The normal progression for a pilot on the way to becoming a professional includes several licenses that begin, unfortunately, with the title “student pilot.” It even says that on your first medical. It is unfortunate because you spend your entire time as a student aspiring to becoming a private pilot and once you’ve done that, your previous existence becomes something less. The process repeats itself over and over again, even without a formal upgrade to the license. A multi-engine pilot is something more than a basic single engine land pilot. The process gets more and more complicated but left in the dust is that first step. We pilots have this in common, we all started as humble student pilots.
— James Albright
The process is similar for non-pilot aviators: mechanics, flight attendants, dispatchers, everyone. We all began as students hoping to graduate to our professional lives. Lost on many of us is the fact our apprenticeship never ended. We will always be students so we might as well learn to be better students.
Be a better "forever mode" student
In my twenty-year Air Force career, I spent fifteen years as a pilot and five years flying a desk. While on the Air Staff at the Pentagon I was cautioned to never take work home with me. “It will destroy your marriage and it will destroy your passion for your profession.” We never had such a warning while out in the field, flying airplanes. At the squadron level, it was a badge of honor to live, think, and breathe aviation. With that background, it continues to amaze me to hear my fellow civilian pilots talk about having a distinct line between work and home. I might be wrong here, but in my view, your aviator mind should never switch off. Flying airplanes has become safer over the years, but it is still not risk free. There comes a time where you have studied enough and any more becomes counterproductive. But until that point, getting better at what you do makes you a safer pilot, mechanic, flight attendant, dispatcher, or other aviator. It has become easier to immerse yourself in all things aviation.
I usually start each day with a series of emails from various aviation websites and magazines and filter through to read those that apply to my aircraft type (Gulfstreams) and my operation (international business aviation), and then I include any others that are just interesting on their own. A few of my favorites:
- Business & Commercial Aviation Magazine
- Ops Group
- Aviation International News
- Curt Lewis and Associates Flight Safety Information
This rarely takes over an hour of my morning, unless I find something that requires a deeper dive. (In that case, I might have to reserve a day or two.)
Being a forever mode aviator does tend to monopolize your attention and you do have other things to worry about. But that is part of the challenge: striking the right balance. Just because you are in student mode, however, doesn’t mean it can’t be entertaining. I trade book recommendations among friends and keep a list of my most recent top ten recommendations:
- Gandt, Robert, “Skygods: The Fall of Pan Am”
- McCullough, David, “Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtis, and the Battle to Control the Skies”
- Copp, DeWitt S., “Forged in Fire”
- Gann, Ernest K., “Fate is the Hunter”
- Coram, Robert, “Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War”
- Wolf, Tom, “The Right Stuff”
- Gawande, Atul, “The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right”
- Hansen, James R., “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong”
- Weatherbee, Capt. Jim, USN Retired, “Controlling Risk in a Dangerous World”
- Marquet, L. David, “Turn the Ship Around!”
For the complete list: Favorite Books.
Each book will make you a better aviator. The list is forever changing and can spark intense debate. But that is part of the fun of being a forever student aviator. I still cling to hardcover copies of each book, just as I continue to cling to DVDs of my top ten movies:
- Twelve O’Clock High (1949)
- Catch-22 (1970)
- The Right Stuff (1983)
- Dr. Strangelove (1964)
- The Red Baron (2008)
- The Great Waldo Pepper (1975)
- Airport (1970)
- Memphis Belle (1990)
- Flying the Feathered Edge (2014)
- Airplane! (1980)
For the complete list: Movies
“Surely you can’t be serious!” “I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley.”
Do a better job preparing for class
If you are like me, you invest a lot of effort into your recurrent training every six months and once you are done, you want to give yourself a break from regular study. You promise to get back into it after a month, but before long it is six months later, and you show up for another recurrent ill prepared. I say, “like me,” meaning “like the used-to-be me.” I now have a thirty-day preparation routine that I’ve outlined in “Preparing for recurrent.” The core of the idea is to devote an hour each day to a well thought out study plan, starting 30 days before class. Limiting yourself to an hour will encourage you to keep at it until you are complete. Here is my current plan when preparing for Gulfstream GVII recurrent:
- Class Day Minus 30: review memory items daily with audio and iPhone flash cards
- Class Day Minus 29 through Minus 19: devote remainder of hour studying a different major aircraft system each day
- Class Day Minus 18 through Minus 13: devote remainder of hour studying a different normal procedure
- Class Day Minus 12 through Minus 4: devote remainder of hour studying a different abnormal or emergency procedure
- Class Day Minus 3 through Minus 1: devote remainder of hour studying the theme you expect to see for each of three simulator sessions
I say this is my “current plan” because the plan evolves after each recurrent training class.
