What it takes to be one sharp pilot – start with awareness

First in what might be a series…

The Internet as full of stories that say they are going to give you a list of things about whatever. A lot of the time, though, the actual list is hard to find. So, I will start with a list of the things that I think define a sharp pilot. This is based on well over 50 years of studying general aviation accidents, the theory being that sharp pilots don’t crash. In reading accident reports my main question is always “Why did he do that?” I have usually found that he did “that” because he was short in one of these areas.

A sharp pilot is:

  • Aware
  • Intelligent
  • Coordinated
  • Realistic
  • Pragmatic
  • Confident
  • Risk-Averse
  • Rich

Okay, I was just kidding on the last one but we all know that does figure into the equation. You are all welcome to add to this list as you see fit.

Cessna crash
“Why did he do that?” we often ask. Start with awareness.

I am going to offer thoughts on these attributes in small bites, not all at once.

I put aware first, and am going to address it first, because I think it is the most important. It has been written about as situational awareness or positional awareness but plain old awareness covers it best.

What it means in relation to flying is that you are aware of everything that is going on with, in and around the airplane at all times. I will discuss this in relation to one of the simplest accident causes as well as a complex situation.

Look at the most basic, simple and frequent cause of serious accidents, low-speed losses of control, also called stall/spin accidents. Complex studies have been done about this but the simple fact is that one of these accidents involves only the pilot not allowing the airplane to fly.

A lot of time is spent on stall training. I have said before that I think this is largely a waste of time. Why? Because it teaches a pilot how to do stalls and recover from stalls but it does nothing to make a pilot aware of what leads to low altitude inadvertent stalls which are the type that end in bad crashes. How much time is spent teaching pilots about the relationship between back pressure on the elevator control and increasing use of opposite aileron to combat overbanking? For most pilots who spin in, the answer is: “not enough.”

Most stall/spin accidents occur in more basic airplanes being flown recreationally but that by no means excludes other airplanes from exposure. From a low-powered experimental to a jet, if you go too slow too low you crash. Airspeed awareness is critical.

When I was learning to fly, there was a badly mashed up Cessna 140 in the hangar. The pilot had rented the airplane and then gone for some enthusiastic buzzing. He wasn’t aware of one thing: If you pull the nose way up, the airspeed will decay so rapidly that a stall becomes inevitable. As his buzzing zeal increased with each pass, he pulled it up more steeply until it finally fell off into a spin, probably from not much more than 500 feet. An 85 hp Cessna 140 would zoom only so much. The airplane spun to the ground.

Stall training
We spend a lot of time on the theory of stalls, but that training doesn’t mean much on base-to-final.

Stall/spin accidents are often, maybe even usually, preceded by a distraction that likely causes the pilot’s mind to think only of the distraction, leaving him unaware of what is going on with the airplane.

The pilot of a homebuilt continued VFR into adverse weather conditions. He was apparently circling, looking for a way out of the inclement weather when he lost control. In the probable cause for the accident the NTSB suggested that the pilot was maneuvering for a forced landing even though the investigation found nothing that would have precluded normal operation.

I think what the NTSB meant was that he was circling for a precautionary landing which used to be a fairly common way for light airplane pilots to deal with more weather than they could handle. Just find a suitable field, land, and introduce yourself to the farmer’s daughter.

The pilot was apparently concentrating on this (the maneuvering, not the daughter) and stalled the airplane. It hit the ground in a wing down and nose low attitude.

There was another distraction that the NTSB mentioned but did not include as a cause. There was a drug in the pilot’s blood that can cause drowsiness, weakness or dizziness but they couldn’t determine if the pilot was impaired at the time of the accident. Nor could they determine if the pilot was affected by the underlying psychiatric disorder this drug is used to treat. That sounds like a pass on most everything.

A pilot who doesn’t feel well, or is under the influence of a drug, or alcohol, is not likely to remain aware of everything that is going on with the airplane.

