Sunday, January 26, 2014

What Makes a Good Pilot

I've been struggling with the question of what makes a good pilot for a while now. And, most important, of course, am I one? The question is harder to answer than it should be.


You would think being someone with an Instrument Rating would make you a good pilot. Or having a Commercial Rating, CFI or ATP would guarantee "good pilot" status, but it does not. I've been around general aviation long enough now that I've met private pilots that I trust more than CFIs, that I think are better overall pilots. A different example... Are the ATPs who flew  a perfectly good 747 with hundreds of passengers straight into the sea wall at SFO last year good pilots? I wonder what they thought before that day and what they think now.

Bottom line, the certificate guarantees nothing. All it guarantees is a certain amount (not quality) of experience and training. If everything is done legally it also demonstrates the ability to pass a written knowledge test, the ability to pass an oral knowledge test and the ability to fly to PTS spec on a check ride. It gives one the opportunity to become a better pilot but does not ensure that result.


If certificates do not make a good pilot, is it hours of experience that do? I believe hours of experience provide the opportunity to become a better pilot than you would be without those hours. However there is no guarantee. Its not the quantity, its the quality of the experience. In my opinion the quality of the experience depends on what is learned from that experience.

An interesting case in point on both sides is John and Martha King of King Schools fame. They are writing a series of articles about Risk Management for Flying magazine. In those articles they're very candid about their risky flying and poor judgement as they quickly racked up hours of flight time up to the moment of an accident. During the time before their accident they had hours and experience but they did not learn from that experience to become safer pilots, they actually became more and more unsafe as they discovered they could get away with quite a bit if they were lucky. Their luck ran out and then they learned from all of that experience. They share their mistakes with others to hopefully make even better pilots up of us all.

Stick and Rudder Skills

Is it stick and rudder skills? Not necessarily. There are private pilots that have never flown a Lazy 8 and probably never will who are better pilots, in my opinion, than some commercial pilots that can perform that maneuver precisely. I do believe a certain level of stick and rudder skills IS required to be a good pilot. For instance the ability to recognize a problem or condition you don't want and make the correct correction quickly. The ability to take off and land a plane in a wide variety of conditions safely for sure. Hold a heading and altitude. Recognize a stall before it happens and recover. Navigate and split attention between flying the plane and everything else you have to do in order to avoid flying into that mountain or other plane. Stick and rudders kills are definitely a piece of what makes a good pilot, but not everything.


Which brings up the question of judgement. I will argue the pilot with excellent stick and rudder skills and plenty of hours that flies deliberately into a squall line is not exercising good judgement and is not a good pilot, even if they survive the encounter. I will not knowingly place my life in the hands of such a pilot. Good judgement can make up for limited stick and rudder skills and experience as the fledgling pilot takes to the air after earning his or her PPL. Poor judgement can trump stick and rudder skills and experience at any time.

What Makes a Good Pilot

Here's my answer to what makes a good pilot. The foundation of being a good pilot is a combination of stick and rudder skills and judgement. These two give you a chance to become a good pilot.  Build on that foundation experience and honest learning from that experience to  develop even better stick and rudder skills and judgement. Then you become a better pilot. Keep building, layer upon layer, skills, judgement, mistakes, learning, self critique, correction, experience. Over and over again and you become an even better pilot. At some point you become a good pilot.

When you are a good pilot you consistently use your good judgement to operate within the limitations of your skills, your airplane, your mission and your environment. When you make a mistake, and you will, you learn the right lesson from that mistake. You are someone  worthy of the expectation of your passengers and even the non-flying public that you won't be "pilot error" cause of the accident that makes the evening news.

Are there great pilots? I think there are a few. These are those good pilots with years or decades of experience, skill development and learning. These pilots have learned and experienced enough to know no matter how good they are, they operate in an environment that can kill them. They know their skills, operate within their ever changing limitations, are humble and always learning.

