Attitude: The Theory of Everything

Attitude: The Theory of Everything

Attitude: The Theory of Everything

After having flown with hundreds of pilots over the years, I’ve noticed huge variations among the group as it pertains to each individual’s innate ability, dedication to precision and attitude toward their continued education and thorough training. 

While some pilots are truly naturals when it comes to stick and rudder, others are masters of the technical aspects and easily spout chapter and verse regulations or procedures. Some are a jack of all trades, but maybe masters of none. But the pilots who lack good judgement are the hardest to teach and often require unfortunate hard knocks (with possible drastic consequences). Undoubtedly, training and learning is an individual sport. But in the intellectual arena of pilot training, there are many variables regarding teaching and learning effectiveness that often boils down to having not just the right stuff, but the right attitude.   

From my first introductory flight, my naive fascination grew rapidly from a romantic allure to the realization that flying professionally was a huge physical and intellectual gauntlet.   In the beginning, I might have been attracted to flying as someone once told me that girls dig pilots? At the time, a motivating factor but not as true as I’d thought. With my ego bruised, I realized my degree of ignorance and naiveté regarding the art of flying was nothing less of inept. There was just so much to know and learn!

But undaunted, I jumped all in. I truly had a thirst for aeronautical knowledge. With student loans mounting, notably a small price to pay toward an investment in self-preservation, I had my eye on a potential future career. Idealistically, I was hooked on the romance of flying with a cocky, “I can do this.” But those notions dissolved with time as I began to realize “cocky kills” and your only armor is doing the work, checking the boxes and practicing to perfect your skills.   

When I passed my first check ride, I remember my examiner quoting the old prophetic cliché, “Congratulations, you now have a license to learn.” So, it was official. I was a neophyte with a license to fly a loaded gun. In my novice view, the “license to learn” mantra hit home as a true revelation. It was a reality check that this vocation absolutely demands an exceedingly high degree of enduring commitment, honed skills, time and a lot of money. Plus, I realized that hoping to be a lucky pilot flying on a “wing and a prayer” was no way to succeed long-term. Training would be key and over the years, I have seen pilots approach the training arena a number of ways. 

There are the pilots who complete the bare minimum to keep legal. Maybe they are overly cost-conscience and wish to devote minimal finances and time to it. For others, it might be an annoying necessity to meet their employer’s requirement and they’d rather be home mowing the lawn. For nervous pilots, they absolutely dread being put on the spot, fearing they might fail miserably. Or for those who anger easily and are prone to fits of rage when things don’t go right, a possible NTSB investigation looms in their future. For the feebly skilled, they of course fear having to perform under an instructor’s scrutiny only to be
found inadequate.  

I have found the best of the best in the business are those individuals who embrace, explore and recognize their own weaknesses and actually invite a training situation challenge. You could hit them in the head with a frying pan when the red lights come on and they would remain cool, calm and collected. Much of my own growth in this vein came from flying with and learning from highly experienced old dog pilot mentors. Once when my head was in the wrong place, my mentor quoted the old saying, “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots.” Positively true words to live by. (This same pilot also gifted me a plaque that hangs above my bar at home. The plaque reminds me of the “8-hour bottle to throttle” rule. Equally important words to live by.)

Hopefully, we’re all in this to fly by the book with time learned skill, precision and safety-oriented judgement. Just as important is self-reflection of your own inadequacies. The over and under of it turns out to be a personal choice. If you fly as an owner-pilot either for business or pleasure, you likely train to be legal where a biannual flight review, instrument competency check and/or multi-engine review will suffice. That’s great if your review and training session is led by a true professional instructor. But make sure you’re not just doing the minimum.  

Attaining quality, professional training from a credible source is imperative. Pilots beware of the shade tree instructor and logbook pencil whipper. Though they may make you legal, are you truly safe and proficient? To avoid this debacle, I highly recommend you train like a professional with professionals. Oh, and clear your head of business pressures prior to setting foot onto the tarmac. Remember, show time requires a thorough preflight and a sterile cockpit in flight.  

I personally think that training through a formalized training institution equipped with simulators and classroom learning sessions is by far the best insurance policy you can ever buy. Additionally, your positive attitude and work ethic plays as big of a role in how effective you are at being a safe pilot. My fortune in training came from working with experienced high-time professional pilots, plus being employed by a company that invested heavily in each of us as line pilots. Also, without revealing names, I met all kinds of training-resistant, unexceptional pilots along the way, full of excuses regarding their deficiencies. I did not want to be one of those guys.

Examples of the potential terror in the skies include: the pilot who complains incessantly about having a late-night simulator time – get over it.  Or the one who feels that ground school doesn’t need to teach us how build a plane – it helps to understand the nuts and bolts. Or, he or she that brings up unrelated or personal problems to a training session – leave it at the cabin door. Or, once he or she learned the system was “automatic,” they needed to know no more about its interworking’s. Or, “this simulator just doesn’t fly like the real airplane” – I say “duh” to that one.  

The worst, however, is the pilot who is an emotional wreck and brings personal negative baggage to work. This leads to their getting angry and upset when not doing well or when things don’t go their way. Beware the angry bird I say; they’ll hurt you with their petty anger. Whatever a pilot’s excuse or particular inadequacies, all of these distractions are avoidable if you’re dedicated to being the best you can be and a true professional – paid salary or not. Professionalism is a personal choice and leads to better than average judgement and safety.  

In reflection, judgement is not genetic but a learned persona. From my initial training, all the way up to formal FlightSafety courses (plus actual flight experience), I remember times when I felt undertrained and then sometimes over trained. Undertrained was the easier one to fix. One more crosswind landing; an extra sim session; read the book; memorize memory items; talk to experienced pilots; etc. But over trained was a unique situation that typically was born out of situational fear.

Sometimes I found myself spring loaded in the ON position for a maybe emergency. I was so proud that I had memorized the checklist that I would unwittingly race through a checklist procedure at lightspeed. But speed can kill and inadvertently create an even worse problem. Grab the wrong switch; turn the fuel off; push or pull the wrong flight control; etc. I highly recommend taking a more calm and methodical approach to an emergency diagnosis. As an example, if you run a gas tank dry (not recommended) and the engine quits, you change to what you believe is the fuller tank but it seems to take an eternity to re-ignite. So, you panic and assume you’re somehow out of fuel. You then aggressively move to completing the entire emergency ditching procedure and hastily shut the fuel off when in fact, a few more seconds of “wait and see” would have kept the motor(s) running. It happens by the way, and it can create a real-time emergency. Thus, proving haste indeed makes waste.  

Meditate on this: ongoing training is a privilege to embrace with an open mind and positive attitude. Knowing your aircraft and your limitations before you slip into any cockpit is key. On one occasion, when I’d lost focus of what’s most important in any career, a close pilot friend pulled me aside and said, “What you do for a living does not define you as a human being – how you do your living does.”  

Training is a very personal evolutionary journey that improves your safety consciousness, situational awareness and enhances your total appreciation of flying. After all, there’s a lot to lose by not being well-equipped for any mission and far more to gain by being prepared.

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