A pilot who has a mechanical problem with the airplane has to be aware that this frequently results in a low-speed loss of control. If the problem is a total power loss, most of the serious accidents that follow are not in the forced landing itself but in the stall/spin that comes while the pilot is maneuvering the airplane, at low altitude, to try to make the forced landing work. Regardless of the circumstances, a pilot has to know survival is more likely if the airplane is under control when the crash sequence starts.

The next thing that brings me to the importance of awareness is a more complex event. It happened to a good friend a long time ago, on 01/27/1987. Jim Reynolds and his wife were lost in their Cessna 340 that night. The NTSB came to no conclusion and said the cause was undetermined. His friends have wondered since what Jim was not aware of that bested him that fateful night. Every scenario that we thought through illustrates the complexity involved in being aware of everything.

The Six Pack instruments
There are many different ways for that gyro to fail – do you know them all?

They had been in Palm Springs for a while and were returning to their home base at Olathe, Kansas. After a fuel stop at Farmington, New Mexico, Jim had climbed his 340 to Flight Level 210. There was some discussion with the controllers about relatively minor altitude deviations followed by word from Jim that “we’ve had a gyro failure.” In a little more than a minute, the airplane was in a smoking hole in Colorado. The only way that could have happened was a loss of control and entry into a spiral dive where the rate of descent can exceed 15,000 feet per minute.

I think it was pretty generally agreed that a vacuum failure could have been the culprit. This could have been exacerbated by the fact that the gyro on the left side would have probably run down faster than the one on the right side because of autopilot inputs from that instrument resulting on more drag on the gyro.

The reasoning went that the gyro on the right probably looked to be okay when the one on the left was askew but when it did run down it lured him into the spiral dive.

Not long before his accident, Jim was flying with me in a Mooney, at night, headed to Olathe from ether Tulsa or Oklahoma City. As we droned along in the dark, atop an overcast, Jim asked me if I really felt okay doing this in a single-engine airplane. When I replied that I was fine with it, he said that he liked his twin better because it had two of everything.

If a vacuum problem got Jim, he might well have not been aware of a failure mode in some twin Cessnas that can take power away from the gyros without a vacuum pump failing. It has something to do with the interface between the vacuum and deice system which operates off the pressure side of the system. The only reason I know about it is that it happened to another friend, also in a 340, and he got to fly a number of hours of partial panel over the North Atlantic because of the problem. He made it, the problem was fixed, and his air tour of Europe continued.

Most pilots flying these airplanes are probably unaware of all the failure modes that can cripple the instrumentation. For that matter, most pilots of piston twins are not aware of the fact that the airplanes do not have dual electrical systems. What they have is dual alternators powering a single electrical system. That leaves room for failures other than in the charging system.

Now, because a couple of recent events reminded me of some past events I have been wondering if it was something else that got the best of Jim.

pulse oximeter
Are you aware of your oxygen?

I had not done the altitude chamber in quite a while when, before a T-38 flight, I had a session in it at Williams AFB in Arizona. I was substantially older than on previous sessions and while I had quit smoking decades before, there had been all that other wear and tear.

I don’t think it is possible to be aware of the effect of altitude on your performance until the phenomenon is examined.

What I came away with from the last chamber session was that I was going to fly a little lower in my P210. I had been using FL210 as my standard eastbound altitude (max for the airplane is 23,000 feet) but I scaled that down to FL 190.

The reason I did that was because when I took the mask off at 25,000 feet my time of useful consciousness was quite short where it was far better at 18,000 feet. Simply put, if I had a pressurization failure well above 18,000 feet I would be in a world of hurt. Being aware of that made me fly lower to keep the cabin altitude lower. I don’t know whether or not Jim had ever done altitude chamber training.

In the two recent events a Cirrus flying in the low twenties overflew its destination and continued until it likely ran out of fuel and came down. A new TBM 900 ended its time in the same manner. The Cirrus was not pressurized so the problem there was likely with the oxygen system. The TBM apparently had a pressurization problem.

There is nothing new about sophisticated airplanes having either mechanical problems with pressurization or pilot problems resulting in improper operation of the systems. Golfer Payne Stewart was lost in a Learjet as was LSU head football coach Bo Rein because the airplanes climbed high without being pressurized for whatever reason.

