The time has come for us to stop thinking about flying safety. Only a minority of the pilot population wants to hear about it. Some rightly say that nothing about flying is perfectly safe except not flying at all. Tell a pilot you think something is unsafe, and he or she will counter that they feel it’s an acceptable risk.
Training industry experts have told me for decades that “safety doesn’t sell.” That’s why there are so many products competing to help you pass your writtens faster or ace your checkride more easily, but there is comparatively little out there about inflight weather evaluation, fuel management, engine management, pilot fatigue, pilot workload, flying through distraction, balancing work and life schedules against the desire to fly, or all the other situations that insidiously conspire to lead us down a path to a mishap…or worse.
Safety is a very subjective standard. No one thinks they are unsafe. But rarely are they making that judgment objectively. We define safety as the absence of accidents – but is “not crashing the airplane” really the best we can do?
“Safety” is not a strategy
Safety is an outcome, not a strategy. We make choices we perceive to be safe, but the result still depends on how well we fly and manage the airplane. When an examiner hands you a temporary airman certificate, he or she tells you to “be safe” and that you have earned a “license to learn.” I’m coming to the realization that one of the biggest problems in aviation “safety” is that pilots are given structure up to the point of the checkride, but essentially no guidance on what to do afterward. We’re left to exercise that “license to learn” on our own… to learn haphazardly, if we learn at all. In far too many cases, instead of growing as a pilot we let our skills atrophy to the minimum necessary to get away with the specific type of flying we usually do, as long as nothing unusual happens.
Instead of safety, we should use the word mastery to describe the goal we must strive to attain. Mastery says you meet and exceed objective standards. A goal of mastery reaffirms that passing a checkride signifies completion of only the first phase of a lifelong odyssey, not the end of learning. Unlike saying, “I fly safely” (which sounds passive), to say “I fly with mastery” indicates an active commitment to high standards, including continuous improvement using objective measurements of professionalism that produce results.
For example, as an ATP-rated pilot I am continually comparing my performance to the standards I was required to demonstrate when I earned that highest of civilian pilot ratings. But even before I was preparing for my ATP Practical Test I was using ATP standards as my goal. I use this objective measure when debriefing my performance after a given flight. Did I fly that approach to ATP standards? Did I touch down on speed and in configuration in my identified landing zone? If not, what do I need to do to attain that level of mastery? The ATP test is, in many ways, the Instrument checkride flown to more exacting standards—exactly what every IFR-rated pilot should be striving to do, whether or not they ever intend to earn the Airline Transport Pilot certificate (which, under new U.S. regulations, is likely to be out of reach for all but airline career-path pilots). The Practical Test Standards (slowly being replaced by the Airman Certification Standards) is one objective measure of mastery of the airplane. Look for the advanced, master standards for the type of flying you do, and work to meet those standards. Anything less means you’re failing to pursue mastery of the task.
The stick-and rudder skills of the Practical Test Standards/Airman Certification Standards are still just part of what it takes to truly master your aircraft. When acting in the capacity of Pilot-in-Command, you need to act like an ATP. That’s the skill level our passengers expect us to have, the level of expertise we want and need the public to perceive of general aviation pilots, and finally, what it takes to truly master an airplane.
The universal symbol of the captain of an aircraft is the four-stripe epaulet. These four stripes symbolize the experience, expertise and professionalism of an airplane commander. They can also identify specific things you can do to earn those stripes after earning your wings—your wings, or in realty your pilot certificate and ratings, are merely the first step in mastering your airplane…as the examiner said, your license to learn.
Mastering your aircraft (not just “being safe”) requires mastering each of these areas:
- The specific aircraft, including its technology.
- The environment, including airspace, air traffic control (as required) and weather.
- Human factors, including fatigue management and situational awareness.
- And something given very little attention in pilot training but that is the essence of mastery of flight, pilot responsibility and command.
It’s important to note that “earning your stripes” is equally applicable in a Light Sport or Piper Cub as it is in a twin Cessna, a Baron, a PC-12, a King Air and a single-pilot Citation Mustang. The only distinction is the topics and tasks you must address to develop mastery of the specific airplane you fly, in the way you fly it.
At times, you may be master of one airplane but not another, or master of one set of conditions (night, IFR, etc.) but not others. It takes constant practice and constant self-evaluation to determine when you are truly captaining your aircraft and not merely flying it.
Mastery is not something you pursue and then “graduate.” It is a life-long process of retaining existing skills as you develop new ones. Whether you are paid to fly is irrelevant; the goal is to attain and retain a level of professionalism regardless of the airplane you fly…to satisfy your own goals, but also to live up to your responsibility to passengers, your family and others who depend on you, and to the industry as reflected by the public’s perception of personal aviation. It’s always appropriate to consider positive “how can we do this better?” messages from recent air crash reports. Learning from the experiences of others is a key factor in achieving mastery of your own aircraft.
If you fly with mastery you will still not be completely safe. You accept risk in all things, and in personal and business aviation you freely choose to take on much more risk (and responsibility) than many people are willing to accept. But you will be as safe as the circumstances that arise in the conditions you choose to face will permit. It’s up to you to make a masterful decision about the conditions, and be ready to masterfully handle any circumstances you then face.
So, the time has come for us to stop think about flying safety. We need to think about attaining and retaining the skills and experiences needed to master our aircraft and the environment in which we choose to fly. If you master your airplane, you and those who place their trust in you will be as safe as possible.•