Good piloting
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Occasionally, people tell me that I am a good pilot. This especially seems to happen after a flight on a challenging day, in challenging territory, or both. One of those days when most other pilots have chosen not to fly. One of those places they are afraid of, since it can get really rough over there.

Having tried to be one for a long time, without really knowing what good piloting is about, I am always happy to finally meet people who do seem to know. However, when I ask them what exactly they mean by good piloting, the usual reply is silence, often accompanied by a puzzled look. You can actually see them reflecting on what they just said, possibly for the first time in their life. Why does it seem so obvious what good piloting is about, but only few pilots really have an idea when you ask them?

When I started paragliding, everything seemed as clear as the sky I was flying in. Good pilots are those having mastered flying to perfection. Pilots who have complete control over their glider, under all circumstances. You see lots of them as soon as you start flying and progress through your training. All of them flying a lot better than you currently are. They seem to be flying effortlessly, especially during difficult manoeuvres. As if their glider has become a natural extension of their body. Their skills appear natural and beyond doubt.

Waiting for take-off approval from your instructor, you see a pilot top-landing smoothly. After having lunch and chatting with his friends, he takes off again. The conditions are far too strong for you to take off. That is precisely why your instructor grounded you for the moment. While you watch him handling his wing as easy a little child's kite, you make a mental note on your list of things to achieve in life. "That's how I want to fly, so I will be a good pilot too."

So, I started learning passionately. Some might say even fanatically. But as the seasons passed, doubt crept in. While learning to fly, I had made mistakes that I should not have made, since I had mastered the corresponding problem from a technical point of view. In addition to that, I learned that even 'good' pilots would run into trouble occasionally. Not your average pilot type, but experienced ones like test pilots. A pilot dying because of flying mistakes is not a good pilot, even if it is a skilled one. So, I started to reflect on my original purpose. What exactly is a good pilot? How should I become one? How could I fly safely? Without me realising it, I had acquired my first good pilot characteristic: self-reflection.

I crossed skills from the list of properties required for good piloting. In addition, the original plan to master my piloting in a skilled manner, beyond doubt, was put on hold. It was replaced by the plan to survive, to not get hurt or kill myself. Compared to my original plan of becoming a good pilot, this made it much easier to verify whether I had reached my objectives. Every day, every flight.

Flying easy for a year or two, while letting go of my big sky aspirations, it finally dawned on me that searching for skills in order to become a good pilot was like looking for gold at the end of the rainbow. My skills definitely improved over the years. Consequently, each season I should be a better pilot than the season before. Getting better all the time implied that sometime in the future I would be a good pilot. Yet I kept on making mistakes. My skills improved, but the number of mistakes (or incidents if you like) did not diminish. What did change, was the kind of mistakes I was making. My skills were evidently better than when I started paragliding, but this did not result in me flying better or even safer. The good pilot I was looking for always seemed to be a thermal ahead. Just out of reach, no matter what I did. What was happening?!

Fear and skills

People, pilots included, are afraid of a lot of things, but all in a different manner. Some people completely freak out spying a spider in the house, while others are free climbing skyscrapers without their heart skipping a beat. To a large extend, fear is determined by the feeling of not being in control. For example, people usually feel safer when they are driving instead of being on the passenger site. Even when the driver is a more capable driver than they are.

Fear is a man's best friend. Humans need fear. First and foremost, it enhances our chances of survival. Fear keeps us from doing silly things that could hurt or kill us. However, humans also need stimulation, change. When everything is safe and predictable, we become unhappy. We might even get depressive, possibly killing ourselves in the end. Needless to say this conflicts with fear's survival aim. Nature has found a solution to this problem by making us require fear in little controlled doses to keep us healthy.

We want fear, but do not want to get hurt. So, to scream our existential fear away, we we ride a roller coaster, or see the latest horror movie at the local cinema. It seems fear is more fun when shared with other people. A roller coaster does not scare me, since I know it is a controlled environment. I enjoy the ride and the movements that are supposed to scare me. Movies on the other hand, can scare the hell out of me (or otherwise deeply move me) when I have forgotten that it is just a movie.

Since feeling are subjective, different people behave differently in similar conditions. It could very well be that you have the capacity to be in control, but as long as you are thinking the opposite, you are not. If your incident management fails and the incident takes over, you start piloting inadequately or are no longer piloting at all. You become frozen with fear. You seem to be incapable of doing anything about it as you continue your rapid descent on your wrecked glider. In the meantime, people on the ground are shouting advise that could easily safe you, if you acted in accordance with it. This information is unlikely to reach you, however. Even if somebody falling next to you would be shouting it into your ear. And the opposite is just as true. If you think you are in control, but in fact are not, then you have no fear. The resulting accident that is bound to happen eventually, often comes as a surprise to you. Not to the people who have witnessed your behaviour that led up to it.

People go up to their fear level, but seldom cross it. When they accidentally do, it freezes them. In exceptional cases we cross it on purpose and have no fear at all. This is where heroes and idiots are born, depending on the context and viewpoints. We assume that the trespasser must either be superhuman or stupid, since from a logical point of view the action can be considered as madness.

Somehow, people automatically balance their fear to a level they are comfortable with. If you lower your fear level, by training or protective measures for instance, you are likely to adjust your behaviour up to point where you find your original fear level. The introduction of ABS did not improve road safety as expected. Drivers in cars equipped with ABS appeared to drive faster then they used to without ABS. Assuming ABS would get them out of trouble if it hit them, they felt safer than before. This caused drivers to increase their driving speed up to the level where they experienced the original fear of driving without ABS. Having been in cars where the driver wanted to test the ABS on a regular basis, just to see whether it worked or not, confirmed this phenomenon.