A Greek 737 was lost with all aboard as was a King Air 200 in Australia in similar events. If you want to read the hair-raising story of the 737, Google “Helios 522.” It is scary. I would recommend skipping the pictures. In another example, it is a safe bet that the cabin of Malaysia MH370 was not pressurized, for whatever reason, during its long flight into oblivion.

Cabin pressure controller
The warnings of a pressurization problem are not always obvious.

When Jim and his wife were lost, I raised a question about this. A 340 has a little switch that has to be turned on for the pressurization to operate and a dump valve that has to be closed to keep the pressurized air in the cabin. There is a warning light that illuminates when the cabin altitude goes above a certain value. That value was 12,500 feet in my P210.

An omission in the operation of the system plus a burned out light bulb would leave the pilot only with how he was feeling as a warning about possible hypoxia. That is not a reliable warning.

Also, one of the more basic pressurized cabins leaks a lot. I used to entertain myself in my P210 by letting an unused Kleenex go and watching where it went. Believe me, it usually moved quickly to an area where air was leaking out. A second Kleenex could often also take quick flight. The point is that even though the system might have operated normally to start, a leak could have developed, allowing the cabin to slowly climb.

In Jim’s case, his airplane partner listened to the tape of his conversation with the controller and said that he sounded normal. That made us tend to dismiss hypoxia as a possibility. I no longer think that means he was not becoming hypoxic. In related accident reports the last transmission from pilots is not always noted as sounding abnormal. Maybe hypoxia is like booze: we can fake it right up to the moment it becomes beddy-bye time.

To splash a little gasoline on the fire, automation of the airplane and pilot awareness are closely coupled. How so? In an airplane with every warning system, does the pilot feel like he is aware that all is well if no caution or warning lights come on and no aural signals sound? For my money, a sharp pilot monitors everything even if warning systems are provided.

If a pilot is operating a fly-by-wire airplane with such exotic features as stall barriers, is that pilot aware of what happens if some ancillary system is compromised? The first domino that tumbled when the Airbus A330 splashed in the Atlantic was simple icing of the pitot system. That led to a bunch of errors that resulted in a stall and uncontrolled descent into the ocean If a pilot is aware of what is necessary in the way of attitude and power to keep things on an even keel that should make it possible to remain in control even when other things are awry.

The Air Asia A320 had not been missing for long before the talking heads on TV were comparing it with the A330 in the Atlantic. It didn’t matter that they didn’t know what they were talking about because they had credentials that impressed the TV folks. Still, in the end, there could be similarities in the two events.

I submit that awareness is a number one sign of a sharp pilot because the penalty for being unaware can be absolute, as noted here. As airplanes become more complex, awareness of every detail becomes even more important.

37 Comments

  • Flying is not the time to “seat back and relax” as a passenger.
    Stay way ahead of the airplane, think of every possible emergency and find a safe way to solve it and repeat the process as many times as workload permits.
    General Yeager’s advice is life saving, ” Know your systems”.
    Sterile cockpit is the best discipline for a sensible pilot, crew member or passenger.
    Preparation, doing my homework requires many hours of study and practice for every hour in the air.
    When in doubt, stay home and figure it out…..
    As a CFI, these are some of the lessons I had the privilege to learn.
    Thanks for the great article !!!!!

  • “A superior pilot uses his superior judgment to avoid situations which require the use of his superior skills.”
    — Frank Borman
    Former Astronaut

  • Articles like this are priceless because the very act of reading about these adventures of the air help to raise awareness. I strongly support the development of the series alluded to in the title. There isn’t anyone more qualified or capable of putting a series like this together than Richard Collins — America’s Flight Instructor!

  • Richard,
    Excellent discussion, as usual. Regarding the possible role of hypoxia in your friend Jim’s crash, it does not surprise me that his radio transmissions sounded normal. The first degradations from hypoxia can be subtle: slowed reflexes and thinking, and impaired judgment being perhaps important in that tragedy.

