Matt Hall - The three stages of airmanship
I was recently told of a story of a pilot in Canada, killed when doing a cross country in bad weather. People referred to him as a ‘self-proclaimed expert, risk taker, it was going to happen one day’ type person.
Unfortunately, that day his responsibility extended beyond himself and three others were with him.
It reminded me of a topic I’ve discussed a few times with QBE - the tragedy of people dying in situations that seemed so obviously risky in the eyes of others. It was this conversation that started my thought process about ‘airmanship’ and what it would be about.
I believe that there are three stages of airmanship that we should all proceed through during our ‘career’. The duration you spend in each phase is different per person, and some people never make it to the third stage. But it should be the goal of every pilot to make it to the third stage as soon as possible.
The first stage is the ‘learning’ stage.
This is when you are learning, be it as a student pilot, or learning a new skill set or type rating etc. This phase is characterised by fear of making a mistake or getting yourself into a situation that you are not confident of getting yourself out of. You make overly safe decisions about cancelling flying or avoiding weather due to lack of experience.
You hand over to the instructor when you feel you may not be able to handle the crosswind. You work and study hard to make sure you are prepared for the flight ahead, so you reduce the likelihood of being caught out by surprise. In a nutshell, you work hard on reducing your risks.
The second stage is the ‘experienced’ phase.
This phase can be entered anywhere from the 10th hour, to the 10,000th hour, and depends almost entirely on the individual and their personality traits. This phase is identified by self-proclaimed experience and ability, though not often verbalised. Of course, in some cases individuals are vocal about their experience.
This phase is characterised by over confidence, minimal preparation, and often strong opinions about other people’s abilities and errors. Examples of this would be turning up for a flight without any thought on weather and NOTAMs, criticising other pilots’ good decisions, bad decisions and landings, talking about overloading aircraft because there is ‘plenty of fat’ in the manufacturers data etc.
It also can lead to greater risk taking, because incidents only happen to those other people that are not as good as the ‘experienced’ phase pilot. If you recognize yourself or others in this phase, it is nothing to be embarrassed about. As I said, I believe we all (hopefully) move through this phase during our flying ‘career’, though the objective is to recognise it and transition to the next phase as fast as possible.
The third and final stage (and objective) is what I call the ‘mature’ phase.
In this phase, we recognise that incidents are always just around the corner, and we never stop learning as a pilot. It is characterised by confidence, but not arrogance (the difference being that a confident pilot listens and observes, the arrogant pilot wears blinkers, talks and points). The phase is often entered after a bad experience, either personally or to a friend who had been held on a pedestal.
The mature phase is when we realise that we are privileged to fly, and that the learning curve is indefinite when it comes to safety, skill and understanding how quickly any situation can become a risky situation.
A mature phase pilot also takes a caring role rather than a judgmental role in their approach to fellow pilots. In aviation, as in life, errors will always be made…it just so happens that errors in aviation often have harsher consequences.
But a mature pilot understands that errors are just that - errors. They can be learned from and used to improve. They aren’t an opportunity to point out how bad someone else is.
The role of a mature pilot is to mentor others in their progression from the learning stage, to the experienced stage and eventually to the mature phase. To do that, incidents need to be discussed and knowledge needs to be improved – especially those in the experienced stage.
Lastly, we must take it onboard to sometimes be the person to have the hard conversation with a pilot entrenched in the experienced phase. When we talk about someone as a ‘self-proclaimed expert, risk taker, it was going to happen one day’ type person, don’t talk about them. Talk to them.
These phases are natural in the human experience, it is a part of what makes us up. In flying we will go through these phases multiple times. It isn’t a once in a lifetime journey. When we get a new rating, such as an instrument rating, we might be in the mature phase of our overall flying, but we start again in the learning phase for the new rating. However, the overall mature phase is maintained.
When the experienced stage of instrument flying is reached, we might start to shoot approaches with minimal brief and preparation. It’s a time where a pilot thinks they can do it all, because their instrument learning phase is done and they’re generally a mature pilot. It’s the complacency that instrument flying can immediately be done as well as all other flying.
It’s only when a particularly hard flight is experienced that we realise that instrument flying always requires preparation and planning, and we realign our instrument flying to our overall flying. At this point, a pilot is back on track to the mature phase across the board.
I’m not an expert in what happened on that day in Canada where four people lost their lives. What I am an expert in, is understanding the learning process when it comes to aviation. Every day, I learn something new and every time I learn something new, I re-focus myself to the learning stage, remain self-aware as I begin the experienced phase and eventually, aim to take my new skill to the mature stage.
In aviation, we should be building each other up, encouraging best practice. Not sitting back for the day when we can say “I told you so.”
Chase your Dreams!