What it takes to be one sharp pilot, part four: realistic

Realistic: Having or showing a sensible and practical idea of what can be achieved or expected.

In this off-again on-again series I have touched on awareness, intelligence and coordination. Those are all important. Being realistic also sounds like part of a plan for flying.

The first thing that comes to mind is the extremely tired old saw about knowing your (or your airplane’s) limitations. In fact, that has been said with evangelical zeal so many times that, with this mention, I am going to leave it behind.

So what do we need to be realistic about if not limitations?

The first thing that comes to mind is about the pilot’s ability. How sharp am I? Certainly trouble brews if you aren’t as sharp as you think you are, but I think that, deep down, most pilots are pretty realistic about their ability as a pilot. That is good.

Another pilot was flying my airplane as we approached a busy terminal airport, IFR. The controller was talking fast and I could tell that the pilot flying was falling behind. The controller was vectoring us for a close intercept of the final approach and the pilot had never experienced anything like this in his training or relatively limited IFR flying.

Finally, he said to me: They can’t make me do this. What he meant was that, realistically, he couldn’t do this. Because we did want to go on in and land, I flew for a bit, intercepted, and then asked if he wanted to fly the rest of the approach and landing. As best I remember, he declined. He was being realistic when he decided that he had seen enough for this day.

I don’t think most pilots give enough thought to the great range of difficulty that is found in the various piloting challenges. If I were grading degree of difficulty, I’d grade clear calm day flying in a simple airplane as the easiest and single-pilot IFR as the hardest.

For that nice-day hop in a Cub all you have to do is know and practice the basics of flying and promise that you don’t keel over during the flight.

Instrument approach G1000
Single pilot IFR is about as hard as it gets.

A realistic pilot knows that the questions and challenges are multiplied greatly when you crank up your new Bonanza and head for a busy terminal airport in truly scuzzy weather in the middle of the night. The fact that the accident history at times like this is unfortunate at best shows that a lot of pilots are not being realistic about their ability to fly such missions.

I did enough of that to have asked myself most of the questions and faced most of the challenges. When I realized that I was no longer flying enough to be at the top of my game, I threw in the towel. To perform well in most weather, in busy airspace, in a complex airplane, took continuous immersion and, to me, a hundred or so hours a year just wasn’t enough to stay sharp.

Even when I was flying a lot, I was realistic enough to know that when flying single-pilot IFR you have to use everything available to make it work. Some call it crew (or cockpit) resource management and in my case it was often a crew of one. Richard, meet Richard, your copilot for this flight.

With that thought in mind I thought of the many accidents I studied that involved single-pilot IFR and the way it appeared the pilot’s brain stopped working somewhere along the way to the crash site. What was he thinking about? Sadly, the answer was often nothing.

This can even happen with a crew. I just read the cockpit voice recorder transcript from the Asiana 777 that hit the seawall at SFO while flying a visual approach on a bright and clear day. There was not much there to suggest that they were thinking about what they needed to be thinking about to fly a type approach (visual and without glideslope information) that was seldom, if ever, flown. They sure weren’t talking about it.

I always thought that talking to myself about events as they unfolded helped to keep my mind moving out ahead of the airplane. The pilot mentioned earlier that had trouble with a close-in vector apparently couldn’t think ahead and visualize what he was going to have to do to successfully fly the approach. He wasn’t prodding himself to think ahead and he didn’t say a word until throwing in the towel.

I flew one day with a young instrument-rated pilot at an IFR event we used to sponsor at a collegiate flying meet. We’d run our event in fair weather or foul. It was the latter on the day of this flight.

The pilot was excited because even though he was rated, he had never flown in clouds. Off we went and I noted that his aircraft control was pretty good but that he didn’t have any idea about actual IFR operation.

The flight was local, to end with an ILS approach. The weather was right at minimums. ATC understood what we were doing and we had agreed that the navigating would be done by the contestant, flying published procedures. No vectors.

To say that my contestant was a lost ball in high grass would be an understatement. Finally, in desperation, he asked the controller where he was.

I’m not going to tell you and not going to give you vectors because you are in that contest.

The contestant looked at me and said, I don’t know what I am doing. That was a realistic observation. At this point I knew that his score would be so bad that he wouldn’t be in the running for anything other than a free drink of water so I decided to shift gears and talk him through the arrival and the approach.

He followed instructions well and on final I kept his mind active by pointing out what the instruments were reading and what the airplane was doing. I never touched the controls and when we broke out at about 300 feet the contestant was elated.

Two pilots in the cockit
Did your training teach you to be realistic, or just check the boxes?

Maybe he was surprised, too, because he said that in his training nobody had ever talked him through anything. That was something new to him but I was just doing the same thing for him that I did for myself on every approach. When alone or flying with someone I knew, I would talk to myself out loud. With other passengers, I would verbalize silently.

The reality of the matter was that I could do a better job of flying if I was continuously teaching myself how to do it. That might seem backwards, or even impossible, to some, but it does work. When I was teaching instrument flying, I would talk students through things and work toward a time when they could talk themselves through whatever they were doing.

