AF cover, 8-70
18 min read

A Ladder to Climb

By Wolfgang Langewiesche

Editor’s note: We’re diving into the Air Facts archives for another thought-provoking article from legendary pilot and author Wolfgang Langewiesche. In “A Ladder to Climb,” which first appeared in the August 1970 edition of Air Facts, he argues that pilots need to step up their game and offers a suggestion for how they might do that—with a nod to the world of gliders. Might this be easier with modern technology?


We have a problem – no doubt about it – of pilot incompetence. The Art moves on: instruments, more traffic, more radios, higher performance, longer trips, more serious use of the airplane – but the skill of the newly-minted private pilot is still very much what it was 35 years ago. And we are surrounded by newly-minted pilots. And we hope it stays that way. It means growth. But we do have a problem: How can we raise the skill level in private flying, fast?

AF cover, 8-70

This article first appeared in the August 1970 edition of Air Facts.

We can’t raise the license requirements very much, for two reasons. One, we would make the private license too hard to get and too expensive. We would choke off the public’s use of the public air. The private pilot has a sort of right to be turned loose as soon as he is reasonably safe under favorable conditions. We must leave it to time and experience to smarten him up and make him more skillful. The other reason is: we don’t really know how to turn out a better pilot by any bearable addition to the training curriculum. Suppose we added 20 hours of required flight time, and doubled the ground school: would it really help? I doubt it. Our flight school system is, like most school systems, scholastic. It smells of school, not life. As an airline captain has remarked – what it takes to fly an airplane, and what it takes to pass a test is not the same thing. And perhaps this is inevitable. School is school, and life is life, and in most fields, people learn a lot after they have come out of school. It’s normal.

Our problem therefore is – how can we encourage the new pilot to keep learning after school, and to set himself high standards? Here is a suggestion: we might imitate what is done in soaring.


You get a glider pilot’s private license, at age 16 if you want it, on almost nothing: a few flights, a written test that does not touch on aerodynamics, stability and control, nor on instruments, navigation, weather, radio, oxygen or parachutes; a simple flight test: then the government is through with you. But the soaring people have a system of their own, international in scope, that takes a hold of people at this point and urges them on. They award a silver badge to the pilot who 1) stays up 5 hours, 2) gains 3281 feet above point of release or subsequent low point of a flight, 3) flies a distance of 31.1 miles (the tiddly numbers are the expression in feet and miles of international requirements laid down in meters).

They award you a gold badge if you make, 1) 5 hours, 2) an altitude gain of 9842 feet, 3) a distance of 186.4 miles.

You get a diamond each, to put on the rim of your badge, if you make, 1) a distance of 310.7 miles, 2) a flight to a pre-announced goal distant 186.4 miles, 3) an altitude gain of 16,404 feet.

And that’s all! A silly little thin, a pin for your button-hole which you will probably never wear. If you wore it, few people would know what it stands for. It gives you no privileges. But it is pretty well what makes the soaring world go ’round.

The moment you have your license, in fact, the moment you have soloed, you know perfectly well what you have to do; go after silver, then after gold. It wouldn’t occur to many people not to do so. And in doing so, how you stretch yourself, how hard you work, and how much you learn! The performances required are not easy, and are cleverly scaled so that the set of them constitutes a sort of course of programmed instruction. You need silver-level skill to make gold in most cases. Few people get a diamond except on a gold badge.

Most performances take more than one try. The weather fades out on you, or you goof, or your will power sags, and you secretly wish that the thermals would quit. The moment that happens, mysteriously, you begin to come down. Sometimes you are up for a practice flight, a performance falls into your lap, but you have no barograph. And also cases where some poor guy forgets to turn his barograph on. But somehow when you fail, it does not feel like failure. More like “this has been fun. Next time, I’ll ring the bell.” And the next time perhaps the weather is kind, and the performance effortless. But meanwhile you have done a lot of flying with a purpose. You have cussed and discussed, analyzed your faults, asked advice, read books, developed and discarded theories and techniques. By the time a man is flying for diamonds, he is sophisticated and a pro.



How does a simple badge motivate so many glider pilots?

