Everyone knows at least one pilot who has “the right stuff.”
“These are the people we trust, whom we look up to — and not just for their stick and rudder skills,” says Bill Rhodes, owner of Aerworthy Consulting, who is kicking off a first-of-its-kind study of what makes a pilot a superior pilot.
Dubbed the Airmanship Education Research Initiative, the study, whose charter sponsor is Avemco Insurance Co., will involve researching multiple forms of data to see if the characteristics of a superior pilot can be identified and then — more important — determine if there is a way to transfer the experience and attributes of superior pilots to the rest of us.
“Do these pilots have a wisdom that can be systematized?” Rhodes asks.
Although the study is still in its infancy, Rhodes already is examining the ethics of general aviation. He’s the man to do it: A retired Air Force officer, he specializes in professional ethics, having served as head of the philosophy department at the Air Force Academy.
“We know the realities of flight do not tolerate unethical behavior for long,” he says. “It can kill you or other people.” And yet, we haven’t developed an “ethical body of knowledge” for GA, such as those developed for the medical profession or the military, he points out. The first step may have been taken a few years ago with the Aviators Model Code of Conduct, an effort spearheaded by Michael Baum, who asked Rhodes to consult on the code. In fact, that’s how Rhodes met Avemco’s Jim Lauerman, and through their discussions the idea for the study was born.
As the study begins, Rhodes acknowledges the difficulty of what he’s trying to do, “which is probably why it has not been done before,” he jokes. His first job? “There’s a folk wisdom in GA that some people are dangerous and some aren’t,” he says. “I need to drill down to see if these claims are accurate. If they are, then we can start on the project to offer a fix.”
That fix may be something as simple as self knowledge. Rhodes’ doctoral dissertation was on that very topic: People can decide how they want to be, and then make themselves that very thing. “It’s self-determination,” he says. “Say you self determine that you want to be a non-smoker, so you create conditions that help you become a non-smoker,” he says.
As an example, “Pilots who push fuel probably know the risk,” says Rhodes, a Cessna 210 owner who has been flying since 1974. “You’re not likely to solve that problem just by telling them what they already know. They have to make a disciplined decision not to do that — consistently.”
Rhodes hopes that other insurance companies will participate in the study, as getting it right means having as much information to study as possible. “At this stage, we’re looking for patterns,” Rhodes says. “We’re trying to understand the problem, as well as define what counts as good when you’re talking about pilots.”
Pilots often can identify other pilots who are good — as well as the pilots they think are unsafe. But often it’s just a feeling, not something that can be quantified or even described accurately.
“I’ve personally said there are people I won’t fly with, while there are others I’m happy to trust,” Rhodes says. “But it’s not rigorous science.”
In his continuing quest for wisdom — and to make himself a better pilot — Rhodes has asked instructors and other pilots to point out when he does “something stupid.”
“I want to know, but many people are reluctant to say something,” he notes.
Rhodes estimates he’ll be ready to publish the first part of the study in about a year or two, but his research will take many, many years to complete. “This could take the rest of my life — and I’m not kidding,” he says. “For me to be able to say, ‘here’s professional ethics for the GA pilot’ will take a long time.”
CAN YOU HELP?
When asked if readers of General Aviation News could help with his research, Rhodes replied, “maybe later.” He’s spending this summer visiting other ethics professionals and those involved in traditional human factors research. He’s also hoping to drum up more support from other insurance companies and organizations interested in the study.
Janice Wood is editor of General Aviation News.