Airmanship and flight discipline

Revision: March 13, 2012, at 08:32 PM

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Good airmanship is that indefinable something, perhaps just a state of mind, that separates the superior airman/airwoman from the average: it is not a measure of skill or technique, rather it is a measure of a person's awareness of the aircraft and its flight environment and of her/his own capabilities and behavioural characteristics, combined with good judgement, wise decision making and a high sense of self-discipline.

What is airmanship?

The definition is somewhat indistinct; with the introduction of computerised cockpit systems it is certainly more complex now than 50 years ago. Some might say it involves pilot proficiency, flight discipline, aircraft system and airworthiness knowledge, skill in resource management plus being fully cognizant of every situation and exercising excellent judgement. Someone recently did say in relation to the management of airline transport aircraft airmanship is "the ability to act wisely in the conduct of flight operations under difficult conditions".

Just as the term 'seamanship' implies a full appreciation of surface wave action and sea movement so does 'airmanship' imply a full appreciation of atmospheric waves, eddies and turbulence.

Airmanship is the cornerstone of pilot competency. Competency has been defined as the combination of knowledge, skills and attitude required to perform a task well or to operate an aircraft safely and in all foreseeable situations. A flight operation, even in the most basic low momentum ultralight, is a complex interaction of pilot, machine, practical physics, airspace structures, traffic, weather, planning and risk; and when each and every flight is undertaken it is not only the aircraft which should be airworthy, the total environment airframe, engine, pilot, atmospheric conditions and flight planning should allow for the safe, successful conclusion of each operation. It is the perception founded on the acquired underpinning knowledge of the state of that total environment and its potential risks that provides the basis for good airmanship and safe, efficient, error free flight. Insufficient perception and insufficient self-discipline create a pilot at risk.

Ensuring engine and airframe airworthiness prior to flight is a prime component of airmanship; however for the person accepting an aircraft she/he does not own/operate airworthiness, unfortunately, is a matter of faith in the operator and in the maintenance record. Visual and operational pre-flight checks cannot assure airworthiness the pilot does not know what is hidden under the skin or within the engine.

Risk management

Most recreational pilots, as with most general aviation pilots, accumulate only a few hours each year. About two thirds of recreational pilots fly less than 50 or 60 hours; perhaps such annual hours is enough to maintain physical flying skills learned at the ab initio flight school if the pilot has established a program for self maintenance of that level of proficiency but maybe not enough to maintain a high level of cognitive skills, for example situational awareness, judgement and action formulation. In addition, once having completed flight theory studies sufficient to pass the basic aeronautical knowledge test and achieve the Pilot Certificate, it seems that many, perhaps most, pilots leave it at that, failing to expand their knowledge by further in-depth studies of flight dynamics. Possibly because it involves sometimes difficult detail rather than the broad brush approach of the flight school and perhaps assuming that such knowledge will be expanded through consequent flight experience, also assuming, I guess, that they will survive each learning experience.

However many pilots are just continually repeating the same flight experience each year is the same as the last so all they accumulate is a repetition of one year's experience. They have no program of deliberately accumulating advanced knowledge or skills nor have they really absorbed the safety basics which should have been drummed into them over the years never turn back following EFATO; always maintain a safe airspeed; if the engine has been misbehaving never take-off until the problem is identified and fixed; if the engine goes sick in flight don't try to make it back to base, land ASAP; don't continue into marginal conditions - turn back, and so on.

So a safety problem exists with pilots. Many are just not ensuring that they accumulate adequate post-Certificate knowledge and skills. In short they never really learn much about flight dynamics [and some of their accumulated beliefs are dangerously false] and they lack other pertinent knowledge and worse, they are just not listening or hearing.

The sound pilot must understand how the environment parts relate and interact with each other, and judge the likely consequences of any action, deliberate non-action or random event. A systematic approach to continuing improvement in airmanship, plus an ability for self-appraisal, is necessary to achieve that understanding. The Flight Manual or Pilot's Operating Handbook for the aircraft model being flown must be fully understood, and the content recollectable when needed in an emergency. Every flight should be conducted correctly and precisely, using procedures appropriate to the airspace class and without taking shortcuts, even if just a couple of circuits and landings are contemplated.

