the learning never stops!

You Don't Know What You Don't Know (1975)

Stories / The Rules

"The Rules" are twenty-six ideas I've collected over the years that seemed relevant enough to life in general that I've written each down with a short story to reinforce each in particular. This is Rule Number Eleven.

You don't know what you don't know.


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Photo: Cessna 310, from Mark Jones Jr., Creative Commons

I was sent to Purdue ROTC in 1974 and given a tin set of pilot wings that meant I was going to USAF undergraduate pilot training, provided I survived the four years and ended up with a degree and an officer's commission. To the cadets not wearing that same tin badge, we were pilots. Of course I had not yet touched the controls of an airplane at that point in my life.

Type Ratings (1975)

A Cessna 310! George was checked out in a 310! We all crowded around Cadet George Daniel's new multi-engine pilot's license, a foreign piece of paper to most of us. But even to those of us with no pilot's license of any kind, we knew this put George into the big leagues. "So that's the best pilot's license there is," someone half asked, half stated. "Now you can fly any airplane, single-engine, twin-engine, even four-engine!"

"Sure can," George said, basking in his glory.

George had just turned nineteen, as was true with all of us in his shadow. Our ROTC class returned from summer break, about half strength. Most of the losses were due to grades, but some probably due to the end of the Vietnam War and the official suspension of the draft. We lost two guys on full scholarships but got two transfers, so we still had thirty guys on the full ride. We still had fifteen pilot candidates, but still only three had real pilot's licenses. George had the best license of them all.

"What about a 747," another voice asked. "Can you fly one of those?"

"Of course," he said, "the license says multi, doesn't it?"

Everyone nodded with the obviousness of it. I had to wonder. George was a good guy and he knew more about flying than anyone I knew. But I cringed at the thought of the Lovely Mrs. Haskel and I downstairs on a Boeing 747 with a nineteen-year old in the pilot's seat. We fifteen were sitting in the armory lounge, waiting our turns to see Major Sawadee, the only pilot amongst our five cadre faculty members. He was also the sophomore cadet instructor, so we looked forward to more pilot war stories than military lessons this year in class. But as pilots, we had to see him at the start of the year for our annual counseling session. Our waiting list started with "A" and worked its way forward. George got in early and left early, leaving us higher in the alphabet to talk about other things. I got my turn a little later.

Major Sawadee was satisfied with my grades the first year but wanted to know what I thought about aeronautical engineering. I told him about how much I was enjoying every aspect of engineering except the aero. "If you can't design an airplane, what's the point?"

"What is it," he asked, "that you are looking for?"

"I would like to know the meaning of it all," I said.

"You should be an industrial engineer," Sawadee said. "That fits your brain to a tee." He went on for quite a while but before he was done I was convinced.

"So, Eddie," he asked, "anything else on your mind?"

"Yes sir," I said immediately, "I am wondering about pilot's licenses. What kind do you get when you get your wings?"

"You don't need a pilot's license at all to be an Air Force pilot," he said, "but most guys take a written test on the civilian rules and get a commercial, multi-engine pilot's license."

"Is that the best kind of license there is?" I asked, leaving aside the "commercial" bit for now.

"Well no," he answered, "the highest license would be the airline transport rating."

"Ah," I said. So there was someone else in our airliner's cockpit after all. "So that's what you need to fly a 747 then."

"Not exactly," he said, "if the airplane weighs over twelve thousand five hundred pounds you also need a type rating."

It was a lot more complicated than I knew. It was apparently more complicated than George knew too. On my walk home I pondered George's transgressions, his ignorance and mine. When the Lovely Mrs. Haskel came home from work I gave her every minute detail of the day and ended it all with, "George isn't so smart after all. He didn't know any of this."

"He didn't know what he didn't know," the Lovely Mrs. Haskel said, "that sounds like something you pilots should worry about. And so I started worrying about YDK2.

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Cartoon: "Big Girl," from Chris Manno

This is from Captain Chris Manno, fellow EC-135J veteran and now a 30+ years captain at American Airlines. Chris and I were copilots together and shared what, looking back, may be a cavalier attitude towards the responsibility shouldered by the pilot in the left seat. That attitude is common among copilots and it eventually changes. (Or it should.)

