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Mitch Semel’s article, Why You Should Think Like a Pilot, got me thinking about how it applies to so much more than aviation.  I will not claim that pilots are smarter than other people.  I have known some dopes that passed the tests.  But even they seemed to be better at handling unexpected surprises.  Was it due to anticipation?  Planning?  Attitude?

Safe pilots always:

  • have a Plan B
  • never get behind the plane
  • know the plane
  • are aware of the big picture
  • never stop being students.

Let me explain how these relate to flying, and then apply them outside aviation.

Always have a Plan B

airplane on final approach

It’s better to be down here wishing you were up there, than up there wishing you were down here.

The adage “It’s better to be down here wishing you were up there, than up there wishing you were down here,” is not a joke.  You will know that if you are aloft at night in instrument meteorological conditions with no open airport nearby.  It is why flight plans always require enough fuel to get to an alternate airport in the event landing at the intended destination is not possible.  You might be in full control in your plane, but what if the destination is closed for any reason?

Over-scheduling is a common problem in today’s hectic business world.  Should meetings with two important clients be scheduled an hour apart with enough – but not excessive amount of time – to travel from one to the other?  What will you do if the first client is 30 minutes late?  It is not your fault but it is your problem.

Plan B mentality causes me to always pack for an extra day on a trip with enough local currency and credit cards to handle unexpected delays.  If your smallest units of currency are $50 bills, it will make your taxi driver happy and you poorer.  Having a Plan B should be second nature for parents traveling with small children or anybody with a medical condition.

“Don’t have all of your eggs in one basket” is another way to describe the need for a Plan B.  You may have everything under control at your end, but the other end, the weather, the person, or life in general, also has a say. General Eisenhower noted that plans were often obsolete after first contact with the enemy but, nevertheless, planning was essential.  D-Day proved him right.

Never get behind the plane

Crosswind landing

A pilot surprised by the effect of a crosswind while landing is behind the airplane.

A pilot surprised by the effect of a crosswind while landing is describe as being “behind the plane”.  Assuming radio contact is possible, you should already know what runway will be used and both the strength and direction of the wind. However, anticipating is not enough, you need a plan to handle it.  Will you crab? Or use wing-low/opposite rudder?  Or both?

Anticipating problems is the best way to be prepared should problems occur.  This is just as true in everyday life and applies to student loans as much as airplanes.  A medical student might be able to pay off $300,000 in student loans.  How about an English major?  Being surprised by the impact of interest rates on a student loan is similar to being “behind the plane”.

What are all the factors that affect an outcome?  Identify them, anticipate impact, have a plan.

Know the airplane

Knowing all the systems and airspeeds (Vx, Vy, etc.) of a particular airplane is a requirement to fly it safely.  Should this be different from driving a car?  Clearly it is, as one rarely sees a person checking out a car before getting in and driving.  In contrast, a preflight inspection is a legal requirement before takeoff and includes determining the fuel and oil levels and performing a walk-around inspection of the plane’s control surfaces.  Taking off with gust locks in place, or  insufficient runway because of density altitude, is called ‘pilot error’.

Cause and effect analysis tells a pilot that flaps introduce both lift and drag.  Similarly, cause and effect analysis explains why “the more you tax anything, the less you will get of it” and “the more you subsidize something, the more you will get of it”. The growth of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger was driven by the first of those and the outcome of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” by the latter.  If more politicians had been pilots, more businesses would be started and fewer generations of people would be addicted to welfare.

Know the Big Picture

This is basically an extension of the last one, but it includes understanding weather and knowing the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM), among other things.  Many student pilots are put off when told they not only have to read the two inch thick AIM, but also have to know the parts that apply to them.  Examples include questions like “What is the effect of air density on take-off distance?” and “What is the effect of temperature and humidity on air density?”

Applying this Big Picture approach to topics such as Global Warming would cause one to question the speed at which California is pushing Electric Vehicles over piston engines, or the use of gasohol in place of oil based petroleum.  A hint of skepticism when faced with absolutism would be a good start.  Why, during a heat wave, did California ask people to not charge their EVs during peak hours just days after proposing a ban on gasoline powered cars?

