Building a better yardstick

Periodically, I, like all pilots, am asked to divulge how many hours I’ve logged. How much of that total is single engine and how much is multi engine? I’m asked to break out the land plane time from the seaplane time. Like you, I’m asked to break out night time, cross-country time, taildragger time, and every other category of time the form’s author could envision. My most recent entanglement with this came this past week. And once again I was forced to tell the truth — I don’t know how many hours I’ve amassed. Maybe more importantly, I don’t care.

Is my total time really much of an indicator of my skill level, my depth of knowledge, my willingness to help another pilot, or anything else of value? I think not. It’s a number, and in a society that covets information, a bigger number often signifies a better result. Or that’s what a cursory examination of the data might suggest. That’s not always the case, however. Certainly, the collection of more time has not been a reliable indicator of greater safety in aviation. Not on its own, anyway.

Let’s assume we have a 200-hour private pilot who flies two or three times each week. She’s building time toward her commercial certificate, and she’s motivated by a real affection for being in the air. Let’s compare her to a 2,000-hour ATP who flies once a month or less. He was headed for the airlines, but things didn’t work out, so now he’s selling real estate on a full-time basis.

Which of those two individuals has the higher level of professionalism? Which is more proficient, more capable, more situationally aware while flying? Which of them do you suppose is more adept at receiving a briefing, or is more skilled at shooting a precision approach?

The answers to those questions are all ascertainable. But their flight time alone will not divulge any secrets that provide real insight into their character, their capability, or their proficiency. So why do we collect that information? I couldn’t tell you. I really couldn’t.

Now let’s deal with another aspect of this data collection issue: Bragging rights. Pilots are famous for grading themselves, each other, and whoever just landed out there on the runway — too long, too short, too hard, or with a satisfyingly gentle squeak of rubber on pavement. For my part, I will not participate in this practice. Partly because I just don’t have the ego required to pretend I’m better than anyone else. And partly because I’m not sure there’s any way to really measure who is better than whom — especially since that distinction is often only valid in a limited range of aircraft under a limited range of conditions.

Any relatively low-time CFI who has had the distinction of flying in a light single engine GA airplane beside a high-time pilot who exclusively flies large, heavy jets has had the eye opening experience of finding out that not all skill sets translate well from one aircraft to the next. The lowly CFI may have one tenth the time of the turbine driver, but the turbine pilot has forgotten much about torque, the proper use of the rudder, and the limitations a low-horsepower engine can put on your in-flight plans.

That is not to say the jet jock isn’t an excellent pilot. They might be exceptional in the aircraft they routinely fly. But move them from the big iron with a crew mate sitting beside them, masses of power and multiple systems to support their decision making into a small, piston-powered machine with nothing more sophisticated in the cockpit than a wet compass, and you’ve got a whole new level of entertainment coming your way.

So let’s at least consider inventing a new yardstick to measure our status. Let’s consider shifting the focus of our comparison systems from measuring ourselves against others to instead just measuring ourselves. Time totals would be useless in this new method of tabulating our potential. Recent upgrades in certificates and ratings might matter though, a newly endorsed proficiency check would count, even adding a taildragger endorsement to your certificate would indicate a serious interest in being good, being better, maybe even being the best we can be.

If the truth be told, I don’t expect anyone to change the way they log time because I advanced this argument. But I would be personally and professionally gratified if at least a few people started thinking their total time wasn’t really much of an indication of how safe they are.

We could all stand to look at the industry now and then as a new applicant might. Each of us could do with an honest self-evaluation, too. Maybe if we weren’t quite so impressed with ourselves and our hour counts, we might take that review of our skills and knowledge a bit more seriously — which would benefit us all in the long run.

Comments

  1. Stuart C. Ashley says:

    Hi Jamie;
    I agree with the content of your article. However an aspect that wasn’t touched on very strongly is that people vary; in fact people vary very much. Some can pick up new things so fast it makes your head spin. They do it the first time like they had been doing it all their lives. On the other hand we all know about the guy that has a thousand hours logged; the same hour over and over again. Its hard to differentiate between these two guys on the ground. You have to see them in action. You have to see them in an emergency.
    Cheers! Stu.

