Who’s the Best Pilot?

One of the many iconic scenes (so much so that it recurs several times in the film) from The Right Stuff has astronaut Gordon Cooper asking his wife, “Who’s the best pilot you ever saw?” before answering his own question: “You’re lookin’ at him!” Gordo was telling a joke, of course, but it got me thinking about what constitutes a truly great pilot in the real world.

Accident statistics show that when light GA pilots try to operate on a firmly fixed schedule — for example, around the holidays — the risk level increases. AOPA recently published an Air Safety Alert to that effect, noting “a cluster of GA accidents occurring in close succession”.

Some of this probably has to do with the fact that the holiday season occurs in the winter for those of us living in the northern hemisphere. While the hot months have their own set of challenges, they tend to consist of things which present equal hazard to all aircraft: thunderstorms, high density altitude, etc. But whereas large multi-engine turbojets are well-equipped for cold weather flying, single-engine recips typically operate with minimal anti- and de-icing equipment, if any.

Anyway, it occurs to me that this kind of flying is exactly what we do in the Part 135 world. We operate on someone else’s timetable, and rarely is that schedule created with weather, circadian rhythm, airport staffing hours, or other such operational concerns in mind. As you might expect, the 135 safety record — while far better than Part 91 — does not reach the rarefied heights of the scheduled airlines. Some people feel it should. There are plenty of folks who feel Part 91 should reach that strata as well.

I tend to disagree.

Part 135 has the flexibility to operate at random times and into a far wider variety of places than scheduled airlines. While we do everything possible to make the flights as safe as humanly possible, flexibility cannot help but exact a price. Flying worldwide charter, I don’t know if my next trip will take me to Liberia or Las Vegas. I have to be prepared to go anywhere.

If that sounds incredible, then light general aviation flying should really blow your mind! The non-commercial Part 91 aviating so many of us do for personal reasons takes that freedom and ramps it up a hundred fold. Not only can you go anywhere you want at any time it suits you, you can do it at night, in IMC, in formation, and fly some aerobatics or sight-see along the way. You can fly a weird experimental airplane that you built in your garage. You can tow banners. Drop things from your airplane, then cut them up as they fall to earth? Yes, that’s fine. Fly high… or low. You can change your destination in mid-flight without asking anyone’s permission.

Heck, you can even take off with no destination whatsoever; those are some of my most cherished flights. When I call the VFR clearance delivery frequency at John Wayne Airport and they ask where I’m headed, nothing says freedom quite like using William Shatner’s response from the first Star Trek film: “Out there. That-a-way!”

Wrapping your mind around having the liberty to do those things while not being able to install a radio in your panel without approval from a certification office somewhere in Oklahoma City could cause a migraine… but let’s leave that for another day.

The point is, with added freedom comes added risk. And responsibility. It’s ironic that we think of airline pilots as having the greatest weight on their shoulders when rules, procedures, and operational specifications dictate almost everything they do. I’m not saying their job is easy. It ain’t. But if you’re not in awe of the authority and self-determination placed on your own shoulders every time you launch, think about this: we could have the safety record of the major airlines. All we’d need are the same rules and requirements for flight that they use. Seems to me that would be an awful lot like asking Santa for a big, dirty lump of coal in your stocking.

If there’s a way to have the freedom to land on five hundred foot long strips on the side of a mountain, tackle water runways, engage in flight training, and — most of all — fly to that family Christmas in an airplane with just one reciprocating engine without significantly higher risk than you’ll find on a typical airliner, I’d be quite surprised. But one thing every pilot has in common is that risk management is a major part of the job.

So as you contemplate that cross country flight to celebrate the holidays with your loved ones, remember that the best pilot isn’t the one who finds the cheapest fuel, stuffs the most presents into the baggage compartment, or makes the softest landing. It’s the one who best manages the risk inherent in that flight.

Right, Gordo?

This post first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog.

  10 comments for “Who’s the Best Pilot?

  1. Chris Palmer
    January 12, 2015 at 11:10 pm

    Awesome post, man. And you’re totally right. Although we could get that level of airline safety, it’s not really the name of the game for smaller GA. Flying is the ultimate freedom that we must all work to keep alive. And, in the meantime, we should have fun doing it while learning more deeply about the craft and airways we fly.

    • January 13, 2015 at 12:01 am

      Well said, Chris. GA flying really is the ultimate freedom. In a world with ever more restrictions, that’s something worth preserving!

  2. January 13, 2015 at 8:46 am

    I just watched “Flying the Feathered Edge.” (You can order it on DVD and Blu-ray now.) It’s the documentary about Bob Hoover. The gentleman in your photo that actually FLEW the X1 said, “Bob Hoover is the best pilot I’ve ever seen.” Bob took the photo of Chuck breaking the sound barrier (the first photograph taken of a person moving faster than sound, taken while he was flying alongside for a moment).

    There’s a really good argument made during the film (sort of by Harrison Ford and Sean Tucker, talking with Bob in Ford’s hangar) that you can’t create a pilot like Bob Hoover anymore. We aren’t allowed to. Bob taught himself acrobatic manuevers during his first twenty hours of solo flight. No one told him he wasn’t allowed to, no one explained there were limitations on the aircraft. During training for, and in, warfare he did things in order to survive that you wouldn’t let someone do otherwise. And then he was a test pilot during the time before computer simulation, so he flew a lot of craft that were, by definition, unknown quantities.