Pilots should be aware that fatigue, anxiety, emotional state or flying an aircraft which stretches their skill level or just flying an aeroplane they don't like will affect perception and good judgement. See the "I'M SAFE" checklist. Most studies of aircraft accidents or incidents reveal not a single cause but a series of inter-related events or actions that, being allowed to progress without appropriate intervention from someone, lead to an unplanned termination of the flight operation.

A U.S. Navy pilot once wrote "In aviation you very rarely get your head bitten off by a tiger you usually get nibbled to death by ducks." However U.S. Navy pilots are well trained, well informed, self-disciplined individuals who do not expose themselves to those situations where the tiger WILL eventually bite your head off.

The gliding community demonstrated many years ago that there were two main cyclic periods (for them) where people were accident prone. This was about the 100 hour mark, where pilots were beginning to think they were immortal, and about 200 250 hours when they were sure they were: being survivors of the incidents of the first period.

Dr Rob Lee, the then Director of the Australian Bureau of Air Safety Investigation, wrote in 1998: "Over 40 years of investigation of General Aviation accidents by BASI and its predecessors clearly shows that while the immediate circumstances of each accident may well be unique, the underlying factors are always drawn from the same disturbingly familiar cluster pre-flight preparation and planning, decision making, perception, judgement, fuel management and handling skills". A preliminary study of the factors contributing to fatal general aviation accidents in Australia for the ten years up to 2000 showed that flight planning was a factor in 38% of the accidents, aircraft handling errors in 30% and fuel starvation or exhaustion in 10%.

Situation awareness

Being situationally aware means to be fully cognisant of the big picture, at all times, by continually collecting and judging information, from sources inside and outside the cockpit. In flight a pilot has to be several minutes ahead of the aircraft, not several seconds behind it to perceive what's going on and be able to impose sound judgement on every change, from a minor distraction to a major in-flight emergency. In an emergency situation stress may build rapidly and the pilot will tend to unconsciously focus on a very few aspects of the situation without noticing that other aspects are degrading airspeed or attitude for example. Good handling of any unusual situation particularly the first major emergency provides a basis for confidence in abilities. Poor handling of an emergency will undermine confidence.

There is much written on the ways to improve situation awareness but it probably boils down to a few basics: Assimilate an adequate knowledge base. To enable appropriate judgements and manage your errors you must have sufficient underpinning knowledge of all relative aspects of flight and of the aircraft you are flying.

Plan well in advance with a properly researched flight plan. Pre-flight planning may start days before a flight. Even local flying should be preceded by looking at a met forecast the evening before to compare against the conditions you find and how the sky really looks. You must know the aircraft's take-off and landing capability in the existing airfield environment.

Continually monitor flight progress against that plan and re-evaluate the plan.

Develop and use a scanning technique that takes in engine instrument indications, flight instrument indications, aircraft heading, flight path (60 left, ahead, 60 right, above, below), time, map and ground. Develop a scanning pattern that covers everything without becoming superficial but also allows time to be allocated to individual scan segments according to your perceived needs.

Project ahead and rehearse your actions for example:

  • "The next checkpoint will be in sight in ..."
  • "If the next checkpoint doesn't appear as scheduled I will ..."
  • "If the cloud is not as high as it appears or there is more of it than there appears I will ..."
  • "If another aircraft appears on a straight-in approach I will ..."
  • "If the engine packs up soon after lift-off I will ..."
  • "If the engine packs up above 200 feet I will ..."

Avoid locking on to a problem, a task or, for instance, your intended landing point for too long, don't keep your head in the office, keep the scan going, be aware of the relative position and movement of other traffic, hold the heading and fly the aeroplane at a safe airspeed appropriate to current atmospheric conditions and your height above the surface.

