What Makes A Good Pilot?

There are no good “so there I was” stories that start or end in a simulator.  It doesn’t matter if your “aircraft” is on fire or even if you have to eject, you were in a simulator!  With that said, I’m going to share a simulator story.  The story isn’t particularly interesting, but the point should give you some food for thought about what it means to be a good pilot.

So there I was…on a 4NM ILS final, shooting an approach to minimums in my virtual T-38C.  I was a 2nd Lieutenant and about halfway through the six-month T-38 portion (Phase III) of UPT.  The syllabus called for a missed approach followed by a divert to an alternate airfield.  I meticulously followed the glide path down to my weather mins, and didn’t breakout of the weather.  My left hand came forward, advancing both throttles to MIL power, and off I went to my alternate airfield.

The simulator instructor, who was playing the part of ATIS and all of my controlling agencies, gave me a quick weather update for my divert and began vectoring me to a 10NM final for the approach I had requested.

“Hmm…so the runway is wet,” he said after reading me ATIS.  Usually when an instructor floats you an SA biscuit (situational awareness), you need to reconsider whatever it is you are doing.  In this case, I couldn’t figure out what he was getting at because people land on wet runways all the time, right?

Once again, I followed my flight director bars perfectly to make sure I was on course and on glide path.  When I popped out of the weather at 1,500 feet the runway wasn’t quite where I expected it to be.  My wind-corrected heading, while great for staying on the localizer, made for a sporty short final and touchdown.  Just after my computer-generated main landing gear touched down, I heard two loud pops and it became quickly apparent that both tires had blown.  My “Nintendo” T-38C soon became an off-road vehicle and the simulator was over.

My sim instructor was all smiles as he pointed out my errors (they seem to take great pleasure in seeing students mess up!)  So here’s what I learned in the debrief: If I had paid attention to something other than the ceiling and visibility portion of ATIS, I would have learned that the crosswinds were out of limits for a T-38 landing on a wet runway.  Knowing that, I could have circled to land on a runway that was more in line with the prevailing wind.  I remember walking away from that debrief thinking, “congrats old man, you got me again” as it wasn’t the first time a sim instructor had thrown me a curve ball.

Looking back now, I’m glad the curveball was thrown my way.  It caused me to pay more attention to the big picture and it helped improve my decision making.  I guess you could say the experience made me a better pilot.

So what does it mean to be a “good” pilot anyway?  Everyone who’s ever been in a cockpit weighs in with a different take on this, but I think we all agree on the basics.  I believe that a good pilot is one who exhibits strong airmanship.  There are several definitions of airmanship floating around out there – books have even been written on the subject.  So without going too far down the rabbit hole, here is how I define airmanship:  Airmanship is the ability to gain and maintain situational awareness, make sound decisions based on that awareness, and provide the appropriate control inputs to maneuver the aircraft in accordance with your decisions.

T-38 Pilot

I’m not going to pretend that I, or anyone, can provide the key to becoming a better pilot in one short blog post.  Maybe someday I’ll put the time and effort into writing a book about it, but let’s be honest, that’s probably not going to happen.  So here’s a quick breakdown of my definition of airmanship:

Gaining and Maintaining Situational Awareness

In order to gain and maintain SA, you must be proactive.  There’s no way around this one.  You must fight for SA and not let yourself get complacent – SA typically doesn’t just come to you.  You begin fighting for SA by being meticulous in your mission planning.  This will help you anticipate each phase of the mission while airborne, and any possible contingencies that may arise.

When airborne, utilize clear, concise, and correct communication to clear up any confusion before it becomes a factor.  Don’t wait until the train has left the tracks.  Talk to controllers and other aircraft to build yourself a 3D picture of your surroundings, and listen to what the others have to say.  Listening is a crucial skill for a pilot to have.  If you have the ability to record the radio comm on a flight, do it!  You’d be surprised how much awareness is presented to you on the radio if only you would listen!

Making Sound Decisions

Sound decisions are based on accurate knowledge.  As with life and death situations, when it comes to knowledge, you don’t get a trophy just for trying.  (**Sidebar: If you’ve followed Tally One you know what we think of the “trophy generation”!)  You either have knowledge or you don’t.  Pilots must have a baseline knowledge of airspace procedures and aircraft systems just to be safe.  To be “good” – i.e. demonstrate above average airmanship – one must have above average knowledge in every aspect of the flight.  Knowledge, when combined with experience, is an unstoppable force when it comes to aviation decision making…and you can quote me on that!

Maneuvering The Aircraft

Good airmanship is more than just controlling your aircraft.  However, aircraft control must be second nature.  If you’re focused on maintaining your altitude (i.e. staying in your blue air block at Red Flag) then you won’t be able to properly execute the rest of your mission (whether it be, executing tactics, employing weapons, or flying that darned ILS).  You must be able to fly your aircraft while multitasking.  My instructor experience tells me some people just are not capable of handling an aircraft while talking on the radios (the classic walking and chewing gum argument!)  Pilots aren’t prideful people for nothing, it takes skill!

So to sum it up, there is a lot that goes into being a good pilot.  If you are always seeking to improve your airmanship, you’re doing the right thing.  I know plenty of “silverback” colonels who have thousands of hours of flight time, yet they still consider themselves students of aviation.  I think that’s the right attitude to have.  Always strive for perfect, and don’t settle for anything less.  That’s what a good pilot does.

Share your comments – what do you think being a good pilot means?