They are very good at compartmentalizing affairs, shutting out external concerns in order to deal with their immediate problems, whether it's a headwind burning up fuel or unforecasted weather blocking the only escape route. The good ones don't fall victim to tunnel vision in times of crisis-they simply don't panic-but actively assess and reassess their decisions, continually gathering information, refining solutions, working out alternatives.
But what defines the Right Stuff in a general aviation pilot? Good question, particularly since nobody has answered it. The general aviation human-factors research that has been done deals largely with the man-machine interface-how best to communicate information to the pilot; what knobs, levers, analog gauges, and digital displays are most effective; how to help the human being keep the machine right side up.
Of course, those of us who fly little airplanes think we know what makes for a good pilot, and for decades we've traded anecdotal and personal insights into who's an airborne loser and who's the ace of the base. We tend to look down at pilots who come from the professions. We laugh that lawyers make lousy pilots because in the heavens they don't realize that they're arguing not with a jury but with God. Doctors make lousy pilots because they think they are God. (The classic Beech Bonanza used to be known as the V-Tail Doctor-Killer. Doctors would buy them when they should have been honing their talents on a safer, cheaper Skyhawk, or so went the thinking among seasoned pilots.)
In fact, the opposite may be true. An informal FAA study suggests there are two kinds of pilots: those who believe that fate is the hunter-that chance can kill them-and those who feel they are strongly in control of their destiny. The control freaks, and surely doctors and lawyers would be in this group, seem to be at less risk of having an accident.
Mapping out the physical, psychological, and demographic profile of the ideal private plane pilot wouldn't be of much practical use in any case. There is no realistic mechanism for selecting or excluding automobile drivers or GA pilots based on demographics or personality profiles. Nor should there be. In the United States, anybody with a reasonable pulse and the means and the interest can learn to fly. This is part of the appeal of flying. In the end, it's a self-selecting, occasionally Darwinian process that produces highly skilled, largely admirable enthusiasts who deserve our respect; those who don't evolve into good pilots attract our interest-on the 10 o'clock news. Those who are evil or sick, of course, are another problem altogether.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.