The Big Girl and What You Don't Know (1985)

She stands tall in the chocks, that DC-10, all shiny polished aluminum gleaming at the leading edges like an Atlas rocket. A grand old bird, a design maybe Mac-Doug rushed into production to compete with what some called the better Tri-jet from Lockheed. Not that I gave a damn, first as flight engineer, or Tengineer, as we were called, then later as DC-10 copilot.

Because she had what a pilot needed--lots of lift on a fat gull-wing that produced a nice ground effect cushion to make you look good on landing if you treated her right, and tons of smash in those growly hi-bypass fans slung under the wing and mounted in the towering tail. For all her bulk and heft, she'd go like a halfback after the snap.

And in the cockpit, windows so wide next to the pilots' seats that you'd swear you were going to fall out and drop two stories to the Tarmac on your first pushback. That took some getting used to.

That morning I was flying with Big John, a guy as nervous as you might expect from a senior captain just months from retirement, not wanting to screw up. He had an enormous belly, hence the nickname, which I'd slap with the control yoke when I pulled it back during the taxi-out flight control check.

You're supposed to watch the small, square flight control position indicator in the center of the instrument panel near the Thrust Rating Computer as you put the ailerons and elevator through their paces. But it was more fun, out of the corner of my eye, to watch Big John's rubbery lips twist into a frown by the second or third time I'd heave back on the yoke till it popped him on the gut.

"Watcha tryin' to do, boy--loop it?" he'd ask with a wet, wheezy sigh. The flight engineer and I would share a laugh about that over beers later. Conspiratorial, we were, young pilots laughing at the fat old captain.

The big jet rolled like a tank on the ground but once in the air, she climbed steady and strong, shoved smartly by those three big, snarling engines. Once she leveled off and planed out like a speedboat does, her nose dropped and she was a thoroughbred on a quarter mile track, effortlessly sailing along at .84 Mach, mane flying, not even breaking a sweat. Then there was the quiet beauty of a morning flight, with everything below bathed in a rising arc light of sunshine as if revealing the new day by degrees of latitude and the majestic solar promenade along the ecliptic.

In cruise there was nothing to do but put your feet up on the traction-taped bar below the sparsely stocked instrument panel--it was so wide it just seemed empty-- and ease that electric seat back a comfortable inch or two more. Then the good flight engineer would produce a small bottle of unreasonably Scoville-blazing hot sauce and make us Virgin Mary's with the tomato juice in the collection of drinks and snacks and a pot of hot coffee and water the flight attendants had tossed into the cockpit on climbout to keep us pacified.

The Ten design engineers took cabin pressurization a step further than most jets, not only modulating outflow to maintain a habitable pressure despite the membrane-thin atmosphere where we cruised--but also varying the input tapped off of the big engines humming out on the fat wings. So she puffed and wheezed like Big John struggling his girth into the crew van, as the three air cycle machines opened and closed high stage bleeds.

You might not notice so much in the cabin, but having spent a thousand hours myself manning the DC-10 flight engineer's panel, even up front I was in tune with her calliope-ish huffing, familiar as the breathing of spouse of so many years in the middle of the night.

"Not really happy 'bout these winds," Big John said, shaking his head. "Big damn crosswind." Which really mattered at LaGarbage, with its fairly short runways.

But the engineer and I couldn't care; Virgin Mary's and tonight in Manhattan mattered more: with half the flight attendant crew--the others would find something better to do--we'd walk from the Mildew Plaza to the Westside Temple for crappy Chinese but free wine. All you could drink, though the wine tasted like piss. But it was free and we were airline pilots: free piss is free piss. Big John could pour down a bucket by himself.

"Seems marginal," Big John muttered, holding the current wind printout. That was the good engineer's cue to check out his tabletop wind chart. We all knew the limits.

"It's right at it," the engineer offered. At the limit isn't over the limit, we both decided, but of course Big John had signed for the jet, the damages, plus the FAA and NTSB beating should so much as a ding appear on the silver girl's skin.

The engineer shrugged a second officer shrug: I told the captain the winds. I did too: I agreed. Glad it's not my decision.

"Tough call," Big John said, searching my eyes, I figured, for some hint as to what I'd do if I were him. And that's the moment blazed into my mind to this day as I carry his weight. Not his gut, but his pilot-in-command weight, in the twenty-some years I've been wearing four stripes. Ain't no simple, pat answers, just air sense, and the ability to bring others into the decision in a meaningful way.