    There was a weeding out process. A lot of guys (and a few women) died training and transporting planes for the war. A lot died in the war finding out things they couldn’t do with their planes. After the war a lot died testing new planes, new weapons, or new manuevers. A handful were left. Very few went through the same sieves. In fact, as far as I can tell, when you add in airshow performances, there’s *no one* that went through those same sieves and lived, so we only have one Bob Hoover.

    For my own kind of Part 91 flying I increase my skills only through my own stupidity. I flew an Angel Flight last week and neglected to read ALL of the NOTAMS. So with a plane full of blood (that would have been SO mysterious for the coroner… “It’s like there were twenty people in the plane…”) I lined up on Runway 32 at Imperial before I saw the X and instead entered a left base for 28. So I lost 800 feet of landing length, was a little high and, obviously, not as briefed. My flight assistant, on rollout, said, “That was amazing you shifted so smoothly, no wavering.” I’m still debating whether I should have gone around, circled, and flown a real pattern for 28. And, obviously, I was pre-loaded to go around if 28 didn’t feel good. But if there had been an NTSB incident, the first link would have been my failure to read the NOTAMs for KPLI, and it was pilot skill that let me encounter that link without having further links hitch up with it.

    My links are small, so I’ll never get to be a Bob Hoover. But Sean Tucker promises me none of us will.

    • January 14, 2015 at 3:42 pm

      I’ve heard Bob Hoover mentioned in the same phrase as “best pilot” on more than one occasion, but this is the most interesting theory about WHY he’s the best. It makes a lot of sense. Of course, even with Hoover, it’s got to be more about decision making ability than pure stick-and-rudder skill. I bet if you asked him, he’d admit to learning from plenty of mistakes in the course of his career.

      Do you ever wonder about the role luck played in his survival? I do. As they say, it’s better to be lucky than good. If you’re flying in combat, testing experimental aircraft, pushing aircraft to the limit at Reno, and so on, there are circumstances which are simply out of your control. Midairs, enemy ambushes, poor aeronautical design or construction, hidden damage, freak mechanical failures, etc.

      I loved your coroner’s theoretical post-accident analysis. NOTAMs are easy to miss. There can be dozens of them for a single airport. All you need is a Zulu conversion error or to inadvertently skip over a line in the mass of text during a briefing and there you go. Been there, done that…

  3. January 13, 2015 at 12:25 pm

    I flew Part 91K for a fractional aircraft provider and these rules are similar to 135. We went when the owner wanted to go at all times of day and night. It was the world’s largest scavenger hunt. Our schedule typically changed through the duty day. Fortunately we had an Ops manual to help and protect us. Even at that consecutive 14-hour duty days can be a bummer particularly with big changes in beginning of duty day start time.

    I adapted some of the more basic items to my single engine Part 91 flying. Why, because single pilot flying is some of the most challenging there is. You do everything: weather brief, flight planning, load the baggage, destination logistics.

    I cut my duty day to 12 hours. That includes time spent at the office before going flying.
    I trained my wife to help make altitude call outs. Before we installed altitude hold she was all over me if I got off altitude. She is also a big help on approach call outs and goes outside at 300 feet above minimums to look for the runway and then call it out relative to the aircraft’s nose. By the way she is not a pilot. Just an experienced and astute passenger who can help a pilot with the additional duties.

    Have I given up my freedom? I don’t think so. Just taken steps to minimize the risk.

    Fly safe everyone.

    • January 14, 2015 at 3:46 pm

      A wonderful use of cockpit resources, Charles! Passengers can be very helpful for some extremely important tasks. Spotting traffic, for example. My wife seems to locate traffic effortlessly when we’re aloft. And in my experience, non-pilots enjoy being a more integral part of the flight.

  4. Graeme
    January 13, 2015 at 11:08 pm

    I had a good laugh with circadian rhythm. Also a good ego boost for us 91 guys.
    Instead of looking at safety vs freedom, why can’t we separate the two. Let’s have it begin with the instructor really instilling the idea that flying through the thunderstorm on Christmas is a bad idea. Have them role play and actually have them picture in their minds passengers insisting the flight continue.

    Remind them that pax are not pilots.

    We can be as as much as we want to be. Give me one good example where a freedom inhibits safety. YES, the opposite is true, P and P mandate safety and regs, but that doesn’t mean the inverse is true.

    Even now, look at the regs for mins to fly around in class G. Safe VS legal rears it’s head even in the 91 world! The pilot who hurts his aircraft or himself probably isn’t one to follow the regs anyways (see:Alaska)

    I get that regs mandate safety but I refuse to admit the opposite is true. We can teach pilots limits. Not everyone will concur but we still will be safer.

    The best pilot isn’t the one who wrestles LLWS or continuing an approach below mins… it’s the one who decides to stay on the ground because he knows his, and his A/C limitations.

    Am I wrong about this?

    • January 14, 2015 at 3:52 pm

      No, I think you’re on the right track. Understanding that safe and legal are two separate and sometimes unrelated things is important. Going on blindly because something is legal is not a good way to operate if you want to live a long life.

  5. January 14, 2015 at 5:26 am

    Great read – as always! I never really thought about this in the way you describe it here, but it makes total sense. GA is very very free compared to 121 and 135 and you are right, with that freedom comes responsibility.

    I wish in primary training we could do a better job of instilling this philosophy. If we abuse the freedom too much – have too many accidents – they’ll happily take them away.


    • January 14, 2015 at 3:55 pm

      That’s ultimately what I’m most worried about. If someone wants to go out and do crazy things and doesn’t hurt anyone but themselves, that’s their business. But every accident costs the industry in terms of bad publicity and the typical misguided pressure from the uninformed for the government to “do something” (witness the new ATP rules). We all pay the price in terms of increased regulation and cost.

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