A Good Pilot Defined?

by Harold Green
Published in Midwest Flyer – April/May 2017

Every once in a while, someone is pointed out as a “good pilot.” Usually the reason for this is a visibly outstanding performance involving control of the airplane. With the caveat that we’re commenting only on airplane control, I generally agree with the statement. However, in the broad sense of what constitutes a good pilot, often the issue is not so clear. Sometimes the individual referred to is somewhat impulsive and prone to snap judgment, causing reluctance to accept that definition. Therefore, this article expenses my opinion on the subject, not with intent to instruct, but rather to initiate thought and discussion. By all means, disagreement is welcomed.

Attempting to define “good” led me to recall those pilots I considered “good.” Four people came to mind, all of whom were excellent role models. Two of these were Air Force pilots and two were civilian pilots.

The first of these pilots was a captain in the U.S. Air Force who had flown Dragonfly missions over Korea in C-47s before he wound up flying C-119 flying boxcars. These were the folks who went in first at night and dropped flares for the bombers that followed. They had a high casualty rate. This captain could certainly handle the controls of the lumbering C-119.

In turbulence, on final approach, when other pilots were fighting the controls and breaking into a profuse sweat, the captain just kept one finger hooked around the control wheel, kept the airplane level, conversed with the copilot, never raised his voice, and always made a smooth landing. He was also always aware of what was happening around him. (Today, we call that situational awareness.) This resulted in our plane never being involved in near collisions or other nasty situations. On the ground, the captain was the same unflappable person, dealing with situations as they arose with a calm and professional demeanor. We all liked to fly with him when our rotation permitted.

The second good pilot was also a captain, who we will refer to here as “Captain C.” In this instance, we flew as a crew, rather than by rotation assignment, on an SA-16 Albatross aircraft out of Wheelus Air Force Base, Libya. The result was that there was plenty of opportunity to watch this guy at work. We did a lot of low-level flying to get under the radar of the day. Captain C was also the check airman for newbies arriving at the squadron, so we, the crew, were also exposed to the travails of the newbie.

Captain C had worked out a training route, which violated almost every principal of low-level flying. We flew up gulches, (they weren’t deep enough to call them canyons), we flew up mountain sides, leveled out abruptly on plateaus, then dove down the other side of mountains, still hugging the ground, culminating in a landing in the Mediterranean. Naturally, Captain C had all of this worked out well ahead of time. Nonetheless, inevitably there were moments of extreme attention focus. He always reacted calmly and with thoughtful comment for the unfortunate newbie who had created the situation. We all respected Captain C and had no issues with any actions he took.

The third pilot – a civilian – was a flight instructor, who we will call “The Instructor,” who taught me commercial maneuvers. The Instructor who had been flying since he was very young, was now about 60, and had more hours than I could count. I don’t recall that he flew in any capacity other than as an instructor, except for an occasional scenic ride.

This guy could make an airplane talk. When we did pylon eights about two trees, we could tell the difference in altitude of the tree bases within 20 feet between the two trees. When he flew, the ball never moved out of its cage. He was always calm and confident… Not arrogant, just confident.

The fourth pilot, who we will call “Chief Pilot,” developed many capabilities in instrument and weather flying that taught me to examine weather conditions and then act on those analyses. Of course, he also pushed me a bit at times by using his own capabilities as a guide, rather than mine. The result was that I learned to believe in my own ability to evaluate and fly in weather that I was unwilling to fly in before. Of course, hand in hand with this was the very obvious lesson that there are some weather conditions with which thou shall not mess with!

Contrast these pilots with a definition of a “good pilot” by an airport operator some years ago. As we landed, the burned out remains of a tube and fabric airplane were visible a few yards to one side of and at about midway the length of one runway. The operator explained: “He was one of the best pilots you would ever want to meet. He used to fly under the Spring Green, Wisconsin River bridge, all the time. He would come in and do a low pass, then pull up into a wingover and land. Then the other day the plane just stalled on him at the top. Don’t know what caused that. Too bad, ‘cause he was a good pilot!” The pilot in question had no special training or FAA recognized capability.

It seems to me that the definition of a good pilot should include several factors, in addition to the ability to fly the airplane. Some might say this means the ability to operate the plane to its greatest capability. Perhaps a more appropriate statement would be that a good pilot has the ability to fly the airplane safely to the pilot’s capability, or to the aircraft’s capability, whichever is limiting.

A second factor would seem to be the ability to analyze each in-flight situation and determine the best course of action to provide maximum safety. When unforeseen situations arise while flying, a good pilot should be able to analyze the situation and take that action most appropriate to provide a safe outcome. If that means changing destinations, so be it. This includes a realization that human life is more important than arriving at one’s intended destination.

The ability to remain calm and analytical in the face of unforeseen potential emergencies should certainly be included in the attributes of a “good pilot.” This means that the pilot must, in rapid order, evaluate the situation while in flight, recognize possible courses of action, and select that, which is the most appropriate for that situation. Of course this requires knowledge of the airplane, weather and any other factor, which could affect the particular flight. As part of this, the pilot must not only have self-confidence that he/she can resolve the issues, he must have accepted the fact that ultimately the outcome rests solely on him. (Look up the definition of “pilot-in-command.”) In the final analysis, despite all the assistance available through modern communications, the outcome of every flight is totally dependent upon, and is the responsibility of, the pilot. The good pilot knows this and acts accordingly.

As a last consideration, it is incumbent on all pilots to continually attempt to extend their capabilities and knowledge. This means a combination of reading, attending seminars, getting dual instruction as appropriate and perhaps even watching and learning from other pilots. Every pilot can teach every one of us something.

In selecting flight conditions at or near our perceived limits, we need to be sure our limits are in fact secure, and then extending them a little, step at a time, until a new set of limits has been established with which we are comfortable. That does not mean attempting to fly through thunderstorms, trying to land our light plane in 50-knot crosswinds or any of a number of foolhardy tasks which common sense says, “There ain’t no way!”

Instructors try to instill the concepts of being a good pilot during the student’s training. As part of the evalua-tion process attempting to evaluate the likelihood of each student becoming and remaining “good,” is an ever-ending challenge. The FAA standards of each rating actually determine a minimum standard. Students who just meet the minimum standard are usually not recommended for the practical test.

While the recommending instructor has an opinion about the future for each student, only time will tell what the student will develop into. The key here is that being a good pilot is a goal and a process, but is never a destina-tion, which should be accepted.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Harold Green is an Instrument and Multi-Engine Flight 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 harlgren@aol.com, or by telephone at 608-836-1711 (www.MoreyAirport.com).

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.

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