Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Mind of a Pilot

It has been said that the general public tends to think of general aviation pilots as daredevils. Sure, there are airline pilots, who present that professional doctorly stigma, but most of the public have seen airshow pilots, test pilots, and fighter pilots. The film industry uses airplanes and pilots to add excitement and danger to the picture. I know and have taught piltos from all these walks. I would not classify any of them as daredevils. Pilots who are truely daredevils tend to wash out or scare themselves out of the business. It all has to do with the way pilots think.

Pilots by nature are control freaks (I am one of them). Many of them are afraid of heights (I am one of them) . Most of all Pilots are planners, which really hails back to the control freak part. Pilots are habitual planners. It may not always be on paper, but plans are being made and modified all the time and when a plan is executing, the pilot is examining that plan for flaws and developing backup and contignency plans. Lets take the pilots that I have listed above and discuss their jobs. You will notice a similarity. For the sake of brevity, I am not going to list every pilot job, so don't get upset if I don't list your favorite pilot profession.

Airline Pilots.

Whether it is a regional jet or a major airline, all of these guys have shown that they can pass the most rigorous test that the FAA can come up with. They have to know their planes inside and out, understand the FAA rules to a "T", and they have show that they can fly the plane very consistently. Most importantly these guys can be in charge and make correct decisions very quickly. In their training they are hit with terrible scenarios that happen at the worst time. How do they do it? The plans are always subject to change, and the pilot has already thought through a plan of action for most of these scenarios. So when scenario number 4017 comes up then the pilot has thought about it before. When Capt. Sully lost both engines over NY, he knew that he needed a plan. The first part of the plan was to fly the plane, the second part of the plan is find a place to put this beast down without hurting too many people. He made the plan for the Hudson River and executed it beatifully.

Airshow Pilots

These guys are masters of making something look completely out of control. In truth, they have rehearsed their act over and over and over again. They know that the forth turn will be to the north followed by a loop and a barrel roll. Everything is perfectly choreographed. There may be slight changes to the plan because of technical or weather reasons.

Test Pilots

Test pilots have a daunting task. Their job is to find the limits and the characteristics of the test aircraft. In order find limits, you have to exceed some of them. Obviously they don't want to do anything that would over stress the airplane, but the do need to test the flight envelope. Again, every part of every flight plan is thought out and contigency plans are thought out as well. If and when things go awry then they simply activate a plan and hopefully all will turn out well.

Fighter Pilots

Adaptability is the key here. Fighter pilots also have a plan to start out with. Part of that plan is looking for someone else trying to ruin their day. The enemy will try to give the fighter pilot as little warning as possible to react to gun fire or missle fire. The fighter pilot has also been taught a bag of tricks which in essesnse are small plans to be executed. What these guys do IS dangerous. They are out there risking their necks for us. The planning and the training that they do reduces that risk and helps make a terrible risk managable and survivable.


I have done some things that seem risky, but in those cases, I have done everything possible, to minimize the risks. This morning I had a plan to go to Shelby County Airport (EET) and move our Arrow to Bessemer Airport, and then to move the Cub back to Shelby County Airport (a plane swap), because I needed to have some work done on the Cub. The weather the evening before was picture perfect. I woke up to fog, thick fog. It turned into rain and thunderstorms. It was an hour drive to EET. I watched the weather on the Garmin 496 the whole way in the truck. It was getting better and then worse again. As I got to EET, I just kept driving. I had already made the contigency plan to drive on to Bessemer Airport if the weather did not look good. So I had a plan. I evaluated it until, I had to actually abandon it, and then it was easilly abandoned and the new plan activated. My work got done on the Cub so the ends were met with alternate means. When I had to do a trailer take off of my seaplane, I spent weeks planning every detail and every contigency in my head. I was still nervous, because I was afraid of the unknown things that might come up. I knew that I had done a good job of researching and studying thus eliminating as many unknowns as possible.

We are taught as pilots to stay ahead of the airplane. Don't dwell on what you have done. So your last landing wasn't your best. What counts is the next landing. Even if you broke something on the airplane with your last landing. The only thing effective that you can do about it now is fly the plane to your next landing. The really important thing is the next 5 things that you are going to do, not the last. If you know what those next five things are then you are ahead of the game. If you just sit back and react to whatever happens to you then you will be ill prepared for whatever those five things are. If those five things are planned and executed then all should be well with the world.

Adaptability vs Compusivity
As I said before. Part of this mindset has to be adaptability. Pilots are almost universally goal oriented people. We have ratings and certificates that we have worked hard to achieve. We have to draw a line though at the thought that a mission must be completed as planned or even completed at all. There are some pilots every year that push on, even though the odds are turning against them. This is the pressing on into deteriorating weather or skipping a precautionary fuel stop. We all know that no mission is worth dying for, but somehow these complusive pilots feel the need to stick to their original plan. The best pilots, the ones that live to be old pilots, are not afraid to craft and adopt a new plan when the current one is not panning out.

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