  2. Ed Seaton says:

    I soloed a J-3 in 1946.82 now.I don’t claim to know it all,but in those 66 years I have flown and instructed all kind of Pilots.But i believe to be a good Pilot,you got to Love Flying,be safely minded,have a good atitude and be skilled at whatever type of flying you do.I have been a crop-duster,charter pilot,corporation pilot,pilot examiner,ATP and a CFII.and a advance Ground Instructor.Hours might count in some cases,but the above is more important.EdSeaton

  3. Gary Readio says:

    I have always been an advocate for quality versus quantity. In the days when I was involved in hiring, I was much more impressed by someone who had survived at least a year flying cargo in the northeast. No autopilots, no copilots and a lot of time to be creative. Anyone who survived without accident or incident was likely a good stick. Variety in equipment and a willingness to follow checklists is imperative. When it comes to instruction, it was a function of more of what the instructor actually understood about the aircraft and the operating environment and how effectively he could convey that knowledge.

    I have encountered many low-time pilots with a diverse experience level that I would enjoy having as a crewmember. On the other hand, I have encountered far too many high time pilots who neither possess the skills to fly properly nor the knowledge base to support their efforts! I am much more at ease with a pilot who can still safely fly the airplane long after the voltage spike has wiped out his electronic masterpiece.

    An experienced pilot who can communicate effectively is a treasure! If you have a pilot who makes clear, concise entries on forms and maintains a legible pilot record, they are valuable. I have several friends who are also mechanics who used to work with me on my airplane. Absolutely superb document practices! This is a priceless skill. Knowledge, skill and ability are far more important than high numbers.

    Pay attention and leave the ego someplace else.

  4. Let’s face it guys, hours matter to a point of experience and proficiency. Whether you fly light or heavy equipment, you are always exposed. The exposure is simply different because the flying is different.

  5. “But their flight time alone will not divulge any secrets that provide real insight into their character, their capability, or their proficiency.”

    I agree. Solo flight is unobserved, so you get much less feedback on how you are doing.

  6. Terry D Welander says:

    I have read Jeff Skiles (miracle on the Hudson co pilot) articles in Sport Aviation;
    just wonderful. I mention this because in one of those articles, he says the airlines
    and commercial flying are based on currency and recurrency. Or the log books
    almost go out the window. Applying at least some airline methods, or at least
    looking at flying skills in any non logbook evaluation; or as the airlines looks at flying
    skill; may be a possibility as an alternative view. Or, any really or truly objective
    view of flying skills should take into consideration any realistic alternative evaluation
    method; especially if it is regularly used; such as airlines methods.

    And certificated aircraft are so reliable, GA aircraft are 3 to 10 times safer than driving, depending on whose numbers you are looking at. Any evaluation that does not
    consider how much safer flying is compared to any driving in the first place would be highly erroneous. Or more directly, on average, pilots are 3 to 10 times more safe than
    drivers; a critical consideration in any pilot proficiency evaluation.

    Fortunately, insurance rates are based on actual accident payouts, which is why small aircraft insurance are still and should always be affordable. Being safe in a small aircraft is not just talk for pilots A pilots life and everyone in the aircraft depends on it.

    There is no bigger incentive than survival for keeping any situation safe.
    In aircraft, survival is front and center every second for practically all pilots. Distractions in the cockpit can be deadly. And it is obvious to every, I repeat every pilot in existence.

    NTSB aircraft accident statistics show most accidents are pilot error; distractions, interruptions in hand eye coordination, and poor or no pre flight planning; all very big no nos for all pilots. But a hand full of pilots keep making these obvious mistakes which were trained out them; which they chose to ignore. I repeat, which these hand full of accident pilots chose to ignore.

    Or small aircraft accidents are by pilots who have ignored their training; or failed to apply their training based on well known and reasonable pilot standards; based on NTSB records. I urge you to read and/or scan the NTSB aircraft accident records. They are on line and very enlightening.

    A non related, but real possible fix for the Boeing 787 battery fires: circulate dry, cold, nitrogen or argon gas or a mix through the battery compartment to keep the battery temperatures within limits. The gas could be re used or vented overboard, either or
    both. The hard part would be probably insuring a nearly uniform dispersed gas flow
    so there would be no hot spots. Please pass on to Boeing and the FAA as what appears to
    be the most obvious and direct solution to me.