Take better notes
I spent my first ten years of attending regular recurrent training taking notes the same way I did in college. I listened and jotted as quickly as I could, sometimes to the point the result was indecipherable as soon as I put my pen down. The notes proved useful in college, as there was a project or paper coming due and I was forced to look at them the next day, if not sooner. There was no debate on the content because the person doing the talking was usually the person doing the grading. Besides, we were not talking about life and death, just an end of semester grade.
This method has failed me as a pilot at initial, recurrent, or any other aviation related training. The person doing the instructing is delivering information-dense material and normally using information-dense slides that whip by faster than I can write. I once resorted to recording everything until I was reminded that was verboten in the training contract. I even took iPhone photos of some of the slides, until once again reminded it was proprietary information. Looking at our latest training bill, I think spending over $ 100,000 for a single pilot’s recurrent ought to entitle us to a camera and audio recorder in class, but those are the rules.
The solution came to me about ten years ago. It is a note-taking method developed over fifty years ago by Walter Pauk, director of Cornell University’s Reading and Study Skills Center in 1962. His book, “How to Study in College,” is in its ninth edition and worth the investment. The crux of the method is to draw a vertical line on the left side of your notepaper that extends from the top to about an inch or two short of the bottom. Then line off the bottom with a horizontal line. The left column are your cues, the right column is where your notes go, and on the bottom is a summary.
As you sit in class, you listen first, take notes second. The notes go into the right column using short sentences and the only thing you need to record verbatim are exact numbers or items required to be exact. You then write cues which further summarize the notes or remind you of questions that need answers. You can do this during class, break, or after class. But the sooner the better. Finally, after class, you summarize it all. That is the method in a nutshell. I add to the method by further research, usually added in a different color.
You can buy “Cornell Notes” paper pads on many campuses and even online in colorfully bound books. My method of choice is on an iPad using the “Noteshelf” application, available at your App store for $9.99. The App includes a Cornell notes template.
One of the advantages of using an iPad notetaking application is there is no cost to wasting “paper” and I can devote a page to each thought, and that improves the future use of the notes. I have my own customized style with each note. On the example page, I note the date and page number of the note on top, to the left. I write the instructor’s initials on the right. The note and the cue are written during class in blue. This was the fourth thing I heard in class that inspired the need to take notes. The instructor said the reason why we Gulfstream GVII pilots are supposed to limit our pitch during a windshear escape maneuver is to prevent the Primary Flight Display (PFD) from going into an unusual attitude display. I thought it had to do with a performance limitation or perhaps to prevent the flight control computer from taking over in one of its protective modes. That night I researched this further and entered my findings in red.
I can now easily find the answer to this question, know where I first heard it, know the source material, and know who gave me the information in the first place. Over the years I’ve found some instructors are simply repeating things they’ve heard without any further foundation. After some research I was able to refute the knowledge and let the instructor know. You may have a better method or this might be just what you’ve always needed. But if your notes end up at the bottom of a shelf never to be seen again, I encourage you to give the Cornell Notes method a try.
More about this: Note Taking.
Have a better open mind while being a better skeptic
The often thought but rarely spoken paradox about how most flight training is done at the professional level is that sometimes, but not always, the better qualified pilot is standing on the wrong side of the podium. While the pilot with the microphone is better trained at delivering the lesson, he or she sometimes lacks the necessary relevant and recent experience needed to effectively teach. Note that I say sometimes and not always. As a student, I need to be prepared to learn.
In the previous example dealing with windshear escape maneuvers, I wrongly assumed our pitch limit was set at 30° because sooner or later we would run out of aerodynamic performance and the fly-by-wire system would override my inputs. The answer was in an obscure part of the manuals that I may have read but obviously forgot. I am not alone in this, because the simulator instructors may have noted a trend in student actions in the simulator and thought that worthy of bringing up. I wrote the instructor’s statement, somewhat skeptically I must admit, and found out through later research that he was right and I was wrong.
