by Harold Green
Published in Midwest Flyer – February/March 2018
In every group of pilots, there is a minority who appear to be quite comfortable with their own abilities and judgment. When the challenges of the day appear to most pilots to be difficult and produce considerable tension, these folks are an island of calm in the midst of the jittery turmoil. In short, these are people who are confident in their flying and their judgments about flying. There is a difference between those pilots and the talkative ones who try to impress everyone, mostly themselves, with their own abilities. The following information is based on personal observations and not the results of statistical analysis.
It has been my experience that the comfortable pilots are usually the ones who know when to go and when not to go. When they don’t go, they don’t waste time second-guessing themselves. They may check to see if the information on which they based their decision holds true, but if it turns out it would have been possible to fly, they just chalk it up as education and don’t whine about the lost opportunity. When they go, their trip is completed with a minimum of stress. That doesn’t mean that tough situations do not occur, but generally they anticipate the possibility of such situations, and know what actions to take and when to take them to minimize the danger.
This doesn’t mean that these pilots will fly under conditions that no one else will. It simply means that they have determined their personal limits and are content operating within them. As a matter of fact, their limits may well be lower than many others.
So, it is reasonable to ask how these folks got that way. There seems to be several factors involved. Of course, the first thought is that “personality” is responsible. Well, personality is probably one factor, but it doesn’t seem likely that personality is the primary factor. Of course, “judgment” is, but judgment is still only part of the picture.
A significant, but not total, factor of course is “experience.” Most importantly, it is the type of experience. After all, a thousand hours of experience can be that, or it can be 10 hours repeated a hundred times.
Those who have flown in a variety of situations develop a sense of confidence. Typically, they operate from a mixture of high traffic at controlled and non-controlled airports. They occasionally fly cross-country flights lasting several hours. These flights often encounter different weather patterns, thus broadening their experience base.
When talking with these pilots, they have more than average knowledge about things aviation. They often take courses and attend seminars to increase their knowledge. They may even be able to find information in the Pilot Operating Handbook (POH) without doing a random search. They have also read widely on weather, and are familiar not only with the physics of weather, but how to obtain and interpret available information.
The ability to visualize the flight also helps. Being able to develop a clear picture in one’s mind about the flight implies full knowledge of operations. Of course, this does not extend to knowing what the ground will look like on any portion of the flight, but it does include a general picture of terrain (i.e. mountains, lakes, major rivers, etc.). And about where/when these will be encountered.
Personal minimums are set and followed, according to capability and knowledge at a level with which they feel a great deal of comfort. That does not mean those minimums are not expanded in planned and directed fashion. The best way to do this is to gradually extend minimums under controlled conditions.
For example, the new instrument pilot can pick days which provide lower approach minimums and which offer multiple options in case the weather deteriorates. Crosswind landings are another area which get a lot of attention. The best way to extend crosswind capability is to find an instructor and go do it. Of course, eventually one has to do them on one’s own.
So, pick a day when the crosswinds are just a little stronger than what you did before and try it. It is best to do this at an airport with multiple runways, and the crosswind component of at least one runway is well within your capability. That way, if you misjudge your landing, you can perform the classic saving maneuver known as a “go-round” and land on the less challenging runway.
If you operate out of an airport with long runways, occasionally it can be fun and educational to find an airport with runways noticeably shorter than the ones you are used to.
Confident pilots, in general, are familiar with the emergency procedures for their airplane. This extends well beyond the standard emergency checklist. Knowing the steps to follow in the event of engine problems (not just total engine failure, but partial power, or a stuck throttle), or control problems, such as a frozen elevator or aileron, etc., is important. It is even fun to see if you can land your plane with trim tab and throttle only. You might be surprised to find that it is fun.
Also consider what would happen if your ailerons or rudder became inoperative. What alternates would you have? Of course, such tactics need to be tailored to your airplane as well. The things you can do in this regard are dependent on airplane design and capability as well. Landing a Cessna 140 using only the trim tab for vertical control is vastly different from landing a Cirrus SR-22 using the same method. In principal, they are the same, but speed, control coupling, etc., are vastly different.
Another area that seems to be of concern to many pilots, particularly those who fly from pilot-controlled airports, is that of “radio communications.” Yes, everyone for miles around can hear you. So, what?
Everyone receives some training in communication procedures, but nothing removes this concern like practice. So, go to a towered airport occasionally and practice touch and goes. It’s amazing how that will reduce your fear. If you like, when you contact the tower, tell them you are a student pilot. The professional controller can be helpful and very considerate, and not overload you. Of course, it pays not to wear out your welcome on this one. As you become proficient, stop with the student pilot announcement.
Finally, there is the area of study and gaining knowledge. The least painful is reading. There are numerous publications available from both government and private sources. Some of them are free, particularly for online versions. An example is “FAA Flying Safety.” The more you learn about flying and how other people have reacted to situations and made mistakes, the more comfortable you will be.
In short, the more you know, and the more experience you have, the better you will be able to visualize your options and be comfortable with your flying. The only hazard here is not to become complacent. The unexpected can still happen. However, with proper preparation, knowledge and experience, you will be able to adjust and react properly and safely when the unexpected happens.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Harold Green is an Instrument and Multi-Engine Instrument Instructor (CFII, MEII) at Morey Airplane Company in Middleton, Wisconsin (C29). A flight instructor since 1976, Green was named “Flight Instructor of the Year” by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2011, and is a recipient of the “Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award.” Questions, comments and suggestions for future topics are welcomed via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by telephone at 608-836-1711 (www.MoreyAirport.com).
DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this column is the expressed opinion of the author only, and readers are advised to seek the advice of their personal flight instructor and others, and refer to the Federal Aviation Regulations, FAA Aeronautical Information Manual and other instructional materials before attempting any procedures discussed herein.