The other day I was watching some FedEx Cup golf. The commentators were making much of the fact that Jordan Spieth talks to himself on the golf course. In fact, his is a rather continuous and complete dialog on what is going on between him and the clubs and the ball and the hole. It apparently works there as well there as it does in airplanes, but you do have to know what you are talking about in either case.

Being realistic also applies to the airplanes we fly. First and foremost, that Cirrus or Bonanza (or whatever) is no Boeing.

Our airplanes lack the performance guarantees and redundancy of Transport Category airplanes. That couples with far more restrictive regulations on operating those airplanes to result in the safest transportation system that has ever existed. If someone asks if flying in a light airplane is as safe as an airliner, the only realistic answer is no.

How we operate our airplanes is left up to us which means that the airplanes can be as safe (or dangerous) as the pilot wants them to be. The realistic pilot runs the risk/reward evaluation for everything he wants to do and goes from there. There is obviously a wide variation in risk tolerance among pilots and that is as it should be. Private flying is all about freedom and flexibility where airline flying is all about procedures and schedules and standing in long lines. That was always an easy choice for me.

When it comes to airplanes, it is apparent that being realistic about risk means that the pilot, not the airplane, is the primary determinant. That does not mean you can’t get your money’s worth when opting for a twin or a shiny new Cirrus, both of which address the ever-present single-engine question asked by many pilots: What do you do if the engine quits?

In a chuteless single, what you do is land in the most favorable available location. In a Cirrus you can pop the chute and enjoy the ride down. In a twin, if you are truly a sharp pilot you can fly to a runway and land. The accident records are full of tales about twin pilots who were not truly sharp and couldn’t meet the considerable demands of flying a twin on one engine.

Beside a higher level of ego satisfaction, the twin does usually give good performance increases, especially in climb, and most will handle more payload. There is good value there.

Past that, when it comes to weather and instrument flying Mother Nature doesn’t give a whit about two engines and parachutes. The fancier and more expensive airplanes might have better equipment to keep the pilot informed about weather but with the appropriate software for an iPad you can fly your 40-year old Cessna 172 and be about as well informed as the pilot flying a brand-new Cirrus with all the whistles and bells.

Cirrus SR22
“Mother Nature doesn’t give a whit about two engines and parachutes.”

I got my instrument rating in a Piper Pacer on May 9, 1955. What came next was IFR flying in that Pacer. That was about as basic as you could get in airplanes but I flew it carefully and never had a problem and never felt the level of risk was particularly high. I even got a little ice on it once and decided that a little ice was way more than enough.

The avionics of the day were almost as basic as the Pacer but I was still able to successfully fly my missions, even with no screens. All the new equipment is wonderful but it is an aid, not a solution. If anyone were backward enough to want to fly with only basic avionics, it would still work and the risk could still be managed.

Because the vast majority of the airplanes in the fleet are getting really old, the more important airplane-related reality check is about the condition of the airplane. When we say that airplanes can last forever if they are properly maintained do we know how much it really costs to maintain an old airplane?

It has been ten years since I retired my P210 after 28 years of faithful service. I changed the engine a number of times and overhauled it a few times. The bill was between $20,000 and $30,000 each time. The tab would be around $75,000 to do the job properly today, to say nothing of the cost of meeting other maintenance demands. I only flew the airplane 100 hours in the last twelve months that I had it and those hours cost $600 each. The reality was that it cost that much to keep the airplane in perfect mechanical order even with it flying so little. Actually, the total yearly cost remained about the same with more hours costing little more than the fuel and some routine maintenance.

Maybe the fact that the P210 always had an unfortunate accident history after engine or systems problems is an indication that in at least some cases the required money had not been not spent.

For any old airplane the maintenance costs relate to what the airplane would cost if bought new, today. Something like a 1972 Cessna 421B with mid-time engines might be tempting for $139,500 but the price new today would be over a million and half and the maintenance costs required keep it as safe as possible would relate to the new price, not the bargain used price.

Finally, a tale about a pilot who faced the facts and made a good decision.

I had a primary student who was slow to learn and I wondered if he was so fearful of flying that his brain froze when he got in the airplane. He was successful in his day job as a Captain in the United States Army but it was an uphill battle in an airplane.

He didn’t want to give up, but after 40 hours of dual I had my doubts. I questioned my ability to teach him and several times I asked him if he would like to try a different instructor. He wanted to stick with me.

Then, on an idyllic Alabama summer afternoon, he did a series of maybe ten acceptable landings. It was time. I got out and told him to fly the pattern, land, and taxi back to where I would be standing by the runway. He did, and while the landing was okay I could tell just by looking that the airplane was being flown by one nervous pilot.

When he got back to me, I asked him if he wanted to do it again.

No, I have done it, I have flown solo in an airplane so I am a pilot and will be one forever though I won’t likely ever fly again.

Reflecting back on this, I see that he was just being realistic so that means he had at least one attribute of a sharp pilot. Cheers, Captain.