When operating at, or in the vicinity of airfields, if you have a radio transceiver use it to communicate your position and intentions to other aircraft. Listen out for those key words that indicate other aircrafts' positions and intentions. Be aware that not all aircraft will be radio equipped and even those which are may not be listening out on the appropriate frequency. Project ahead to plan safe and orderly traffic separation most light aircraft mid-air collisions and near-misses occur in the vicinity of an airfield.

In short be well informed, plan well in advance, fly to that plan, continually monitor flight progress, use a scanning technique, know where other aircraft are and their intentions, communicate when appropriate, project ahead and, above all, don't be distracted fly the aeroplane and fly it at a safe speed and within your and the aircraft's performance limits.

Rules, regulations and commonsense

However not even the most experienced pilot, flying maximum hours every year, can judge the probability of all likely outcomes in any situation, expected or unexpected, and make the appropriate decisions. For that reason, among others, a system of regulations, rules, conventions, practices and standard procedures exists for recreational and sports aviation and all other aviation communities to follow. Once acquainted with them, these commonsense rules, procedures and practices generally provide an acceptable level of protection, but far too often pilots, and others all of whom should know better deliberately choose not to follow them and thus abandon that inherent protection.

Self discipline

The reason for choosing to ignore the established rules is usually to save time, or money, coupled with the belief that they will get away with it because 'it can't happen to me' or 'it'll be OK'. Sometimes, particularly when they flout the laws of physics or aerodynamics, it is either pure bravado or wanton disregard [i.e. plain stupidity] or maybe it is just lack of knowledge.

However there are fortunately only a few rogue pilots in the various aviation communities who believe that the rules, written or otherwise, are stupid or unnecessary and so determine to flout them. Such people thus ignore the trail of injury and death, stretching back over most of the 20th century, that formulated the rules and conventions. Each conscious infraction of those rules further dulls good judgement until crunch time finally arrives and, unfortunately, such rogues often take others with them. All pilots have a moral responsibility to inform a passenger, intending to fly with a person known to engage in illegal or doubtful activities (e.g. unauthorised low flying or inappropriate manoeuvres around the airfield), that flight with that person is inadvisable. If a person is known to consistently indulge in illegal flight then there is a responsibility to inform an appropriate authority police, CAA, RAANZ etc.

All pilots must occasionally ask themselves the question: Am I maintaining a fully disciplined approach to all flight and pre-flight procedures? And if not why? Good airmanship cannot co-exist with poor discipline; a self evident truth is that a pilot lacking the appropriate self-discipline is an accident in preparation.

Discipline overrides panic and reinforces the ability to maintain/regain control of the aircraft when faced with a serious flight situation.

Personal operating procedures

Every pilot should develop, and follow, their own set of personal operating procedures and apply them, where applicable, to each flight operation e.g. a procedure to be followed if unsure of position on a cross-country flight, or the turn-back criteria if you find yourself flying toward rising terrain and a lowering cloud base, or having the self-discipline, when under time or other pressures, to decide whether you should take-off in the first place! If there is doubt about the weather the wise pilot leaves the sky to the IFR rated pilot in the IFR rated aircraft. A non-IFR pilot caught out in IMC [instrument meteorological conditions] or dark night conditions will be lucky to survive.

The dedicated pilot flies accurately, using approved technique, knowing the performance (i.e. the best rate) airspeeds for the aircraft being flown and consistently maintaining such airspeeds and the chosen altitudes and headings. She or he will know the minimum safe speeds for various angles of bank when turning in level, climbing and descending flight and at varying weights and cg positions. The pilot will know the aircraft's glide performance and, during flight, will be continually monitoring the surface for possible safe landing sites should the engine fail. Such pilots will have developed a set of tolerances for personal performance assessment e.g. airspeed consistently within 5 knots, altitude within 100 feet or heading held within 5. The dedicated airman or airwoman aims to fly with style, making smooth, timely and balanced transitions when turning, climbing, descending or leveling off so that the flight path flows, rather than being seen as a string of loosely connected manoeuvres. Every landing is a gentle arrival that doesn't strain any part of the aircraft.