Does the perfect pilot exist? If you ask most pilots, they’ll jokingly reply, “Sure, you’re looking at him.”
But it’s no joke to Bill Rhodes, who is heading up the Airmanship Education Research Initiative (AERI). A retired Air Force officer, he specializes in professional ethics, having served as head of the philosophy department at the Air Force Academy. Now owner of Aerworthy Consulting, the long-time pilot is also the owner of a Cessna 210.
Rhodes, who has been working on the initiative for a couple of years, is excited about what has been found so far. “I feel like we’re on to something,” he said, noting he believes he can start to “diagnose some of the warning signs” in pilots, as well as begin to develop the notion of what makes a perfect GA pilot.
So far, the research has centered around a group of pilots flying in sims. What he’s found is that those pilots leaning towards perfection, when presented with a situation in the simulator that has “killed” other pilots, fly through those same situations very well.
And while many would say it’s a matter of experience, Rhodes’ research is revealing that it’s more a matter of attitude.
“Perhaps the cause of so many accidents is not so much in what people know or don’t know, but in what they care about,” said Jim Lauerman, top gun at Avemco Insurance Co., which is a sponsor of the research, along with Cirrus Aircraft, other companies and several universities.
“Who one is, what one cares about, and what they value is a bigger predictor than just behavior,” Rhodes echoes.
But what does that all mean for GA? It boils down to ethics. And while ethics have been developed in the medical community, as well as the military, in GA “there is no theory of airmanship,” he said. “There is no convenient language.”
Of course, anyone who has spent any time hangar flying knows that every airport has its good pilots and the pilots the experts dub “scary.” Each pilot has a gut instinct of who they feel safe flying with and who is an accident waiting to happen.
The problem is, about 10 GA pilots die a week — that’s more than the number of troops dying in Afghanistan each week. “We’re losing friends,” Rhodes said, “and we’ll probably lose more.”
That’s why he’s hoping what he learns from this research can be incorporated into training — as well as the GA culture — to save lives. But before that can happen, he needs to quantify his results.
What he knows so far? This is what scares the experts: Careless or reckless attitudes; an overinflated ego; pilots who are in a hurry; bad human factors within the system; skill deterioration; and health issues.
“When I began asking what scares the experts, patterns began to emerge, then some individuals I know began to emerge,” Rhodes said, recalling that when he began to talk to CFIs and “named names,” he found that those individuals who fit the “scary” pattern were well-known. One CFI, talking about one of the “named” pilots, said: “Yeah, he’s dead — scud running.”
So how do you become one of the “perfect” pilots and not a statistic?
“Our industry is very good at teaching what to do as far as behavior,” he said. “Doing things well is important, but often pilots know what to do and fail to do it.”
Consider taking risks. While flying always involves risk, it comes down to a matter of how well a pilot manages that risk. Also important: A pilot knowing his (or her) own limitations. He tells the story of one pilot, considered a show-off, who was known for “pushing it.” He crashed while attempting to roll his aircraft, killing all five aboard, including two children. “Not too long before this happened, a friend said, ‘he’s going to kill himself one day.”
Are you a know it all? If you don’t have the “proper humility,” trouble could be ahead. These pilots often resist advice, even from their CFIs. When they have problems, they blame the airplane, the simulator or their instructors. “When something is going wrong, the first place to look is at yourself,” Rhodes said, noting expert pilots know this.
Do you brag a lot or worry about appearances? Aviation is infused with a “Top Gun” mentality, where we admire people who take risks. “We need to address that in a systematic way,” he said, pointing to the days when it “used to be really cool to drive drunk, then society said no.”
The crowd a pilot hangs out with is a key component to that pilot’s development. If he gets in with the right crowd, the more experienced pilots can bring him up right and call him on it when he does something risky. “But if he gets in with a bunch of yahoos who don’t preflight…,” Rhodes said.
Pilots in a hurry are another scary bunch. “I gotta get moving, gotta get there, gotta speed through training — there’s no time for the real business of flying,” Rhodes said. “The real business of flying takes time, devotion and commitment.” Consider if your doctor felt the same way, bragging, “I got my brain surgery degree in three weeks!” Would you want to go to that doctor?
While Rhodes stresses that his research is in the embryonic stages, he notes that while a scary pilot is often easy to spot, an expert — or “perfect” — pilot is not. “It comes down to what aviation qualities do we trust?” he said. “We’re not sure yet, but it looks like self-knowledge, self-mastery, caring about what’s really important, and giving aviation the time and devotion it — and our families — deserve.”