"We'll fly the approach as long as we have the fuel increment to divert to JFK on the missed approach with at least fifteen thousand pounds on the deck there," John explained firmly."On a standard Korry arrival that leaves about fifteen extra minutes after the full approach so we bingo out at twenty-five regardless. Just request clearance on the missed."

Then, the golden question. He turned to both of us. "Now, what am I not thinking?"

Not, what do you think of my plan, which is a useless question if you want to know what others think (Your plan? It's okay, but I have other ideas) or what you might not know. What am I not thinking?

"That sounds like a good plan," I said. It was--and there wasn't anything in my head that I could share or hold back, especially since he asked. Simple? Might seem so-- everywhere but the left seat where the buck stops, where the authority and responsibility irrevocably resides. Big John didn't need an answer from me--he'd been a captain since I was in grade school. What he needed was what every captain needs: information, ideas, data, and a linked-in crew trained to speak up and comfortable doing so.

Because it's not what you know--Big John knew plenty--it's what you don't know that'll bust your ass. It's crucial to ask and by doing so, demonstrate that asking, that searching for what we don't know to perfect what we do is the way we're going to think and fly this jet. And speak up about it, dammit, because we're a team.

We stepped her down through the complex arrival that is the New York Center latticework of airways and approach corridors. I aimed at the two big Maspeth tanks, we were cleared the Expressway visual that's a box pattern of low-altitude, tight maneuvering (can't interfere with the JFK pattern) close in and eventually, treetop level. Big John called the left turns for me like a third base coach, having the better view of the SS LaGarbage over his shoulder.

She rolled out squared up, power on against the barn doors of max landing flaps hanging off the trailing edges of the wings. Just a touch of right rudder and she lined up true against the crosswind which was less than the limit, or so it felt. The Ten was a stable giant, unlike the squirrely MD-80 I'd also flown as copilot, requiring constant tugging at the leash to get her to heel. When the big gear trucks rolled onto the runway, the ponderous weight settling, it was like she wanted to stop, a great feeling the DC-10 conveyed through your feet on the brakes and the mass weighing her down.

That flight is etched in my memory not only for what Captain Big John showed me, but because of the discovery waiting for me among the half dozen useless messages in my crew inbox after the trip. Sandwiched in the middle was a notice of pending crew status: my captain upgrade class, scheduled for the next month. Just like that, my eyes became Big John's, needing to know, wanting to make the best decision and from that day forward, accountable.

No more riding along, offering, but now the "tough decisions" would be mine, no longer belonging to someone else.

"You're not yourself tonight," my engineer friend said later at Smitty's, the last resort Irish bar only a few body- slams across Eighth Avenue from the front doors of the Mildew. We'd watched Big John polish off a trough of Kung Pao Chicken at the Westside Temple, washed down with a tankard of free piss. After a Cottage night, the last snort at Smitty's helped rinse the bad taste out of your mouth.

"Yeah," I said after a moment. "Probably never will be again." At least I hoped not. I wanted to be worthy of that fourth stripe.

He looked at me like he didn't get it, but that's okay. He would, eventually, when his day came. Until then, in his shoes, it'd be just one more thing he didn't know.

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Photo: Challenger 604, from Eddie's collection

There is a definite hierarchy in the professional aviation world, be it airline, corporate, or military. It all starts with an instrument rating and I suppose the multi-engine rating gets thrown in there too. But the title "international pilot" carries great weight. Unfortunately, some pilots consider themselves worthy of the title after one crossing of the pond. They don't know that the learning never stops.

Squawk 2000 (2002)

In 2002 I was flying a Challenger 604 from Shannon, Ireland to Boston, Massachusetts. We had just switched to Shannon Control and were getting our HF radios set up for the switch to Shanwick Oceanic. On the radio another Challenger was talking, using his "Challenger one, two, three, alpha, alpha" call sign, something common in domestic United States airspace, but not when flying internationally. In the U.S. air traffic controller's like to hear the aircraft type to help sequence aircraft by understanding the aircraft type; the "November" is understood. Internationally, the "November" identifies the aircraft as from the United States and is part of the call sign.

"Ah, Shannon Control," he was saying, "copy all that, do you have a transponder code we should be squawking?"

Ben, the pilot sitting to my right, started laughing.

"November one, two, three, alpha, alpha" the radio operator replied, "Shannon Control does not assign transponder codes."

"Ah okay," came the reply, "I guess we'll just leave what we got in the box."

"What an idiot," Ben said, "how'd he get this far?"

