Airmanship: the Way of the Superior Aviator

Ask any pilot and they will tell you that good airmanship is important; yet, when asked to define airmanship, most of us become lost for words. Admittedly, until doing some research to write this article, I was in the latter crowd myself. Airmanship was one of those “I know it when I see it” things to me. Definitions are important though, they help transfer knowledge, and, in the case of airmanship, identify which areas to focus on in order to improve and become better pilots.

Two Definitions

In my research, I found two definitions that resounded with me. Both have a similar core message, but their differences help to illustrate more completely what airmanship is, and what it requires.

“(Airmanship is) A personal state that enables aircrew to exercise sound judgment, display uncompromising flight discipline, and demonstrate skilful control of an aircraft and a situation. It is maintained by continuous self-improvement and a desire to perform optimally at all times.”

Ebbage & Spencer

What Ebbage & Spencer indicate here is that there’s much more to airmanship than being good at flying; it’s something that requires both mental and physical skills. It’s also something that can be learned and, like your psychomotor skills (i.e. physically flying the aircraft), requires continued practice and dedication to improvement.

The second definition I like comes from an excellent book titled Redefining Airmanship, and gives a clear indication of what the elements are that make up airmanship.

“Airmanship is the consistent use of good judgment and well developed skills to accomplish flight objectives. This consistency is founded on a cornerstone of uncompromising flight discipline and developed through systematic skill acquisition and proficiency. A high state of situational awareness completes the airmanship picture and is obtained through knowledge of one’s self, aircraft, team, environment, and risk.”

– Tony Kern

Elements of Airmanship

So, now we have a couple of great definitions of airmanship, let’s take a closer look at what elements are required for airmanship, and how you can develop or improve your airmanship. From Tony’s definition, we can sort the elements of airmanship into three groups:

  • Fundamental principles – skill, proficiency, and the discipline to apply them in a safe and efficient manner.
  • Areas of expertise – expert airman have a thorough understanding of their aircraft, their team, their environment, their risks, and themselves. This includes the capabilities and limitations of each of these areas.
  • Outcomes – When all these elements are in place, the superior pilot exercises consistently good judgement and maintains a high state of situational awareness.

By representing the three groups as a model, we can more clearly see how the elements of airmanship fit together:

Building blocks of airmanship.
Building blocks of airmanship. Source: Redefining Airmanship

From this model, you can see how important a strong foundation in the fundamental (bedrock) principles are, with discipline being the most important factor. The five pillars of knowledge then indicate that the superior pilot is not singular in their focus; but rather, builds their expertise in multiple areas so as to provide a strong support for the capstone outcomes of good judgment and situational awareness.

Fundamental Principles

Discipline

Discipline is the ability and willpower to safely employ an aircraft within operational, regulatory, organisational, and common-sense guidelines – unless emergency demands dictate otherwise. It means acting as a professional, whether you’re flying a light aircraft for a bit of weekend fun, or you’re the captain of an A380. Flight discipline includes:

  • Recognising and discussing personal limitations
  • Recognising diminished decision-making capacity in emergencies
  • Encouraging others to question decisions
  • Ensuring you’re well prepared for each flight
  • Dedication to improving your skills, proficiency, and knowledge

Skill

It’s been said that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to truly master something. I’m not sure if that number is correct, but it is safe to say that becoming a skilled pilot requires a lot of practice and exposure to a broad variety of environments and scenarios. As I mentioned in a previous article, you can save yourself some time in the air by thoroughly preparing on the ground first:

  • Chair fly
  • Create a prep book
  • Review and debrief yourself after each flight
  • Learn from case studies of aviation incidents
  • Talk to other pilots and learn from them

Proficiency

Proficiency refers to how well you exercise your skills, it’s your level of expertise. Maintaining, and improving, your proficiency requires self-awareness and honesty to identify your strengths and weaknesses.

Another factor affecting proficiency, especially when you are still relatively inexperienced, is your flying currency. 14 CFR §61.57 specifies pilot requirements for recent flight experience, but an important part of good airmanship is being able to recognise when you need to practice a skill, even if the FAA says that you’re legally good to fly.

Areas of Expertise

Self

Learn to identify your strengths and weaknesses, seek help from others, act professionally and with integrity, and seek to improve your personal qualities. Approach each flight with the right attitude and recognise when you might be displaying one of the five hazardous attitudes identified by the FAA.

ATTITUDEDESCRIPTIONANTIDOTE
Anti-authority“Don’t tell me…”Follow the rules; they’re usually right.
Impulsivity“Do something quickly!”Not so fast-Think first!
Invulnerability“It won’t happen to me….”It could happen to me!
Macho“I can do it.”Taking chances is foolish.
Resignation“What’s the use?”I’m not helpless.

Aircraft

Do you have a thorough understanding of the aircraft you’re flying, its systems and sub-systems, limitations, emergency procedures, and normal procedures? Have you checked for updates to your aircraft’s POH? When was the last time you reviewed/refreshed your knowledge of aviation theory by studying the PHAK, AIM, etc.?

Staying up to date, and working to increase your knowledge, will improve your ability to operate your aircraft, and could be critical to successfully dealing with an emergency should one arise.

Team

Work to develop your leadership and followership, captaincy, interpersonal skills, CRM, and communication. Get to know your team members better, their strengths and weaknesses, what motivates them, and how they work with others.

Don’t forget that your team extends beyond the cockpit, even if you fly single pilot most of the time. ATC and aircraft maintainers play an important role in keeping aircraft flying and can be a really helpful resource.

Environment

The environment you fly in encompasses more than just what you see on the sectional, it includes:

  • The physical environment and the weather – how that affects your aircraft control and performance.
  • The regulatory environment – what regulations apply to each particular flight, staying current on changes in regulations.
  • The organisational environment – SOPs, organisational rules, etc.

Risk

As pilots, it’s an important part of our job to be able to identify hazards, make assessments of their risk, and create plans to mitigate or avoid them. Risks can come in many shapes and forms though. You should be on the lookout for, and develop an understanding of, risks to your:

  • Discipline and personal safety windows
  • Skill & proficiency
  • Knowledge
  • Situational awareness and judgement
  • Aircraft
  • Self

Conclusion

Airmanship is the quality that makes the difference between a good pilot and a great pilot. It’s not something you have to be born with though, it’s a skill that you can (and should) develop through continued practice and dedication.

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