      • Richard,
        I met Jim and his wife at a friends party when I was a student pilot. We talked about his airplane and aviation for a long time that night. When I heard he and his wife were lost in an accident leaving his kids without parents, it really hit me hard.
        I am not as good as a pilot he was or as you are and I made the decision that my wife would never fly with me. I would be to nervous that an accident would leave my kids without parents. I am not saying he was wrong, just saying how it hit me. You were right, they were nice people.

  • I am designing a small trainer and study safety religiously.
    there is still much that could be done to improve safety by design
    how many years has the AOA been around, it should be on the minimum equipment list.
    The yaw indicator should be large and mounted on the windshield.
    One of the biggest safety advantages commercial ac have, the yaw damper is almost completely overlooked.
    Resistance to the idea of parachutes has taken ten years to overcome.
    Training is important but so is equipment.

  • In his book “North Star Over My Shoulder” Capt. Bob Buck wrote that just before starting his takeoff run he would pause to take a look around the cockpit and see if anything looked amiss. That was his way of switching up his awareness.

  • Awareness cannot be beat as the top priority when flying.

    As for knowing your systems, that seems obvious too.

    However, a lot of modern electronics aids are providing cheap and easy redundancy to help deal with quirky aircraft systems that inevitably fail eventually. Having a pad computer with an AHRS with backup attitude indicator is a must for modern instrument flying. Portable cabin altitude alerting gadgets are cheap and a must for anyone flying with a pressurized aircraft. Portable backup radios, GPS navigators, and electronic approach plates that provide immediate info on any airport facility in the nation (or the world, if you fly internationally) are all cheap insurance for when a gage or a box goes on strike, or you have to make an unplanned approach.

    However, if the pilot isn’t aware, he or she can have all the redundancy and gadgets in the world. They won’t keep your aircraft sunny side up in the pattern if you forget how (or neglect) to fly the airplane for even the briefest moment.

  • Sir, I read your article and agree absolutely… Yes, sharp pilots are those who are aware, skillful and judgemental. But you did not mention how one should remain aware and alert all the time…

    I think, we, as humans, are full of desires and thoughts all the time since birth… I have noticed my own experience several times..I found that, for example, if one thinks something like ‘I will now land nicely/smoothly” just at the time of touchdowns, the landings become rougher rather than being smooth…but amazingly, if we stop thinking and only witness the events and act accordingly, without “thinking” at that very moment, everything becomes amazingly beautiful.

    Number 1 killer factor is the combination of big ego(don’t teach me), laziness(oh, it is so cold/hot, etc. I shall study about the systems not today but tomorrow…) and mind full of thoughts(thinking about anything, even thinking about how to do a safe landing while flying) which always dull out the best of the best….

    So, I am of the opinion that no matter how good, skillful, intelligent or knowlegeable a person is, if his mind is full of thoughts, distractions steal out the awareness and bleed off any remaining focus on the subject matter…causing unpleasant consequences.

    But another amazing thing I discovered is the knowledge itself creates a kind of barrier by building ego and making minutely more difficult to understand the deeper aspects…

    So, we should practice remaining calm and make our mind in the state of thoughtlessness all the time so that it becomes second nature itself saving us from ego, laziness and busy mind making everything clear in head so that we can just act with the flow ( I must say, this is the most difficult part to conquere because it demands 100% alertness round the clock…)
    (I missed to say something my heart out,…L A N G U A G E)

  • Lack of awareness on the part of pilot is the number 1 reason behind most of the air accidents and to let a pilot fly while they are on a medication or intoxicated is criminal. To understand it better, have a look at most of the road accidents, nearly all of them caused by lack of awareness or drunken driving.

  • I have always wanted to become a pilot so as my brother, I missed out on the opportunity but this page make me live my dream. Good job, keep the articles coming.

