CFI with student

After many years working as a TV producer and network executive, I turned my hobby (flying small airplanes) into a second career as a flight instructor. While you might not be excited by the prospect of getting behind the controls of an aircraft, every day that I teach new pilots I realize the skills essential to safe flying apply just as well to making you better at whatever you do. From that, a few suggestions:

Be good at more than one thing

Pilots have to be multi-disciplinarians. We’re required to learn about aerodynamics, engine management, systems, flight planning, weather, regulations, navigation, performance calculations, aeromedical factors, automation management, and much more.

Make yourself more valuable at your organization by learning things outside of your specialty. Ask about and research topics so that you know at least some of what your colleagues, partners, competitors, and customers know—and maybe a few things that they don’t. When things change and times get tough (again), do you want to be the person who can do only one thing or the one who can contribute in several areas? There’s a reason they’ve sold over 500 million Swiss Army knives.

Don’t confuse multi-tasking with serial tasking

As pilots, in any given minute we’re scanning for traffic, talking to controllers, calculating fuel burns, making navigational decisions, and more, all while actually flying our aircraft. The key is that we don’t kid ourselves that we’re multi-tasking by juggling all of these jobs. At best we’re serial-tasking, taking a few seconds to attend to an immediate need, confirming our work, then moving swiftly to the next task.

Step back and take a look at the flood of short-, medium-, and long-term tasks you juggle at work. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re demonstrating how capable you are by trying to do them all at once. In truth, you’re likely giving them all short shrift. You’ll be more effective if you first prioritize what you must accomplish, then give each task your careful attention for the right amount of time before you move on to the next one.

Stop talking. Listen.

CFI with student

Sometimes the best way to contribute is to be quiet—in the air and at work.

The most valuable realization I came to in my first year of flight instructing was when to stop teaching. When I stop talking, my students have time to process all the things, big and small, that we’re working on that day. Better still, it’s during these silences that students reveal (verbally and nonverbally) what scares, challenges, and excites them most about learning to fly.

In business, we all want to make our presence felt—and mistakenly think the best way to do so is by speaking up. Try not talking. Ask yourself if you’re making an original contribution or merely repeating a point already made. Take the time to listen to what colleagues and customers are really saying to you. See if you can let them know that you understand what matters to them and how you plan to act on it.

Choose your altitude smartly

In how many meetings have you heard the cliche, “Let’s look at this from the 10,000 foot level?” Well, I do that every day—for real. As pilots we like to say that altitude is life. Higher cruise altitudes give us more visibility over a larger area and more time in an emergency. However, flying too high can also cause us to burn more fuel, encounter headwinds, or risk oxygen deprivation. So we constantly need to factor in weather, fuel consumption, passenger comfort, and other variables.

When building a team, contributing to a project, or making a key hire, don’t blindly follow just one flight path. Be willing to consider many variables, some conflicting, to make the right decision for the route (job, project, or person) that you’re following that day.

Know your surroundings

For pilots, situational awareness is crucial. We need constant heightened awareness both on the ground and in the air for traffic, weather, and other external factors.

You, too, need ongoing awareness of what might be approaching on your horizon (both real and virtual) and how changes there affect you, co-workers, and clients. Keep your radar scanning for all incoming traffic!

Always have a plan B… And Plan C.. And Plan D…

As pilots we create detailed plans for each flight based on weather, fuel, daylight hours, and other factors. But we know we may have to alter those plans in an instant (just ask Captain Sully). Environmental conditions, equipment, and external factors can always change on us. And, as instructors, we don’t have separate lessons for unusual occurrences—we practice abnormal and emergency scenarios in every flight.

You and your team should regularly imagine, anticipate, plan, and rehearse all manner of abnormal and emergency scenarios. Did you do so before March 2020? This past year may have been a most extreme case, but train yourself to expect the unexpected in your field every year.

As pilots we talk about staying “ahead of the plane.” If you think like a pilot, you’ll stay at least one step ahead in your job. Who knows, maybe you’ll even find yourself interested in flying lessons as well…

Mitch Semel
Latest posts by Mitch Semel (see all)
16 replies
  1. William J. Winget
    William J. Winget says:

    Nice extrapolation! I can appreciate the time and energy you put into this article; it took a lot of insight. Thank you.

    Reply
  2. Paul
    Paul says:

    Mitch
    Great comments and application to real life! Throughout the years, I have always tried to hire people who think like that for several reasons. First, if weird stuff comes up, you can hand it to someone who can figure it out and fix it. Second, they are usually hungry for more tasks and new challenges. This frees up my time to work on other things and gives them great growth opportunities. I like to think of it this way. If something happened to me, like death, hopefully my teammates will feel sad (LOL). But the harder challenge for my boss would be to choose one of two or more people who work for me to fill my role.

    I worked for Evergreen Airlines way back and have taken things from aviation like checklists, thought process, etc. and applied them to manufacturing and back-office operations with great success. This thinking like a pilot mentality is fantastic suggestion for all.

    Thanks for writing this! Now if I could only find time to work on getting my private pilots license.

    Paul

    Reply
  3. Jeffrey Davis
    Jeffrey Davis says:

    Mitch

    You have written such a great article. My brother and I both long time pilots, have thought about this same subject for many years. Being pilots has given us looking at life from a different perspective than most. Thank you for writing this article; very well done!