  7. Thomas Meleck says:

    Interesting topic. There are many different kinds of flying and logging hours. My best friend used to fly to altitude, put on the autopilot and log those hours as PIC. Those logged hours are a lot different than the ones spent down below struggling to maintain altitude, heading and speed manually in contrary weather conditions. The pilots in the Paris bound airliner that was lost in the Atlantic recently had probably logged a lot of hours on autopilot, but when they had to take manual control, they accidentally flew the plane into the ocean.

  8. Harvey Swift says:

    I too feel the the number of hours in your log book is not a real good indicator of flying skill. I’m an airline pilot and fly about 750 hours a year. All those hours are great for proficiency in moving around the country. I keep my stick and rudder skills sharp by flying my homebuilt taildraging sportplane a couple hours a week. I log my GA hours, I don’t log airline hours.

  9. Jim Klick says:

    I would rather fly with the guy(or girl) who doesn’t think he as good as he really is,
    than the one who thinks he is way better than he really is.
    Attitude is everything.

  10. Jamie,
    By hours and logbook I am still IFR current, but I haven’t flown in two months, so I have to fly with an instructor because I don’t think I am proficient at this time. I agree with the others that skills degrade quickly and IFR proficiency demands practice. I set my own minimums for flying that are higher than the ‘legal’ standard because I want more room to react. Same with skill proficiency.

  11. Ed Watson says:

    Great article. My only comment would be that real “proficency” can only be had by flying a lot of flights (long and short) in a plane that your familiar with and “know” and in all types of wx and in “the system”. Then when you are looking at an airline job you have mad a lot of takeoff and landings, know the plane and its systems and how to use the system to get what you need at the time. I was blessed to be able to fly a BE-35 for an average of 300 hrs per year for over 10 years all over the USA and when I gave it up I believe I was proficient. Recent experience really counts in my book. If I had to start over I would be a student with a new license to learn.

  12. The number of hours logged is no guarantee of success at an airline. You still must pass the rigorous training and checking to be successful. After a 35 year career with a legacy carrier, I flew with a wide variety of pilots. Although some were better than others, our standardized training and standardized procedures made for a safe operation. In many cases, the Regional airlines outsource their training while the legacy airlines do in house training and checking. I believe a candidate for an airline job has a better chance of success after completing a formal training curriculum at a recognized facility than a pilot towing a banner for 1500 hours.

  13. JamesNoBrakes says:

    The reason that “minimums” are set is economics. Insurance mandates these because they find “more” qualified pilots at the higher experience levels. This isn’t to say that there aren’t a good amount of adequate, or even better pilots at lower experience levels, but they find there are more at the higher levels, and anything necessary to “weed out” the good pilots at the lower levels would be more costly. Find a way to assess the lower-time pilots cheaper, and I’m sure they’d go for that. I see most young people learning to fly try to do it as fast and as cheap as possible. Two things that do not really help to ensure they learn and can retain the proper skills.

    Look at any other job or industry, experience is usually a huge factor, whether it’s piloting or carpentry.

  14. Hans Koeners says:

    Absolutely true!

  15. I feel the same way, which is one reason I stopped logging my time. I generally can’t stand any type of record keeping, certificates or other supposed proofs that are designed to demonstrate — purely on paper, but not in the real world — my supposed skill or competency level. Nevertheless, I found out that in this world of people who do believe in the fairy tales created by such supposed proofs, you pay a price for not participating in the system. For example, I always had in the back of my mind the thought that it might be fun to get paid for flying and/or teaching flying. Now I understand they raised one of the requirements to 1,500 hours time. Too bad my records don’t show I have it, although they might show me a lot closer if I had kept them.

  16. David Cowan says:

    The only important time for a pilot is the hour that has yet to get in the logbook. That is the next hour that you fly!!!

  17. Lots of great ideas…at first glance. All this opens the door to more govt supervision, which we don’t neede. another good measure is the total number of take-offs and landings and the number of instrument approaches…and actual wx time. However, I think we better stay with what we’ve got and self drive our professionalism…rather than ask big brother to do it.

