What it takes to be one sharp pilot, part two: intelligence

Smarts help…

When contemplating a smoking hole made by an airplane, “That was a dumb mistake” is a frequent pronouncement. I think that is misleading because I am not aware of any smart mistakes, especially in airplanes. It just takes a relatively high level of native (as opposed to educated on things other than flying) intelligence to perform well as a pilot. We’ve heard people referred to as natural pilots. Everyone I have heard given that distinction also happened to be a smart, or sharp, person.

One thought about smart folks. I have known a number of them who got into trouble because while they were smart or intelligent, they were not quite as smart as they thought they were. That can be dangerous in an airplane as well as in pursuit of big bucks.

Before going on I want to share part of a definition of “intelligence” from Wikipedia. As you read this, think about it in relation to flying.

“Intelligence has been defined in many different ways such as in terms of one’s capacity for logic, abstract thought, understanding, self-awareness, communication, learning, emotional knowledge, memory, planning, creativity and problem solving.”

The entry goes on to say, “Intelligence derives from the Latin verb intelligeri, to comprehend or perceive.”

That might seem like pretty heavy stuff but it is also good stuff as you strive to fly without busting your butt.

Doctors are smart. Safe pilots are smart. That doesn’t mean all doctors are safe pilots.

Over the years I taught a number of people to fly. There were teenagers, professional people, flashy entrepreneurs, merchants, housewives, military people, and the occasional ne’er do well. Which were the easiest to teach? The teenagers. Why? Because they had open minds with, the obvious aside, fewer things to compete with the thought they could put into learning to fly.

It might be said that to be in most of the other categories the people had to be intelligent to be what they were. That is true but it is also true that you can be a good doctor or make a lot of money and still be a dangerous pilot. That is proven every day by smoking holes.

Let’s look at a basic accident cause: loss of control where low altitude and airspeed are a factor but the mechanical things are all doing fine. This is a hot button right now as some organizations get their usual kicks out of rediscovering age-old problems and reinventing age-old solutions.

We tend to think of these accidents as primarily related to low-powered airplanes, often operated from runways of marginal length. Some come after a takeoff that wasn’t really possible, others come on a go-around that started too late. They happen to high performance piston and turbine airplanes, too, though, more often than you might think.

Where intelligence comes in is in being smart enough to identify the impossible before it is too late. In a light airplane this is most often done with what you see and feel.

When I was a kid pilot I flew fire patrol for the forestry service in Arkansas. Most of the time we were looking for plumes of smoke that might indicate the start of a forest fire. When the fires got going, though, we would take a forester into the fire zone where he could help those on the ground find the best places and ways to fight the fire and help keep them from being trapped by fire.

One year a huge amount of acreage was lost to forest fires and I spent hours every day circling low in the smoke, sometimes in an Aeronca Champion. (That was not an airplane you wanted to fly too close to a raging fire.) I flew a total of thirty hours in ten days. Then it rained and I was unemployed.

The person I was flying for was also the person who taught me to fly and he’d lecture me before every flight about being smart and keeping a good margin above the stall and avoiding excessive bank angles. Because the flying was usually done at 500 feet or below, this was necessary advice.

When I read stall/spin accident reports, I always think about that fire flying. I probably learned more about low-level maneuvering in those hours than I did in the rest of my 20,000 hours. It is pretty easy to see, too, how pilots who can’t concentrate on the right thing, and who do not understand angle-of-attack, get in trouble. My mentor helped me, as an 18 year old ace, be smart enough to realize that what I was doing was both demanding and dangerous with little margin for error. After doing that for three or four hours I felt like I had been pulled through a keyhole feet first. Fortunately two of us were doing it so we each had to fly but one flight a day.

Looking at a more modern airplane and pilot, a Cirrus, flown by the owner, was destroyed in a stall/spin accident that came after a bad approach, terrible landing, and botched late go-around.

There were plenty of witnesses who saw the airplane come in fast, make first ground contact well down the runway, porpoise rather violently (the prop actually struck the runway twice) then pull up steeply and come down equally steeply to the ground.

Go around sign
Good advice – but don’t wait until it’s too late.

I have written before about jets that were destroyed during unsuccessful go-arounds. The common threads are high and/or fast approaches, touchdowns well down the runway, and then an attempted go-around that is literally impossible. I can’t think of a situation where it is wise to go around once the wheels are on the ground. It would almost always be better to go off the end while slowing down than to try to accelerate and attempt what might well not work. At best, it would be an unknown.

In the case of the Cirrus, the NTSB did not mention this but the prop had to have been compromised when it struck the runway twice. There is no way to know how much it was compromised but the effect of such on performance would always be a good reason not to go around. I know of another serious accident that occurred on a go-around after a prop strike. To give the devil his due, I also know of cases where a pilot heard the prop ticking away on the runway and went around successfully while reminding himself that you are supposed to put the landing gear down each and every time.

