This article is about the difference between a good pilot, and a bad pilot.


First we have to define what a “good pilot” is, and what a “bad pilot” is.  Amazingly, this simple definition can cause enormous amounts of trouble and hurt feelings.


Being the anachronistic dinosaur that I am, I personally define a “good pilot” as someone that doesn’t alter the appearance of the aircraft.  A “bad pilot” conversely alters the appearance of the aircraft, and in the process may very well injure or kill people dumb enough to be in the same aircraft as him, or unfortunate enough to be on the ground under him.


The above would appear to be simple and self-evident, but in our sensitive new-age times, an amazing number of touchy-feely people define a “good pilot” as someone who feels the compulsive, pathetic need to make as many new friends every day as he possibly can, while a “bad pilot” is the opposite.  I am not making this crap up.  I really wish I was – it would be funny if it weren’t so stupid.


No longer do people really care much if you crash or kill your passengers – that’s a “learning experience”.  If you have enough “learning experiences” you can probably get hired by Transport, so that you can spend the rest of your career touring and lecturing and spreading the word about all of your “learning experiences”.


What insane nonsense.  But again, I am a cranky old guy that cares much more about not having an accident, than people’s delicate feelings.  This, I understand qualifies me as a “Bad Pilot” in the estimation of the touchy-feely crowd, despite the fact that I haven’t dinged an airplane in a lifetime of flying.  Not a lot of “learning experiences” for me, I suppose.


But let’s get back and look at a “good pilot” by my definition, which means that he doesn’t bend any tin.  At least, he tries very hard not to.


Unless you are completely deranged – and there are some suicidal four-bars out there that have notably intentionally crashed 737’s and killed everyone on board – you probably don’t wake up in the morning and say in the mirror: “Today is a good day to trash an airplane”.


If you’re a sane pilot, you will do everything in your power not to damage an aircraft.  I hope.  Anything bad that happens is the result of a mistake.


So I’ve taken an entire page to come to the conclusion that I hope is blindingly obvious to you:  good pilots make fewer mistakes than bad pilots.


To be more specific, good pilots make fewer serious mistakes than bad pilots.


Unless you’re deluded or a pathological liar, I hope you will admit that everyone makes mistakes, all the time.  Human beings do that, you know.  How many courses that you took in the past, did you receive a mark of 100% on?


I have been flying for over 40 years, and in that time I am reasonably certain that I have never, ever performed a perfect, flawless flight.  Anyone that tells you that they have, is a liar.


Every flight is a collection of mistakes.  This is a fact.


A “good pilot” is quite aware (and very unhappy about) his mistakes, which he spends a lot of effort trying to reduce.  A pilot lacking this important self-motivation is just hamburger in the cockpit, and it’s no surprise to the rest of us when he crashes.  He just doesn’t care.


What is intensely important to realize is that not all mistakes are created the same.  There is a spectrum of errors.


For example, if I make the minor error of taxiing 4 inches left of centerline, I’m pissed off with myself for my inaccuracy, but bent tin is unlikely to result from it.


A very common and popular error with pilots is to forget to lower the gear before landing.  Fortunately this rarely results in fatalities but it’s very hard on the airplane.  One could classify this as a “major error” or a “learning experience” depending upon your perspective.


A “good pilot” tries very hard to minimize and never repeat his errors – especially major ones!


Here’s something that’s important to realize:  There are no new mistakes in aviation.  Every accident that’s going to happen this year, has already occurred many, many times before.  There’s not much new under the sun.  I am willing to wager a large amount of money that in 2015, for example, a Boeing will not crash because of an alien warship attack.  If that happens to you this year, kudos for originality.


If you accept this as axiomatic, and really care about making as few mistakes as possible going forward, we have begun the life-long journey of learning from other people’s mistakes, and not insist on making them all ourselves.


A “good pilot” has a near-OCD need to minimize his minor mistakes, and at the same time, is very aware of the existence of the spectrum of errors, and is alert to the dangers of lurking major mistakes.


A very smart man once said that someone who ignores the lessons of history is doomed to relive it, and boy, does that ever apply in spades to aviation.


I am disappointed in so many young people today, who want to put on a white shirt and gold bars, and climb into the right seat of a Boeing or Airbus at 300TT.  While they think they might be “Winning” Charlie Sheen-style, they have shortchanged themselves and their passengers.  They have neglected a huge amount of learning, in their need to get ahead.


I am puzzled by flight training today, which seems intent on disregarding the lessons of history.  You probably don’t care, but the very best B-schools out there very strongly emphasize case study learning.


If you want to qualify to fly low-altitude aerobatics at airshows, every year you need to take an ICAS test, the ground portion of which specifies a review of previous airshow accidents.  So, at least some people “get it”.


Little airplanes and big airplanes are different.  This simple fact eludes many.  They are flown differently, and have different kinds of typical accidents.


You’re probably going to start out flying little airplanes, at first.  If so, you might be interested to learn that 10% of accidents in little airplanes are due to simply running out of fuel.  Even big airplanes do this, every once in a while – see the Gimli Glider, Avianca Flight 52, etc – almost always due to a preceding sequence of events that created a nasty trap that the pilots fell into.


