Traits of the Superior Pilot

Is there somebody you would not fly with as the pilot-in-command of an aircraft in which you were invited to be a passenger? If a name jumps to mind, you’re probably thinking about that pilot who is referred to as “an accident waiting to happen.” Why do some pilots have this moniker?

The annual number of general aviation accidents hasn’t changed much over the last decade. Despite significant advances in cockpit technology and airmanship safety counselling, pilot error still remains the root cause of at least 70 percent of all accidents annually.

This latter fact is a concern for all of the industry’s stakeholders, not least to the insurers who underwrite the activity. That lack of a downward trend in pilot-induced accidents has one U.S.-based insurer, Avemco, sponsoring research (through the Airmanship Education Research Initiative, AERI) that is looking for ways to enhance accident prevention. AERI hopes to identify patterns that result in accidents. The data will then be used to assist the industry in preventing them from happening in the first place.

From preliminary data, a cluster of common pilot traits has been found from which insurers can reasonably identify individuals who can be classified as “superior pilots.” That data comes from observations and feedback culled from three groups: highly experienced pilots, CFI’s, and the aviation insurance industry itself. Every pilot should be reminded of what those traits are. “An expert pilot is one who’s pants you could set on fire during an emergency, and they’d still keep their focus on flying the airplane,” says former president of Avemco Insurance Company, Jim Lauerman. “Lesser pilots,” he says, “will become distracted.” While the training industry teaches pilots what to do in emergency situations, they often fail to do it when the situation warrants the actions they’ve been taught.

Personality traits matter a lot, according to Lauerman. The “kind of person you are” relates directly to one’s status as a high or low accident risk. “We all know that we shouldn’t run an airplane out of gas,” he says, as an example. “But pilots still do it all the time.”

The superior pilot possesses proactive traits, not reactive traits, says Lauerman. They set margins for their flying, and they stay within those margins. They understand the characteristics of their aircraft and they methodically assess the condition of their aircraft at all times. They are systematic in their approach to flying and they work on their own personal development and education to enhance their piloting skills.

Good pilots are realistic. They know that they are not trained to military or airline standards and so cannot rely on an infrastructure of support personnel for the accomplishment of a flight. They, therefore, fly within their own system, and accept that such a self-imposed system has its own limits. Practicality rules their decisions: they stay within their limits, and they accept that they don’t know everything. Humility, thus, is a trait of the superior pilot. “You may not be as good a pilot as you think you are,” cautions Lauerman.

“Fly as an airman flies,” says Lauerman. Withdraw yourself from the pressures of a flight and apply a level of professional detachment. “Don’t lie to yourself as a pilot,” he says. If, for example, time pressure is building for a flight, take a stance and say to yourself or to your passengers, “We’ll be late, but we’ll be safe.”

The superior pilot doesn’t fly as if he or she has something to prove. They are committed to doing things right; impressing others is not a factor. They are mature in their approach to flying, and find that the joy of flying comes from doing it well, and professionally. They are respectful of their activity, and committed to aviation, and to staying alive while doing it. They plan well to mitigate risks, and stay level headed if urgent matters arise.

The superior pilot is responsible, says Lauerman. “Their ego is in its place.” He also asserts that it’s ok to say: “I’m not good enough to do that” should a situation warrant that the demands of a task exceed the pilot’s skill to accomplish it safely.

Superior pilots assume flying as a lifestyle. They are competent and enthusiastic, and they’re never in a hurry. “If you’re not in a rush, you’ll do things well,” Lauerman says.