilot looked to be joined at the hip, or did he say "wing?" I'm sure my grin was as wide and as foolish as was Jeff's when I gave him his due.
Good means different things in different situations. I meant that Jeff took a professional approach by being at the airport at the assigned, ungodly hour and flying precisely and predictably, two essential requirements for a good photo-mission formation pilot. My passenger meant that I gave him a good flight, with barely discernable control inputs that produced seamless, smooth responses from the airplane.
A good airshow pilot makes an airplane do the seemingly impossible, seemingly with ease. A good crop duster flies exact patterns over the fields at the exact right altitude for the most efficient dispersal of whatever's in the hopper. A good instructor is confident and calm and lets the student fly. A good student comes prepared, listens, and asks questions.
Outside of training situations, we really shouldn't expect to hear many compliments about our superior piloting skills. That's because "good" is considered to be a minimum standard for a pilot. People generally are aware that becoming a pilot takes a great deal of time, training, and study, and unquestionably they realize that flying involves an inherent risk. So shouldn't "good" skills and ability be taken for granted?
The answer is yes. We should be good — safe, knowledgeable, proficient, prepared, and confident. But, as we all know, there's a lot of wiggle room in those objectives. The FAA spells out minimum currency standards for pilots, but there are no such hard and fast standards for being proficient. It's up to each of us to set and abide by our own proficiency standards or, better yet, periodically let a competent instructor make that determination.
That's why a "you're good" remark from another pilot is so rewarding. It's clear recognition that the person on the receiving end not only has met the expected minimum standards, but also has achieved a higher, undefined level of performance.
Pardon the analogy, but good piloting is like pornography: It's difficult to define, but you'll know it when you see it.