Aviation, certainly more so than many other professions, relies on the “Honor System”. Let’s think about it: how many times have you been ramp checked by the FAA, or had to present your pilot or medical certificate to anyone else in an official capacity? How many times have you met an FAA inspector, in any capacity? Does it seem strange that you could, theoretically, go flying 23 months after your last flight, with nothing legally holding you back, common sense notwithstanding?
Yes, you, the Pilot in Command, are entrusted with the authority to self-evaluate in medical, proficiency and legality standpoints. The overseeing authority in aviation, the FAA, is not usually looking over your shoulder to make sure you’re following the rules; probably the last time you interacted with someone associated with the FAA was on your last checkride, and that person was likely a designee! Primarily, the FAA has to rely on pilots to self-police when it comes to various safety and legal issues, since we outnumber them by a wide margin, and they just aren’t able to have representatives out in the field all the time. Luckily for all involved, it’s in our own best interest to maintain a safe operation; most of us are concerned with coming home safely from each flight and can see the value in rules, regulations, and procedures.
There’s just one problem with placing the burden of self-evaluation on the shoulders of pilots: humans are notoriously bad at self-evaluation. For better or worse, it’s tough for any of us to look at our own performance and end up with a truly objective fact-based and accurate finding. Every experience, performance and failure is layered in with various personality traits, defense mechanisms, excuses or misperceptions, when we look at it ourselves. People tend to assume information that comes to them through their own perceptions directly reflects what is true in “reality”, while believing that others’ perceptions are biased and influenced by outside factors (1). We rate ourselves higher in almost every positive trait than our peers (2), and we take into account our internal desires and intentions when judging ourselves, but only rely on outward behavior when judging others (3).
Sometimes, in the context of flight training (whether for proficiency or to gain a new certificate or rating), we end up employing defense mechanisms to protect our ego from what might be a harsh truth. Have you ever met a person who displays one of the defense mechanisms below? Do you think you may have ever been subject to one or more of them yourself, in the context of aviation?
- Compensation: disguising a weak or undesirable quality by emphasizing a more positive one. For example, maybe you were asked to perform slow flight on your last Biennial Flight Review and performed poorly, but you placed special emphasis on your ability to do great steep turns.
- Denial of Reality: While coming in for a landing, you flare too high and stall from two feet above the runway; the resultant landing is abnormally hard. When the passenger asks if that landing was normal, you do not acknowledge the question or indicate that the landing “wasn’t that bad”.
- Rationalization: This is when you sincerely believe the excuse you make for a poor or undesirable outcome: “Tower made me fly a right-hand traffic pattern, and my landings are always worse when I have to fly right traffic!”
As you see, there are a multitude of reasons why trying to look at one’s own performance objectively is very difficult or even impossible, so how do we make sure we’re not overlooking a potentially dangerous flaw in our flying technique or knowledge? How can we know that we’re the type of pilot who is aware of the level of our own skills, and who continually works to improve them in a guided and focused way?
Recurrent training is the key
Professional pilots (Airline, Corporate or Charter pilots, for example) undergo recurrent training and/or checking, often in intervals as short as six months. That’s a far cry from the 24-month Flight Review required for the average private pilot, and it’s done that way for a reason. There is no better way to receive an objective and unbiased opinion of your flying performance than to be evaluated against a set of standards, to see how your skills measure up. While you can improve some current skills by practicing on your own, practicing incorrect procedures will be detrimental to your skill set, as well as the safety of your flight operations. Additionally, not many people enjoy working on their weaknesses, since there is more immediate satisfaction gained by repeating a skill in which one is already proficient. Getting another set of eyes on your flying, particularly the eyes of a CFI who flies and teaches every day, can make a huge positive impact on your flying and the safety of your operation.
So, why don’t more pilots volunteer for additional recurrent training, going above and beyond what is required by the regulations? Here are a few reasons that come to mind:
- It doesn’t always feel good: no one likes to feel the pressure of being tested, especially in something they do for fun. Having one’s shortcomings exposed is not always the most pleasant thing; however, it is necessary, to maintain your safety and that of your passengers.
- False belief in one’s own pro-ficiency: Let’s say you fly every two or three weeks, heading out to the local practice area, and usually have pretty good landings. You never fly when the wind is over 10 knots, or at night. Given your restrictions, you believe yourself to be a pretty good pilot, and that your level of proficiency is equivalent to, or maybe better than other pilots of similar experience levels. But how can you really know unless you’ve been recently tested?
Aviation is based in objective reality, and the circumstances of a real emergency don’t care about your perceptions of your own skill; only your actions will determine the outcome.
Yes, in my opinion, the system as it stands is fairly lax, when it comes to pilot oversight. Fortunately, aviation seems to attract and self-select mostly folks who are savvy, self-reliant and smart enough to know that more recurrent training is necessary to maintain proficiency than is required to be legally “current”.
So what can you do to improve your own skills and conquer intimidating conditions, in a safe and enjoyable way?
You can make a personal commitment to ongoing recurrent training
Recurrent training with a CFI is a great way to hold yourself accountable and make real, measurable improvements in your flying skills. Why not schedule a monthly lesson with a CFI, with the purpose of improving your existing skills (landings or instrument approaches, for example) and working on areas and operations that you don’t feel as comfortable with or have never tried, or targeting weaker areas noted by your instructor? There’s no better way to improve your skills and knowledge than to have an experienced instructor take a look at them and make recommendations for improvement, sharing their hard-earned wisdom from years of flying.
The prospect of willingly signing up to be “evaluated” may not be your favorite idea, but the improvements in your skills and confidence that come from taking an active role in your ongoing training, rather than limiting yourself to the standard 24-month flight review, will be more than worth it! What’s more, as you develop a relationship with a CFI for ongoing training, that instructor will get to know your strengths, your weaknesses and your flying goals, and can make more pertinent and useful suggestions for improvement, as opposed to the small snapshot of your flying abilities shown during a Flight Review. In short order, you’ll find yourself tackling new aviation challenges with improved confidence and safety. Set up a recurrent training program and invest in your own safety today!
1. G. Ichheiser, American Journal of Sociology, 55 Suppl, (1949)
2. S.E. Taylor, J.D. Brown, Psychological Bulletin, 103, 193 (1988)
3. J. Kruger, T. Gilovich, Pers Soc Psychol Bull 30, 328 (2004).