What Makes a Good Pilot?

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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.

Comments (19)

We've all flown with some well organized pilots from whom we can learn a great deal and enjoy the smooth technical skills that they demonstrate. But, we also have taken a ride with other guys from the home airport who want company on a hamburger run. Sometimes these guys are so full of bad habits that they are scary. Some pilots just fly the same old plane to the same old places and avoid talking to ATC or putting something useful in their nav radios. One guy I flew with left the primary radio in the unicom frequency and we listened to the departure airport for 50 miles until it was time to land. I just keep my mouth shut and remember to avoid anymore trips with them. I would only be critical if they asked my advice, which they don't. Which is the better policy here... speak-up or shut-up?

Posted by: Tom Corcoran | July 1, 2013 4:29 AM    Report this comment

Being a good pilot requires three items.
1) stick and rudder skills (airmanship).
2) understanding systems (GPS, steam gauges...)
3.) ADM (aeronautical decision making)

Posted by: Charley Valera | July 1, 2013 6:12 AM    Report this comment

"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?"

I've found that sometimes, it's enough just to get to know other pilots who have done something I haven't (land on a short grass field, land on an ice runway, etc) that gets me motivated to try it out myself (with an instructor experienced in such, if necessary). Not so much for the "keeping up with the Joneses" factor, but for the "well, why can't I do that myself" part.

"Which is the better policy here... speak-up or shut-up?"

This is one I've found myself thinking about quite a bit. It's easy when acting as instructor to figure out that point (well, easier), but a little more complicated when you're just acting as another pilot/passenger. The conclusion I've come to is, unless their actions are immediately putting the aircraft and my life in danger, I'll stay off the controls. If I can add a nonthreatening comment like "oh, we're a little low", I'll do that if I think it'll help. But anything else that wasn't a threat to safety, I'll save my comments (if any) until after the flight (or return flight, if they're also flying me back). I certainly would say something if I thought their actions were dangerous, though.

Come to think of it, I've learned a few things even from pilots who aren't great pilots, if for no other reason than to confirm how I DON'T want to fly.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | July 1, 2013 8:06 AM    Report this comment

Took my flight instructor check ride on Thursday. Although I am now holding my temporary certificate, the test did not go without a hitch. The #4 cylinder swallowed an exhaust valve with the FAA examiner on board. Luckily, were headed back to base and was only about a mile from the airport when the drama started. I called out "Engine Failure!" Started towards the runway and told the examiner that we were making a downwind landing. Stayed high with what power I had left and I demonstrated a highly effective forward slip to a landing.. which ironically satisfied my last required area of operation. I got lucky on Thursday. I would pick lucky over good any day of the week.

Posted by: Andre Abreu | July 1, 2013 8:36 AM    Report this comment

The guy that comes to mind for me was the Chief Pilot when I was a Student Pilot at North Island Navy Flying Club back in 2001. His name was Howard Jackson &, as Chief Pilot, he did stage checks as we progressed through training. I got to fly with him only a few times, but it really made an impression on me.

Howard was little, needed to sit on a cushion in the old T-41s that we flew. An old Navy guy whose career started with round engines & ended with turbines. Even as a newbie, I could tell immediately that he had an ease with the airplane that was special. Since then, I have flown with other capable pilots, but nobody else has shown Howard's special touch.

He had a very economical way of assessing my skills: put on instrument goggles & slow the airplane to just above stall with full flaps, then do a series of turns in slow flight with the stall horn blaring most of the time. I was working my butt off trying to maintain some semblance of smooth control. Howard exuded that relaxed, "You can do it, let me show you" attitude you noted. When he showed me, it was like any time I have been in the presence of true mastery (in any domain from music to flying)- immediate recognition blended with awe & appreciation. Hard to describe, but it was emminently clear the airplane was doing exactly what Howard wanted, with no discernable effort; complete comfort & ease.

Knowing that Howard had flown a lot of types, I asked him his favorite. Without hesitation he responded "A-4s."

Posted by: Chris Front | July 1, 2013 8:59 AM    Report this comment

Nice piece, Paul. A good pilot has judgement, recent experience, and presence of mind, i.e. well rested with all his faculties. You can't teach judgement; piloting is deteriorating skill; and you need to be sharp to fly safely. I've come to believe that these are the reasons for many if not most crashes.

Posted by: Thomas Reilly | July 1, 2013 9:32 AM    Report this comment

Judgement is the only necessity for those without rare personal challenges. With that, you can know your own limits based on your knowledge and skill. Then, you can live long enough to master all the skills to be a great pilot.

Posted by: Eric Warren | July 1, 2013 10:22 AM    Report this comment

Perhaps off topic, but what happened to John Deakin?