I switched my radio to the oceanic common frequency, 123.45 MHz, and called the airplane. No answer. Then I tried the VHF emergency frequency, 121.5 MHz. No answer. So I switched to the Shannon Control frequency. "Challenger one, two, three, alpha, alpha call November six, oh, four, bravo on one two three decimal four five."

A few minutes later, "Challenger one, two, three, alpha, alpha is up."

"Squawk two thousand thirty minutes after coast out."

"Hey thanks," he said, "we were wondering about that."

"You guys got a Jeppesen Atlantic Orientation chart?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said, "we got one of those."

"There are about six panels of small text on it," I said, "read all of it and do it right now."

"Why do we have to do that?" he asked.

"If you want to keep your pilot's license," I said, "you will read every word of it."

"Hey thanks!" he said, "we appreciate it."

About ten minutes later we heard Shannon Control again. "November one, two, three, alpha, alpha, ATC advises you squawk two thousand for the crossing."

"Yeah we found that out," came the reply, "thanks an awful lot!"

"What a moron," Ben said.

"He doesn't know what he doesn't know," I said.

"We have schools for that," Ben said.

And that is true, we have schools for just about everything in aviation designed to eliminate YDK2.

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Photo: NetJets N507QS, Zurich, from Aero Icarus (Creative Commons).

Having switched airplanes so many times in the military, where guys new to the program — "noobs" — are treated harshly, I learned early to shut up and listen. Five years after leaving the Air Force I started flying the Gulfstream V and there was no shortage of experts telling me what to do. At this point in my career I had never used the GPS Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) but I knew enough to know there was more to it than what I read on the chart.

An Expert Takes on a Noob (2005)

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In early 2005 I went back to school to learn how to fly the Gulfstream V. I had thousands of hours in Boeings and just over a thousand hours in the GIII, but I was a novice in the Gulfstream V. Six months later, with about 300 hours of flying the thing, I went back to school for recurrent training. Fortunately, I thought, they paired me with a NetJets GV guru. This guy had flown the airplane since it first rolled out of the factory and knew this stuff backwards and forwards. I was prepared to learn.

For our first simulator session he led the way with some very nice air work and a picture perfect ILS approach. He got set up for his next approach, an RNAV(GPS) approach, by briefing the lowest minimums, those for aircraft equipped for with the GPS Wide Area Augmentation System, WAAS. At this point in my career as an instrument pilot, I knew enough about WAAS and LPV Approaches to know that the GV didn't have WAAS and couldn't do them. Bottom line: he was going to fly the airplane a few hundred feet below where it should have been, given the accuracy of our avionics.

"Where do you enter the channel number for that?" I asked, pointing at the number on the approach plate.

He and the instructor hunted around the FMS for five minutes, looking to show their novice GV pilot how it was done. It was there somewhere, they said, they just didn't have the time to show me.

Of course the channel number isn't needed for an aircraft with a database of approaches, but no Gulfstream had the capability back then. (I didn't know that, but I knew I didn't know that. Not so with my expert instructor and sim partner.)

Now, years later, I am qualified to fly LPV approaches in a G450. I know the GV will have the capability in a few years but it doesn't now. But there is a NetJets GV pilot out there that doesn't know that. I hope he doesn't kill someone.

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Figure: CYVR Takeoff Minimums, from Jeppesen Airways Manual, page CYVR 10-9A, 9 Jan 09.

I was a check airman for a major corporate aviation management company, with several hundred airplanes and pilots. My job was to manage the standardization program for what they called the "ultra long range international airplanes," but they tossed me to the smaller airplanes now and then when a check ride was needed and they ran out of other check airmen. That's how I found myself in Vancouver, ready to bust six pilots all at once. It turns out none of them knew what they didn't know.

One Checkride, Six Pilots Busted? (2009)

It was a cold, foggy January morning in British Columbia and the cab ride into the Vancouver airport was dicey at best. The crew du jour were Dassault Falcon 900 veterans and would be leading a procession of two other Falcons back to their home base in Georgia. It wasn't a formation flight, but a Falcon 900 followed by a Falcon 50 and Falcon 20 at five minute intervals was pretty unique. I would be giving a route check to the two 900 pilots, but was asked to keep an eye on the other four pilots as well. A ridiculous idea, I thought when handed the assignment. "I can't very well watch three airplanes from the flight deck of one," I told the boss. Do your best, she said.