Incredibly, another 60% of General Aviation accidents occur during takeoff and landing, generally under fairly benign conditions.  Cirrus pilots are notorious for this.  Despite the requirement for Cirrus flight instructors to be super-men with super-factory training, their students often have really poor basic stick and rudder skills, which aren’t in the Cirrus business plan.


Many GA pilots never developed any basic stick and rudder skills in the first place due to the eternally tolerant nosewheel aircraft they trained on, and they certainly don’t fly enough to retain any proficiency, so whatever skill they had in the first place is certain to deteriorate.


Given the above, it’s no wonder that GA pilots struggle with basic takeoff and landing tasks.  Any kind of less-than-perfect conditions presents a real challenge.


So if you focus on not running out of gas (hint: get a fuel totalizer, and lean the mixture) and developing some basic stick & rudder skills, you have addressed a staggering 70% of the GA accidents.


What are some other high-runner categories of GA accidents?  Navigation, weather, night and mechanical come to mind.



In the Bad Old Days, we didn’t have GPS.  You are a fool to fly without at least one GPS with a strong power supply.  I would be really happy if people learned to fly a heading and time, but that skill is lost.  Just follow the magenta line.  So, navigation shouldn’t really be a problem any more – just hit the Direct-To button and hope there’s no restricted airspace or tall stuff between you and your destination.



Weather is a huge challenge for a low-time VFR-only GA pilot, who generally doesn’t understand the weather very well, and struggles with making go/no-go decisions.  It is all too easy for him to take off into really nasty stuff, or to cancel when conditions aren’t really that bad.  I might suggest that most GA pilots spend a little bit more time learning about the weather – understanding and predicting it themselves by looking at the raw data – and most important be willing to simply turn around or divert when the wx deteriorates.  You must be flexible.



Night is extremely dangerous for GA pilots.  Accidents are night are many times more likely to be fatal, than during the day.  Don’t think that because you have your night rating, and are legal for night flight, that you are prepared for what you will encounter.  Just west of me is Algonquin Park, which low-time pilots and their passengers routinely fatally crash into, every year. 


They have trained around large cities with good visual horizons because of all the lights, and have no idea about how deadly the transition to instruments is.  JFK, jr didn’t, either.  When I do a night rating, I head the student out over Algonquin Park, and as the lights disappear, he loses his visual horizon and despite any kind of ground briefing, he always fails to transition to the attitude indicator, and he rolls upside down.  That generally gets his attention.  I take control, and hopefully he has learned a lifelong lesson about the deadly need for a conscious transition to flying on instruments, even in legally VFR conditions, in the absence of a visual horizon.


Another deadly trap at night is CFIT – simply flying into unseen objects on the ground – see the Herc at Alert – because a safe altitude is not determined and adhered to.


If night VFR is starting to sound a lot like IFR – instrument flying, safe altitudes – that’s because it is.  Please remember, just because something is legal, doesn’t mean it’s safe.  An amazing number of pilots don’t get that.



Last category I will mention is mechanical, which historically causes around 10% of GA accidents (this means that pilots cause the other 90%).  The lesson to learn here is that as the pilot, it’s up to you to deal with other people’s mistakes – not just yours.  Could be a mechanic, the manufacturer, or a supplier.  While this might not seem fair at first, well, that’s life in the pointy end.  You’re holding the bag.


But it’s not as bad as it sounds.  No one will ever tell you this, but there is considerable redundancy in an aircraft, and you can have an awful lot of stuff broken on it, and it will still fly ok, if you don’t let it rattle you.


For example, we could have an airplane with a broken vacuum pump (no attitude indicator, no heading indicator), broken pitot-static systems (no airspeed indicator, no altimeter, no VSI), no compass, broken tachometer, broken starter, broken alternator, all the radios gone, missing battery, unserviceable flaps, dead right magneto, missing interior …. and it will fly just fine.


I shouldn’t mention this, but a few years back, a friend of mine was going to cancel a flight because his right brake was mushy.  I looked at the strong crosswind from the right across the runway, and told him he didn’t actually need it.  He asked how he could turn right?  I told him a 270 left would probably work.  His flight went fine.  Don’t tell anyone this, though.


As long as gas is flowing to the engine and the prop is turning, and the flight controls move, life is good in VMC.  Even that stuff isn’t actually required. 


A friend of mind lost his C140’s prop in flight, so he just landed at a nearby airport.  Many airshow pilots have done that.  And I routinely teach flight control failure in my advanced checkouts.  You can actually fly an airplane just fine with power, pitch trim and rudder – you don’t need ailerons or elevator.  With two engines, you don’t even need the rudder.  Heck, if you have doors and dihedral on a single, you don’t need the rudders, either.


People will criticize me for saying this, but become an expert at flying broken airplanes, and flying them well.  This skill will pay off hugely in the future, when you have to deal with other people’s mistakes.




March 2015