The Pilot's Lounge #12:
Is Good Enough Really Good Enough?
If you're like most pilots, it's probably been a while since your piloting skills were honed to
What Have You Got In Your Back Pocket?
The Brits have such a good phrase for this time of year, "high summer." The days are still long, the Sun burns through us on the ground so we fly as much as we can and wish we were flying more. A few of the pilots here in the Lounge just completed what has become an annual event for us. We get together for a weekend a little ways from here and fly seaplanes. There are always about four pilots who pick up the single-engine sea rating over the weekend and several who take the opportunity to get current on floats or take a little dual to see how they like it. A very pleasant by-product of the weekend is a lot of good conversation among pilots with widely varying experience levels and points of view. This year was true to form and I, for one, enjoyed the exchanges of ideas despite being troubled by some of the opinions expressed.
The primary topic of the weekend developed from the comments of the pilots who went back to student status in the process of picking up the seaplane class rating. Being normal, those pilots/students wanted to know what to expect on the flight test. Being bright, they did their homework and read the Practical Test Standards (PTS) so they knew precisely what level of performance was required by the FAA in order to pass the checkride. To the chagrin of the students, they then discovered that the instructors all had tougher performance standards than those set out by the FAA. As far as the students were concerned, it wasn't bad enough that some of them were trying to sort out using a stick instead of a wheel in addition to the novel concepts involved with airplanes capable of floating more than briefly. To them, it was unreasonable that they would have to spend the extra money to train to a performance level above that of the FARs.
I sat back and listened. As an instructor, I have seen time and time again that Plato was correct, a student is incapable of evaluating the appropriateness of a course of instruction and its relevance. In the thousands of years since his words were recorded, that observation has not stopped students from having strong opinions as to their lessons. This weekend the students cogently pointed out that the examiner would not demand altitude holds within 50 feet nor maintaining a heading within 10 degrees when coming off the step after a landing. Why, they inquired, were the instructors such jerks to demand more than the FAA wanted?
Minimum Standards And The Checkride
One of the onlookers pointed out that when Congress set up the FAA, it said that the new agency was to establish minimum regulations to ensure aviation safety. Therefore, the Federal Aviation Regulations are just minimum standards and any pilot with any sense of pride would not be satisfied with flying to only the minimum standards. Another pilot said that the Congress had told the FAA to work for aviation safety with a minimum number of regulations, and that the old minimum standards argument was simply wrong. I figured I'd stay out of that discussion as it wasn't going anywhere.
Despite the comments of the students, the general consensus of the group was that any self-respecting pilot should be able to exceed the PTS.
One of the instructors did speak up. He had been around seaplanes for more than a few years and had seen far too many accidents and bent airplanes. He simply said that he's watched pilots prepare for checkrides and pass them, then let their skills deteriorate afterward. He was of the opinion that a pilot should be in the habit of flying as precisely as possible at all times and he demanded such when giving instruction. He knew that many of the pilots he recommended for a flight test would never again have the level of skill with the airplane they demonstrated on the last lesson before the checkride, so he wanted that level to be as high as possible. He felt that pilots who learned from an example in which much was demanded of them would tend to demand a great deal of themselves.
Old Hack was monitoring the conversation and stepped in and said that training to the highest tolerance possible was great, but when does the instructor call it a day and send the student for the flight test? It costs money to fly; no student can afford to just keeping going with an instructor in the hope of achieving perfection prior to taking a checkride. So, darn it, (well, Hack used stronger words) how good is good enough?
That brought the conversation back to Earth. The instructors indicated that they trained to a level above that of the PTS by some personal comfort level based on their experience and learning. Even when a student had a bad checkride day, the margin built in by tough training usually paid off.
What About the Real World?
Okay, what was good enough to pass a checkride was solved, but I wasn't satisfied I had a handle on how good is good enough for the pilot who hopes to fly, enjoy it and stay alive while doing so.
Most all of us have visual images in our heads of what we would like to be able to do with an airplane. For some of us it is to do aerobatics better than Patty Wagstaff (good luck), for others it may be the ILS where the needles are locked in the center as we make the minutest corrections. Can we attain such a level of performance particularly when we are flying on a budget? Does it really matter?