What About Me

Am I a good pilot? I would say I'm on that path. I know my own limitations and operate within them. I'm consistently improving my stick and rudder skills and pushing myself out of my comfort zone so I can improve my skills with the help of my CFI. I strive to exercise good judgement and learn quickly when I don't. I am intensely aware of how much better I could be. I have much room for improvement and always will. Maybe the best way for me to describe myself as a pilot is, I'm always getting better :) I like that. If aviation was something with a "good pilot" line to cross, I would cross that line eventually and lose interest. I don't want to cross some finish line and be done with flying.

I leave you with two quotes that, I think, exemplify what a good pilot is.

"A good pilot is always learning."
"A superior pilot exercises superior judgement to avoid situations requiring superior skill."

Sunday, January 19, 2014

4 Days 4.5 Flights

Its been a busy flying time for me recently... in the last 4 days I've flown 4.5 times. Which is a lot for someone who doesn't work in the business - yet :)

Day 1 - Full Moon Bay Tour

I took a friend of mine for a SF Bay Tour. We'd been talking about doing it for a while and finally had the time and the weather line up. After a plane switch due to a mechanical issue we were off in the Arrow I usually fly. The weather was perfect, the sky clear and the moon was huge! The moon was full and just rising over the east bay hills. It lit up the bay like a spotlight as we flew up the peninsula. The spotlight of moon light slide over the water, the bridges and boats sitting in the Bay. ATC was very friendly and helpful and the Golden Gate Bridge was its usual orange and beautiful self. Then we turned east towards Oakland and flew along the Bay Bridge. The new span of the Bay Bridge was lit up in a beautiful LED light show. It was my friend's first flight in a small plane and she spent the flight glued to the window silently watching the world go by. It was a wonderful flight.

Day 2 - Diversion

Friday evening, after work, I took off to practice commercial maneuvers. I flew out to the practice area next to South County airport (E16) and did my Lazy 8s, Chandelles, Slow Flight, Steep Turns, etc, etc. Then I went over to South County and did short and soft field take offs and landings... I took off for my last time around the pattern there to do a Power Off 180 and head back to RHV. On climb out a small plane announced his intention to enter the pattern and land, he also mentioned RHV was closed due to an accident at the field. By the time I was on downwind three more planes were coming in from RHV, all reporting the same thing. I figured I may as well just land and learn what I could from the incoming planes.

By the time I landed I had a text on my phone from my husband who was at RHV when the incident happened. A plane had lost power on takeoff and attempted to return to the airport. He was successful getting back on airport property but not to the runways. The plane touched down between two hangars, slid past a light pole and then slid into a 172 taxiing on a taxiway before it came to a stop. Fortunately no one was injured and the airport was re-opened in a couple hours. I took advantage of the opportunity to meet up with my friends who live near South County for dinner before flying back to RHV after the excitement was over there.

Day 3 - 1.5 Flights

Another student of my CFI's is preparing for his own CFI check ride. His check ride is planned to be an "observed" check ride where the DPE and an observer from the FAA will be in the plane. None of us practice a lot of commercial maneuvers with extra weight in the back and he was concerned about the affect of the extra weight. So, I volunteered myself as ballast for a flight so he would get the experience of extra weight and an extra observer in the plane. As a side benefit I got to tag along for most of his "lesson" with our CFI as they reviewed systems and various fine points of the airplane. I found out I knew more than I thought I did and I got to learn even more by observing the lesson. It was fun to fly along and observe. (I'm calling this a .5 flight since I was in the back but still learning.)

After those two were done with his lesson it was my turn with my CFI.  The only maneuver I had left to practice as far as I was concerned was power on stalls which I had never done in the Arrow. And I needed to learn how to talk more. So we went up and did the power on stalls, a couple lazy 8s, chandelles and emergency descents. I had a major flash of fear in the first power on stall as the plane tried to roll to the right. But the fear eventually reduced. The other maneuvers were all within the PTS spec and I talked through the checklists that I needed to vocalize in a way I never did before.

