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."

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your great article. I have supplied a link in our companies safety article for our crew to read through.