  • As a long time reader and admirer of Rchard Collins I was gratified to discover he shares my view on stall training. The real objective here is not how precisely you can recover from a stall, but rather not to put yourself in that position in the first place. In 48 years as a pilot and nearly 19,000 hrs. In a few dozen aircraft and several thousand landings in all kinds of weather, I have never unintentionally stalled an airplane. I’ve done several hundred stalls in simulators and actual aircraft after paying great attention to maintaining heading and altitude and considerable effort to make the aircraft stall.. Always made me wonder what a pilot who actually stalled an airplane had been doing for the previous 3 or 4 minutes prior to the stall. Certainly ties into Richard’s points about awareness, judgement, coordination—discipline might also be a good addition.

    • Ron – the arguments over stall training, as well as spin recovery, will likely go on forever and the opinions of pilots will probably not ever change.

      I can say for myself, however, that I am extremely glad that I routinely practiced stalls and stall recoveries often enough to make a stall recovery maneuver virtually automatic, which likely saved my life one time.

      I was flying in the southern Rocky Mountains on a windy day, on short final to a back country turf airstrip. The approach end of the runway was bounded by a steep canyon wall, and the wind was coming right down the runway at probably 35-40 knots. Easy enough to handle a strong westerly headwind in the Rocky Mountain west in the springtime, because it’s a common enough situation. Except for ….

      Well, what I did NOT take proper account of was that the wind coming off the end of the runway had formed a strong local wind-shear (a rotor, likely) in the downwind canyon just below the runway. Without warning (other than the visual cue presented by the canyon’s presence) my normal power off full flaps approach at 75 mph into the strong headwind suddenly turned into a plummeting airspeed, a stall warning light, and the beginnings of a stall … at about 150 feet above and maybe 300 feet ahead of the runway threshold. Instincts built of practicing many stall recoveries kicked in, and – without thinking at all – I firewalled the throttle, pitched the nose down, and then a few seconds later, after passing through the rotor, I was able to readjust throttle and pitch to make a normal landing on the runway.

      Pilots who are not programmed to recover from power off stalls would likely do just the opposite of what I was trained to do, and did without thinking – the natural but totally wrong reaction of pulling back on the stick to raise the nose, and/or forget to add power.

      That incident greatly impressed upon me the value of practicing aerial maneuvers, including stall recoveries, over and over and over again until they become second nature. Because when milliseconds count, you don’t have time to think some things through. Stall training kept me from being rolled up in a flaming wreck at the foot of that steep canyon wall.

      Now of course I also know better to land well down any runway that is preceded by a steep canyon on windy days, and also know that it is better to not go flying at all in the mountains on windy days. 🙂

      It is true that stall recovery training won’t help in all situations, such as the classic stall-spin on the base to final turn in the pattern. But there is no training that will enable recover from a spin at low altitude, so stall-spin avoidance is the only answer to that problem. But don’t dismiss stall recovery training either. Any pilot, even attentive ones flying by the book numbers, can sometimes be fooled by mother nature.

      • Well articulated Duane !!!

        “there is no substitute for proficiency”

        A pilot never flies the same, we are as safe as the next flight, regardless of age number of hours on the log book or fame.
        The airplane and the lows of physics do not care how good we think we are, how much money we have in the bank or how lucky we were yesterday and how soft the last landing was.
        The next flight will show how safe or unsafe we are.
        Are we preparing for the next safe flight ?
        Practice, practice, practice !!!!

        You can learn to enjoy practicing stalls and other proficiency training maneuvers, if you practice them or better off ‘ teach them” to your CFI.

  • The old before take off mnemonic CIGAR should be CIGAR”S”. The last letter meaning “something else”. Take a look around before committing to take off.

  • An excellent article by Richard Collins it is relevant from ab-initio stage of pilots onward. This checklist is as important as the aircraft checklist to ensure long, safe and enjoyable flying.

  • Truly interesting articles. As a student pilot I agree not enough time is spent on preventing stalls. Early in my training I stalled a DA – 20 while landing. I was so concerned about flaring that I allowed the airspeed to bleed off air speed too rapidly and the plane dropped to the runway like a rock. The stall was so rapid and being inexperienced I didn’t react to what was happening. Point – inform students how to avoid a stall and how rapidly one can lose control of the airplane.

