We have all grown up with truisms. Those memorable sayings that are obviously true. Like, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” Or, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” How about, “The more hours in your logbook, the better pilot you are.”
I am not so sure about that last one.
In my flying career, I grew up thinking that any airline pilot was better than any private pilot simply because of the thousands of hours of additional experience. And, on any given Sunday, that is probably true. But there are always exceptions, such as the 20,000-hour retired jet captain who hops in a single-engine airplane and crashes while scud running. Those kinds of accidents keep me awake at night.
So, what’s the difference between a dangerous pilot and a great one? Is it physical coordination, good judgment, experience? Which one is more important? I set out to find some answers from my logbook.
Jolley Byrd (yes, that is his real name) was always the life of the party. He drove his Cadillac fast and lived like there was no tomorrow. He was my father’s business partner and in the early 1970s, with a few hundred hours in his logbook, he purchased his first airplane – a V-tailed Bonanza. At the time, I was a 21-year-old private pilot with less than 100 hours, and I jumped at the offer to ride in the back seat of his powerful flying machine while he practiced his newly learned skills with an “instructor.” It was a beautiful day for flying and I felt like I was in heaven. Then, in an instant, I almost went there.
Jolley, with coaching from the guy in the right seat, spun the V-tail, spiraling vertically multiple times without warning. This particular model, however, was not certified for intentional spins. I literally thought we were going to die. To my astonishment, we recovered. I tried to breathe again. And then Jolley spun the airplane again. This guy is crazy, I said to myself.
After we landed, I got out of the airplane and never flew with Jolley again.
About a year later, he forgot to extend the gear and made a very expensive landing. Then in 1974, he departed Dallas Love (KDAL) in awful weather headed for west Texas. He lost control during an instrument approach to Abilene (KABI) with a 100-foot ceiling and visibility of less than a mile and perished. Those of us who knew him were not surprised.
Jolley lacked both experience and good judgment.
On the other end of the spectrum, meet Jim Harrod. I met Jim in 2007, right after I purchased my brand-new Citation Mustang, serial number 8. I was in the first type rating class at FlightSafety and the Mustang was new to everyone – sim instructors, mechanics, even pilots. Jim was my mentor for five days after I took delivery and we flew all over the country exploring everything about the airplane. Jim knew little more than I did about the Garmin G1000 avionics and its intricacies, but he had just retired from a career flying packages around the world in a 747.
On a moonless night, flying across the Florida panhandle at FL400, I heard a strange noise, “bee-boo, bee-boo, bee-boo.” The autopilot had disconnected and a red “pitch trim” light appeared on the PFD (primarily flight display). Now hand-flying the airplane at 40,000 feet, my mind began racing. I must advise ATC, descend out of RVSM airspace, find the abnormal checklist, and fix the problem. To my surprise, the checklist did not address the issue. Not a word. This particular failure was simply not anticipated.
I was not in a happy place.
Then, in his deliberate, calm and reassuring voice, Jim said, “Dave, do you think there might be a circuit breaker somewhere?” I looked and found one marked AFCS (autopilot flight control system). We reset it, and sure enough, the computer system rebooted itself and came back to life. Cessna later revised the checklist to address the issue. Jim had the experience and more importantly, the good judgment that I lacked that night. But you don’t have to have 20,000 hours to have good judgment.
Meet Larry King.
Larry is the proud owner of a beautiful Citation M2. With a little over 1,500 hours logged, Larry thinks my 6,000 hours make me something special. Surely, I must have better judgment because of my extensive experience. Not long ago, we found ourselves stuck in Memphis waiting out a huge squall line moving through the DFW (Dallas-Fort Worth) area. All the airline flights to DFW were canceled and on FlightAware I counted 13 airplanes holding for better weather southeast of the front. Eventually, they all diverted.
We went to lunch to wait it out. Two hours later, our trip looked possible. We departed Memphis (KMEM) in clear, warm skies. Our filed route had us arriving from the northeast and penetrating a significant line of weather. Over eastern Arkansas, Fort Worth Center said, “November 921 X-ray Tango, most of the arrivals are being rerouted over Oke City and then into Dallas. How does that look to you?”
Puzzled, Larry and I looked at each other. “That’s a big deviation to the north, and we would still have to penetrate the line of weather building in Oklahoma,” I said. But that’s what the controller is suggesting, I thought to myself. Maybe we should just do what he says.
Larry had a different idea. “Why don’t we try arriving from the southeast. It looks better and I don’t see any lightning on NEXRAD,” Larry said. “I think that is a great idea,” I responded.
We asked for an amended route, flew the arrival into Mesquite (KHQZ) in light to moderate rain and turbulence, shot the RNAV LPV 36 approach and broke out well above minimums. The plan worked perfectly. Larry, with much less experience in his logbook, exhibited good judgment.
Unfortunately, we cannot buy good judgment. But we can do a few things to put us in a position to use it:
Train more than is required to be “legal.” If your insurance carrier says once per year, do it twice. If a simulator is available for your airplane, use it at least every other training event.
Fly several times a year, on real trips, in real weather, with a fully qualified mentor. Not your neighbor friend, but a professional who knows a lot more about your airplane and avionics than you do.
Join organizations specific to your airplane. For a few hundred dollars, they provide tremendous value. Attend the events and take advantage of the safety programming offered at their gatherings.
Don’t become complacent. Being a great pilot is much more than making a nice landing.
On your drive home from the airport, critique your performance. What could you have done better?
And finally, buy a pair of epaulets and keep them under your pillow. This will help you dream about flying like a pro.