The wisest advice for any successful pilot is twofold: Do the simple things well, and maintain your humility.The simple things are basic stick-and-rudder skills.
Humility is the other aspect.
We are all human and therefore prone to mistakes. Acknowledge this and accept it, but remain vigilant. Be aware that there will always be someone more skillful or knowledgeable than you. Maintaining our humility allows us to pass on what we have learned, as well as to recognize our shortcomings and seek improvement. Humility makes us better individuals. Those who embraced this concept areremembered for their integrity and great achievements, and the ones who ignored it are remembered for their downfall. Fortunately, there are some very wise pilots who remember where they started—in the same place as many of you are today—and enthusiastically mentor the next generation. Seek them out and your potential is endless.
In that spirit, and to add to the basics, here are a few other valuable nuggets of wisdom.
Proficiency and currency. Proficiency and currency hold valuable parallels. Both are essential concepts as a cornerstone to building and maintaining skills. The FAA addresses proficiency and currency indirectly through the practical test standards, Part 61 requirements, flight reviews, and instrument currency requirements, but there’s at least one other source that more clearly defines these terms.
In military training programs, control measures such as currency are utilized to provide additional safety margins based on exposure frequency to a particular skill. Its time interval is defined in days since a pilot last practiced a specific skill. Proficiency is a measure of specific skill achievement. For example, Part 61 of the federal aviation regulations states that to carry passengers during the day, a pilot must have completed three takeoffs and landings in the previous 90 days. If a pilot averages one landing every 30 days, that pilot is technically current to carry passengers, because he meets the time requirements—but is the pilot proficient? Currency addresses the regulatory issue, but proficiency addresses the skill and can only be assessed by the pilot between flight reviews. An honest self-assessment is essential here.
Mastering information. Succeeding in aviation necessitates processing large quantities of information. Student pilots can find the quantity of reference sources overwhelming. The knowledge requirement only increases as we progress in our flying careers.
Realize that you do not need to memorize every regulation and system nut and bolt. Know where to locate the information by becoming familiar with its source documents, and how to navigate the libraries of knowledge at your fingertips.
Aircraft manuals are a great example. We learn to fly in smaller aircraft such as a Cessna, Piper, or Robinson. The pilot’s operating handbooks (POH) are maybe 100 to 300 pages. Memorization of the V-speeds and other limitations is straightforward, and understanding the various systems is simple. As pilots transition to more advanced aircraft, such as turboptops or Transport category jets, the POHs grow significantly in size. What was once a 300-page Skyhawk manual can morph into a 1,000-page, multi-volume publication.
Memorizing all of that information is essentially impossible. And remember, there still are other references you must know, such as standard operating procedures, as well as federal aviation regulations. Remember this adage when feeling overwhelmed: How do you eat an elephant? One piece at a time. Being able to memorize every detail is great, but few individuals have that skill. Instead, memorize the essential pieces of information that will help you survive and remain legal: limits and operating regulations.
Meanwhile, keep your drive to continue learning. When you don’t know an answer, know where you can locate it, or seek out someone knowledgeable on the subject.
Establish a purpose and set a good habit pattern. “On a mile of highway, you can drive a mile. On a mile of railway, you can travel a mile. With a mile of runway, you have the whole world.” One of aviation’s most popular quotes sums up the greatest freedom aviation provides us: the ability to go just about anywhere. Keep your focus by treating the flight like a mission. A mission provides purpose and planning, and brings awareness. Decide what your purpose is and plan accordingly.
Don’t think that you always need to make a detailed navigational log, but at a minimum, take a look at the chart, plan some checkpoints, and talk to flight service. How many of us have read a confession from someone who intended to enjoy a relaxing VFR flight, only to be told by ATC that they penetrated a temporary flight restriction (TFR) or violated some regulation? The intent is not to remove the enjoyment, but simply enhance it, so when you land you can secure the airplane and head home without unanticipated additional hassle.
As our skills develop and sharpen, it becomes easier to transfer from one task to another, such as aviating (trimming out the aircraft) to navigating (referencing the chart) and communicating (talking to ATC). As we gain experience and fly more advanced aircraft with greater automation, our focus is freed for other cognitive requirements. As autopilots ease some of the workload, pilots tend to relax and become complacent. This can lead to lax standards when it comes to maintaining airspeed, altitude, and heading. Don’t let yourself become complacent; continue to hand-fly at every opportunity.
Develop good habit patterns before poor habits are established. Research indicates that it’s easier to create positive habit patterns than to break and change a negative habit. This concept supports why it is easier to teach someone who has never driven a car or flown an airplane compared to people with previous experience. A good habit pattern, such as a good traffic or instrument scan, will serve you when you least expect it—in an emergency or the prevention of one.
It comes down to basic training. For example, a final gear check for the “three down and locked” confirmation when flying fixed-gear aircraft will prepare pilots for airplanes with retractable gear. If you train yourself to perform certain tasks consistently, such as using a before-landing checklist, it will become so ingrained in your skills that when a distraction presents itself, it can be addressed and attention immediately returned to the real priority—flying.
Keep fatigue at bay. Fatigue is a critical influencer in the man-machine dynamic. Mechanical failure is prevented by regular inspections and preventive maintenance. Why, then, do we not do the same for ourselves? Fatigue should be respected.
Professional aviators have established rules that dictate the length of their duty day or the minimum amount of rest a crew must be afforded before it can return to work. General aviation provides more latitude for us to work within, but that does not mean we need to take every inch. Official reports of fatigue-related accidents are relatively low, but they still occur. The National Transportation Safety Board still releases accident reports in which pilots flew while fatigued. Fatigue is easily preventable. Respect it, recognize it, and prevent it.
Appreciate General Aviation. Flying in the United States is like no other place in the world. Relatively speaking, there are few barriers to flying an airplane to virtually any desired destination. There are no ancillary costs such as air traffic service charges. General aviation here has maintained one of the least restrictive airspace environments on the globe. Embrace this opportunity and protect it.