  18. Dale Rust says:

    Being ‘skillfll at the controls’ is no guarantee one will “live to live to die in bed” And just because one has made a name for themselves in some aviation endeavor, flying -wise, is no guarantee that they will not ‘meet their demise’ when PIC in some other type ‘flying machine’. Most aviation accidents can be attributed to improper attitude, and, as one oldtimer put it, having insufficient respect for the airplane. It is attitude, attitude, and attitude. Although I will say that in most of my flight reviews that I perform with pilots, I see the first thing to go, proficiency-wise, is the plain ole inability to hold the proper airspeed on final ,,,.,. but then, most of them fly off of 4-5000 ft. runways, so why would they care.

  19. Alan Malone says:

    I tried to email the author at the address given at the end of the article, but the address was rejected. I have some material I’d like to forward to him, if I could get in touch. Please let me know how I can make contact.

    Alan Malone

  20. I agree 99% with all that has been said. I would like to point out that a high time pilot that flies regularly, and flies varied kinds of flight can take some credit for attaining the high time. I am not suggesting that the 5000 hour commercial pilot with 4500 flights doing the same thing should have bragging rights. Aside from the nit above high time is only one metric to be used in assessing pilot competency. That’s we we have flight reviews and the wings program. I would encourage all pilots that fly GA to avail themselves of the opportunity that safety seminars and wings afford. Fly with varied instructors so that you not only pick up their strengths but overcome their weaknesses also.

    Thanks for the great article James. There have been other articles that mention high time pilots lack of basic stick and rudder skills, but your article is the best.

  21. Jamie you’re right on.

    Putting to work the concept that it is demonstrated proficiency, not a Pilot’s resume, that is the best indicator of their ability to fly safely. We’re excited to report we’re getting alignment with this from our partners around the aviation industry.

    So instead of asking Pilots to produce documents, we’re asking them to demonstrate proficiency. We know that if Pilots can consistently perform to the PTS, the system works great, and the industry agrees.

    Instead of whacking folks over the head with the stick of regulation or policy, we’re going to be hanging a carrot…

    By completing a comprehensive annual checkout with OpenAirplane… Pilots will reset the clock on their Flight Review, earn a discount on their renter’s insurance, and gain access to a network of the same make/model aircraft in the network across the country.

    You make the case eloquently. I hope you’ll be flying with us soon. (We’re launching the service this quarter.)

  22. Steve Kane says:

    This is a great comment. Last week I assisted at our glider club’s winch clinic. For anyone who has never experienced a winch launch in a glider, it is a very pointed test of airmanship skills. The winch pulls the glider up at an approximate 45 degree angle and release does not occur until the glider has reached flying speed. Last week we had 3 airline pilots as students at the clinic. The emergency simulation was rope break at about 300 feet above the runway. When the glider releases, the pilot must immediately dive to the runway to reduce angle of attack and increase flying speed to avoid a stall and spin – almost certainly fatal at that altitude. Needless to say, pilots who fly big passenger jets are prejudiced against dives to the runway from 300 feet. All three of our airline pilot students eventually did fine and were certified for winch launch, but, it was a tough exercise for them. Even different models of gliders have vastly different flight characteristics. Better get a check ride with an instructor when you try any aircraft that you have not flown before. It is absolutely true that pilots are qualified to fly what they fly, and, perhaps, not much else.

  23. Dennis H. Vied says:

    You make some very good points, which have the subject of much discussion over the past 50 years or so. It’s true, total time is not the sole measure of skill or ability.

    But, there’s an old saying, paraphrased from Ecclesiastes:
    The race doesn’t always go to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.

    The real truth is, if you want that flying job, you better have the time logged to back it up.

  24. Hugh Jorgan says:

    Having been involved with hiring for a Regional Airline I can tell you a little about this subject. To me hours (Total Time) represents potential exposure. Emphasis on the word potential. When we are looking for a pilot candidate our ideal individual will be instrument current and have already been exposed to EVERY possible and potential aviation calamity imaginable and have survived them all easily. As you can imagine we rarely find that exact individual. Now, with that being said it’s easy to see that next best possible solution is to pick someone as close to this ideal applicant as possible. Since we are looking for someone with a lot of exposure to aviation’s difficulties and dilemmas it only logically follows that we need someone with a lot of experience.

