features What it takes to be an outstanding pilot today

A rumination upon what makes an exceptional aviator — in celebration of World Pilots' Day, and in memory of one of aviation’s greatest pilots, Chuck Yeager.
Avatar By Robert Erdos | April 23, 2021

Estimated reading time 12 minutes, 20 seconds.

“What you mean to say is, ‘You have control, general.’”     

I cast a curious glance across the cockpit. The checklist was complete, and we were ready to fly. Then-general Chuck Yeager’s eyes were twinkling, but he was serious. I was suddenly conflicted.

On the one hand, we were about to fly a Royal Canadian Air Force CH-136 Kiowa helicopter, which, I was frequently reminded, was the property of Her Majesty the Queen. The general had flown a lot of exotic hardware, but I didn’t know if that included helicopters, and to what extent, or how recently. Technically, albeit absurdly, he wasn’t “qualified.” Giving him control was clearly a violation of regulations.

Chuck Yeager (pictured) died on Dec. 7, 2020. He was among the greatest pilots in aviation’s brief history. USAF Photo

On the other hand, he was Chuck Yeager. Nevertheless, I had to ask: “Have you flown helicopters before, sir?”

“All of them,” he said laconically, offering a wry grin. In response to my obvious double-take, he added, “Well, most of ‘em.”

That settled it. I defied regulations and deferred to experience. “You have control, general.” After all, I reasoned, if Chuck Yeager is onboard a flying machine, then Chuck Yeager takes the stick.

What Makes an Exceptional Aviator?

The easy part of this article is over. We can all agree that Yeager was among the greatest pilots in aviation’s brief history. The recent passing of the world’s most famous pilot was a milestone worthy of reflection.

I contend that no aspiring pilot has ever stared breathlessly at an airplane and thought, “Some day I want to be a mediocre flyer.” Being an aviator is a privilege; a fact that reasserts itself upon one’s psyche with every takeoff. The challenge, the responsibility and the inherent risk of flying demand that we give it our best.

Yeager was a product of his age. In this article, I want to muse upon what it takes to be an outstanding aviator today; those personality traits, aptitudes and attitudes that are compatible with modern aviation.

Contemporary aviation does not provide many opportunities to produce superstars. Most flying is fairly routine, thankfully. Employers place value upon pilots being smoothly interchangeable, rather than individualistic and flamboyant. Flying has been described as, “Hours of boredom punctuated by moments of stark terror.” Capt Chesley Sullenberger’s famous successful dead-stick descent into the Hudson River in 2009 comes to mind. Had a flock of birds not knocked out both engines, we would likely have never learned of Capt Sullenberger’s conspicuous skill.

I hasten to add that being a professional — that is, getting paid for flying — is hardly a prerequisite to being considered an exceptional aviator. Some of the most competent, impressive, and talented aviators I’ve known were encountered tinkering with Piper Cubs on grass runways.

In the author’s opinion, the extensive diversity of Yeager’s flying experience effectively created the legendary test pilot we know.

Nobody gets to be the final arbiter over such a vital question. This article is just an individual’s retrospective opinion. The reader is encouraged to scroll down to find a comments section. A lively dialogue is anticipated. 

In the interval since my first logbook entry in 1979, I have had the privilege to fly with a few pilots who set examples I shall never forget. Here are a few of the things they taught me.

Disciplined. But Not Too Disciplined

As captain, a pilot assumes responsibility for both human lives and expensive hardware; a role demanding reliability. As aviation has matured, the pilot’s role has become more proceduralized, systematized, and scripted. High on the list of essential personality traits is one critical core competency: discipline. We perform as we are taught, even when nobody is watching.

Then again, the established procedures only cover every foreseeable eventuality. Most flight operations manuals overflow a thick three-ring binder; the contents of which we dutifully memorize for immediate recall. Nevertheless, there will always be instances that require “out of the box” thinking, and one’s inhibition against deviating from procedure must never become a liability. Capt Sullenberger’s experience again comes to mind. Gliding his jet into the Hudson River was likely not in the company manual. He reminded us to fly the airplane until the last part stops moving.

Maintenance of Proficiency

As the COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedtly proven to many pilots, flying is a perishable skill. We develop skills through repetition, and we lose them again through inaction. Our careers are a roller coaster of gained and lost proficiency.

In the era of mechanical airplanes, proficiency was principally the coordination and dexterity required for handling. Modern digital airplanes present different challenges, as there is so much syntax and arcana that demand immediate recall. Routine operational speed bumps such as a hold entry or a complicated amended clearance are not tolerant of a quick glance at the user’s manual. There is nothing so frustrating as knowing that you used to know how to do something.

Every aviator will face their own circumstances. I recommend the use of a cunning master plan to keep essential information in mind — whether it’s a pre-flight study routine, a cheat sheet of essential information, or something more clever. Management of one’s proficiency is each individual pilot’s challenge.

