• Alex Smith

Airmanship: The old to the new

You can teach a pig to fly, but it is still a pig, is an old aviation adage that many instructors have used to describe students, or more likely to discourage students from displaying poor Airmanship. There are a few aviation expressions that I have heard over the years, and fewer still that really stand out as words to live by. There is another one which leads to the most basic desires in dogs, and the fact that they do not need any teaching to learn how to pro-create, they just know how to do it. This one about the dog was written on the board of my briefing room during one of my very first flight training lessons.

As vulgar as it may come across to some (the words written on the board were more graphic than this), it has certainly stuck. These days there might be better ways to express the importance of common sense in flight, but not many as descriptive and captivating than that.

The expression sums up what Human Performance and Airmanship focus in commercial operations have been trying so importantly over the last few years to integrate into flight training. That basic common sense and a little bit of thoughtful logic can go along way when flying an aircraft.

We have all had those moments in the air, or even on the ground, when you think to yourself, “What is this guy doing” when someone, seemingly appears to do something completely contradictory to what you have always been taught to do. It just doesn’t make sense, and at times can be a major safety risk. This is normally followed by a heated discussion at the flight school coffee room on your return, and the normal response is that the other pilots can’t believe it either, and have a dig at the level of piloting, or the flight school the plane belongs to, or how just because he flies a ‘bigger’ plane he thinks he can do what he wants!

I always have the desire to understand what that pilot was thinking, or wasn’t thinking, what set of circumstances led to this happening, and if you asked that pilot on the ground about his actions, would he take it on the chin and admit to making a mistake, or would he boldly state his hours and walk off in a huff.

Airmanship to me is behaviour rather than a set of rules to learn that can be followed or ignored. Airmanship is not an exercise in the Ab Initio syllabus, that pilots pass or fail but rather almost like safety, it is an attitude. It is aviation manners, and like manners are taught to us by our parents and society, Airmanship is taught to us by our instructors and wider aviation community during our initial training. The attitude falls under the effect of Primacy, as once someone has learnt an attitude or approach to flying that show disrespect to the aircraft and other aviators; it is very hard to change this later on.

ICAO’s definition of Airmanship is:

The consistent use of good judgement and well developed skills to accomplish flight objectives, this consistency is founded on a cornerstone of uncompromising flight discipline and is developed through systematic skill acquisition and proficiency, A high state of situational awareness completes the airmanship picture and is obtained through knowledge of one’s self, aircraft, environment, team and risk

For me the most important aspect we can take out of this definition is Discipline, although it is relatively straight forward to follow rules or aircraft operating techniques etc. The ability to stay disciplined and follow good airmanship when it comes to items like, completing the flight folio correctly before and after a flight, or completing full thorough take off checks and briefings before each and every flight. These items that are not in the regulations or don’t have evidence in hard aviation law, they are the areas where shortcuts are taken, most notably when struck by a case of get-there-itis. Things that aren’t law, or ‘not on the check ride’ become not necessary and by bypassing those, it becomes easier to bypass what is necessary. These areas are then easily able to fall into the normalization of deviance problem that is a root cause of so many unnecessary aviation deaths. It’s the broken window theory in popular culture rewritten into aviation culture.

Now there is not a pilot you will find that will admit to having poor or no common sense. Furthermore most will be the first at the bar to tell a story of their undoubted skill on a short filed landing. However these situations still happen, so what causes poor airmanship?

Poor skills are one thing, but more importantly is poor attitude, or a lackadaisical approach to flying. In the most part this is passed down from instructor to student. The flight instruction environment, which once was all based in the military environment, where discipline, training standards and mental toughness were of iron fist. Where standards were black and white and so much as a foot out of line, or your bed was not made correctly, and you were done. Where your flying attitude was not just created by your flight training but your whole approach to life, as a military person, from the minute you wake up until the moment you went to sleep, every aspect of your day and expectations were finite and there was no room for laziness, or short cuts. It became a way of life and an attitude for life.

These days, with the massive commercialization and focus of general aviation, most students are looking for the easiest, quickest and more importantly the cheapest way to fly. In most flight schools, students are rushed through, guaranteeing a license in minimum hours (which offers so many flight standard and safety risks, I will save that for another article) and in addition, flight instructors are too young to even have decent life experience let alone real world flight experience ( the common argument I get).