A pilot can avoid all this if, at 500 feet and descending on final, he is smart enough to look at the airspeed, the rate of descent, the sight-picture of the runway and everything else, and decide it is all just right to continue. If not, a go-around from that point has a great chance of succeeding. In a way that is the same as in a basic airplane where what you see and feel is what counts.

Pilots who force airplanes into impossible situations might meet some of the definitions of intelligence but they fall far short in the areas of comprehension and perception. What you see is what you get and rose colored glasses can’t help at all.

A high percentage of stall/spin accidents would never happen if pilots would follow the simple good practice of never exceeding 30 degrees of bank below a certain altitude. That would vary with the airplane but in most airplanes a good level would be 1,000 to 2,000 feet.

As word comes in about the Airbus in the Java Sea, it looks more and more like the airplane was stalled above 30,000 feet and then descended to the water in a stalled condition. Sounds just like the Air France A330 that did the same and wound up in the Atlantic Ocean a while back.

Airbus A380 cockpit
Are airline pilots prepared to take over if all those computers quit working?

It takes an intelligent person to operate the equipment in one of the modern automated airplanes. There is a requirement beyond that, though. There is a requirement to understand all the ways the wonderful automation can bite and how to handle it. That probably requires a lot more intelligence that does operating the equipment when everything is working properly.

It varies by make and model but something that does not seem to be fully understood by pilots who have problems is what Airbus calls Alternate Law. The automation basically protects the airplane from the pilots. However, if the system loses elements of information, it basically says “Ace, you fly. I am in over my head.” At that point the pilot’s role reverts from computer operator to stick and rudder and power pilot. Do today’s pilots spend enough time honing basic skills?

If you want to delve into this, look at “flight control modes” on Wikipedia. It is certainly not simple but it is interesting and the nature of it can explain how otherwise intelligent pilots run aground when their computers get screwed up. It is also interesting to study the different approaches to this by Airbus and Boeing. It’s good for everyone that they learn from each other’s experience.

Weather is a frequent factor in serious accidents and it is every bit as complex as malfunctioning automatic flight control systems. When dealing with inclement weather, an intelligent pilot understands not only the weather that exists but what is causing that weather. It also takes an understanding that Mother Nature is a bitch and you can fly tens of thousands of hours and still not see it all.

Anyone thinking the weather wisdom gained from passing FAA tests and meeting minimum requirements is, well, not right bright. To avoid weather surprises and misadventures a pilot needs to have a good knowledge of meteorology and be a really talented thinker.

There was no record of a Cessna 421 pilot receiving a weather briefing but with all the available weather information floating around in the ether that doesn’t mean too much. If the pilot did look at weather information before takeoff, there were no bright red flags at that time.

Thunderstorm cloud
It’s going to get worse before it gets better.

That all changed once he was up and flying at FL230. The controller read a convective sigmet and gave the pilot a new routing that would avoid the weather that was showing at the time.

The activity was developing rapidly and ground radar was soon displaying a broken line of strong thunderstorms.

A weather-wise pilot knows that when strong storms start blossoming, especially where they were not forecast, conditions are likely to get worse before they get better. Something in the atmosphere changed, and not in a good direction. I recall flights where I encountered unexpected thunderstorm activity and decided the only thing to do was land and recharge my brain with new information.

The 421 event happened in Texas, in the month of November, and the weather synopsis did show a cold front in the area. Apparently the upper level patterns supported the development of a squall line ahead of the front which was not anticipated before it started happening.

The controller soon advised the pilot of weather up ahead and the pilot requested and was given a deviation to the right.

After a switch to another controller, the pilot was asked if he had weather radar. He said that he did. To me, that question always sounded a warning. I always felt that the controller was, in effect, saying that he really couldn’t help any more and that it’s up to you.

That is what being the pilot-in-command is about, isn’t it? There is no question that the title establishes absolute authority and responsibility. In this case all the controller had to add after his question about radar was that there was moderate to heavy precipitation about ten miles ahead. The pilot acknowledged, saying “yes sir.” Those were his last words.

Soon after that last transmission the airplane flew into the area of highest reflectivity in the line of storms, turned for a moment and then began a rapid descent.

Part of the descent was more like a free fall. Witnesses reported hearing an explosion and then seeing a fireball descend through the clouds and to the ground. The horizontal tail of the airplane failed, as did both wings. There was evidence of in-flight hail damage on some of the wreckage.

It should be common knowledge that there is a lot of weather out there that you can’t successfully penetrate in a light airplane. The truism that if it looks mean, it is mean, holds sway here. Airborne weather radar, Nexrad and Stormscopes all provide information but do not have yes/no indications and they do require intelligent interpretation.

The way weather looks, too, depends on the directional relationship of the observing pilot and the weather. If looking at a thunderstorm, it looks meanest when viewed from the direction toward which it is moving. It looks friendliest when it is moving away from you even though it is the same storm.

