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Characteristics of Successful Pilots

by Darren Smith, CFII/MEI
from Getting the Most from Your Flight Training
from CFIDarren.com newsletter, June 21, 2011

My last three students gave me new challenges as an instructor.  All of them successfully passed their checkride for their respective ratings, however they needed a little extra training beyond the PTS.  How does an individual determine they're never going to make it as a pilot?  What happens if they just don't have the right stuff?  It takes more than the skills taught in preparation for a rating: its true the PTS is not enough.  So what is the magic ingredient that makes successful pilots?  What is the special "stuff" that pilots need in order to make it.  In one word:  character.  Over the next few bullets, I'll share with you the characteristics of successful pilots.  Either it will guide you in terms of new insights or you will recognize these traits in other pilots you know.

1.  Pilot in Command Authority.  Successful pilots know when it comes time to take command, they do it.  Without hesitation, the work gets done.   They recognize that there is no one else to do it, and everything rests on their shoulders.  They don't shrink to the task but rise up to meet it and accomplish the requirement.  We're not talking about the arrogance all too common among pilots but confidence in their skills.  The pilot is the ultimate command authority for the flight... the one responsible for the safe conduct of that flight. If anything goes wrong, passengers look to the pilot who must step up to the plate and take responsibility.   They have a presence when necessary and are willing to disappear from the spotlight when not needed.

2.  Meaningful Self-Evaluation.  Successful pilots don't wallow in self pity when something doesn't go according to plan.  They don't make excuses for performance, rather, they analyse the weaknesses objectively and seek out a resolution that meets the requirements of the problem.  Successful pilots are the ultimate judge of their own performance, accepting responsibility for their setbacks and asking for help to improve their skills while not being too self-critical. 

3.  Respect.  Successful pilots respect others.  Not just others but they respect the regulations, procedures and process of flight.  They never engage in unsafe behaviors because they respect the equipment they fly and the passengers and cargo held within.  Out of this respect, they properly manage the risks of a given flight and seek out alternatives should some unplanned event happen.

4.  Recurrent training.  Successful pilots don't look at recurrent training as a hassle but as an opportunity to grow and learn.  I recently flew with a 40,000 hour pilot who came to me for a BFR.   He believed he only needed to show me 3 trips around the pattern.  In the process, he committed a runway incursion violation and lacked situational awareness throughout the short flight.  When the short flight was complete and I debriefed the pilot he was offended that his BFR was unsuccessful.   I should have recognized  the BFR would be unsuccessful when this 40,000 hour pilot told me prior to the flight, he didn't understand why these flight reviews were required for pilots as experienced as he.  Successful pilots are partners in learning, a self-motivated professional which craves knowledge about aviation. 

5.  Humility. I am a firm believer in being able to learn from others even as an instructor.  My students often have an opportunity to keep me humble.  I look forward to flights with other instructors as I always pick up new techniques.  Successful pilots are always seeking the better, safer, more efficient way to accomplish their tasks and are always willing to examine an alternate viewpoint or method.

6.  Determination.  Experience grows a pilot's skill.  Rough experiences grow a pilot's wisdom.  Don't let the small things like a rough landing or minor scrape stop your progress.  Use the experience to grow your wisdom and resolve to improve your skills with remedial training. 

7.  Planning. Successful pilots are always running the Plan - Do - Check - Analyze cycle in their work. Successful pilots plan their flight completely before execution. During the flight, successful pilots check to be sure they are within performance parameters predicted for the flight.  If not, they later analyze the performance and feed the results back into re-planning for the flight.  After completing a flight, successful pilots analyse their performance to look for areas of improvement. 

8.  Precision. Successful pilots do more than what's good enough.  They strive for precision in their efforts... on heading, on altitude, and proper airspeed.  It's not enough to be on target because successful pilots can predict what will happen next and respond accordingly.

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