STRUGGLING TO FLY

©Jay Hopkins – All rights reserved

Originally published in Flying July, 2002

Some people seem to have a natural ability in certain areas. Whether in music, math or mechanics, these people just seem to be programmed for success. Show them something once and they have it. Other people seem to struggle to accomplish what most of us take for granted. Last week my neighbor told me about a student he is tutoring at school. This boy just can’t get math. While other students learned the multiplication tables in a relatively short period of time, this boy just couldn’t get it. Finally, after months of struggling he seemed to understand and be able to multiply in his head.

It is wonderful to be blessed with the natural ability to fly. There is nothing more satisfying than making an airplane do exactly what you want with only the lightest touch on the control wheel; and it brings a true sense of accomplishment to complete a difficult flight with an approach to minimums followed by a smooth landing on a snowy runway in gusty crosswinds.  While I was never good at sports and just squeaked by in school, I excelled in aviation. The ground schools were a breeze. I could complete two written exams in the time it took others to do one. My instructor would show me something once and I would be able to do it myself. While I was providing Aircrew Coordination Training to military instructors I would get to fly the military flight simulators. I had never flown a helicopter or helicopter simulator before, yet on my first takeoff in an SH-3 helicopter simulator I pulled up into a hover, transitioned to a climb, did a Doppler hover on instruments, and then returned to hover and land on the pad. The military instructor said he didn’t understand why his students, who have all completed basic helicopter flight training, can’t do nearly as well. On my first flight in a real helicopter I was able to hover, transition to climb, cruise, descend, and return to a hover stop on my first try.

Many of my students, including my son Jesse, seem to have the same natural ability and quickly pick-up whatever I show them. Others have to work harder, but still are able to maintain a normal progression through the flight syllabus. However, there are a few students who struggle like the boy trying to learn his multiplication tables. I demonstrate, they make an attempt, I critique their performance, they try again. Over and over, flight after flight, I work to help them understand and perfect the basic skills of flying. While some of these “strugglers” slowly make progress, a few get to the point that I have to tell them that I would be happy to continue to work with them, but that it will take a very long time and a lot of money and even then they likely would never get their license.

I truly admire the person without any natural flying ability who continues to struggle until he gets his license. It is hard for me to imagine the determination and persistence required to keep going when every new concept is hard to grasp and every step in the process to becoming a pilot takes much longer, and costs more, than it does for most other students. It is important that pilots who have to struggle to attain their license have a realistic idea of their abilities and set very conservative limits for themselves. They need to realize that just because other pilots can fly in certain conditions it doesn’t mean that they can safely do so.

There are traps for both the natural pilot and for the person who struggles to fly. People who have a natural ability to fly are able to handle difficult situations without getting flustered. They can react quickly and naturally without conscious effort to keep an aircraft under control. They sense the need for correction almost before there is any indication on the gauges. While this can help keep them out of trouble, or get them out of difficult situations, it can also lead to a macho attitude. The natural pilot, because of the ease with which he handles an aircraft, can begin to think that he can handle anything. He may rely on his superior skill to get himself out of situations he could have, or should have, avoided through better planning. While a person with natural ability may be great on the controls, every person has their limits, as does every aircraft. After extricating himself from many sticky situations, he may find that he has finally gotten in too deep. So a little humility and realistic self-assessment are important tools to help the natural pilot keep within the limits of his personal ability as well as the limits of the aircraft.

There are different traps for the pilot who had to struggle to get his license. First there is the problem of currency. A person with natural ability can come back to something after a considerable hiatus and show almost no diminished skill level. For example, after flying gliders for several summers and getting my private and commercial glider ratings, I moved to an area where there were no glider operations. Eighteen years and many moves later I joined a soaring club and took my first review lesson, which also happened to be my first flight in a high performance glider. I flew the entire flight including the takeoff, aero tow, release, soaring, return to the airport and landing, with no coaching from the instructor. After we had come to a stop the instructor said simply, “That is how it is done. I could not have done any better myself.”

A person who lacks natural ability will not only have to work harder during the more intensive flight schedule typical of someone in training, they will lose their skills much more rapidly if they fly less often once they get their license. For example, I had to struggle to pass my college calculus course, and within a few months after the end of the course I would not have been able to do any calculus at all even if my life depended on it. Similarly, a person who had a hard time learning how to do crosswind landings will quickly lose that skill if they don’t practice it on a regular basis.

There is also a risk that a pilot who is very conservative because of an accurate self-assessment of his flying ability will occasionally get into a situation that is beyond his skill level. For example, the wind at the destination may be stronger than forecast and directly across the runway, but still within the published capabilities of the aircraft. It would take a pilot with strong personal integrity to divert to a different airport where he can land into the wind rather than attempt a difficult crosswind landing. I noticed that in the AOPA General Aviation Accident Analysis Book for the years 1982 to 1988, 42% of all takeoff accidents and a whopping 73% of all landing accidents involved nothing more than a lack of basic piloting skills. There was no wake turbulence involved; there was no ice on the aircraft. The pilot didn’t use the wrong flap setting. The runway was adequate for the aircraft and was in good condition. Yet there were approximately 3,000 accidents where the pilot simply lost control or made other basic control errors including: premature rotation, failing to maintain climb speed, stall/mush on final, botched go-arounds, improper flares, excessive speed, landing long or short, delayed go-arounds, high sink rate, and loss of directional control. Each of these pilots somehow lost their ability to handle an airplane in normal flight conditions. I would be willing to bet that many of them were pilots who had to work hard to get to the level of competency required by the FARs and then didn’t have an opportunity to fly regularly and gradually lost some of that skill they had worked so hard to attain.

While it is easy to make a commitment to take the time to maintain our competence in our basic flying skills, in our busy world that commitment often falls by the wayside. Each time we fly we need to carefully assess our capabilities and competency level based on our natural ability coupled with our overall experience and our recent flight time, or lack thereof. Then, if we find our capabilities or our recent experience lacking, we need to make the hard decisions necessary to avoid getting in a situation that is outside our comfort zone.