Life After Groundschool

Just before they left on the first manned flight to the moon, the crew of Apollo 8 was greeted by a surprise visitor to Cape Canaveral. Charles Lindbergh came for lunch. Lindbergh! They talked about flying, as one might imagine, comparing their respective craft. Following some rough calculations, Lindbergh apparently recounted to the crew that in the first second of their flight, Apollo 8 would consume more fuel than he did all the way to Paris! The Saturn V rocket has been in museums for 50 years. Technology evolves quickly.

Spending an hour in a floatplane, a glider, or a taildragger is as instructional as 10 hours in one’s familiar cockpit. Eric Dumigan Photo

In retrospect, my training at fixed-card ADF tracking or TACAN point-to-point navigation hasn’t proven terribly useful. A plethora of new acronym-based technologies (FMS, TCAS, ADS-B) have been integrated into the cockpit since I was a trainee, and in few cases were they accompanied by any formal training. One tries to keep up. A lifelong plan for continual learning is always a virtue, but in aviation it’s essential.

Adaptability

We tend to measure experience in flying hours, but it’s a weak metric. Doing the same thing 20,000 times will yield a fat logbook, but it doesn’t add up to meaningful experience. If the fates had ordained that Yeager spend his entire aeronautical life flying the same aircraft type, would he have still been “Yeager”? It’s doubtful. I contend that the extensive diversity of his flying experience — he flew darned near everything in his day — effectively created the legendary test pilot we know.

It’s no doubt a sign of progress, but airplanes have lost much of the diversity in the gene pool. It’s embarrassing to admit, but from a distance I can’t tell the difference between a Boeing and an Airbus. Aircraft look alike, and increasingly they fly alike. Nevertheless, salient differences remain. Brazilian engineers think a bit differently than those in Seattle. The French think differently than everybody. (All of the pilots reading this just smirked. Admit it.) 

Spending an hour in a floatplane, a glider, or a taildragger is as instructional as 10 hours in one’s familiar cockpit. It’s humbling — and hopefully inspiring — to realize that proficiency at flying “heavy iron” won’t equip a pilot to land a Tiger Moth on lumpy grass in gusty winds. Exploring the unfamiliar corners of aviation will always prove instructive.

The Performance Imperative

I don’t know whether Yeager was ever scared, but he made the image of a stoic, unflappable test pilot into an icon. It took courage to fly the earliest aeronautical contraptions. Accidents were commonplace. Does a pilot still require courage, given the current sophistication of the craft?

Yes. We tell each other that modern flying is safe, but there are days when we awaken to headlines that say otherwise. Should the unspeakable occur, and gravity suddenly asserts itself over an airplane, the stark difference between the passengers and the pilot is that the pilot remains responsible for the outcome.

Whether it’s spin practice, unusual attitude recovery training, or an actual emergency, there will be days when your work scares you. Fear is normal, but it doesn’t reduce our obligation to perform, just as fear mustn’t reduce our capacity to perform. There is a plane to fly. There will be time for emotion later. I call it the “performance imperative.” Some jobs are just like that.

On Oct. 14, 1947, USAF Capt Chuck Yeager flew the Bell X-1 experimental plane faster than the speed of sound. NASA Photo
Always Appease The Fates

Fabled aviation writer Ernest K. Gann had a cautionary message in mind when he entitled his epic aviation story Fate is the Hunter. Gann recalls his own long-ago airline apprenticeship in the right seat of a Douglas DC-2 airliner, flying beside the venerated greybeards of his day. Alas, despite their age, experience, skill, and cunning, many of his mentors were lost in accidents. Perhaps a bolt snapped, a propellor governor wouldn’t govern, or lightning selected the path of least resistance through a fuel tank. Fate is the hunter, indeed.

Once one’s allotment of skill has been used, one dips into a secret personal reservoir of luck. Everything that happens once the chocks are pulled is the pilot’s responsibility, but nature keeps reminding us that not everything is in the pilot’s control. Old pilots wisely say, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” It’s wise to be philosophical about risk. The lesson is humility.

Passion is a Professional Lubricant

The wag who first said, “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life,” may well have been a pilot. Enjoying a reflective communion with the cloud tops as the setting sun melts technicolour hues onto the horizon is a gift shared among aviators. Yet, I’ve flown with a number of pilots who seemed to show up for the pay check. They were all fine aviators, so I don’t mean to judge.

Okay, yes I do. I can’t escape the feeling that any pilot who doesn’t treasure their time aloft is letting us all down. It is wise to remember that most humans work “down there” on the Earth’s surface. The view — along with the community and culture of aviation — is part of the remuneration. Cherish it.

Gone Flying

Yeager visited our Air Force flight testing unit — the Aerospace Engineering Test Establishment — in Cold Lake, Alberta, back in 1994 when I was a military test pilot. He toured the facilities, but seemed just as excited about the hunting. The helicopter flight arose because I said something to him in the officer’s mess about seeing a lot of wildlife from the air. I think he secretly wanted to chase a moose.

We didn’t chase the wildlife. But for the record, Yeager flew the helicopter flawlessly.

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