Could we devise a similar system for general aviation? I believe we could. We would have to recognize one difference: in gliding they can measure the pilot’s success directly – the results he gets. We can’t do that. A powered flight of 400 miles is no more difficult than one of 200 miles. We can only measure some of the factors which we think make for success. About this, more below.

In soaring, official observers – every member of the Soaring Society of America is qualified as observer if he has at least one leg of at least one badge. But airport managers and people in similar positions are also qualified as observers. The soaring people use sealed barographs and a sealed camera. Before a distance flight you write a declaration on a blackboard stating the date, and time, the destination, turn-points, N number of the airplane, etc. The pilot signs this, and so does the observer. He then photographs the declaration and hands you the sealed camera. The pilot subsequently photographs his turn points. In the end the observer photographs the declaration again, unseals the camera and has the film developed. Also admissible evidence is a “landing card,” stating place and time of your landing, signed by two witnesses, with addresses. The whole system is pretty cheat-proof. In our kind of flying, we would need the cooperation of Towers, Flight Service Stations, Flight Instructors, Airport Managers, Fixed-Base Operators, etc. We would of course need an organization to run the scheme. But that is a minor problem.

The major problem is: Can we think up a set of tasks that could serve as a good test of pilot skill? They would have to be progressively more difficult. They would have to be directly useful, realistic – as a chandelle or a figure eight is not: each would have to be a recognizable piece of real-life flying. And they would have to be solo. A flight test, or check-ride, with an observer in the right-hand seat, is not what we need. It costs too much to set up a time when all the factors are available: the checker, the checkee, the weather, the airplane. Also, while some pilots get checkitis, others relax because they figure that in a pinch, the check-pilot, by seniority, would take over. They thus resign from the captaincy – and that’s unrealistic. A big element of any real-life situation, in flying, is that it’s up to you. I would add another condition. Our requirements, while difficult, should be fun. Each task should be a challenging game, so that in any case would not count his time lost. This in turn requires that the pilot himself must be able to tell whether he’s making it or not. No subjective judgement; no fine points on which the pilot might win without knowing it (“a good short landing, but you forgot to apply carburetor heat”).

Our requirements, therefore, would certainly need much discussion, and some experimentation. One would have to send new pilots out to do these things, and see what happens. At any rate, I think that a set of meaningful tasks can be developed. Here, just to put something on the table, is a sketch of one set.

(1). A performance where, 10 times out of 12, the airplane lands on a mark or within 50 feet beyond it, touching on main wheels first, with the nosewheel off the ground. Perhaps the approach should be over a 35-foot barrier. The U.S. Army uses a low-strength, easy-to-burst barrier for landing practice. Perhaps we should do the same. It might be fun from time to time to hold a meet where pilots could try for this performance.

(2). For this requirement we would need a simple flight recorder which the pilot could borrow or a rent – a barograph combines with a recording directional gyro. I believe such a gadget could be made available. Then: with the recorder in the ship, the pilot flies 3 “snakes” of one hour each – i.e., three flight paths at prescribed, varying headings and altitudes, each snake returning close to the point of departure. During these flights, the prescribed altitudes to be kept within say 50 feet, the prescribed headings within say, 2 ½ degrees. Resetting of pilot’s gyro allowed every 20 minutes.

Video still

Might modern technology like GoPro cameras make it easy to record such a proficiency flight?

We might require, or allow, this to be done under the hood, with an Instrument Flight Instructor certifying the performance instead of a recorder. Then it could be, for the pilot a valuable part of his training for an Instrument Rating. It would be less burdensome financially. But there is a particular need for improvement in ability to fly straight and level in visual flight.

(3). Three flights of four hours each, at cruise, during which the airplane’s radio navigation equipment is off and sealed. These flights to a pre-announced destination, with turn-points, if any, preannounced, time enroute and fuel consumption predicted, check-points photographed, and actual performance very close to prediction. We would have to allow these flights to be out and return, or triangle, although we really would like to push the pilot further away from home. But we should not burden the pilot with overnight expenses, and should get the airplane back to its owner as soon as possible.