The flight went very well. Next time up we will do a full mock check ride and see where I'm at. The DPE that I'll be using for my check ride can't do the date I wanted, but it may turn out that I do my check ride sooner than later.

Day 4 - Practice Again

This morning I went up for another round of practice. I did all of the commercial maneuvers except stalls and steep spirals. I spent some extra time in slow flight making sure I was comfortable with the plane right on the edge of a stall and able to control not only the altitude but heading with precision. On my approach back to RHV I had a lovely tailwind that had me pulling out all of the stops (power at idle, flaps full and major forward slip) to get down to the runway. In spite of it all, I did land exactly where I wanted to for my final landing. Pretty cool.

I went home to watch my team, the Broncos, win the AFC Championship Game. Not a bad way to end a string of good flying days.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Bite Me Zone

Many of my fellow runners, adult onset athletes and life time runners like, are familiar with the Bite Me Zone. The phrase was coined by John Bingham, also known as The Penguin. He is a gentleman who started running at 43 and, in a way, kick started the latest running revolution by letting those of us who like to get our money's worth on a race course know we are not alone.

I'll try to describe the Bite Me Zone. In a marathon it typically starts somewhere around mile 18-20 of 26.2 on a good day. On a bad day, it may start at mile 10. In this zone, you are so tired, hurting, hot, frustrated, cold, discouraged, sick of running, sick of everything, that all of the sudden you become a very unfriendly person. Normally this unfriendliness is taken out on your helpful running partner or friend who you've shared blood, sweat and tears with for months to get to where you are. But at that moment, your friend may offer you a drink of water, perhaps some food and some words of encouragement and you rip their head off.

My favorite bite me zone story is from a friend of mine. She ran the Chicago Marathon on a day of record heat. She followed a pair of woman runners for a while and observed the following. One of the runners was deep in the Bite Me Zone. Her friend was trying to help by offering her a pretzel, the salt on the pretzel would be good in the heat. The response, I don't want a fucking pretzel!  Yup, that's the Bite Me Zone.

Wait, you say, Why are you telling us about the Bite Me Zone? You aren't running a marathon. 

In a way I am. I am constantly reminded, this flying journey of mine is not a sprint. And if I worry about what the other people on similar journeys are doing I will always find myself wanting. From my pre-solo days, to preparing for my first check ride, the long stretch between the oral and flight portions of my instrument check ride. This is definitely not a sprint. This is a marathon journey. And this morning I finally realized I must be getting close to the end of this chapter because I am most definitely deep in the Bite Me Zone. 

Yesterday I was up in the air with my CFI for the first time in a couple weeks. Normally I take my CFI's constructive criticism very well. After all, he's on my side. I was mad instead of curious when he asked me questions I didn't know the answers to as he observed me preflight the plane. I had to struggle to not feel insulted when he was telling me I have to learn how to fly the plane. He didn't mean fly the plane like a private pilot.. he meant really fly the plane. He didn't just mean like a commercial pilot either I think. There are plenty of commercial pilots that don't have, I believe, even the level of connection with the plane that I have today. I think I understand what he was getting at but it's hard for me to explain. At the time, I bristled. And he talked again about how commercial pilots really need to have that mastery of the aircraft. I don't want a fucking pretzel! 

I guess I have been flying long enough, practiced hard and learned enough that I have some level of pride in my skill. I am painfully aware of where I lack and I know enough to know I don't know everything by a long shot. However, I would love to have that skill recognized by my CFI a bit more directly. Or if not my skill, at least how incredibly far I've come. I'd love to leave him a bit less to have constructive criticism about.

It's not his fault I didn't give him anything to write home about on that particular flight. The flight wasn't actually "bad" either. I was weak on an area I haven't practiced at all and another I only practiced twice on my own. I struggled with verbalizing, as usual. I did some things well. Really, it wasn't that bad... but that's the crazy thing about the Bite Me Zone. Things can actually be going relatively well but ARGH! you just want to lash out because you aren't there yet.