From a more personal point of view, I have witnessed a similar outcome when I started wearing a helmet while snowboarding. I assumed to be better of wearing a helmet, since I had experienced heavy crashes now and then. Not a lot, but enough to cause some headache. Unfortunately, my assumption was only part right. Most crashes were indeed more tolerable now, with the helmet preventing (severe) head injury. However, because I felt safer, I started doing things that I would not have done before. Apparently, my fear level here was closely related to my pain level.

The result was that my crashes became more severe, causing the same headache as before to my (now protected) head, or transferring the risk to other body parts that where not protected as well. Looking back in hindsight after a crash, I sometimes wondered whether I would have dared to make that dangerous descend or that monster jump without using a helmet. The answer was usually negative.

When taking technical measures to reduce a risk, chances are that this risk will pop-up somewhere else. Somewhere unexpected, hence unprotected. Just be aware of that as your skills progress. Maybe you are finally able to control your glider perfectly after years of practice and dedication. You fly in all kinds of conditions, even when most of the pilots are grounded because it is too stable or too rough. Pilots ask for your advice and want to fly with you. You are being used as a good example to other pilots, even by instructors. Sometimes you see a pilot looking at you when you are landing or ground handling at take-off, and you can read this pilot's mind, because you see yourself standing there years ago. However, you are still not a good pilot!

No matter which road your skills have taken, the risk has followed them. Your skills have grown, but this has also given you the opportunity to do more difficult things. You are basically at the same risk level as when you started flying, waiting for take-off approval from your instructor. Throughout all those years, you have flown on the same fear level. As soon as your fear level subsided, you have raised it by doing more dangerous things.

Self knowledge and margin

Discouraged by the facts that you are not making as much progress as hoped for and even have become uncertain about where exactly you want to go, you are about to give up your quest for being a good pilot. Then, all of a sudden, you finally realise that you have been looking for it in the wrong forest. You stop your search for the holy grail filled with skills, and start searching for yourself instead. Good piloting has little to do with your (lack of) technical flying skills, but rather how you deal with them.

Everyone makes mistakes, even good pilots. The difference between pilots and a good pilots, is that the latter are better able to handle their limitations and mistakes. They have better self-knowledge. A pilot that only makes calm top-to-bottom flights because she feels comfortable with it (and not with flying the enervating thermals in the afternoon), is a much better pilot than the one who gets dragged on take-off during an afternoon session and pilots like a block of concrete because he is too stressed for the next collapse. He is not having fun, but he will have the much desired bragging rights during the debriefing in the pub much latter that day.

By changing your quest's direction, it suddenly becomes much easier to understand what good piloting is about:

  1. Right observations
  2. Right conclusions
  3. Right actions
  4. Right margins
  5. Right attitude

Right observations

Observe and be aware of what is going on around you. The direction of the breeze, wind shear, other pilots, planes, clouds, strange noises from your glider, a change in the weather, anything that could affect your flight. Pilots often get ambushed by their accident, complaining about freaky air or wrong thermals, while they simply have been flying in a rotor or were surprised by a rogue thermal. Do not get trapped by such a delusion. It won't help you now and you might find yourself trapped by the same fault later on if you have not learned to avoid it. Internal observation is just as important as observing the air around you. Choosing not to fly on a perfect day is a wise decision when you are tired, or otherwise not mentally or physically fit.

Right conclusions

Draw the right conclusion from your observations. Try to determine what is really going on, not what you assume is going on. Count on the possibility of having made a wrong observation and look for other observations that confirm your conclusion. Especially take note of (possible) changes and incorporate them in your conclusion. Do not rely entirely on your mental autopilot! Today could be the day where the usual situation is different. Do not let it surprise you. Be aware that people are known to persist in a chosen direction, even when all signals have turned red. People tend to see things that confirm their opinion, not the things that (seem to) contradict it. So, force yourself to look for signs that contradict your conclusion.

Right actions

Take the right action, based on your conclusions instead of panic. Keep your cool, in order to keep on thinking. Panic is often caused by not having (an idea about) alternative actions that could get you out of the trouble you are (afraid to be) sinking in. Before you commit yourself to an action, be sure to have other options available in case the chosen action turns out to be the wrong one. Work out scenarios of what could happen and what you might do about it. By being prepared you save valuable time later on, the moment you need to make a split second decision.

The actions available to you depend on your skills. Keep that in mind when someone offers you advice. Advice that may work for a skilled pilot, could very well be deadly for someone not as gifted. A trick that helps me a lot is to try and observe myself as if I was seeing just another pilot in the air. Being an independent external observer (or rather trying to be one) makes it much easier to spot (upcoming) mistakes and what I should do to correct them.

Right margins

Having adequate margin is probably the decisive difference that sets good pilots apart from the others. Good pilots are always aware that they might be wrong about their observations, conclusions, or actions, but should not be wrong about their margins. They know that a small mistake could lead to catastrophic consequences and that it is easily made. Consequently, they maintain adequate margin to keep them out of trouble should they have been wrong.

Right attitude

Good pilots have the attitude to continuously exercise good piloting. Before, during, and after their flight. An incident is hidden in a moment of inattention. Do not let an incident surprise you. Do not count on luck to save you. Luck is a bad replacement for margin. Luck seems to work most of the time, but you might run out of it just when you need it most. Having read this article might make it easier for you to understand what good piloting is about, but it requires the right attitude to practice it.

It is actually quite simple once you know what it is about, isn't it? Why did this take me so long to find out? Probably because I was too scared to face up to the truth. According to the above criteria, I am not a good pilot. I am not easily scared when flying, as one of my instructors once noted during my early formative flights. I have to think myself scared when flying. Which is quite difficult considering that fear is an subconscious reflex rather than an intellectual analysis. Consequently, my margin is often inadequate.

And how about you? Are you a good pilot?

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2009-12-19