I bought my Cardinal as John was retiring from JAL and began to pen Pelican's Perch for Avweb. I love his irreverence toward bureaucracies and old wives tales, teaching with data and observation instead of the rote FAA nonsense I was stuffed with. I probably suffer from a bad case of hero worship, I can only imagine how it was to fly with him in his Commando or Bo.

John rather abruptly stopped writing. He continued teaching the Advanced Pilot Seminars for a while and has since disappeared. How is he?

Posted by: Thomas Connor | July 1, 2013 11:51 AM    Report this comment

Being among the many who are getting well into the ‘old duffer’ stage of piloting, I would say one measure of a good pilot is one who can somehow maintain all the good habits they were – we presume – once taught and properly integrate them with the experience and judgment gained over the years. I, unfortunately, ain’t one of those.

Complacency takes its toll, a fact brought home the other day during my latest biennial review, when on initiating the go part of a touch-and-go (never do those any more) I encountered my bad habit of not putting the prop full forward in anticipation of a go-around (never do those either, right?) In my defense this is a noise reduction habit, but it should at least be “idle power-full RPM”. And then there is the abbreviated pre-flight, when at the end of the third leg of a day’s flight a bystander asked me “is that little door back there supposed to be open”, referring to the inspection panel that had lost two front screws and was bent back like a door. Hey, the tires were up and there were no fluids on the ground, so we’re OK, right?

Posted by: John Wilson | July 1, 2013 11:59 AM    Report this comment

Thomas Conner asked "What happened to John Deakin?" I'm here, and touched by Paul's favorable comments. I'm fine, grounded because of several strokes, but still running APS, and active on the BeechTalk forum, less so on several others. At 74, I'm really enjoying being retired. Thanks for the comments!

Posted by: John Deakin | July 1, 2013 1:07 PM    Report this comment

John: Glad to know you're still pestering someone. Did you try to get a class 3 medical, flying lawn furniture or?

After making my comment I found this on the web and John's description of his stroke, especially how he and others realized something was wrong. Like an altitude chamber ride it might be worth a read to know the symptoms. Especially the denial part. pilotsofamerica dot com/forum/showthread dot php?t=24527

Posted by: Thomas Connor | July 1, 2013 2:28 PM    Report this comment

To John Deakin,
Really sorry to hear about your strokes. Hope they haven't caused any lingering effects.
I really appreciate all your Pelican Perch articles. Just this morning I sent a link to #18 "Mixture Magic" to a fellow CFO member. All your great work and knowledge is still showing us the light.

Posted by: Jerry Olson | July 1, 2013 2:52 PM    Report this comment

No, never even tried for the medical. After 51+ years being a professional pilot, and 39,000 hours, I've had all the fun I can stand!

Besides, there are still some very real limitations, and I just think it best to "hang it up." No regrets, at all!

Posted by: John Deakin | July 1, 2013 2:52 PM    Report this comment

Flight instructor's can't tell; in fact, there are some flight instructors that I won't fly with! Suffice it to say that PIC is an individual choice and 99.9% of those individuals will finish their days without an accident.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | July 1, 2013 7:24 PM    Report this comment

John Deakin, great to hear from you. Your articles have been a great source of enjoyable enlightment for me as well as the cause of many heated hangar discussions with some mechanics and pilots who just won't let themselves see the light. Thank you!

Posted by: Richard Montague | July 2, 2013 8:13 AM    Report this comment

Richard, thanks for your kind comments!

Posted by: John Deakin | July 2, 2013 8:58 AM    Report this comment

Paul, you got a good topic here. What makes a good pilot? Good hands, eyes, ears, knowledge, skills currency, confidence and serenity. All at the same time.

Just recently I read about Frank Borman, former astronaut, having said; "A superior pilot uses his superior judgment to avoid situations which require the use of his superior skill."

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | July 2, 2013 10:17 PM    Report this comment

A good pilot has a clear understanding of how things really work, and the ability to apply that knowledge. If the pilot is really good then they can explain these things to others. I’d like to thank John Deakin for doing this by writing honestly and humbly about his experience and using common sense examples to debunk a large amount of aviation misinformation. It always astonishes to me how much false knowledge people hold on to despite the obvious flaws in these beliefs. Many of those ideas will never be fully extinguished but John and several other aviation writers have provided all the water that would ever be necessary to douse them if one were only willing to read it and think.
When I teach my kids to fly, my binder of Pelican’s Perch columns will certainly be a part of our discussions. If they decide to become pilots, John’s ideas will advance them much closer to being a “good” pilot than I ever could on my own.

Posted by: MARK JENSEN | July 3, 2013 4:18 PM    Report this comment

I'd say knowing one's limits, a commitment to flying regularly, a realization that a pilot never stops learning, and enough discernment to know who to listen to.

Posted by: Josh Johnson | July 3, 2013 7:34 PM    Report this comment

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