The Left Seat

Safe Piloting is like a three-Legged Stool…
If one leg is flawed, then the entire stool becomes unstable

For well over 40 years I have flown and observed other pilots. I have come to encapsulate the safe and successful art of piloting into a comprehensive package which I call the three legs of the flying stool. These three legs are: the physical aspect of flying an aircraft, from take-off through cruise to landing; the combination of what must be known to fly safely, such as regulations, aircraft performance and limitations, and all the flight planning data needed to insure a safe and successful flight; and judgement, the ability to consider all information available and make the best decisions. If one of these legs is off, the entire stool can become unstable and unsafe.

I have known a few pilots who have attained a high level of functioning in all three areas. Most of us do not achieve that but do perform well enough to be very safe pilots. Other pilots tend to be remiss in one or more areas and those are the pilots you don’t want to fly with.

Some pilots I have known, had purchased a plane, new to them. Instead of flying locally, long enough to become acquainted with and familiar with the flight characteristics of their new buy, attempted flying in situations that required more skill with the plane than they had yet acquired. A n example of this is the death of singer John Denver. He bought a used experimental (home-built) plane that had a complicated system for switching fuel tanks. He was flying over the ocean, off the coast of California, when he ran out of gas. It is presumed his proficiency in switching tanks was limited by a lack of familiarity with the system.

He may have been an experienced and proficient pilot, but his lack of experience with his new plane, was his downfall. His proficiency leg was so unstable he paid the ultimate price.

When I was in ground school for my Instrument rating, so was an acquaintance who flew as a commercial pilot for a local charter company. This man was a genius for his ability to make any airplane perform perfectly. As a pilot, no one who could best him. Yet, he was in his third round of ground school, trying to pass the FAA written Instrument test. He could ace the IFR flying but knowing and understanding the regulations was his downfall. His knowledge leg was very unstable.

Another friend was a newly minted pilot. We were attending an aviation fly-in, in the mountains. He had a free morning and he wanted to fly his wife up some canyons to show her the place where she had spent her summers as a child. But the weather was IFR, with rain, low ceilings, and limited visibility. Unfortunately, he had promised his wife a trip to recall her childhood memories so off they went. He planned to skirt around the foothills, fly up the canyon a short distance and turn around and return to the airport. That he did, but, as he flew up the canyon, the ceiling lowered, forcing him to go lower. He realized his mistake too late and while attempting to turn around, crashed. It took two days to locate them. The plane was totaled and both were injured. His judgement leg was seriously flawed, creating a dangerously unstable stool.

Safe flying demands that pilots be trained, educated, and capable of executing good judgement when in the left seat. How is this possible? It requires time and the motivation to be the best pilot you can be. It takes book-learning, safety seminars, and a lot of flight time, too, to put into practice what you have learned.

The airlines and the military know how to keep the stool legs of their pilots perfectly balanced all the time. Periodic ground school and simulator training, check rides by chief pilots or the FAA, and continual flying (either training flights or actual operational flights) keep military and airline pilots on the top of their game.

For me, I had a CFII give me an instrument check ride, every six months (we don’t have a lot of IFR weather in southern NM). I had a Flight Review every year and would attend 10 to 30 hours of safety seminars, each year.

A good friend (and an exceptional professional pilot) completes several on-line safety courses every year. When I owned Mooney turbo airplanes, I would attend periodic professional ground school classes and simulator training, followed by a proficiency flight with a school CFII. Mountain flying training was another method of keeping my stool balanced. This includes several hours of a seminar on safe mountain flying, followed the next day with a half-day of flying in the Rocky Mountains of northern NM and CO.

Insurance companies, researching the difference between safe pilots and those at risk found that the safe pilots had two things in common, that at-risk pilots lack. First, they flew a lot, not a couple of hours a month, but several hours every month. Enough to retain a high degree of proficiency in their plane. Second, they accumulated quite a bit of safety training each year. Proficiency check rides, flight reviews, and attendance at safety seminars are a regular occurrence among the safer pilots.

So, how well balanced is your stool?