11 min read

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.

Cessna 182 climbing over clouds

When operating in the IFR system, there is a maintained separation between aircraft, so your aeronautical decision making (ADM) is technically your own.

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.

VFR on top

When flying VFR, the responsibility for avoidance is placed solely on you.

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.

cars on road

When you’re driving down the highways, you have to put your trust in other drivers.

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.

CFI with student

Your lens on learning is created by your CFI from the first time you sit in the airplane.

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.

Reading chart

The safety of your next mission depends on you, the pilot.

Takeaways:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
Charles Turner
20 replies
  1. Charles
    Charles says:

    Sadly, a drivers license in this country is just above the fog-the mirror standard. Good news, I am sure that piloting helps make us better drivers too, as does motorcycling, high performance/racing driving, etc. I have always thought that learning and practicing new skills has the spillover effect of improving life in general.

    Reply
  2. Chris
    Chris says:

    Regarding the DNA gaps. I disagree. Remember the expression that your private certificate is a license to learn. You start with what you were taught by your CFI, then it is your responsibility to learn more about aviation in general, your airplane, and piloting techniques. You may, and probably will, find out that your CFI was, to put it generously, “misinformed” about several things. Question everything. (In my opinion, the best questions begin, “Why do…”) At some point, even for things he or she knows, the good CFI will say, “Let’s find out.”

    Reply
    • Z
      Z says:

      It’s true, primacy bias is real and we fall back on old habits. But I don’t agree that CFIs can only teach you how they learned. The two most important skills as a pilot are humility and curiosity, and that goes double for CFIs.

      Reply
    • Charles Green Turner III
      Charles Green Turner III says:

      Chris,

      Thanks to you and everyone so far for jumping into this discussion. If you’ve read any of my prior pieces, you will see where I am going with this. As a part of the wonderful diversity of aviation, we as GA pilots are all taught differently by CFI’s who all learned differently. As illustrated in the poll, there isn’t a ‘wrong’ in this, and the funnel is in the test standards we all have to pass, but nobody can ever pass 100% of what they’ve learned from another person, and have that person understand and retain 100%. Next up, we are going to look at the factors, cultural and statistical, that affect commercial aviation, then look at how we, as GA pilots can better ourselves. Thanks again. Charlie

      Reply
  3. Randie
    Randie says:

    You wrote approximately 400 words about safety in aviation vs automobiles. Interesting discussion that resulted in no conclusion. You caught my interest but left me hanging. Seems that’s the way articles are today. Ask “why did the chicken cross the road” and you get “ a chicken is a bird, two legs, feathers….. bla bla bla. 800 words and the question is never answered.

    So I ask you, do statistics really show that aviation travel is safer than automobile travel when million and millions of trips are made by millions of cars each day vs aviation trips? A simple three sentence response would be nice. I already know a chicken has two legs.

    Reply
    • Charles Green Turner III
      Charles Green Turner III says:

      Hey Randie,

      Thanks for your comment. I actually answered the question late in the article. I have deliberately shied away from statistics since they vary so widely by state, but are fairly consistent year over year on a national level.

      Best

      Charlie

      “ 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.”

      Reply
  4. Karrpilot
    Karrpilot says:

    I remember years ago a driver examiner screaming at a Hispanic in English, trying to make him understand the forms.

    My thoughts were that if he couldn’t understand the English verbally, he certainly couldn’t understand the written portions.

    But yet he was there trying to get a license to drive. And people are afraid of flying…..

    Reply
  5. Thomas P Turner
    Thomas P Turner says:

    This is an excellent argument for NOT flying with the same CFI every time you receive recurrent and/or required training. Seek out experts in various aspect of flying—ACS skills, avionics specialties, type-specific training, instrument flying skills—and fill the gaps by learning from multiple lines of instructor DNA.

    A corollary I learned early myself and I recommend to any new CFI I meet: conduct as many Flight Reviews and IPCs as you can, in multiple airplane types if possible. I learned there is almost never ONE way to fly an airplane, or a procedure. Learn multiple ways to do the same thing and you’ll not only build your skill set, you’ll also develop the ability to adjust the training you provide to what works best for an individual pilot. If your learner isn’t getting something one way you can try another.

    Reply
    • Charles Green Turner III
      Charles Green Turner III says:

      Tom,

      Thank you for your reply, and I couldn’t agree more. I’ve done IPC’s in every airplane I’ve owned shortly after purchase, and most notably, after any substantial equipment upgrade. So far, my instructors have been ‘on my frequency’ so I’ve been able to learn something with every hour flown. We both know, and I discussed this in an earlier piece, that this is not always the case. Some student/instructor relationships just don’t mesh. I’ve just been lucky. Again, thanks for your input and sage advice.