Unless one has some interesting mental defect, there is intense pleasure from doing something well. The more difficult the better. That's why a landing in a tailwheel airplane, done well, is more enjoyable than in a nosewheel airplane. We have all been inspired by the way a pilot has flown an airplane in our presence. I had the great good fortune to be in the right seat of a Cessna 402 when XB-70 test pilot Al White was flying. He made two steep 720s. Three-quarters of the way through the maneuver I tapped the altimeter on my side to see if it was stuck. It wasn't. It simply hadn't moved. Someday I hope to come close to flying an airplane as he did. He turned a collection of inanimate metals into a living thing. His flying was art. No, I'll never fly that well. But, I'm sure going to try.
But why try? What do we do about the pilots who assert their skills are "just fine" and accuse anyone who seeks to fly more precisely, more smoothly and with more panache of simply being anal-retentive?
Oftentimes those most vocal in asserting they are flying "just fine" are the worst offenders of the crime of abusing an aircraft by poor piloting. Perhaps if they would put a fraction of the energy they expend making excuses and defending themselves into improving their skills, they might make outstanding pilots.
But, does it really matter? Other than for personal satisfaction, why make the effort to fly well all of the time?
Much of the time we launch from wide, long runways, fly in decent weather and land in a workmanlike fashion. We use a fraction of the skills we once had. For many of us, our skills deteriorate to the level of the day-to-day demand. There is no incentive to improve and most pilots get away with the way they have always done things. So why bother? Some of those involved in the evening's discussion accused those who sought to fly just a little bit better each time of having various psychological problems.
The conversation ended before I had an answer that satisfied me.
Finding The Answer
On that sour note, I came to Oshkosh. Deep inside I felt that a pilot should always be working to be better, but some of the comments made about weird compulsions and anal-retentiveness nagged at me. Is the aviation community becoming one that tolerates an attitude of just doing enough to get by?
Oshkosh does good things to a person. Just sitting by the runway for a while and watching arrivals will do wonders to improve one's perspective. Being around people who love airplanes is simply the best therapy for any negative feelings about aviation that one may harbor.
I also saw some very near things. The ground was soft and some pilots who didn't seem to be able to feel their airplanes got stuck or eroded their props as they taxied on the grass with the control wheel forward. I watched a 182 on final to runway 27 being overtaken by a Beech 1900D. The controller repeatedly told the 182 to turn left and enter the downwind for runway 36. The 182 did nothing but bore in for runway 27. The controller kept trying, without success, to get the 182 to make a turn. Finally, the controller gave up and sent the 182 around. That caused a response. The 182 went around, but flew level rather than climbing. Within moments it hit some wake turbulence and rolled violently right, about 80 degrees. I've seen a couple of accidents; I didn't want to see another. Fortunately, the pilot managed to collect the airplane. I walked on, shaken.
It was Dr. Walt, another of the Lounge regulars, also at Oshkosh, who provided the perspective I needed. He reminded me that we humans are the product of thousands of years of two-dimensional evolution. Gaining the sky is not something our bodies are naturally programmed to do. It requires training and, in a number of cases, suppression or repression of reflexes that served our ancestors effectively. After all, if we follow the guidance of our inner ear when on instruments, our life expectancy is measured in minutes. We have to continually train to fly precisely because our skill levels deteriorate and we are not naturally able to objectively evaluate our flying skills.
Dr. Walt put it succinctly: "What have you got in your back pocket?" In aviation, there are times that demand every bit of skill you can scrape up. To make sure the demands are not greater than the supply, a pilot should always be working to be the best possible, to have some skills in the back pocket — in reserve so to speak — for those trips into Oshkosh when the wake turbulence rolls you or when the fog means the approach really will be to minimums or the engine isn't putting out power and you have to put the airplane into that field right there, right now.
He repeated it, "What have you got in your back pocket?" It is a good question. As a pilot are you adding to that bank account of available skills you can call on when you need them? Personally, when I see Sandy slipping the Citabria over the trees to her feather-wisp touchdowns, I know she is doing so because she loves to fly as perfectly as possible and is lost in the sheer joy of doing so, but I also know she is adding to that incredible storehouse of talent she possess. When she has her engine failure, she'll probably not even scratch the airplane. On top of that, I know that when she gives rides to people, they don't fill the Sic-Sacs and crawl away from the airplane hating general aviation; no, they have a delightful experience to be remembered fondly for years. And, more than one of her passengers has gone on to learn to fly.
Thanks, Dr. Walt; that's what I needed — a pragmatic approach that justifies my internal desire for the majority of pilots to simply fly at the highest skill level they could and to understand why they should continually seek to improve and hone those skills.
Despite what the naysayers assert, it is perfectly acceptable to admit you want to fly in harmony with the machine and try to be better at it than anyone else in the world.
Hope you got to Oshkosh.
See you next month.