The cab had difficulty with the fog and I walked into the FBO about ten minutes late. The six pilots were huddled around the weather computer, each clutching a copy of the latest. "How we doing?" I asked.

"Great," said the two pilots assigned to fly me east. "The vis is lifting and we should be okay by our departure time."

"What do you need?" I asked.

"600 RVR," one of them said, the rest nodded. It was dead silent outside the building, any engine noise was either muffled by the shroud of moisture or just wasn't happening. "Let's get the jets preflighted," another of the six said, "as soon as we hear the rest of the airport come to life we can double check the vis and go."

"Good plan," I heard from another of the Falcon pilots. Something was amiss, I knew, but I didn't have my airport charts with me. I knew the rules were different in Canada at some airports for general aviation. These pilots were operating under 14 CFR 91, private aircraft. While our company was registered as a commercial operator under 14 CFR 135, these particular pilots were not.

As the pilots made way to their aircraft for preflight duties, I called home base. The time difference on the east coast meant the phone was picked up on the first ring. "Good morning," I said to my boss, "do you have your JeppView open on your computer?"

"I don't like the sound of this," she said, "give me a second." I tried to visualize in my head what I was looking for, always wary that I didn't come off as one of those evaluators always looking for an excuse to bust someone. In truth, over the hundreds of checkrides I had given only a handful ever resulted in disqualifications. But now I was looking at doubling that score. The thought filled me with dread. "Got it," she said.

What is the takeoff visibility required at charlie, yankee, victor, romeo?" I asked.

"Six hundred if you got all the lights," she said. "Just like in the United States."

"Oh," I said. "For some reason I thought there was a complication up here, I guess I remembered that wrong."

"Hold on," she said, "there's more. It says the weather required for authorized air carriers is 600. For everyone else it's 2600 RVR. Your pilots are not flying under commercial rules, are they?"

"No," I said. "They are Part 91 and they are about to takeoff as soon as the visibility reaches 600."

"You can't let that happen," she said. "You got to keep your mouth shut and once they start engines with that plan, you have to bust them."

"All six of them?" I asked. The phone went silent for a minute. Or maybe it was minutes. "All six. This is awful." I gathered my things and braced myself for the journey back into the cold, Canadian air. The boss had more backbone than I gave her credit for not too long ago. Taking out six pilots at once would highlight the standardization department with a laser beam and the aircraft owners were sure to threaten the contract. "All six," she said. Be strong, I told myself.

I plodded out the FBO as the first sounds of jet noise filled the air. It sounded like the authorized air carriers across the ramp were getting ready to go. I made it to the Falcon 900 just as the auxiliary power unit was coming to life. "Six hundred," the PIC said as he made eye contact. He was all smiles. "I called the pax and they will be here in a few minutes."

"Where does that 600 limitation come from?" I asked. He looked at me as if I had asked the most basic question in aviation.

"From our training, of course." He seemed to be waiting for me to acknowledge that but I kept silent. "We are all trained to takeoff at less than standard, everyone knows that."

"That's your personal training minimum, sure" I said. "But aren't there other limitations for the airport itself?" I was hoping to see an "a ha" moment, but there was none. "When you train to 600 RVR in the simulator, you are demonstrating that you can do it. What says you may do it?" Again there was a blank stare. "Why don't you confer with the rest of your company pilots and tell me what you come up with."

I wish I could say this ends positively but it does not. Six pilots, charged with carrying the top executives of a Fortune Five Hundred company didn't know what they didn't know. The aircraft owners were so furious they fired us, the management company, because we should have done a better job training the pilots. A valid complaint, if you ask me. They took their business to our competition who ended up firing all six pilots. As they should have.

The pilots didn't know about visibility minimums outside the United States. The management company didn't know about the sorry state of the training of some of their pilots. I didn't know my boss had more backbone than I gave her credit for. It was 3 X YDK2.

More Quotes

Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.

—Richard Feynman

Coincidence is what is left over when the theory isn't good enough.

—John Cleese

At the end of every line of questioning the answer turns out to be, "we don't know."

— Adam Savage

Self-assessment in order to know how good you are at something requires almost the same aptitude as it takes to be good at it in the first place.

— David Dunning

The corollary to that is that if you are absolutely no good at something you lack exactly the skill that you need to realize you are no good at it.

—John Cleese

Book Notes

Portions of this page can be found in the book Flight Lessons 3: Experience, Chapter 12.

Revision: 20141005
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