  • As a glider-only pilot, now reasonably-experienced with several thousand, mostly cross-country hours, I’ve enjoyed/absorbed bits of wisdom from Mr. Collins since college, before ever taking my first flying lesson. While not everything from Mr. Collins’ IFR-centric world of power aviation carries over to the (ostensibly) considerably-simpler world of VFR-centric glider aviation (Duh!), the wisdom inherent to carrying on a conversation with yourself when flying approaches surely does!

    I no longer remember with any certainty the circumstances of how I began doing so, and until reading the above article can’t recall reading of others doing it either, but it’s something I *think* I began doing as part of trying to improve my approach-to-a-target-point consistency during a time when I imagined I should be capable of flying approaches/flaring/laiding with more consistency than I was then displaying. In any event, the technique proved so personally useful, I kept it up, and for a number of years regularly used my pulpit as my soaring club’s newsletter editor to encourage others to do the same. It’s a great way to help ensure you’re focused on the right things throughout a high workload portion of flight, and, incorporating the requisite feedback loops into your manipulation of flight controls.

    I hope I’m wrong, but my sense is it’s not a common piloting technique.

  • I do the same, even when flying with non-pilot passengers. I brief them that I am going to talk to myself at certain points in the foight, especially take off and landing. I tell them that I do it as a safety check that derives from what the two-pilot airlines do. I have never gotten a nervous reaction from my passengers, but… you have to be careful not to accidently utter something like “oops”.

  • it sounds like you describe a fairly common scenario that those of us teaching IFR need to talk about. I respectfully disagree with those who take issue with some of your points – they are YOUR points and you are a respected author and teacher. While they may not perfectly mimic everyone else’s points they are valid within your context. I would expand the dialogue to those of us that are CFII who teach instrument and those that are CFII that actually take students into actual IMC deliberately on purpose. Those are two different species of CFI. Taking nothing from one for the other. an apple is not better or worse than an orange.

  • Excellent article, especially the concluding story about the Army captain. Unfortunately, for every person like him there are many more who go on with their flying until they either scare themselves badly or have an accident. Often they “shop” instructors and examiners to get through the system. I’m convinced this is a key reason behind the stubbornly high GA accident rate.

    I’ve flown with a number of nervous pilots in my life. Some are no longer with us. If you are nervous when you fly, get good training and fly enough so that the nervousness goes away. If it doesn’t, do what the smart Captain did. One doesn’t have to be super-human to fly, but a certain basic aptitude is required.

  • Think I’ve got every book Richard Collins ever wrote (as well as his Dad). Actually, he has said to talk out loud to yourself when flying often over the years. Like Michael who said it best, each to his own but respect Richard Collins expertise. But talking out loud even with passengers (I’m a Angel Flight Pilot), actually I believe makes them more comfortable because I tell them I will be doing this for safety checklist reasons and I make sure that when I talk out loud, they hear a calm and reassuring voice. This is important when they can’t see anything outside the airplane but grey or black. And believe it or not, it helps you to think and not worry about your approach. “Worry” is concern working overtime. And after a long flight in IMC, you probably don’t have the extra energy or time to allow worry to have any room in your brain or in the cabin.

  • My concern, Richard, is you didn’t feel comfortable at 100 hours per year, with 20,000 total. What about us who barely get 100 hours( or less) in our Bonanza’s. Should we be doing this. I felt ok at 60/year, much better at 100/ year. Would be great to fly 300/ year but I have to work to pay for the Bonanza. Thoughts? Regards, Charlie Beliveau

  • Hello, Mr. Collins, I somewhat disagree with your analogy of a “sharp” pilot, to me a sharp pilot is not only very good at how he fly’s an airplane but most importantly his decision making is by far most important. Now sharp can mean he’s sharp with the nut and bolts of flying an airplane, or sharp with his imputes on how he fly’s the airplane,being very smooth etc. so being sharp doesn’t sum it up in my book. Now if you were to say being sharp and having good decision making when needed, now that is a sharp pilot in my view. I knew a very sharp person that got his ticket at less than forty hours, he always bragged about that, in my estimation he was a lousy pilot, needless to say he didn’t fly much, he let his ego take over his common sense. The Bonanza pilot saying that pilots that don’t fly lots of hours yearly, does not in any way constitute a marginal pilot, on the contrary, he is probably a very cautious pilot and doesn’t take chances due to his always keeping in the back of his mind that he doesn’t do any thing dumb. At my last employ, the Co. would have us take self evaluation test, and almost everyone would rate themselves very high and “sharp”. After words we would switch papers with one another and rate the person next to you and what a difference in the ratings, WOW to say the least, almost every one would see themselves way up there doing nothing wrong. I enjoy your writings Mr. Collins and I know you are very sharp and with good decision making quality s, but I can say, you are the exception for sure, not to many pilots fit this description, even multi thousand hour pilots, can and are bad pilots. thank you

  • Thanks Richard
    I truly miss reading you on a regular basis. Always read you first unless there was an Ernie Gann article. Take care and write when you can.
    Bill A
    PS 10 year owner of an FTO 1980 172XP based HWD. My wife says some of the happiest moments of her life. She is an Ann too.

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