The Superior Pilot

It was cool and blustery on that overcast morning in the autumn of 1996. There was snowpack in Anchorage, Alaska by that time of the year, but the runway and taxiways were clear and dry. I was only a few flight hours away from my final check flight before earning my private pilot’s license, and was pre-flighting my Cessna 152 before another solo practice run.

The wings rocked in the wind, tugging at the tie-downs and I remember feeling a tinge of unease. “Wind’s not too bad,” I nervously told myself as I checked the aileron travel and flap freeplay. Then another gust hit, and the aileron tugged at my hand. My unease grew. I continued around the empennage and couldn’t help noticing the horizontal tail bobbing around against the tail tie-down. “Wind’s alarming me a bit,” I mused, “Not sure if I can handle it.”

The thought had scarcely entered my mind when I regretted even thinking it. I was on the cusp of being a pilot, after all, and there’s never a completely windless day to go flying. Dealing with the wind is just part of the job!

But even after un-tethering the airplane and climbing in, every gust-driven wing-rock sapped my courage. I thought of my flight instructor, a tall lanky Texan who had to be shoe-horned into the cramped Cessna cockpit. He had shared a classical piece of pilot wisdom—in full-throated East Texan drawl—just a couple of flights earlier: “The superior pilot is one who uses his superior judgment to avoid situations requiring the use of his superior skills.”

Not sure why this particular piece of advice came to mind—but I’m glad it did. It led me to decide not to fly that particular morning because I didn’t feel capable enough to handle the plane in that kind of wind. So I tied the airplane down again and glumly trudged inside to confess to my instructor that I was too scared to fly. I wondered what he’d think of me—after all, other people were flying that morning.

“I was hoping you’d decide to stay on the ground,” Jim said as I walked into his office, “saves me the trouble of going out in the cold to stop you. Little windy for flying today, don’t ya think?”

Feeling shocked and relieved at the same time, I sat down with Jim and debriefed the flight that never was. One key take-away from our ensuing discussion was this: while pilot judgment does improve with piloting skill, sound judgments can be made at any skill level. Another pearl of wisdom: knowing what you aren’t proficient at is just as important as knowing what you are proficient at. Discovering that I wasn’t proficient in gusty crosswind landings would do me precious little good after I was airborne, because I’d still have to land the damn plane!

There were two valuable lessons I learned that day. First, that I needed some more dual-time with my instructor practicing crosswind landings. And secondly, that I should always listen to my gut when making a judgment call on whether to fly or not. The latter lesson probably saved my life—and my date’s life—a couple years later in Arizona when I called off a flight during the ground run-up as a desert thunderstorm quickly built near the airport. I’d barely gotten the plane tied back down before the cell had moved directly overhead and begun unloading torrential gust-driven rain. As additional storm cells rapidly developed around the airport, I came to realize how much trouble we would have been in if I’d continued with the planned flight. Although disappointed in having to cancel my date, I was proud of the decision I’d made to stay on the ground. And although I never got a chance for another date with that girl, I did become a better pilot from the experience.

In short, your conscience is a superior pilot to your ego, so listen to that little nagging voice in your head! In flying, if something doesn’t feel right, something’s wrong, and it’s better for all concerned that you figure out what it is while still on the ground.

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