As I mentioned in my last column, the best way to really learn your craft in aviation, the best way to become a better pilot -- while not having to make the same mistakes others have already made -- is to find a mentor. OK, that sounds easy enough -- find a gray-hair and listen. But, how do you find the right person? Who is mentor material and who isn't?
First of all, just what is a mentor? The dictionary defines it thus:
n. A wise and trusted counselor or teacher.
v. Informal men·tored, men·tor·ing, men·tors
v. intr. To serve as a trusted counselor or teacher, especially in occupational settings.
v. tr. To serve as a trusted counselor or teacher to (another person).
So, we're looking for a wise and trusted counselor. Should be an easy enough job ... if there's one thing airports seem to have plenty of, it's folks who want to tell you how to do whatever; but it's often hard to sort the wheat from the chaff. Remember, many of those aviation myths that we can't seem to eradicate came originally from folks who seemingly talked with the voice of authority.
Many of the valuable lessons in aviation have been written in blood. Take a look at the history of the airlines. There were many good men who didn't make it to retirement because of the unknowns in the early years. Piston engines and low-altitude flying (down in the weather) took their tolls. Even the advent of the jet age didn't eliminate the risk immediately. DeHaviland entered the jet age with the Comet. Within two years that airplane was withdrawn from service. Incomplete understanding of stress on metals in a pressurized fuselage led to several accidents where the airplane exploded in midair. Pilots with no previous experience in jets have been caught by upsets and Mach tuck and surprised by the great difference in range with altitude.
Other pilots have been the pioneers who experienced clear air turbulence (CAT) for the first time and experienced the good and bad effects of the jet stream. Wind shear was finally understood after several airplanes crashed in the vicinity of thunderstorms. Freight pilots have learned just how much ice an airplane can carry and just how quickly it can get bad. They learned that airplanes that would do a single-engine missed approach on a checkride with an almost-empty airplane would sometimes not even hold altitude on one engine when loaded. (I was one of those freight dogs, and believe me, I would have rather read about some of those lessons or learned them at the knee of a mentor.) When our mistakes didn't kill us, they called it experience. When the mistakes killed a few of us, they called it dumb. This is a merciless game.
You can learn a lot by just listening to the war stories being told around coffee pots at every airport. (At least all the ones I've visited.) Listening to the stories of the engines that went into auto-rough when flying over a large body or water or mountainous terrain -- especially at night -- will let you know that you're not crazy when it happens to you. Listening to stories about weather that rapidly worsened can add valuable information to your own aviation data bank. It's a lot better -- and safer -- to learn from the mistakes of others.
Look around the FBO or flying club. Look for a person who may look a bit worn around the edges. Look for the fellow in the corner, sipping his coffee and just taking it all in -- probably the folks with the more exciting "There I was inverted at 10,000 feet" stories are not the folks you'll be interested in. And, with the risk of offending a few here, you probably don't want the guy with the huge, shiny new Jepp bag stuffed with every gadget Sporty sells. (I've found that lots of times the experience of the pilot is in inverse proportion to the size of the flight bag. Airline pilots must haul those things around. The rest of us usually don't. How many Jepp binders does it take to fly a C-172?)
Look for a pilot with at least four digits logged as total time and look for someone who is at least half the way to five digits. (That doesn't count decimals. We're looking for at least four digits to the left of the decimal point.) I'm not saying that folks with lower total times don't know what they're doing. I'm sure they do. But it takes quite a while to absorb all the information that makes up a pilot's database. The higher time folks probably don't know just how much valuable information they have accumulated over the years until they start to impart some of that knowledge to a willing student. The folks on the lower end of the pilot-time spectrum may not even know what they don't know -- and they couldn't possibly be expected to know, since, as I've said, this takes time.
Now, I'm sure I'll get some hate mail from some fine, lower-time pilots. I have no doubt that you folks are fine pilots, but you're still learning -- we're all still learning. You just haven't seen some of the stuff the old pelicans have seen because some of it's pretty rare and you just haven't had enough exposure. You'll get there -- we all did.
I'm reminded here of a talk I heard given by Dave Cronin, the United captain who brought the crippled Flight 811 back to Honolulu after the United 747 had blown it's cargo door over the Pacific. He'd had a split flap condition in the 747 about 20 years prior to the 811 incident and he knew that even with a few degrees of split, the roll rate was hard to control. Not knowing how much damage he had to his airplane, he was reluctant to extend any flaps for fear that he'd have another split condition; his airplane was hard enough to fly as it was. A pilot with less experience may not have had that experience. Dave Cronin was very close to the FAA mandated retirement age when that incident took place. He drew on everything he had learned in his career to bring the airplane back to land. Captain Al Haynes was also close to retirement when the United 232 DC-10 blew an engine and took out the hydraulic system. The point is, you want to find a mentor with experience. What you're aiming to learn isn't written in books.
We're not talking about the skills required to manipulate the controls. Those skills are mostly learned before you solo and you just refine them as you go along. Everything after solo is a head game. There are decisions to be made on a continual basis. The quality of your decisions will depend upon the information you have and your internal database.
Invite your mentor to fly with you on several typical missions. Ask the mentor to critique your techniques and suggest improvements. (You have to be a little careful here. Changing techniques without a valid reason can just introduce uncertainty and make you less, not more, safe. If your techniques have a potential "gotcha," you'll want your mentor to point that out.) Ask your mentor to spend some time with you over coffee discussing some current weather patterns and charts.
If the situation permits, ask your mentor to go flying in some less-than-ideal weather. This can be an iffy proposition since you, the aircraft and the mentor all have to be up to the mission. If the mentor is not current IFR or does not have a current medical (and some of the best may not) and you are not current, you'll have to see a CFI to get current before you can do this. If you can work it out, however, getting a seasoned eye to point out weather from the cockpit instead of the weather chart can be invaluable.
In a word -- it takes forever! It's said that the day we stop learning lessons in airplanes is the day we become dangerous and that's pretty much true. Nobody can know all there is to know about the atmosphere we live in. If weather was easy to figure out, the meteorologists wouldn't call it the weather forecast, they'd call it the weather facts. (I'm amused at a show they have on the Weather Channel called "Weather Rerun" that recaps the weather for the past week. I guess even meteorologist like to be right sometimes!)
There will always be new situations. You'll never learn it all, but you can't learn it from books, either. Make friends with an older, seasoned pilot and take that pilot along as your mentor from time to time. I'll guarantee you that the insights you gain will far outweigh the breakfast, lunch or dinner tab you'll spend.
For more From The CFI, check out the rest of Linda's articles.