It took me a few tries to develop an intelligent understanding of this. I got beat up pretty bad after entering a storm from the backside and remember several instances of looking back after passing through unfriendly conditions and thinking that if I had known it looked like that, I would have never attempted to pass through it. Any pilot can learn that for himself; a smart pilot will learn from the experience of others.

Some of the things that define a smart and sharp pilot are pretty simple. I think that avoiding stall/spin trouble falls in the category. It is pretty cut and dried: Don’t stall, don’t spin, don’t crash.

Weather is far more complex. It is true that weather problems can be avoided by flying only in good weather but if we want to travel on any sort of schedule we’ll be tempted to fly VFR in marginal conditions or IFR in instrument meteorological conditions. Neither one of those is simple and requires that a pilot be uncommonly smart about weather and about what works and what doesn’t work.

Be sharp, fly safely.


  • Intelligence is necessary to earn a pilot certificate, in terms of raw intellectual capability. Unfortunately, intelligent people often make dumb decisions, often due to their reactions to external pressures, and sometimes due to their intellect being overridden by emotion. Emotion is a powerful influence on human behavior. Fear is of course an emotion.

    The standard meme concerning the Air France 447 accident is that the pilots were too dumb or inexperienced to fly the airplane when the automation kicked off (due to a frozen pitot tube). However, it is impossible to believe that the three pilots involved were all collectively too dumb to understand the relationship between angle of attack and the ability of the wing to fly. The problem in AF447 was not a brief lack of automation (if the controls had been left alone, the airplane likely would have flown happily on even without the A/P), or a lack of intelligence, or lack OF training of the pilots. Rather, the problem was with what the pilot flying did during that brief interlude the A/P was inoperable.

    When you dig into the detailed accident report on AF447, based upon both the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder, one thing clearly stands out: the pilot flying had been trying for some time to convince his captain to climb the aircraft as it approached the line of thunderstorms painted on their radar ahead. The PF made repeated suggestions that they needed to get higher in order to avoid the cells, but he was rebuffed by his captain. That tells us that the PF was very likely in a fearful state of mind regarding the storms ahead.

    Then, boom, the pitot tubes freeze, airspeed indication goes away, and the autopilot kicks off. The PF in the right seat almost immediately grabs the sidestick and pulls back, hard, virtually all the way to the stops. The aircraft takes a steep nose-high attitude, at high altitude (in IMC), stalls, and stays there nose high all the way down to the ocean surface 38,000 feet below, with several minor variations in deck angle and various rolls back and forth as the flight crew tried to figure out what the airplane was doing. The pilot-not-flying had no indication what the PF was doing with the stick, given that in the Airbus (a fly by wire design) the two sticks were not linked, and the sidesticks are easily obscured in view from the other pilot.

    Surely it was not lack of intelligence or lack of knowledge of the fundamentals of aerodynamics that hindered the flight crew. The PF seems likely to have succumbed to his stated desire (fear) to get the aircraft higher, and tried to do just that when he had the opportunity. When the autopilot kicked off, that provided him the opportunity to carry out his desire in the chaos of turbulence and multiple cockpit alarms (and the captain having retired from the flight deck, being relieved by another co-pilot).

    It seems rather clear that the PF panicked, and panic is of course an overwhelming emotional reaction, not an intellectual process. The “startle factor” of the events also played a role in creating a sense of panic.

    What is interesting is that the media reports on the recent Air Asia accident, in which the aircraft according to radar plots performed similarly to AF447 (with an initial steep climb, an apparent stall, then a fall to the ocean surface below), was preceded by the air crew requesting a climb to avoid storms ahead, which request was rejected by ATC. Did the Air Asia pilots also experience fear and panic, and attempted to climb above a cell ahead and thereby replicated the AF447 scenario? Since both black boxes were recovered, we’ll likely eventually know the answer.

    Panic kills in the cockpit – potentially overwhelming all intelligence, training, and knowledge possessed by (at least some) pilots.

    • “in the Airbus (a fly by wire design) the two sticks [are] not linked”

      Is that possibly true?? That would seem like the dumbest design decision of all time – as evidenced by the fact that, in the described accident, the PNF apparently really did not realize what the PF was doing … and how easily the situation could have been corrected without further problem! In a dual-control cockpit, how can control movements on one side NOT be completely mirrored on the other? The safe way to handle that choice (link them or don’t) is so obvious that the mind boggles that the *opposite* choice has apparently been made for the Airbus A330 (and possibly other Airbus models??) – AND that there are presumably also other planes, similarly configured, flying right now, with the same accident-waiting-to-happen TERRIBLE design!

  • Try to find Bill Whittle’s Afterburner video describing the Air France crash. It is bone chilling,both with regard to pilot reaction and the philosophy behind the design of the control systems.

  • One of the first things I learned during my initial flight training was to confirm “I have the airplane” when switching the pilot and co-pilot/instructor. Perhaps avoiding this tragedy could have been as simple as that.

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