My wife is not a particularly enthusiastic general aviation passenger. When it’s a trip from points ‘A’ to ‘B’, she is all in, provided ‘B’ is a place she wants to ‘be.’ A romantic flight down the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains to see the splendor of the changing leaves? Not so much.
She is the smartest person I’ve ever met. She’s also editing this. I’ve tried to make the case that flying is inherently safer than driving. In as much as, when you are careening down the interstate at eighty-five miles an hour with a car on all four sides of you, your capacity to make decisions in the event of an emergency among the five of you is surrendered to the judgment of the drivers of the four other vehicles only inches away. You end up at the mercy of someone else to ultimately determine your fate or his own.
Up, Up and Away
When operating in the IFR system, there is a maintained separation between aircraft, so your aeronautical decision making (ADM) is technically your own. Barring any mechanical issues, your IFR flight does not involve the input of other pilots and is handled skillfully by ATC – from takeoff to landing.
When flying VFR, the responsibility for avoidance is placed solely on you, the pilot, but it’s certainly not a game of inches as it is on the highways. Cloud and terrain clearance requirements are designed to ‘open up’ the sky around you so that you can see and avoid other aircraft. Traffic advisories through flight following go a long way toward mitigating your risk en route while VFR. All these factors, plus altitude restrictions, go a long way towards helping you avoid the risk of trading paint with another pilot. The pattern is another discussion altogether.
Almost two and a half decades later, all these factors come together in my head to make me feel like flying is safer. But, is it?
Where the Rubber Hits the Road
Let me get my head out of the clouds for a minute and come back down to I-95 on the way to the beach. Across four lanes, I find myself once again surrounded by multiple strangers hurling down their respective white-lined lanes, eyes forward to their destination. So…who are they? What do I know about them? Can I trust them with my life? Because at this moment, I am. But I’ve never seen any of them before in my life.
I know absolutely nothing about any of them, and probably never will. They could be over there thinking about dinner, distracted by their phone, or speeding away in their getaway car having just robbed the bank. How could I know? And how could their current mindset ultimately impact the outcome of my trip? I just don’t want to be a victim of their poor decision making.
The number of drivers in this country is many times greater than the number of pilots. We snuggle up to strangers only a few precious inches apart, going the same or even opposite directions every single day, and think very little of it. Why? We know that we must inherently rely on certain root expectations from our fellow drivers; that they’re licensed in this country to drive or know HOW to drive in this country. That means they must know what those white and yellow lines mean and how to obey them. They need to know the signage.
The list goes on and on, but it’s their knowledge that keeps them alive, and ultimately, me alive. In the end, we all took the same practical exam to become a driver. We were all taught how to drive a car and had to take the same exam to get a license. We all learned from someone different to get the same outcome of being handed a driver’s license. As drivers, we are expected to have a collective mindset. Most of the time it works. Sometimes, it does not.
The Iconic Pneumonic
All this brake checking on the beltway made me realize that it was time to experiment, so in a social media post on a popular local pilot’s club site I asked the following question:
“So, I’m working on a future article that begs the question: Is it GUMPS? Is that (G)as (U)ndercarriage, (M)ixture, (P)rops, (S)witches? Is it (S)eatbelts? GUMPF? GUMPS+F? What is it to you? How were you taught? TIA for your input.”
I’ve since realized that, worded this way, I’m no Paul Bertorelli. I know he’d cringe. I probably needed to go with a single option to get more solid data. Sorry, Paul. Yet, as of this writing, I’ve ended up with 60 unique comments to dissect.
Out of all those comments, I received 27 direct answers to the original question. Now, let’s look at those.
10 respondents acknowledged that they use GUMPS. The remaining 17 variants included: GUMPFS, FARTS, WLNOT, GGMPPSSCCF, GUMPSSS, BUMPFISHES, GGFIPL, GUMPFS, BCGUMPS, BGUMPS, GUMPSS, GBUMPFS, GUMP, SSSS, CCCGUMPS, CGUMPS, and GMPS. Whew.
I got a ‘D’ in Statistics. It’s why I ended up as an English major. I was suspicious of this unexpected outcome based on my experience of driving up and down the road. So, I decided to ask the trick question to determine if I was right. The results were fascinating because, if my math is right, just over a third of us were taught the same iconic pneumonic (GUMPS). That means, almost two out of three of us are flying around with another idea of how to process the most critical phase of flight, the landing. They all functionally work, because wheels successfully kiss the earth over and over every day. Let’s look at a crucial variable that sheds light on why such a vast array of answers surfaced.