Most instructors are not looking for a career in instruction, but rather to build hours to reach their dream of flying for the airlines. This is not their fault this is the fault of the industry, which does not value flight instructors. Furthermore the demand of students for the cheapest option has the greatest effect, and when flight schools are looking to cut costs, instructor pay is the first area. If most people know what new grade III instructors got paid, they would be hesitant to fly with them I am sure, after all, you get what you pay for, is a truism of life.

Another factor is over regulation in some instances, where Large blanket regulations seem to pilots in many ways to hamper their flying and restrict their free reign of the skies, and as is the mind-set of the ‘cowboy’ pilot, if he doesn’t like the rule, he simply doesn’t follow it. These attitudes all stem from either an instructor or environment that did not enforce strict enough training rules, or more often these days, recreational private pilots, who have the rebel attitude in business, which in many ways has made them successful, and this gets carried over into their aviation world. This tenacious dog eat dog attitude is great in the world on the ground; however in aviation it is the cautious who outlive the bold.

So where does this leave us with Airmanship?

Well we have seen more and more, especially at an airline level, the shift in focus towards personality (Airmanship) and human performance in terms of how this relates to safety and safety cultures. However at a GA level, this hasn’t really filtered down yet as much as I would like. Good airmanship remains the responsibility of every Airman and is an aspect of an aviator’s experience that grows with his hours, and should be shared with the community; The problem is that it is normally the more experienced, who should know better, that lead by bad example. Generally Ab Initio training is cautious in its approach, but somewhere down the line this approach brakes down. This is where I believe the entrenchment of basic attitudes and approaches to safety and aviation in general needs to be stronger. Those in instruction have the chance to really create the building blocks and create the attitude that will carry a new student from ab initio all the way through their career without compromising their Airmanship values.

Airmanship remains a culture and an attitude. The flight school culture and approach to not only Airmanship but training in general becomes vital in these times. In the environment where I operate I encourage Airmanship and proper professional attitudes as a high level priority and something as important on a ground evaluation as knowing the VFR limitations for a new PPL check ride. Instructors are encouraged and taught Airmanship as a SOP (which is why most instructors that work with me have gone through their initial training with us, so they are fully intertwined with our culture of good Airmanship and safety).

Importantly is the idea of responsibility; taking responsibility for your actions and understanding that being an instructor comes with the responsibility of passing down the attitudes and knowledge that will most probably save someone’s life one day. Once that realization sets in; that everything we do every day, no matter how small or monotonous is the benchmark for someone’s son or daughter making it home for dinner, it makes a difference. Imparting this knowledge onto a student, and seeing them take responsibility for themselves, and understanding that Airmanship is the way we show aviation the respect it deserves and so badly needs, is the fundamental skill any good aviator will learn, demonstrate and encourage during their career.

This all starts with the basics, if you don’t respect your aircraft enough to buckle your seat belt and leave it in a good condition after your flight, what respect are you giving yourself and others on the same journey. I Encourage every pilot to constantly ask the question of Airmanship along with all the other necessary questions on a pre flight or take off brief. If every pilot takes responsibility to show a little more Airmanship on their next flight, the skies will be a safer place.

Here are my 3 Top Tips to begin your journey to better Airmanship:

1. Start right now

Being a better pilot begins right now, once you make the decision. The next time you are preparing for a flight, ask yourself how you can make the flight easier not only for yourself but your instructor or the ground crew. Clean the aircraft before and after your flight, add a reminder to your post flight check to do this. Ask the ground crew if the aircraft needs to be refueled for the next flight after you return. The real master aviators are those that others can look up to regardless of their flight hours, its an attitude.

“It is not the will to win that matters, everyone has that. It’s the will to prepare to win that matters – Paul Bryant

2. Flying cannot be Taught

But it can however be learned. Being a pilot is a state of mind as much as a seat in a cockpit. The student is more important than the teacher. One must practice and visualize outside the cockpit before one is ready to get into the cockpit. A student with an eager attitude and a keen mind will have higher success. Although your landings may seem like the ultimate test, a complete student will be spending the time at home memorizing the manuals. They will arrive 30 mins early to be prepared and ready to learn

3. Always a Beginner

Having a beginners mind is the attitude to always be ready to learn something new, and change your behavior or attitudes when it is appropriate to. The moment we stop learning is the moment we should stop flying


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