      Best

      Charlie

      Reply
  6. OngoingFreedom
    OngoingFreedom says:

    Last night I had a delightful dinner with two former students and all our spouses during which we reminisced trials, adventures and lessons learned. This morning I got an email from “Air Facts Journal” in which the very first link was titled “Instructional Inheritance; An Examination of the DNA of Your CFI”, so you can imagine I was intrigued. After clicking on the link the intrigue quickly faded into confusion.

    “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.”

    I can tell you have not encountered an experienced CFI. Both points are mostly incorrect for those.

    Related to your first point, you do not need a CFI to learn. There are plenty of books on how to fly. You need a CFI to learn SAFELY (i.e. keep you from killing yourself) and you need a CFI to learn more efficiently. I have taught nine initial CFI’s and to each one I passed along some advice from about 8,000 hours in the right seat. My first advice to my burgeoning CFI’s was that. I didn’t need a ski instructor to learn how to ski, but by the time I got lessons I wondered why I didn’t hire one sooner (not a perfect analogy but it works).

    To your second point I’ll first point you to my response to your first then I’ll add the following. This may be true for a brand new CFI who last year wasn’t even a pilot, but not an old salt who moved beyond basic programming.

    I taught as a full-time, single-income, wife-and-three-kids CFI for ten years. I learned SO MUCH observing students learning themselves. I learned different ways to do things that weren’t taught to me. I experimented with different methods of flying and teaching and passed along the results. I had students hit walls during their training that I had to use different methods to help them get past. Some I had to enlist the help of other CFI’s because I couldn’t. Some students none of us could help.

    I also learned from other’s tragic mistakes and passed along those as well. No one taught take off aborts in singles except in theory. I added those to my training agenda.

    I’ll also add this: a young girl was observing her mother prepare a ham for the oven for a festive dinner. She asked, “Mommy, why did you cut the end off the ham?” To which her mother replied, “Well, your grandmother always did that so I do it too.” The little girl persisted, “But, why?” Her mother didn’t know and called the grandmother. Grandmother didn’t know either, so they all called great-grandmother, who was still living. With a quavering voice she revealed the mystery. “Well, when I prepared the ham the oven I had was so small I had to cut the end off to make the ham fit!” Many CFI’s are like the learned matrons in the story. I’m like the little girl. I’m a CFI who challenged traditional methods, especially when they didn’t make sense.

    Case in point: autopilots. When I was taught to fly we didn’t have those in our training airplanes except for the high performance/complex trainers, and even then we were taught what crutches they were and we shouldn’t use them except exceedingly sparingly and shut them off as soon as we peed in the bottle or finished fishing for something out of the back seat. Fast-forward to when I had been teaching as an instrument instructor for a bit. I rejected my earlier training and insisted that not only should the student know how to use the autopilot, they should also use them to their fullest extent. And be able to hand-fly the airplane. THAT wasn’t in the PTS, and accordingly that simply wasn’t taught by others. At least, not at the time. Today’s ACS sings a much different tune.

    Here’s my takeaway from your article: despite the “about the author” explanation you come across as person who learned in a high-capacity, zero-to-hero learning academy in which the CFI’s are recent grads, passing along what they were taught without much understanding much beyond the black and white of the syllabus. Much like the old friend who called and sadly asked for my help to get him ready for the retake of his failed commercial. Chandelles? Lazy eights? The fast-track school he enlisted to knock out his certificate didn’t teach him how to do them, they taught him what to do. He had no clue what they were except from what the school told him. The endorsing CFI simply saw the boxes were checked and the DPE (also part of the school) failed him. We are not all like that.

    Reply
    • Charles Green Turner, III
      Charles Green Turner, III says:

      OngoingFreedom,

      First and foremost, thank you for your input. I appreciate and understand your perspective. I agree with your assertion that our learning is not merely confined to a single, or newly-minted CFI in the real world, and that there are people out there who revere the learning process, protect it, and defend it as you have here. Thank God there are still instructors like that out there. Like you.

      My learning trajectory was varied, and had a number of seasoned CFI’s. If you’ve seen any of the articles leading up to this one, you understand that I am unique in my aviation journey. So I have looked at learning from the discovery flight forward. And yes, for the most part, I am addressing student pilots in schools where their CFI’s go off to the airlines after their time is up. It’s a sad and recurrent reality that, for the most part, I managed to avoid.

      I would invite you to stick around long enough for the next segment, in which I address these exact issues that you bring up, the culture that surrounds them, as well as the commercial paradigm, and how I think we can do better in the GA community because we have true lifetime instructors from whom we can draw real life experiences beyond parroted prose.

      Again, thank you for your input.
      Best,
      Charlie

      Reply
  7. Edwina
    Edwina says:

    I appreciated the article and the sentiment behind it. I came into the left seat via a slightly different path later in life – I had always wanted to fly but circumstances hadn’t aligned to do so until my mid 40’s. Prior to that though I had a very solid background in aviation from building radio control airplanes in my teens to eventually working as a flight test engineer. When it came time to actually start lessons, my (well seasoned) CFI dutifully started down the mnemonic pathway and we hit a dead stop; aviation as an industry is full of jargon and acronyms and mnemonics and they tend to overlap… so to your point, is “S” in “GUMPS” seatbealts, switches, signals, settings, shear, etc… As someone who was already deep in the overall industry with a mind full of acronyms and jargon from multiple other aviation activities and aircraft and already being used to checklist usage, trying to use mnemonics in an operational setting was actually counterproductive for me. When we shifted to checklists and flows we found it worked much better for both of us. Thinking back on it, in my opinion the reliance on mnemonics in early training fosters an attitude of memorization rather than understanding.

