Mystique of the Small-Plane Pilot

Private-plane flying is trickier than jet flying, yet no one knows what makes a great pilot.
Cartoon of a man in a plane
Illustration by Ross MacDonald

Until al-qaeda operatives answered learn-to-fly ads and went shopping for crop dusters, most Americans knew private flying as a hobby pursued by rich lads in Piper Cubs. After September 11, media scrutiny brought general aviation-which is what we call flying that’s neither military nor airline-into view. This normally happens only when there is a spectacular crash, such as JFK Jr.’s plunge into the water off Martha’s Vineyard. But when, in early January, a 15-year-old student pilot flew his Cessna into a Tampa building with a note about Osama Bin Laden in his pocket, the whole sector came under scrutiny, even suspicion. A woman wrote to The New York Times suggesting that all U.S. flight schools be closed and that people forget about learning to fly unless they want to join the Air Force. Stories circulated that Congress would mandate psychological profiling of all potential pilots.

All this highlights an interesting fact: Military pilots are lionized (remember The Right Stuff?), airline pilots are regulated and scrutinized, and GA pilots have been basically ignored. If there is anything resembling true freedom in the flying world, it is found at the GA level.

Freedom, and challenge. Flying an automatic Airbus on a regular route has its challenges, but it could be argued that they pale in comparison to single-piloting a turbocharged, pressurized light twin through bad weather to an unfamiliar airport. Aboard the latter, you’re dealing with a cockpit forest of throttle, mixture, prop, turbo, cabin-air and cowl-flap controls, dangerous handling qualities if one engine fails, and an analog autopilot, compared with the big airliner’s two power levers, two pilots, and near-totally automated, computerized operation. Indeed, two things come as a surprise the first time you fly a big airplane: It’s way more stable on the approach to a landing than is a little one, and its size is really only apparent to a pilot on the ground, taxiing through close quarters. In the air, you’re aware only of the stable, automated cockpit, and this is why flight simulators work so well.

General aviation is largely inhabited by people who have labored mightily to learn their skill-certainly in comparison with what it takes to be licensed as, say, an operator of an SUV, an 18-wheeler, or a nuclear power plant. Light-plane pilots routinely multitask in ways that even a three-handed cellphone/Palm Pilot/GPS-system freeway driver couldn’t handle. GA pilots operate totally on their own, without the emotional support generated by other small, cohesive groups such as infantry rifle squads, tennis doubles teams, racecar pit crews, or airline flight crews.

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.