    Now, I fully realize that having 1500 hours is NO guarantee that you actually have this “Exposure”. But simply looking at statistics it is much more likely that the 1500 hour person will have had this exposure than the 250 hour individual. And I know all too well that right now as I write this there is a young military aviator with all of 300 hours making a night carrier landing in difficult conditions in an F/A-18. The difference here being the military has had the “luxury” of bringing this aviator up from the start and applying a well measured set of tests throughout that time that helps to refine a desired final product. That luxury is currently not shared by Regional Airlines that have individuals of enormously varied backgrounds showing up for pilot jobs and have a very limited budget to use to screen who is the “best” of the bunch. Much to the chagrin of every starry-eyed 250 hour pilot out there – the simplest and cheapest metric throughout airline hiring has been total time. Has it been 100% accurate ? No. But if I don’t have a big budget with which to run guys thru daunting simulator scenarios total time has honestly been an overall pretty good metric – like it or not.

  25. Bill Scott says:

    I should have introduced my earlier comment wit:
    Let’s use number of landings instead of hours to measure by.

  26. Great article and I also agree with Larry’s comments. I’d add that if one really wanted to assign a metric to quantify pilot proficiency, I’d suggest using number of hand-flown take-offs and landings, and/or hours spent practicing slow flight and stalls and similar maneuvers that occur at the edge of an aircraft’s operating envelope. I don’t want to take away from hours spent logging cross-country time (whether in a large airliner or small single piston-engine plane), as that time does reinforce knowledge of and proficiency in ‘working within the system’, navigating and aircraft monitoring. But it’s generally ‘middle of the envelope’ flying and too many accidents occur when pilots depart the envelope.

  27. So true. I’ve been saying this for many years and always get called names.

  28. Bill Scott says:

    Right on Jamie. For more than thirty years I have been loging (along with all the other variables you mentioned) the number of take offs in a separate column – - from landings.
    Now I’m not talking about auto pilot assisted and auto throttle action landings.
    I mean REAL – hands on – make your own decisions (right or wrong) landings,
    Then sit back and critique yourself to learn from each and every one, so that the next time you get better at that specific aspect of your own abilities.

    I too read the AOPA write-up on the young woman who did the Cherokee ditching in the Hudson River. A fantastic job. The one outstanding thing that both she and Sully have or had in common was that each know their airplane well and knew that it had to FLY all the way. The old saw that says: “Fly it until the last piece of the airplane stops moving.” was true in both of their situations.

    Keep up the good works. We ALL need it.

  29. It would be more meaningful if somehow we could differentiate between hand-flying and operating the autopilot. After an early, unscheduled retirement, I spent two years flying aerial pipeline patrol in a Cessna 177 Cardinal — hand-flying at 300 feet AGL for up to 10 hours a day. Everytime I had to ride the airlines, I’d chuckle at the captains’ and first-officers’ self-importance …

  30. Adam Ondrajka says:

    Great post! I’ve argued that for quite a while while. AOPA posted a great article a couple days ago about a Cherokee 6 landing in the Hudson River on an engine out situation and they mentioned it never made the national news even though it was done much the same was as Sullenburg. Training and proficiency is everything not so much the hours. Not too long ago I had a couple close calls with solo pilot VFR into IMC due to weather in Class C airspace followed by engine out over Lake Huron with a beach landing a week later. My beach landing made local news and everything came out fine.

    I agree the yardstick we are measured by is just numbers…its not like a practical test that actually shows what a pilot is capable of. The key is all about how you train and how you fly. The 3rd phone call I made after my beach landing was my CFII who got my my private (still not IFR rated yet) to thank him for all those times he practically ripped the throttle out of the dash and said engine out now pick a spot and set up for a landing. He’s also the same one that would be randomly looking at a chart then suddenly blanket you from the outside saying you’re now IMC…where are you and whats the closest place you can this plane into safely and at what enroute altitude. This type of training or experience can’t be judged based on a number since I could shoot an ILS, GPS, and VOR approach well enough to get me down even before I had my ticket to fly.

    Great post and I support the movement for a different yardstick!

    • Sure, except the guy in the Cherokee didn’t have a crew of 4 others to coordinate with, 100+ passengers to be concerned about, electronic fly-by-wire systems to contend with, and absolutely no history deadsticking a 60 ton airplane from which to draw. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure the guy in the Cherokee did a great job, let’s not pretend that what he did — or his experience level, decision making process, etc. — was on par with what “Sully” did.

