What Makes a Good Pilot?
What does it take to be a good pilot? I'm sure you could lock me a windowless room with a blank legal pad and I'd come up with nothing in trying to answer that. But I know one when I see one and that's one of the most fun things about my job.
I travel around a lot and get invited to fly airplanes and report my impressions. That means I fly with a lot of people I've never met in airplanes I've never seen. Sometimes these demos put me in the left seat, sometimes the right, but over the years, I've decided that it doesn't matter much. I really prefer the right side because I like to watch people fly. I also like to observe cockpit demeanor—the way people conduct themselves in an airplane, whether they're flying or not.
In many years of doing this, I've discovered that although I might think of myself as a good pilot or at least better than average, I'm really just a duffer compared to some people I've flown with. I have a short list of people who have what I'd call exceptionally good hands. What that means is noticeably natural and smooth coordination, a gracefulness of movement and awareness that's always just a little ahead of my own, if not way ahead.
Ingmar Mayerbuch, Diamond's chief test pilot at the company's Austrian factory, comes to mind. I've flown with him a number of times, most recently in April when I was covering the new DA52 twin. Mayerbuch has the style of someone who tests airplanes for a living, which is to say he knows the airplanes cold and can easily answer questions on the fly in English, which is his second language. I do this to people all the time: stick a glareshield camera in their face and start peppering them with questions in the middle of a flight demo. I'm always amazed that they do it at all, let alone well.
A year ago, we arrived at Wiener Neustadt in the middle of a spring gale, with the wind blowing the rain sideways. Did we plan to cancel the demo ride? Not really. We found enough holes in the deck to climb into the teens to wring out the airplane, but it was so turbulent, it knocked the mic out of my headset cup so I made a silent movie. Frankly, I was verging on air sickness, but Mayerbuch might as well have been at a table in the Rathskeller for all the tension he showed in caging engines, pegging climb rates and caressing the airplane through the bumps and a vicious crosswind. I could do all that, I guess, but not without making it look like a struggle.
On most of the flight demos I fly, the pilot is assigned by the company or might be an owner pressed into the demo role. Either way, they're usually a new acquaintance to me. I'm rarely nervous about this because although I've flown with a few demo pilots who should never have been given the job, I'm confident enough to believe if I can get my hands on the controls, I can at least survive. It's never come to that, thankfully. But some of these unknown-pilot experiences have yielded pure delight. Some years ago, I flew up to Orlando to meet an owner named Richard Hardoon. This was in the early days of XM datalink and we we're planning to compare XM's performance with ship's radar, which he had in his Baron. So think of it, I'm going flying with a guy I've never met to look for thunderstorms. (We found them, too.)
The flight with Hardoon was a reminder that you can't judge the book by its cover nor the man by his looks. Hardoon is slight, bespectacled guy and not who you'd expect casting to send over as a pilot. But from the instant we got in the Baron, I could tell Hardoon had that feel for airplanes you don't see among many pilots. The moment we rotated, his airplane handling was honey smooth, measured and confident. No drama. I'm sure I cracked a big grin because most people I fly with aren't quite so good as to merit special notice nor would anyone say that about me. Hardoon had done a tour in the Navy as an A-6 pilot and it showed. Maybe not all ball fliers are that skilled, but I've noticed a lot are.
As an instructor, I learned long ago that setting a relaxed, cooperative tone in the cockpit is both better for learning and makes for a safer workplace. To be honest, I'm not sure I've ever been any good at that, but I've flown with people who are. One demo pilot I flew with, again out of Orlando, is Dwayne Clemens. I'd been invited to fly a King Air equipped with a new autopilot installation. I've got a little Twin Otter time, but none in the King Air, which bothered Clemens not a bit. He stuck me in the left seat then talked me through startup, taxi and takeoff as though we were chatting over dinner.
When a pilot is new to an airplane, there's an inevitable natural tension, not so much in trying to master it as working hard to not make oneself look like an ass. Having worked at Beech, Clemens has a gazillion hours in King Airs so to him, the cockpit and the airplane were as second nature as cars are to the rest of us. At altitude, he got to chopping engines to show the autopilot could handle that without so much as a noticeable yaw or burble. It even handled the trimming. Throughout all of this, neither of us was breaking a sweat, least of all Clemens, who moves with that studied indifference of someone who's genetically precluded from screwing up the man/machine interface. I later joked with Clemens that if he had been any calmer, he'd of lacked a pulse. But given the choice, I'd rather fly with a guy like that than a checklist-toting, shoulder-boarded automaton with a too-tight tie choking the humor out of him.
One other guy on my list of all time favorites is John Deakin, a former AVweb columnist, 747 skipper and veteran of seriously challenging flying throughout Southeast Asia in the 1960s. I flew with John a few times when he had a lovely V-tail Bonanza. His cockpit demeanor is a lot like Dwayne Clemens—relaxed, but also uncommonly aware of the airplane and its environment. When you flew with him—he's retired from the cockpit now—he let you proceed at your own pace and made you feel as if you could do no wrong.
Deakin's habit—one I share—was to always offer the stick to whoever was coming along on the flight and this sets a generous spirit loose in the cockpit. Not everyone does this, in my experience. Some pilots focus obsessively about being in the left seat and rarely if ever share a leg or two. I've flown with at least two demo pilots who wouldn't let me do the takeoff or landing and one who wouldn't let me touch the controls. At all.
I just don't get that. I'd just as soon give away every leg to whomever is with me as fly them all myself. You learn as much from watching others as you do actually manipulating the controls yourself. Also, you can take a nap and what's wrong with that? There's nothing like being refreshed for the landing.
In flying with pilots as good as those I've described here, I've always been impressed with how easy they make it look and, well shoot, shouldn't I be able to do just as well? Somehow, the reality and the fantasy never seem to merge for me. But I keep trying. I imagine you do, too.