But it sometimes happens the other way around. Years ago, while flying a Challenger 604 with our company’s chief pilot in the right seat, we lost a hydraulic system while at cruise altitude. I directed the copilot, my boss, to declare an emergency and request an emergency landing at a nearby airport with a long final to give us time to use the alternate gear extension system. It all worked as it should have but I noticed my boss was uncharacteristically nervous to the point of skipping steps in the checklist and being visibly relieved once we were on the ground. That night at the bar I asked why. He seemed surprised. “Don’t you know?” I said I didn’t. He said, “no Challenger crew has ever before successfully extended the landing gear using the alternate system outside of the simulator.” Of course, this is nonsense and I chalked it up to his nervousness. But at my next recurrent I found the source of his angst. Our ground school instructor said the same thing. Just because the instructor says something, doesn’t make it true. In the words of a former president: “Trust but verify.”
Do a better job teaching as well as learning
I found early on that the best way to learn something is to teach it and that process follows attending recurrent training too. As tightly scripted as some recurrent training can be, the dynamics of having two pilots from different flight departments and a random instructor means each experience will be unique. I can think I have a maneuver mastered for years and then find that I am more of a novice and need to relearn old lessons. I think the best way to cement these lessons is to relive them with “war stories” to peers, and to include the lows as well as the highs. Rather embarrassingly, my latest learned and relearned lesson spans over forty years.
My introduction to having to circle from an instrument approach to a different runway under a solid ceiling came as an Air Force student pilot in the Cessna T-37, which was about as stable an instrument panel that has ever been designed. It didn’t have an autopilot or a flight director, so the success of the maneuver rested solely on the pilot holding the stick. A common rookie mistake is to be turning and descending from a base to final, pull back on the stick, and pop up back into the weather. “Just practicing my missed approach, sir!”
From there it was on to the Northrop T-38 for me, where the circling was done at a much higher speed (150 versus 100 knots) and the stick was certainly more sensitive. But, fortunately, I had the blown circling maneuver out of my system by then.
Over the years, flying airplanes with conventional yokes, the danger of pulling up into the weather had decreased but not disappeared entirely. I’ve witnessed a good number of pilots roll towards the runway, disengage the autopilot, and climb. “Hey, where did the runway go?” But not me, I was above all that. Until about a year ago. I was flying the number one choice for this maneuver in a simulator, the RNAV(GPS) Runway 27 circle to Runway 18R at Memphis International Airport (KMEM), Tennessee in a Gulfstream GVII-G500, which has a sidestick and not a yoke or center mounted stick. Pulling back on a stick mounted on your left with your left hand makes it easy to pull in pitch as well as roll, but I managed to avoid that during my initial type rating and first three recurrents. But that streak has now ended. “Hey, where did the runway go?”
I came home and told everyone I knew about it. (And now I am telling thousands more.) I think most pilots would prefer to leave these lessons behind them and I think that is a mistake. My “pop up” incident was a few months ago and I still think about it. The lesson is firmly planted into my mind and in my left hand, for that matter. But it does one more thing. It allows other GVII pilots with sidesticks to learn from my mistake. That is one of two primary reasons for telling a good war story, after all. (The other primary reason is to entertain your buddies at the bar.)
Having analyzed the mechanics of my left forearm sitting on a sidestick rest and my left hand gently cradling a stick, I see how easy such a mistake is to make. Now I know. And so do you.
You cannot think of your apprenticeship in aviation as one of being a student and then becoming a graduate. It is the nature of aviation that means we aviators are students for life. But as you add to your resume with more ratings and qualifications, the opportunities to learn and become better students increase as well. In this series of being better, we will follow “Being a Better Student,” with “Being a Better Pilot,” “Being a Better Crewmember,” “Being a Better Captain,” and finally, “Being Better.”
You might wonder what qualifies me to write such a series. When I was a brand-new KC-135A tanker copilot, I made the mistake of admitting to my aircraft commander that I made a mistake.
Captain: “Why did you leave out the winds in that last HF position report?”
Lieutenant: “I made a mistake. I make mistakes.”
Captain: “Well I think you should be pretty good at that.”
Lieutenant: “Everyone has a skill.”
I’ve admitted a lot of mistakes from my many decades flying airplanes, and I suspect that trend will continue. Thankfully I now end up having to retell old stories because there are fewer and fewer new mistakes to admit to. I guess that is progress of a sort.