Back to the basics

A few months back I wrote a column about the need for more technology in aviation engines. I received several emails saying that the industry may need more technology in the engine compartment, but that we need more skill in the cockpit. I must say that I totally agree with these comments.

Years ago when I was taking flying lessons, my instructor gave me a lot of great advice. I remember that three things stood out most.

The first was that the FAA written test does not determine if you are qualified to fly an airplane. It actually just measures your ability to take tests.

The example I remember was the question “On takeoff, once the plane leaves the ground effects of the runway, what should the pilot do?” The test then listed four possible answers, none of which made any sense. The answer that they wanted was the pilot was to increase the throttle setting.

Now this may work for a F-16 pilot, but for us just learning to fly, all of our takeoffs were at wide open throttle, so you could not advance the throttle anymore.

My instructor said that if I tried to learn how to fly and then reason through the test, I would probably fail. He sent me to a weekend seminar after which I regurgitated the right answers on to the test and passed with flying colors.

The second piece of advice was that in case of an emergency or any problem, my number one priority — in fact my only priority — should be to KEEP THE AIRPLANE FLYING.

I have not had any major emergencies, but I have had a few minor ones, like a ruptured main fuel line. A lot goes through your brain at that time. The quiet is deafening and you know there are a thousand things you should do. But I remembered my instructor’s advice and kept the plane flying. I tried a few things, turned on the boost pump and was able to get the engine started and returned to the airport. I may have gotten a few more gray hairs, but I learned a great deal.

The last piece of advice he gave me was several years later. I stopped by his place to do a little hangar flying and he asked if I had ever done any spin or unusual attitude training. Since I had not, I scheduled a few hours and we went up the following week.

He first took me up to get adequate altitude and put the plane in a flat spin, which he then got us out of. He then repeated the process and let me try to fly out of it. This got a little scary, but he took the controls back and we were in level flight almost immediately. He told me what to do and we repeated the process and it was amazing how easily it worked. He also went through spin avoidance and several other procedures.

When I stepped out of the plane I believe I was a much better pilot because I knew how to get out of or avoid those situations that can happen during routine flying.

A lot of pilots feel that the latest and greatest technology in flight controls and instrumentation will make them good pilots. Well, I have news for you. These systems will help make a good pilot better, but they will not make a marginal pilot a good pilot. In fact the opposite can happen. It can give the marginal pilot too much confidence and get them into situations that they cannot fly out of. And believe me there are a lot of example of this.

Always remember the basics — much of the rest of the stuff is nice to know and not really things you need to know. Consider taking additional or recurring training. I especially recommend unusual attitude or spin training. It may scare you a little, but with a good instructor, you will become a much better and safer pilot.


  1. Vaughn S. Price says

    Ben , you are very much on the right track. Basic Airmanship skills taught in the early stages, along with a good dose of understanding just where you are on the ladder of excellence. will generally keep you out of trouble.
    I, at 1000 hours thought I was an ace. At 5000 hours I knew I was an Ace, at 10,000 hours I gained a little insight into just what being good at flying might mean. At 15,000 hours, I finally realized that the learning process never ends.

    PS I have flown 139 different models of general aviation Aircraft from several 1920’s models to the DC-3 and 749 Connie

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