Stop here a minute and consider. This requirement might seem easy, but it would induce the pilot to go into dead reckoning and effective map reading. He would have to study winds aloft, and perhaps sometimes go up first and establish winds aloft. He would have to swing his compass. If the requirements as to prediction were rigid enough, he might have to try several times before he got an accurate-enough flight! It would be interesting to require one of these flights to be made by radio-chart only, i.e., by pure dead reckoning, with almost no terrain shown. But such a task could perhaps be attacked as careless flying.

(4). Three night flights, each in a triangle with no side shorter than 100 miles, and a landing at each corner. Perhaps with some devilish formula which would require the flights to be made at different seasons.
Here again the pilot would probably have to do more night flying than just those flights. He would probably not do these flights cold, but would lead up to them by short local flights, study night landings, the problems of locating an airport at night, the ins and outs of cockpit lighting, map reading at night and so forth. He would probably have to give up once or twice on account of weather. We would measure not only his skill, but his determination. He might have to give himself a little push.

(5). A number of arrivals and departures, say four each, at 3 different really busy airports. This performance to be certified by each tower as satisfactory – no goofs, no undue delays. Obviously, we could not try to push this traffic into our busiest airports, but we might specify the class just below – really busy places. We would need the cooperation of the Towers; but I believe we could get it, in view of the aim. Here again, the pilot would probably (had better!) do some preparing – spend some time at a Tower, review and improve his radio habits, study airport charts, get with it in general. He would come out of this task smarter than he went in.

(6). One difficult problem remains: How can a pilot prove real proficiency with VOR and ADF? One could perhaps set up a task along these lines: With a flight recorder aboard, and under rigid requirements as to heading and altitude, stay on a prescribed heading for a prescribed time. Then, holding the heading, prove your position, note it on your map, together with bearings and time; proceed still on the same heading to the next identifiable check-point and photograph it. From there, proceed with minimum delay to a point given to you only as an intersection of two VOR bearings. Photograph the landmark located there. Then…and so forth. Using a trick from soaring, the pilot could “notch” his barograph trace (with a short, sharp decent and re-climb) to mark the times at which he passes over the various points. In this way could probably create a record which is checkable, the way the old explorers’ notes were checkable and cheating and fantasy detectable. But it might be hard work to check it.

GTN 750

For a real challenge, pilots could (gasp!) turn off the GPS.

It may be better to make an exception and make this a checkride, with an observer who puts the pilot through the wringer on VOR and ADF, with a set of tasks, which we would prescribe; ADF interception of inbound and outbound tracks; VOR estimation of distance from the station by change of bearing, VOR approaches where a pond, or other landmark symbolizes an airport, and the checkee does not know what landmark is the one – to simulate an emergency landing in murky weather and so forth. Perhaps this flight would not be much harder if made under the hood. In that case it could serve as a valuable part of the pilot’s work toward an instrument rating. This would ease the economics of the thing. Certain it is that at about 500 or 100 hours after being licensed, the pilot should be challenged to show that he really understands all the angles of ADF and VOR, and he can really use these devices in flight. I believe we keep turning out pilots who are quite shaky in this respect. Not so long ago, a pilot called the Westchester County Airport and said he was lost. He said he had Omni and DME, and his Omni read 270 degrees “from” the Carmel, N.Y. range (the VOR associated with that airport) and the distance shown was 22 miles. But he was lost! They referred him to La Guardia radar.


Somewhere around here, we could give our man his silver badge. We know that he can land an airplane, he can fly straight, he can behave in traffic, he can use his radio, he can navigate and read a map. He is not panicked by the approach of night. He is now, really and solidly, that which we only wish he were when he gets his license. Also, in going to the trouble of delivering the performance required for his badge, he has shown that he takes his flying seriously.

Gold? One thinks of course of a long trip, coast-to-coast and back again where the pilot would encounter all sorts of strange terrain and weather. But such a trip would not serve as basis for a badge. It would require too much time and money in one hunk. We could not require the pilot to go alone, because it would be uneconomic. But a copilot might give him undue help and advice. Also, a long flight as such, is nothing. The question is what style it is made in, and we cannot monitor the style. Our pilot might push weather, break VF, make his landings on his nosewheel, blabbermouth on the radio, do all sorts of poor flying. We need a performance that is more compact and objective.