I have other stresses that make the Bite Me Zone a bit more acute this time. The death of Orion, my family's cat of 11 years last week. My husband's upcoming month long business trip. The way I am convinced the A&P installed the pilot's seat differently after the last 100 hour inspection and I can't move it far enough forward for me to get a full rudder deflection. And work... I found out yesterday I am getting an award at work. While that is gratifying on one hand, on the other it is even more frustrating. I get awards for my work which I don't love, and at the same time I struggle as I try to excel at doing something I do love, flying.  I know its silly to feel upset about that, but that's the Bite Me Zone.

Well, one thing I've learned about the Bite Me Zone is this. Once you know you are in that zone. You can get yourself out of the zone. So that's what I'm doing. Writing this as part of my process to get myself out of the Bite Me Zone. Acknowledging it for what it is and letting it go.

Something else I found from the running world that will help me with flying. I found the following two quotes attributed to the same John Bingham. I leave them for you, and for me, now. I will use these as motivation to fuel me to study more, prepare more, practice more and have more fun as I continue on the last leg of my journey towards my commercial pilots license and beyond.

"Frustration is the first step towards improvement. I have no incentive to improve if I’m content with what I can do and if I’m completely satisfied with my pace, distance and form as a runner. It’s only when I face frustration and use it to fuel my dedication that I feel myself moving forwards."

And ... most important for me to remember when I do finally reach this particular goal. 

"The miracle isn't that I finished. The miracle is I had the courage to start."

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Write It Down

My Sketch of the Piper Arrow II
When I study I make a lot of notes. I don't refer back to them all that often, but I find when I write something down, that activity cements whatever I need to learn into my brain.

Yesterday I had several hours between my practice flight and meeting with my CFI at the flight club. I wasn't feeling great after the flight as I was still getting over my head cold. I live an hour drive away from the club so driving home and then back was out of the question.

I had to find something to occupy my time and maybe help me feel better. I went outside to the Arrow I've been flying to make sure I knew what every antenna and bump on the plane is for my check ride. I found an A&P familiar with this particular plane and got the information I needed. I drew a rough sketch of the plane's profile and antennas in my notebook and labeled all of the antennas.

I relaxed for a while by sitting and sometimes laying on the ground next to the plane. Enjoying the fresh, cool, and moist air as it helped clear my head. I thought a bit about how writing things helps me learn and about how I need to really "learn" this particular plane. The thought occurred to me, maybe I could write down the plane, by drawing it. It's been literally years since I've sat and sketched something but I remembered how drawing something carefully helps me learn the subtle details of what I draw. 

The ramp was mostly empty and I had a lot of time. I took a chair from the patio of the flight club and placed it in just the right position, sat down and drew a more detailed sketch of the plane. I did learn more by this activity. I hadn't consciously realized how great the dihedral angle of the wings of this particular aircraft was. Drawing the wing made it obvious.

I am not sure what else I learned by this exercise but I am certainly more aware of the details of the shape of an airplane. It gave me a chance to exercise a skill I had not used in a very long time. As an added bonus I only got a couple odd looks from passersby as I did it :)

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

A Sad Irony

Sometimes life takes a strange, sad, twist. In 2005 I started running as a method to do something "with" my brothers and sisters who all lived in different states. Several of us trained for the same 5K race and got together to run that race. That event reignited my love of running. I used to run when I was a kid. I would tease the boys so I could have an excuse to outrun them on the playground. In any case, that 5K race got me hooked again.

I wanted to run further but couldn't seem to make myself run more than 3 miles alone. So, I joined Team in Training (TNT) to train to run a marathon. TNT raises money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. LLS sponsors research and services for patients, survivors and families of people with blood cancers. Training for a marathon with TNT let me do something for myself, run, while helping others, fundraising for TNT. I ran with Team in Training for 5 years. I started as a participant and became volunteer staff as mentor, then "web captain" for many seasons and finally "run captain". I did eventually "retire" from Team in Training, but I kept with me some of the closest and most enduring friendships of my adult life.