    Reply
  8. Darren Clarkson
    Darren Clarkson says:

    Sadly flying GA is NOT safer than driving. While airline flying is much safer, GA has about the same fatality statistic as riding motorcycles per time spent in the activity. I’ve always felt it’s disingenuous to inform passengers that they are taking little risk in flying GA.

    Reply
    • John H
      John H says:

      I came to the comments just to make sure that someone pointed this out! The author says that “aviation stills comes up short” when compared to driving, but that minimizes the real statistics. The statistics show that GA flying is 10-12 times more dangerous, on par with riding a motorcycle as you point out. I do agree with the author that we control many more of the risks as pilots than we do as drivers, but we have to start by acknowledging the risks. Sadly, most do not and continue to pretend that flying is safer, as in the photo of the banner stating “you are now leaving the safety of flying, please drive carefully.” In reality, they should have a banner at the entrance of the airport stating the opposite.

      Reply
    • Peter N Steinmetz
      Peter N Steinmetz says:

      Right on the money. I always tell people GA flying is about as safe as riding a motorcycle on dry pavement. That is more dangerous than driving around in a car.

      Reply
  9. Charles Green Turner III
    Charles Green Turner III says:

    John,

    Thanks for your input, and you are correct when you say that as pilots we often ignore the risk of flying, which magnifies the danger and is reflected in the statistics. Hopefully you’ll come back to read the next segment where I address just that. Again, thanks for entering this discussion.

    Best

    Charlie

    Reply
    • Hank
      Hank says:

      I no longer remember what my primary CFI said the “S” in GUMPS is for, but in my Mojney, GUMPS is this:
      – Gear down.
      – Undercarriage down
      – Make sure the gear is down
      – Put the gear down
      – Sh!t! Is the gear down?!
      As a 40+ student pilot, with a similar-aged CFI (I had the honor of being her 1st student) with ~15 years of flying, I also did not have this type of pilot-mill instruction. When I did not understand something from the book, it was looked up, and a couple of times she actually called someone else for clarification.

      Since then, I’ve had several different CFI / CFIIs for (Biennial) Flight Reviews and IPCs. Some were from convenience, some were from necessity, but if we didn’t click then I didn’t go back. It’s up to you to make sure your CFI’s teaching methods mesh with your learning style, and it’s similarly up to you to push for clarification if yiu dont fully understand something.

      A large part of GA safety seems to be in pilot preparation–how good are your skills? Do you feel sharp? Are you ready for unexpected challenges that may arise enroute? How well did you check weather along your route? Is something brewing or blowing in? How recently before takeoff did you update your weather briefing? These can make all the difference in the world.

      Reply
  10. Jeff S
    Jeff S says:

    On a per hour basis, light plane private flying is 60% more likely to kill you as riding motorcycles, that is, 40x more dangerous than riding in or driving a car. Flying gliders is worse yet. Sometimes I’ll share the very famous picture from the 1930’s of Empire State Building construction workers eating lunch while sitting on an I-beam scores of stories in the air. Scary? Barely pattern altitude for us, yet we do the same thing while sitting on a few thin sheets of aluminum. Of course, it’s dangerous and it’s delusional to think otherwise. An excellent article on relative risks is given on the site “ChessInTheAir” https://chessintheair.com/the-risk-of-dying-doing-what-we-love/

    I learned to fly in the late 1970’s from seven different instructors before getting my PPL. The biggest and saddest lesson from them I’ve carried forward all this time is that in the following ~7 years before I left the area, four had died in crashes. In a time where the airlines were not hiring, none of them were the 250 hour CFI wonders of today, quite the contrary. One, the highest time, 20,000+ hour, pilot in the state it was said, died trying to cross a squall line that spawned multiple tornadoes. Another was a stall/spin killing both him and his student. A third, a very petite young lady, died on rotation for takeoff when the Cessna seat latch failed resulting in an uncontrollable pitch up. The lesson: even very skilled pilots, can get killed doing this. For every “What I learned from …” story, there are 10 that couldn’t be written from the smoking hole. It’s dangerous up there.

    The notion that CFI’s and their students who become pilots don’t or cannot learn more than they were taught is preposterous. There are certainly examples of where this is true and those are the ones with a good chance of ending up in smokey holes. But if you’re going to stay alive in the business, you’d better be learning.

    The idea that flying is safer than driving is wrong, always was wrong, and is wrong by a large factor.

    Reply

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