As a VFR pilot, our man is short of experience in one field: High altitude, high-elevation airports and mountain flying. A gold badge might require 12 sport landings, nosewheel off the ground, at each of say 3 airports at 7000 feet or better, with the temperature 80 or more and the airplane at no more than 90% of gross weight – or some such formula. Or we could just simply require X landings and takeoffs at Leadville, Colorado, elevation nine thousand nine hundred and some. A gold badge might also require a climb to 17,500 feet and two hours cruise at that altitude.

These two requirements would mean more than appear at first glance. In preparing for them, the pilot would have to come to grips with many points of Theory and Practice – oxygen, moisture control, performance at altitude, the Koch Chart, mountain weather, types of turbulence, uphill landings, etc. He would probably do more high flying than the bare test performance. For the man from the East, it would mean a long trip. Is that fair? Perhaps not; but the aim of such a system is not to dispense social or geographic justice, but to certify pilot-skill and experience. And a pilot who has never flown off high airports lacks something. Pilots from Hawaii and Alaska might also have some problems with some of the requirements one might set up. Also, no doubt, the man with more money and time has an advantage. All these special advantages and handicaps would have to be accepted. In soaring, too, they exist. Because of weather, an Englishman has a harder time getting a silver badge than a Texan has getting a gold. This does not seem to interfere with soaring pilots’ acceptance of the system.


Apps like CloudAhoy make it easy to log flights in exquisite detail.

The second requirement for a gold badge might be 30 hours on IFR flight plan, solo, in any weather the pilot chooses, including wide-open VFR. Since this involves getting an instrument rating in the first place, it is a big hump. It would go beyond the rating in that it would push our man strongly toward use of his rating. He would certainly become well acquainted with the system and its communications and usages and procedures.

A hood on these flights? It would mean a safety pilot, and that might mean all sorts of undue help, from refolding the map for the pilot to telling him just what it is the ground has just said. Once a pilot has done instrument flying, it does not make so much difference, for the enroute part of the flight, whether he has a hood or can see. The work comes to much the same. Our man would probably also get quite a bit of enroute flying in clouds. And he could make low approaches and low departures if he chose.

The final requirement for a Gold Badge might be, say, 10 IFR departures and 10 IFR arrivals in pretty low weather – the weather being somehow specified (for instance – ceiling no more than 200 feet higher than the minimum). No more than 7 of the departures and no more than half of the arrivals to be at the same airport.

I think this would be quite a tough requirement except perhaps for West-Coast pilots who can slip in and out of ocean fog in weather that is otherwise benign. Arizona pilots would have to fly quite far from home to find the kind of murk the rest of us have to deal with. In fulfilling it the pilot would have to do quite a lot of instrument flying. He would definitely break the Actual-IFR barrier. And we could then give him his Gold Badge.


Diamonds? I would give 3 each to Max Conrad and Mrs. Hard and a few other star performers of long-distance flights. I would give a diamond to anyone who has tooled an airplane to a point 6000 miles away and brought it back. I would limit this to ships of less than 12,500 pounds, or even to those of less than say 7,000. But there are people in this country who quietly, year after year, slip in and out through almost any weather in small airplanes on just ordinary business over ordinary distances. I would form a committee to search out such people, evaluate their flying and hand out diamonds on the basis of long-term performances.

But really these highly accomplished pilots don’t need our applause. It is the new pilot who needs our system. We must show him a ladder to climb. He now, once licensed, lives in a world in which there are no standards of performance. If he gets there, it’s good enough. If he doesn’t get there it’s ok too – he can claim to have shown “good judgement” and “respected his limitations.” If he lands on his nosewheel, he has no Chief Instructor to call him on it. If he wants to improve, he has no next-step definite goal. He needs to have performance standards set for him and he needs recognition when he lives up to such standards. The insurance companies might also recognize his efforts. The experience of the soaring would seem to show that, once a genuine, tough-but-attainable, standard is set, a lot of people will try to attain it “because it is there.”

Worth discussing?

Wolfgang Langewiesche
Latest posts by Wolfgang Langewiesche (see all)
12 replies
  1. Dave Sandidge
    Dave Sandidge says:

    Interesting thoughts. I’ve thought for years that the one aspect of the growth and learning process that we usually omit is “ceremony.” A formal ceremony is a defining moment in anyone’s life that signals and recognizes a departure from something and the first step towards something else. A ceremony can change your whole way of thinking.

