Confidence vs. Complacency

by Harold Green

Recently, I was asked, “How does a pilot develop confidence in his/her piloting ability?” My answer is weak because everyone reacts differently and I am certainly not an expert, or anything remotely close to it, when it comes to psychology. However, based on personal experience and observations of others over more than a few years of flight experience, I have opinions and I am not reluctant to share them. However, be advised that if you disagree or feel my answers are incomplete, you are probably correct, and I encourage you to express your opinion via email. After all, confidence is a very subjective thing.

I suggest that attaining confidence in flight requires confidence in two principal constituents of flight: aircraft handling and judgment. Aircraft handling, because proper and correct airplane control is obviously the starting point for all flying activities as a pilot. Judgment, because without judgment, mistakes lead to danger which in turn, can lead to disaster, or at the least, a very scary situation. After all, we do operate in a medium, which, while giving a great deal of satisfaction, also is totally indifferent to our presence or our mistakes.

First, consider aircraft handling. Early on we learn the rudiments of safe piloting of aircraft. Stay coordinated, watch your pitch and therefore, your airspeed, and on and on. Initially, students ask questions like: “How much rudder should I use?” The answer, “Just enough to put the nose where you want it,” can be very unsatisfying until the student finally puts it all together. Then comes the added complexity of maneuvering the aircraft while paying attention to the world outside the airplane, as in turns-around-a-point, maneuvers. Add to this the fun of communicating via radio, and when all is said and done, the fledgling pilot begins to feel at home in the airplane. Control movements become instinctive and natural requiring little or no thought.  At this point, we are confident we can fly the airplane safely, albeit within limited environmental conditions.

Note that achievement of this requires both training (i.e. education) and practice (i.e. proficiency). Both require some time. How much time depends on the individual, the frequency of practice and many other factors. Then we move on to airplanes with greater performance and the process repeats, albeit on a much shorter scale because now we know the ground rules and simply have to apply them to the new plane. Our confidence is initially reduced, as we begin the learning process, but rapidly reasserts itself.

Judgment is a more complex matter. Everyone exercises their judgment every day in routine, non-flying matters, however, flying adds a new dimension to the process.

Weather is a very important consideration, here, because it affects everything we do in aviation. Hence, we need to gain confidence that we not only can interpret weather, but we can relate weather to the potential hazards that may be encountered in our flight.

For example, can we handle a 15 knot crosswind? What will the weather be in 3 hours when we arrive at our destination?

As we develop new capabilities, our judgment needs to encompass the new possibilities offered.

If operating under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR), will we be comfortable shooting a VOR approach to minimums at a strange airport? Will our judgment extend to accurately assess the possibility of encountering ice on the trip?

There are a great number of possibilities we could consider. The number grows rapidly as utilization of the aircraft and the aircraft capability increases.

The development of judgment is actually very simple: Learn everything you can about anything that can affect your flight, gain as much experience as you can without exposing yourself to undue risk, and lastly, learn from the other person’s mistakes. The mistakes of other people are the cheapest, safest experience you will find anywhere. Now, putting all of this together, confidence in our piloting ability is based not only on what we are capable of, but also upon our ability to recognize situations, which are beyond our ability.

Judgment comes into play here, also, because we must be able to recognize situations, which are beyond our capability and react accordingly. This provides a sense of security knowing that we are totally in control of the situation.

Confidence is gained from situations, which test our abilities. The process can be accelerated by a controlled, progressive increase in challenges.

For example, crosswind landings are a challenge for all of us. That challenge never really goes away because there is always a stronger crosswind to contend with. If the crosswind limit we have set for ourselves is 10 knots, then we can practice with 10 knot crosswinds until we are confident we can handle them under all conditions, including significant gusts. The next step then is to increase our limit a small amount and stay at this limit until we reach the same level of confidence.

An additional technique is to set a target for all flight operations. For example, picking a touchdown point on every landing and attempting to make that point is an excellent confidence builder. Attempting to hold altitude with zero variation is a reward in itself. In all operations, precision should be the goal.

If flying in Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC), pilots typically begin with a ceiling and visibility limit well above the published minimums for an approach. Then, under very controlled conditions, these limits should be lowered until we are comfortable flying to published minimums. This should be done slowly with careful planning. Having an experienced safety pilot along is also a good idea. However, the ability to fly an approach to published minimums and doing so with confidence, is worth the effort. Also, when doing so, bear in mind that 800 (feet) and 1 (mile) is very different from 800 and 5. Approach carefully (pun intended.).

Everything seems to come with two sides. Carried too far, confidence becomes complacency. Complacency can be very dangerous, leading to incautious decisions with disastrous consequences. Flying is, after all, a dangerous activity if not treated with respect. When treated with respect, flying is just as safe as we choose to make it.

In summary, confidence is gained by achieving capability and maintaining currency, pushing you to be a more precise, analytical pilot. Most of this can be accomplished simply by paying attention to specific tasks and setting tight goals while flying your normal routine. With practice, this becomes very enjoyable.

Remember, cautiously pushing your limits is an important part of this effort, as is continuing education. The result will be increased pleasure in your flying, to say nothing of greater safety.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Harold Green is an Instrument and Multi-Engine Flight Instructor (CFII, MEII) at Morey Airplane Company in Middleton, Wisconsin (C29). Green was named “Wisconsin Flight Instructor of the Year” by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2011, he is a recipient of the “Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award,” and has been a flight instructor since 1976. Readers can email questions and comments to Harold Green at or call 608-836-1711 (

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