The Death of Airmanship

Blame technology, cost or sloppy training if you want, but the real problem is with the pilot


A pilot girds for attempting GPS approaches for the first time.

A safety pilot or instructor is in the right seat to look out for traffic and aircraft control while the new GPS owner briefs himself (again) on his toy. The two pilots go over the planned approach and probably program it into the box while still on the ground.

They take off and fly away from the airport to check out operation of the moving map and make sure the simple-looking en route stuff really is simple. That part probably goes pretty smoothly, and soon theyre emboldened and ready to make the first approach. Maybe the left seater goes under the hood. Maybe he doesnt.

ATC gives the pilot vectors to the final approach fix, and the two pilots gun down final, amazed at how precise the new box is. They look out the window and theres the runway, exactly under the nose just like the moving map on the panel says it should be. They whoop for joy and the owner pats himself on the back for being so smart. This will certainly keep the owner safe.

If the first one was good, the second one will be better. The controller issues a missed approach vector and they swing around for another try. When they get to the final approach fix, however, the unit doesnt go into approach mode and they fly the final approach course with the unit doggedly telling them that the waypoint they want is miles behind them.

Right about the time they get to the runway, one or both realizes that both of them had been trying to figure out what was wrong with the GPS and nobody was looking for traffic. Neither mentions it to the other.

An experienced tricycle-gear-trained pilot decides for whatever reason that its time to get checked out in a taildragger.

He decides he can see over the nose pretty well, and all that S-turning stuff is for old warbirds and Pitts. The instructor briefs him (again) and they take the runway for the first time.The pilot mumbles something to himself about how squirrelly this Luscombe/Citabria/Maule/Cub is. As he turns crosswind, the nose and the ball cant seem to agree on a direction. The instructor cautions about cross-control stalls and spins. The airplane pitches up and down as the pilot attempts to find the right view through the windshield.

The airplane stumbles through two more turns, with the instructor saying something about adverse yaw. The pilot is too busy to listen. Hes thinking about the ground loop waiting for him on the runway. His mouth is dry and his shirt is not. He wonders whether hell get off lucky or if the wingtips will strike or the airplane will flip.

As he flies short final, his heart is pounding in his throat. He enters ground effect and the airplane acts like nothing hes flown before. He lands on the main gear and tries to stick them to the runway, but the airplane bounces once, twice. Hes out of phase. The instructor takes the controls and the airplane does just fine. The student tries again, but cant find the centerline. They go around.

Airmanship means a lot of things. It involves virtually every aspect of flying, from how well pilots handle the controls to how well they make decisions. It requires rote learning and on-your-feet interpretation. It means synthesizing the truth from an unknown situation using only a hodgepodge of experience, and doing it all at speeds that would make Intel green with envy.

Two things threaten basic airmanship: money and technology. Serious pilots who get money, through fortune or sweat, usually opt for serious airplanes. The size and speed of a persons steed seems to depend more on what they can afford than what they need. Technology is a blessing and a curse. It enhances the capability and the safety of the airplane. It also enslaves the pilots who use it, allowing once sharp skills to rust in the basement of unused synapses.

An acquaintance tells of a flight in her Archer with two other pilots. They were flying cross country into gathering darkness. A bright moon rose in the sky. Without warning, the airplanes alternator crapped out. Instantly, she says, she was handed four flashlights, two handheld GPS units and a handheld transceiver.

The other two pilots scrambled to find the nearest airport or declare an emergency. She says she smiled and said, Relax, guys. Its a beautiful night. She was looking out the window.

In a recent survey, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association found that 69 percent of members believe moving map GPS and other advanced avionics contribute to a loss of basic navigational skills. Should the technology break down, the possibility of getting lost – or worse – becomes very real.

Many pilots, especially those who fly high-performance airplanes, have become systems monitors on nearly every flight. They cruise with the autopilot coupled to the GPS. They approach with the autopilot coupled to the ILS.

They make no turn, no deviation, no decision without the advice of the controller on the radio. Sometimes, an unannounced VFR airplane will descend across their path. It shakes them up, and they wonder why ATC didnt call the traffic.

The accident record illustrates some of the problems facing general aviation.

• There are an appalling number of pilots who lose control on the runway. They dont seem to need even a wind gust or a flat tire to send their birds into the weeds. Poor technique. Its easy to apply it to one accident and write it off. Apply it to 75 a month and its clear there are deeper problems at the root.

• Errors in judgment run the gamut. There are pilots who land 2,300 feet down a 2,900-foot strip and then moan about overrunning the runway. Fuel exhaustion remains the biggest and most preventable boneheaded mistake and is an embarrassment to the industry. VFR into IMC and its cousin, approaches flown by woefully unproficient instrument pilots, reflect pilots who expect far too much out of their airplanes and themselves.

• Airplanes are aging, and maintenance dollars and techniques arent keeping up with them. Structural failures, corrosion-related electrical or avionics problems, seats and doors that dont latch correctly, cables that break and landing gear components that crack and fail cause crashes every single day. Annual inspections catch a lot, but cant look inside an ILS receiver and determine itll fail two months from now in low weather.

But theres a more insidious problem eroding the safety of GA flying – the reluctance of pilots to take responsibility for their own safety. When a controller clears them onto the runway, they accept the clearance without question. When they order the airplane fueled, they assume it is done correctly. When they fulfill the letter of the regulations regarding currency, they conclude theyre proficient.

To prevent the death of airmanship, each pilot must do more than the least expected of them. If that sounds like a crazy notion in the modern world, bring on the straitjackets.

There are some straightforward ways to hedge your bets in keeping your N-number out of the NTSB accident database. Some are easy. All require an ongoing commitment to quality.

First, nail down control of the airplane. Get a taildragger endorsement if you dont have one. Even a highly experienced pilot will be somewhat humbled, but will learn more about aircraft control in 10 hours in a taildragger than many hours in a trike. Practice maneuvers you never use, especially go arounds. Learn chandelles and lazy eights – and practice them.

Second, know the capabilities of yourself and your airplane. Learn emergency procedures cold. Know the stall and maneuvering speeds at the weights and altitudes you normally fly. Know how far you can glide in case of trouble and fly tight traffic patterns that will preclude a forced landing a quarter-mile from the threshold.

Get familiar with every system on your airplane and understand how a failure will manifest itself. Know your own capabilities, even if it means practicing boring stuff.

Third, maintain your airplane as if your life depends on it. Were not talking horseshoes, here. Close enough is not close enough.

Finally, understand that PIC is more than a column in your logbook. Rely on yourself. Trust yourself. Supervise what everyone else is doing, from the controller to the fuel truck driver. That includes looking critically at yourself.

This all sounds like common sense, but its more than that. Its a healthcare plan for airmanship. Because without it, the patient just may be terminal.

-by Ken Ibold


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