    • Mike Dalecki
      Mike Dalecki says:

      Ceremony….interesting. We already do that, after a fashion, when students solo the first time (cut off the shirttail) or when they pass their checkride (photo in front of the plane in which they passed that test).

      Being publicly recognized in a ceremony is a nice reward, and can provide motivation for others to achieve the same accomplishment….and be recognized.

  2. Dennis Wolf
    Dennis Wolf says:

    We have the technology to collect and compare flight performance. It’s called FOQA, flight operations quality assurance. The airlines use it. The same data is recorded by almost all modern glass panels. It’s time we started using it in GA.

  3. Mike Dalecki
    Mike Dalecki says:

    Certainly much of what Wolfgang proposes could be handled by modern technology. There are sites that record ADS-B data, showing an entire flight route. Or my Ipad, which shows flight path by “breadcrumbs.”

    Some of this is easily done, and would contribute to a continued effort by new pilots to continue growing.

    At least, it seems that way to me. I *am* a new pilot, 80 hours total. I’ll keep learning (it’s my nature) but it would be nice to have some official goals/targets to aim for. It would also be nice if some of them could be completed in normal flight operations instead of flying *just* to achieve the goals.

  4. RichR
    RichR says:

    current era adds more disconnects from piloting…mindless magenta nav and coupled autopilots. How about you only log PIC when actually manipulating the controls…if the autopilot is flying you log MIC “manager in control”.

    • JohnY
      JohnY says:

      Agreed. We have the Wings program which rewards working to improve proficiency. Yet I know of few pilots who take advantage of it to obtain the wings or even the free pass for a review.

      I think soaring is different, you’re always trying to do the best you’re able. Powered flight is more about getting from point A to B. Recognition for achievement in STOL events work but doesn’t improve other aspects of safety and proficiency.

      • Manny
        Manny says:

        Agree 100%.
        That’s what I always liked about soaring. There were fewer egos – the most important thing was that fellow pilots loved the art of soaring and respected safety rules.
        How much someone’s sailplane cost or much money or prestige someone claimed was irrelevant.

  5. Hunter Heath
    Hunter Heath says:

    This fun-flyer pilot decided to pursue every flight as if I were carrying revenue passengers: as a professional. I was far from perfect, but I had a frame of reference. Earning and using the instrument rating was an important step in advancing proficiency, as was, years later, a tailwheel endorsement. I really like the idea of skills-building ratings. Not only could that promote flying skills, it might keep pilots from dropping out of flying as their “boring holes in the sky” flights turn emotionally boring. It happens fairly often. A skills rating program should include awards for the instrument rating, tailwheel endorsement, complex aircraft endorsement, multi engine rating, aerobatic training, seaplane rating, and perhaps other benchmarks. Flight across the US border to another nation, for example. Perhaps AOPA and EAA could partner with the CFI organizations to create a system.

  6. Francis Faludi
    Francis Faludi says:

    Prior to becoming a flight instructor in Canada I did about 25 hours of aerobatic training. While obviously a lot of thought was given to this write up I still prefer the route I took to achieve a certain level of competence.

  7. Ed
    Ed says:

    I think the navigation challenge would be very beneficial, and fun. Shut off and seal the GPS & other gadgets, and fly by clock, map and compass on a cross country. So many pilots are slaves to the magenta line, getting them to open a sectional is a problem, if they even have one! Technology is great, and I wouldn’t want to fly a long xc to an unfamiliar place without a GPS to help, but having a backup plan, and the skills to execute are a critical part of being a safe pilot.

  8. Lorrie Penner
    Lorrie Penner says:

    In 1970 IAC Hall of Fame Recipient Verne Jobst conceived and implemented the IAC Achievement Award program based on his experience with the SSA soaring badges.
    I agree with Francis Faldui that aerobatics is a very desirable way to gain pilot proficiency.

    I also saw someone mention that other organizations might get together for a proficiency program, and so would like to share the link to the EAA Proficiency 365 program:
    If you are headed to AirVenture this year stop by their EAA Pilot Proficiency Center. Includes 14 Redbird LD flight simulators and a full schedule of Tech Talks. Location: Four Corners at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh.


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