Orion was not amused by my flying addiction.
Fast forward to last week. My daughter's cat, Orion, was diagnosed with lymphoma after being ill for about a month and a half. I won't go into the gory details but in the end my daughter, husband and I were keeping him alive for a couple weeks by force feeding him food with a syringe and giving him fluid via IV under his skin.  Finally, on Monday, Orion let us know he was done. He no longer wanted to live that way. We said our goodbyes and put him to sleep.

I posted some pictures of him on Facebook as a eulogy of sorts. Sharing with my friends the family's sorrow. Immediately friends started commenting with their condolences and support. Looking at those comments I see the amazing spectrum of friendships I have today. Family, of course. Friends from high school. Friends from auto racing. Work colleagues become friends. Random friends gained on the way. Friends I've gained recently as a result of my flying. Friends from Team in Training. The organization that raises money to support people who have blood cancers and one day cure blood cancers. The same blood cancer that took our Orion from us. That stuck me as sadly ironic. The same cancer that kills a small, furry, part of my family is one that I raised money for so many years to fight.

This very sad event reminds me of the wonderful, broad, varied, amazing life I've lived.  The people, including furry people, who's lives I touched and who've touched mine. It also reminds me of the Team in Training honorees, people who have been diagnosed with blood cancers and survived, at least for a while. It reminds me of other friends and family I've lost to cancers over the years. Other people and pets touched by cancers of all sorts. Touched by the end of life.. by death.

Life is for the living. I am grateful to have a wealth of human and furry friendships and family to share the joys and sorrows of life with me. To help me live, fly, run, mother, friend, work, wife, love to the best of my ability. Thank you, my friends and my anonymous readers, for enriching my life. Life is truly a wonderful gift. Waste it not.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Preparing for your Commercial Check Ride? Studying Helps

As I posted a couple weeks ago, I tried the "no study" method to prepare for my CFI's oral test before my commercial check ride with the predictable result of a lot of stumbling and a need for a retest on those sections. I did learn more in the process so it was not a wasted experiment. However, it was not the way I like to perform for my CFI or for myself.

Earlier this week we met to test me on the weather, cross country flight planning and aircraft performance knowledge sections of the PTS. I had a head cold and not much voice. When my CFI saw me and heard my voice he asked if my excuse that day would be that I had no voice. I told him I wouldn't need an excuse. I knew I wouldn't because I prepared and studied before that session. I had the predictable result. I breezed through the practice test with a couple minor suggestions for improvement from my CFI.

I still had my cold bad when my CFI asked me Thursday if we were flying or doing more oral testing. I told him oral since I wasn't sure my cold would be cleared up enough to do major altitude changes. This time the questions would be aircraft systems and aeromedical factors. We could cover more if we had time.

Aeromedical factors I've done before for my private pilots license. The newness on this one was the level to which I had to be able to explain the aircraft's systems. As a commercial pilot you are expected to know your aircraft systems at a deeper level than your average private pilot.  I studied the POH and made notes and reviewed and reviewed. I even considered sleeping with my reference material under my pillow, just in case osmosis works. I also went ahead and studied the rest of the PTS topics too (equipment malfunctions, supplemental oxygen regulations, pressurization and special emphasis areas). If I did well, we could go through all of them in 2 hours. If I didn't it would take extra time.

We met today. Once again studying worked. I did very well. There were a few areas where I could explain the aircraft systems slightly better so he gave me tips for improvement there. We were through the two planned sections very swiftly. Then I told him I was ready to do the rest of it too. He would ask a question, I'd start to answer and the answer was obviously right so he would go to the next and next question. Done.

Next time we meet we will retest on what I did poorly on when I didn't study then get back up in the air again. My CFI requested I bring the studied version of myself for that session. I assured him I will.

So, if you are getting ready for your Commercial Check Ride and want to know what you can do to improve your chances of success in the written, or with your CFI getting ready for the check ride or for the check ride itself. I highly recommend studying and thorough preparation. I think both are skills that are important for commercial pilots to have and exercise frequently.