Welcome to Your Inheritance
As the old saying goes, ‘We are all a product of our upbringing,’ and aviation is no exception. Your lens on learning is created by your CFI from the first time you sit in the airplane. On that day, they set the tone for the transmission of information, from them to you, in your quest to sit for that next checkride. If you’ve done your research and bought that hamburger that we talked about last time, all will go well.
You are learning how to fly an airplane in the same manner, and with the same relative level of precision and acuity as that CFI sitting next to you. It is honestly the pinnacle of knowledge that they have to offer, and they are giving you their best because they want to see you succeed. Their key limitations are 1) they can not teach you something they do not know, and 2) they can not teach you something that they DO know in any way other than the way it was taught to them. In essence, they are passing it on to you in the same way that it was passed to them. They understand it in their own way, and the goal is for you to understand it the way they explain it.
As such, you are inheriting information from your instructor in the same way that they inherited it from their instructor, who inherited it from their instructor before them. The process goes back generations, all the way back to the beginning of instructed flight. You are inheriting the DNA of generations of pilots before you through a time-honored profession that traces its roots back to the Wright brothers themselves.
The Imperfection Chain
Yet, through that lineage of learning, you are also inheriting gaps in your knowledge that have been passed down before you. You were taught something that you are going to be expected to repeat to an examiner. They heard that explanation dozens of times, parroted from all the students before you and THEY understand what you are saying, so you pass. But do YOU understand what you are saying? Maybe not quite yet.
You are holding your newly minted pilot certificate, an incredible accomplishment, but you have gaps in your understanding. While you parroted your way to success, you may not realize a full understanding of what you were taught. We are taught to reply but that may not equate to a full understanding. You took a written exam and chose answers with familiar verbiage, which ended up being correct. But, does that guarantee you understand the answer? Maybe not.
This gap in your DNA, passed down from your instructor who has a gap in their DNA that they inherited from their instructor, who inherited a gap from their instructor, and so on. The origins of these knowledge gaps are infinite and based on a wide array of variables ranging from language barriers to educational levels. If you become a CFI yourself someday, there is a good likelihood that you will be passing down knowledge gaps too; some inherited, and some original only to you.
Aviation’s great instructors, and the general aviation community as a whole, are working to close these gaps every single day, and it shows. Ultimately, your safety and that of your passengers is driven by the management and elimination of these gaps that develop in your learning.
Take Comfort in What You Know
When carrying this idea back to learning how to drive, the DNA gaps generated by the tens of thousands of people who teach other people how to drive each year is not only mind-boggling, but frightening to me. The utter magnitude of this concept is what has always made me feel like flying has to be safer. My individual knowledge and preparation certainly HAS to make my flight mission safer than subjecting myself to the high-speed decision making of others, right? I’d like to think so.
IS flying safer than driving a car this holiday season? That depends on you, the pilot. When we look at accidents as they relate to hours driven versus hours flown, aviation still comes up short. That’s on us. Given all my hours of driving, I’d still rather fly. I just do so with a full and confident understanding of every discernable aspect of my mission. In the end, it comes down to the comfort of what you know. If you can look at both ends of your trip and know with comfortable certainty that you are going to contribute to the positive and not negative statistics in the books, then fly. If you have any single doubt at all, grab the car keys off the counter, pack the trunk, and hit the road. If your suspicions were incorrect and you could have flown it, you might be disappointed but safe. If your suspicions are proven correct, you will be warmed in the satisfaction that you filled the gaps, you have no nagging questions, and you are on the ground safe. In my book, either scenario is a win-win.
- Learning to fly an airplane requires that you take in a variety of information, from a variety of sources on a variety of topics. Unlike driving a car, weather, engine management, cross-country planning, and communications are just the surface of what you need to understand before you even leave the ground. None of these are related to driving a car.
- As you are bombarded with information in your training and preparation for your written and oral exams, it is crucial that you not only hear what is being said but more importantly understand the information given. Close the gaps; all of them. Getting the answer right on your Written doesn’t save your life.
- Know that you are inheriting the DNA of all the instructors in the logbooks before you and understand that they are giving you information that they might understand, and you might not. Be humble and timid enough to admit what you do not know, and seek to fill those gaps.
- Next time, we’ll start talking about the culture of managed safety. As a GA pilot, you are self-managed. Don’t turn that key unless you are absolutely convinced that you have filled all the gaps, both in your training and in your mission.
- Instructional Inheritance; An Examination of the DNA of Your CFI - January 10, 2024
- How That Proverbial Hamburger Could Save You $100, and a Lot More - November 15, 2023
- The Silent Treatment: Techniques in Learning - October 9, 2023