    Reply
  4. Vicky Denman
    Vicky Denman says:

    Dear Mitch,
    I truly loved this article. I got licensed in ‘89, and I need to get up for my biannual flight review. One thing that I was so proud of was going from learning about altimeters to being a weatherman (and everything between). You’re absolutely right; it’s never “multitasking.” It’s more like mindfulness moving from one thing to another. Another point that you made: Altitude is your friend.

    Reply
  5. Mike McGinn
    Mike McGinn says:

    Yep…there’s no such thing as “multi-tasking”. It’s all “serial-tasking”.

    I’m reminded of when we did low altitude training (LAT) in the F/A-18. We had a term called MCT or mission cross-check time. When you were flying at 500 knots within a few hundred feet of terra firma, you didn’t have a lot of time to do stuff like check your fuel state, select the next nav point, look to see if your wingman was still in position, change radio frequency, or scan the radar for “bad guys”, etc. You had to “serially” bounce back and forth between the above-noted tasks and also ensure that you were not going to hit the ground. When you reached the point where you had to dedicate 100% of your attention to not impacting earth, you had reached MAC or minimum altitude capable. We generally flew at altitudes where you had 1-2 seconds of MCT, or about 200′ AGL when you were proficient and current in LAT.

    In the military, you also always had a Plan B and C because Plan A was invariably doomed to fail. As we like to say in the military, no plan, no matter how good, ever “survives contact with the enemy” because the enemy “gets a vote” in your Plan A, and you don’t know what that vote is until the battle begins. As such, you better have a Plan B and C or you will find yourself at the mercy of your enemy.

    Reply
    • Dale Hill
      Dale Hill says:

      Mike, when I was flying A-10s at 100 feet AGL, we used to always review a ‘Time-to-Die’ chart in our pre-flight briefings. Basically it was a reminder that at 300 knots (all we could get out of our Warthogs!) if you got the nose down even 2 degrees low, you had only a few seconds to realize and correct it, or you were D-E-A-D! Get 5 degrees nose-low and you were probably D-E-A-D before you realized it!

      Reply
  6. Bruce Barton MD
    Bruce Barton MD says:

    As an aviator and aircraft owner and private practice surgeon the notion of “thinking like a pilot”
    is vitally important and should be studied,copied,emulated and perfected. I saw this on every cockpit jumpseat opportunity as a young person I had riding up front on once great Pan American Airways PAA. Those guys were simply the BEST and every time I’m making a decision to operate on a patient, evaluating a piece of medical equipment or making a decision to hire or fire, aviation 101steps in!! Even in your buying a stock or an option; what is plan A ,plan B , how do I get out, and when? What if the airport I’m heading to goes down?
    Gedanken experiment: Picture for once flying at night with Gander 1000 miles behind you and Shannon 900 miles ahead of you. Just think about it for a moment.

    Reply
  7. Joe Verco
    Joe Verco says:

    Thank you for your article, even in Australia we enjoy the collegiate spirit of fellow aviators. Since 1978 flying with few aids,map reading and navigation was well tuned. ( Grounding as a Queen’s Scout and call up for Vietnam certainly sharpened self reliance).
    On every flight, expect the unexpected.
    Most frightening was flying IFR ,with lodged flight plan , from Quondong Station to Adelaide there was a plane VFR on the wrong frequency, at the same level, on the reciprocal heading (ie head on W325) at 2nm on the TCAS, I broadcast ‘ETP breaking left’ and repeated. Only when I got home to Parafield and did the sums,did I work out the timeframe for the near hit…reaction time,broadcast,turn all at the same time that ‘Traffic,Traffic Traffic was coming from the TCAS.
    Recently passed medical, and still flying IFR at 75yrs
    Trust your instincts

    Reply
  8. Dale Hill
    Dale Hill says:

    My takeaway from your excellent piece: Think like a pilot, i.e., work, socialize, eat, drive, relax, fly, drink, exercise, and live like your life depends on it all, ’cause it does!

    Reply
  9. Michael A.N. Winkler
    Michael A.N. Winkler says:

    Thank you!
    As a Weekend CFI-AIME and former Part 135 pilotI think you’re spot on.
    As an Aircraft Dispatcher (something has to pay the mortgage & health-insurance ) for a major US airline, I will “tweak” and share what you said w/ my dispatch colleagues.

    Reply
  10. Erik Vogel
    Erik Vogel says:

    Bang on, these life skills work in every day life and especially in daily driving. ( something everyone does!)
    I have also driven commercially since 1990 and now deliver large trucks across North America.
    It feels just like flight planning, checking weather, fuel stops, (small fuel tanks) go-no go decisions and heavy traffic.
    I wish ALL drivers had this training and didn’t just stare straight ahead…

    Reply
  11. Bibocas
    Bibocas says:

    One of the best ways to (un)uncover the multitask myths and common advices over that theme, written by a lot if aviators and repeated by instructors. Congrats.

    Reply
  12. Michael F.
    Michael F. says:

    I just had to laugh when I read this article. Not because it isn’t good, it is. But my boss (at the S********* County Airport System), actually told me to (“stop thinking like a pilot”). Thank You for this article.

    Reply

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