While gasohol produces less new CO2 per liter burned than regular gasoline, it produces more per mile driven.  It also drives up the cost of both chicken feed and tamales and contributes to a groundwater problem.  In spite of these environmental and economic negatives, gasohol has generated a political constituency in farm states that will support global warming activists.

A Tesla is “cleaner” than a petrol car as long as you ignore the environmental impact of mining to produce EV batteries, and fuel (mostly coal) burned generating electricity to charge them.  It is also vastly more expensive and dependent on government (i.e. tax payer) subsidies.

Cold weather kills more people each year than does excessive heat, a fact usually ignored.  About 20,000 died from heat each year from 2000 to 2019.  But 170,000 died from cold, according to environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg.  He recently tweeted “Cheap and reliable energy to keep us warm used to be the hallmark of prosperous countries; no more because of our climate obsession”.  Knowing the Big Picture would be so much better for our society.

Never stop being a student

Ask any group of pilots to raise their hands if still a student, and you will be surprised at how many hands go up.  The pace of progress for aviation instruments requires pilots to be lifelong students, and they know it.  There is always something new to learn.  Fortunately, pilots are pretty good about helping each other, and sharing what they have learned.

It is obvious how this attitude of pilots applies outside of aviation, but it requires effort.  Learn the Big Picture, and anticipate, plan, act.

Sean Dwyer
12 replies
  1. Concerned
    Concerned says:

    Your ignorance of economics, energy production, EV production, and and tax policy undercuts your credibility about knowing the “big picture.” You seem like the kind of pilot people shouldn’t try to be: convinced of your own correctness while ignoring any new information.

    In fairness, you’re right about ethanol.

    • Mark Wyant
      Mark Wyant says:

      Actually it’s YOUR ignorance of the free market that’s telling sir. Tell me, how much power does it take to charge and electric car and what produces that power ? HINT:it’s not the plug in your wall). What ecological solution do you propose for 10 year old highly toxic worn out car batteries?

  2. Colin Brown
    Colin Brown says:

    Well said. Too bad someone in this great group used the nasty “denier” label on you. One thing the history of aviation teaches is the “science” is seldom settled and forecasts need to be treated cautiously.

  3. Art Bridge
    Art Bridge says:

    In literature, we have the term Pathetic Fallacy to ascribe to Nature the ways and effects of human beings, e.g., “the tree wept in bleak rain of autumn.” We need a similar expression to describe claims to authoritative knowledge in one field, flying in this case, to insights in a completely unrelated field, such as political economy, human energy consumption, or macroeconomics. I was really confused by this article, and surprised the editors accepted it for publication.

  4. David Lawrence Prossor
    David Lawrence Prossor says:

    Know the plane!
    So right.
    I recall the tale of the Cessna 188 Ag pilot who took off after a 100 hourly inpsection and had an engine failure. Water in the fuel.
    He was asked ‘Did you check the lower belly fuel drain?’
    Oh, I did not know there was one there!

  5. Kevin fruehwirth
    Kevin fruehwirth says:

    Airfacts , this one apparently slipped by. I enjoy articles by airmen, about aviation. This guy seems like a bystander in a room full of pilots. Enjoy that Cherokee 140…

  6. Pat
    Pat says:

    I, too, am surprised (and disappointed) that the editors of Air Facts let this one through. To the editors, to quote inspector Harry Callahan, “A man’s got to know his limitations”. This article probably caused RC to roll over in his grave. My hope is that, in the future, this forum can continue to be an escape from the Op/Ed pages of the NYT, LA Times, WSJ, WAPO, etc.

    • Peter N Steinmetz
      Peter N Steinmetz says:

      Regardless of what one thinks of these particular issues, I have to agree that let’s keep Air Facts focused on aviation. There are plenty of other online forums for discussing politics, if that is what one wants to do. Some politics, as related to aviation, is inevitable, but this was far afield.

  7. Dominic Cardy
    Dominic Cardy says:

    I am a politician and a pilot. Unless it’s about keeping airports open, lobbying the feds on proposed legal changes, etc., then please keep politics out of Air Facts. I come here to focus on the discipline and freedom of flying. Aviation is a bridge-building exception in an increasingly disordered world. Let’s keep it as easy as possible for pilots to talk across ever growing divisions by leaving our political disagreements outside the airport fence. In that spirit: I really enjoyed the aviation part of this article and found it really well written. Thanks to Air Facts for existing!


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