      That being said, I absolutely agree that numbers aren’t the whole story. They do however provide an indication of experience “opportunity.” The guy with 200 hours simply hasn’t had the chance to see the types of things someone with 2000 hours has. Attitude and willingness to learn certainly have a big role to play. The folks who scare me the most are the ones who — unsolicited — tell me about all their flying experience.

  31. I couldn’t agree more that we should all be wary of thinking more total time PIC makes us less vulnerable to the laws of nature or human error. But I can think of no government entity or insurance company that bases its judgement of pilot proficiency on total hours alone. Hours are still the measure, but recency and time in type are always a part of whatever calculus is being used. I think these are certainly reliable, objective measures.

  32. Jeff Fitzsimmons says:

    Actually, we have a ton of data to use if someone wanted to take the time to construct a statistical model relating time in type, recency of training, type of training, level,of certification, health status, age and accident rates. There are also many other variables that could go into the model but there is plenty of data out there to get a good start on the problem. My guess is that the insurance companies do not want to do this sort of thing because they might have to reduce their rates for well trained, active pilots and they are not inclined to do anything that might reduce their revenue. As a 25 year pilot with no accident history I have spent enough money in my flying career to buy a really nice new car or two.

  33. I have this very topic on my list of articles to pen for my blog. You said it perfectly! Great work Jamie!
    I’m a ‘jet jock’ and I can tell you unequivocally that most of my contemporaries would be down right scary in a light plane.
    The smart ones either keep their hand in GA or only return with hat-in-hand to get some help.
    Brent – iflyblog

  34. There is this thing called “Flight Reviews” that used to be called Biennial Reviews. That’s a subjective evaluation. The Insurance industry could implement a flight review process if it was really important. The thing that I feel motivates the insurance industry is the profits they can get.

  35. larry maynard says:

    A good article. Only thing is there is no concrete suggestion of how we can get over the assumption that more hours equal more proficeincy. Most any of us older pilots know the truth about hours and proficiency. We all of all seen high-time airline pilots struggle with basic flight maneuvers in light aircraft. They seem to be even more incompetent at flying basic VFR with a sectional chart. I am 62 years old and first learned to fly in the Army in 1977. One of our worst primary instructors was a former B-52 pilot who flew combat missions in a B-29 in the Korean war and a B-52 in three tours in Vietnam. He just wasn’t much of a helicopter pilot. A fine man who could tell some really interesting stories about his combat experiences. In helicopters at that time 1,000 hours was a big deal. We only had two hours of flight time in a Huey with a 20 minute reserve with full fuel. The same thing goes for fighter pilots who can’t fly for very long without refueling. I would bet most anything that the lower time helicopter or fighter pilot is way more proficeint than a higher time airline pilot. That is because their flight profile is way more challenging. You spent very, very little time staring at instruments and a lot of time flying difficult missions. I can’t count the times I flew a Huey at over max gross weight and out of CG limits in difficult landing or take off situations. You learn tons more about flying in those sitations than you do amassing thousands of flying hours in an airliner. I am not critizing airline pilots. Their safety record is phenomanel.
    But they are flying in a very structured environment with many back-up systems. If you are flying a Huey or a Piper Cub you have to be on your game most all of the time. Same thing as instructing new pilots. You better be prepared for most anything and you have no co-pilot or back-up system. About twenty years or so ago would sometimes meet high-time airline pilots who thought they knew everything and anything about flying. I don’t see that anymore. Maybe because the prestige and glamour of the job is mostly gone.

    My point is that no matter how experienced you are or how much skill you think you have, there is no substitue for flying freqeuntly and being trained in the specific aircraft you are flying. When I was in the Army if you hadn’t flown in the last six months then you were required to fly with a check pilot before being released to fly missions. This proved to be a good idea since the motor skills involved with flying helicopters degrade fairly quickly.

    • Why were you ignoring weight and balance? I was Army, and my commander would have stripped our wings off our chest if we deliberately ignored the rules and regulations. I knew men who died because they ignored W&B flying Huey’s. Professional Aviators must be measured on how they follow the rules and respect others as much as their ability to stay alive.

  36. Agreed! You hit the nail on the head. I think the aviation insurance industry could learn a thing or two from this as well. Admittedly they don’t have any real alternatives. However, in the interest of safety and their bottom line you’d think they would be leading the movement. Thanks for bringing this to the masses.

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