  • Thanks for a great article.
    I am concerned that during the turn from base to final on the 172M the airspeed momentarily indicates less than 45 knots so I have been adding power and putting the nose down slightly with the net result of landing too fast; it’s extra work to control excess airspeed in the flare with full flaps. In short it’s not a very stabilized approach.
    Fortunately this doesn’t happen all the time.
    Is the momentary airspeed indication related to the static port?
    I’m a student pilot,thanks for your help.

    • Andy, I’m not sure exactly what you are experiencing or why, but unexpected changes in airspeed with changes in aircraft configuration or attitude do suggest problems with the pitot-static system. It would be wise to bring this to the attention of an experienced A&P for inspection before flying the aircraft again. Your description suggests that this could be a serious safety-of-flight issue.

  • Hello everyone I came arcoss this article and it just reminded me of my own situation. You see all my life all ive ever wanted to do was fly and when I finally got the chance to go to flight school I was so happy, unfortunately after about 15eish hours I was told I was never gonna b a pilot apparently theres something wrong with my Situational awareness and motor skills or rather lack of it…. now I’m wondering has any1 here ever heard of this kind of situation and is there anyway to correct it is there any hope at all that il be able to fly one day

    • Christine, it’s not clear from your note whether it was only one instructor or more than one who told you you were not suited to be a pilot or why. Many people have been told that only to go on to be licensed and fly successfully. If you were told this by one instructor, and you do not agree, then the best thing is– just as in medical care– get a second opinion! You could go to an instructor and explain the situation, and ask to be evaluated to see if that instructor sees your potential to succeed. That said, there are people who for various reasons should not be pilots, and if multiple instructors and other pilots say you should not, it may be wise to listen and take heed.

    • Speak to another experienced CFI to help you out.
      You have to study hard as a student,but you also deserve all the support and encouragement by your CFI.
      If you had the misfortune to fly with a time builder or a lazy instructor, then you have to find the one who can help you develop the ability to fly safely.
      Good luck !!!!

  • Hey, DUANE, I don’t know what kind of airplane you were flying, but full flaps in a 34- to 40-knot breeze surprises me. Maybe it’s just because my instructors of long, long ago pounded into my head that using flaps in more than a six or eight knot wind was a poor idea.

    I’m not sniping at you, as I’ve many times used a steep forward slip with 40-degrees of flats in all the Cessna high performance singles. Super Cubs, too, of course. I know that the POH doesn’t like that, no doubt because of the effects of disturbed airflow across the tail feathers.

    In any event, a great article, and one which i think is badly needed and supportive of situational awareness. Thanks for having shared it with us.

    • Mort – regarding your question about flaps, the particular airstrip (Negrito – 0NM7) sits at 8,143 ft MSL. So due to the thin air, unless you land with full flaps your touchdown speed is going to be pretty high, which is an issue on an unimproved gravel/turf runway. The wind was right down the runway, so there no crosswind to deal with – if there had been a crosswind component I’d have used less than full flaps and higher approach airspeed. Due to the gustiness of the wind, I still landed with a little higher than book airspeed.

      As for what I was taught about flaps, and what I subscribe to as a pilot, it is to always touch down at the lowest practical airspeed given the wind direction across the runway, the condition of the runway, and any other factors that might apply (such as airframe icing).

      Practically speaking for flying in New Mexico and nearby parts of the southern Rocky Mountain west, if you never use flaps with wind more than six to eight knots, then you’d virtually never use flaps, ever. The wind almost never stops, and it’s usually a lot stronger than 6-8 knots. I routinely had to make crosswind landings at my home base airport with upwards of 10-25 knots crosswind component, and I have sufficient rudder authority at touchdown with 25 degrees of flaps in my Cherokee. It probably helps that my bird has all the airspeed mods including metco wingtips to improve low speed handling.

  • I got ya! I’ve often made landings in heavy winds, once in a Cessna 206 float plane at 28-knots, but I could land directly into the wind that time. It wasn’t unusual to hand on the beaches of the Alaska Peninsula with 35-45 knots directly off the water. We wouldn’t do that with an offshore wind though . . .

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