Monday, January 19, 2009

Mastery of the Aircraft

My hat is off to Ron for blogging about the US Airways ditching accident. I've found it to be a surprisingly sensitive topic among many people, pilots and non-pilots alike. Here we are in a severe economic downturn, the entire country feeling pessimistic and beat-up, and then something miraculous happens like this ditching accident where everyone survives with only one person seriously injured. Anyone who plans to comment on this sort of event had better tread lightly and carefully.

While much of the credit in the US Airways accident goes to the captain, the entire flight crew did an amazing job and this is something the media has largely overlooked. Also largely forgotten are the crews of all the vessels on the Hudson who rushed to the site for the rescue. And how about all the average citizens who gave up their overcoats to the soaked and freezing passengers? And not to take anything away from the captain, the crew of Flight 1594 was incredibly lucky, too.

Engine-out approaches often don't work out well, but this one did. In 1983, the flight crew of an Air Canada 767, which came to be known as the Gimli Glider, performed what was, in many ways, an even more amazing feat: An engine-out approach from FL410 to a decommissioned runway that had been converted to drag strip. The plane was damaged, but there were only 10 people with minor injuries. The aircraft flew out on it's own power after repairs were completed, it was returned to service, and flew for another 25 years. The flight crew was treated poorly for several weeks after the incident. Only later did they get the recognition they deserved.

The captain of Flight 1594 has an impressive resume and I'm certain that all that flight experience helped shape the outcome, either directly or indirectly. Yet the most telling aspect was not what was on Captain Sullenberger's resume, but something his wife said to the press: "He's a pilot's pilot." Those few words speak volumes. This phrase doesn't just imply precise aircraft control, it embodies the hyperbolic phrase the FAA uses in all of the Practical Test Standards used for evaluating pilots during practical tests with an examiner or inspector: "Demonstrates mastery of the aircraft ..."

Mastery of the aircraft entails so much more than being able to perform accuracy landings, or grease the plane on the runway, perform aerobatics, or fly a perfect instrument approach. Mastery is not limited to stick and rudder skills or the ability to program a complex avionics system. Mastery includes judgement, decision-making, and how you conduct yourself among your peers whether your peers are among the highest ranks of the airlines, the military, or the pilots at your local flight school or FBO. This sort of mastery can be applied to any walk of life.

To my mind there is no honor as great as that of being recognized as a "pilot's pilot." If you read this blog regularly, perhaps you have been inspired to improve your flying technique, polish your skills, refine your judgement, evaluate and change your behavior. This is an ongoing process, a type of daily practice. You never know when it might pay off because you never know when you might need "the right stuff."

I believe there are many pilots out there who strive to be "pilot's pilots." They fly aircraft of all sizes and shapes. Some are professionals, some are students, some are instructors, some are recreational flyers. What they have in common is their dedication to the art of flying an aircraft, to being the best pilot they can be each time they fly. Most of these pilots will never be recognized for any single heroic act. Most will fly and toil, largely in anonymity, with only the tacit approval of their peers. You see, this is just a another kind of heroism because heroic acts occur even when no one is there to see them.

Are you master of your destiny, captain of your ship?

1 comment:

Ron said...

Yes! "Mastery of the aircraft" -- that's the phrase. And right out of the PTS, too. Can't believe I missed that one.

Well stated.

You bring up a great point about how it's so much more than hours logged or the size of the aircraft or a pilot's salary that determine whether he or she is truly master of their aircraft.

Another thing I should have noted on my entry: airline pilots at Sullenberger's seniority level often fly only a couple of trips per month. And the landings are split between the two pilots. If it's a long haul aircraft (which the A320 wasn't, really), the captain could be getting very few landings each month. Yet he managed to really set that thing down nicely.

"Mastery of the aircraft" means being prepared for a dual engine failure. Did he have the Hudson picked out in advance for just such an eventuality? Single engine pilots learn to pick these spots before departure, but those flying multi-engine airliners? I'd bet most do not. Another element of "mastery".

Anyway, thanks for looking at the topic in this light. Very cool