Being a Better Student, Part 2

A Gulfstream G500 cockpit. Photo credit: James Albright

Editor's note: The first three steps of being a better student are found in Part 1 of this article.

Step Four: Have a better open mind while being a better skeptic

The often thought but rarely spoken paradox about how most flight training is done at the professional level is that sometimes, but not always, the better qualified pilot is standing on the wrong side of the podium. While the pilot with the floor is better trained at delivering the lesson, he or she sometimes lacks the necessary relevant and recent experience needed to effectively teach. Note that I say sometimes and not always. As a student, I need to be prepared to learn.

In the previous example dealing with windshear escape maneuvers, I wrongly assumed our pitch limit was set at 30 deg. because sooner or later we would run out of aerodynamic performance and the fly-by-wire system would override my inputs. The answer was in an obscure part of the manuals that I may have read but obviously forgot. I am not alone in this, because the simulator instructors may have noted a trend in student actions in the simulator and thought that worthy of bringing up. I wrote the instructor’s statement, somewhat skeptically I must admit, and found out through later research that he was right and I was wrong.

But it sometimes happens the other way around. Years ago, while flying a Bombardier Challenger 604 with our company’s chief pilot in the right seat, we lost a hydraulic system while at cruise altitude. I directed the copilot, my boss, to declare an emergency and request an emergency landing at a nearby airport with a long final to give us time to use the alternate gear extension system. It all worked as it should have, but I noticed my boss was uncharacteristically nervous to the point of skipping steps in the checklist and being visibly relieved once we were on the ground. That night at the bar I asked why. He seemed surprised. “Don’t you know?” I said I didn’t. He said, “No Challenger crew has ever before successfully extended the landing gear using the alternate system outside of the simulator.” Of course, this is nonsense and I chalked it up to his nervousness. But at my next recurrent I found the source of his angst. Our ground school instructor said the same thing. Just because the instructor says something, doesn’t make it true. In the words of a former U.S. president: “Trust but verify.”

Step Five: Do a Better Job Teaching as Well as Learning

I found early on that the best way to learn something is to teach it, and that process follows attending recurrent training too. As tightly scripted as some recurrent training can be, the dynamics of having two pilots from different flight departments and a random instructor means each experience will be unique. I can think I have a maneuver mastered for years and then find that I am more of a novice and need to relearn old lessons. I think the best way to cement these lessons is to relive them with “war stories” to peers, and to include the lows as well as the highs. Rather embarrassingly, my latest learned and relearned lesson spans over 40 years.

T-37 cockpit
The cockpit of a Cessna T-37. Photo credit: J. Brew)

My introduction to having to circle from an instrument approach to a different runway under a solid ceiling came as an Air Force student pilot in the Cessna T-37, which was about as stable an instrument panel that has ever been designed. It didn’t have an autopilot or a flight director, so the success of the maneuver rested solely on the pilot holding the stick. A common rookie mistake is to be turning and descending from a base to final, pull back on the stick, and pop up back into the weather. “Just practicing my missed approach, sir!”

From there it was on to the Northrop T-38 for me, where the circling was done at a much higher speed (150 versus 100 kt.) and the stick was certainly more sensitive. But, fortunately, I had the blown circling maneuver out of my system by then.

Over the years, flying airplanes with conventional yokes, the danger of pulling up into the weather had decreased but not disappeared entirely. I’ve witnessed a good number of pilots roll toward the runway, disengage the autopilot, and climb. “Hey, where did the runway go?” But not me, I was above all that--until about a year ago. I was flying the number one choice for this maneuver in a simulator, the RNAV(GPS) Runway 27 circle to Runway 18R at Memphis International Airport (KMEM), in a Gulfstream GVII-G500, which has a sidestick and not a yoke or center-mounted stick. Pulling back on a stick mounted on your left with your left hand makes it easy to pull in pitch as well as roll, but I managed to avoid that during my initial type rating and first three recurrents. But that streak has now ended. “Hey, where did the runway go?”

I came home and told everyone I knew about it. (And now I am telling thousands more.) I think most pilots would prefer to leave these lessons behind them and I think that is a mistake. My “pop up” incident was a few months ago and I still think about it. The lesson is firmly planted in my mind and in my left hand, for that matter. But it does one more thing. It allows other GVII pilots with sidesticks to learn from my mistake. That is one of two primary reasons for telling a good war story, after all. (The other primary reason is to entertain your buddies at the bar.)

Having analyzed the mechanics of my left forearm sitting on a sidestick rest and my left hand gently cradling a stick, I see how easy such a mistake is to make. Now I know. And so do you.


You cannot think of your apprenticeship in aviation as one of being a student and then becoming a graduate. It is the nature of aviation that we aviators are students for life. As you add more ratings and qualifications to your resume, the opportunities to learn and become better students adds as well. In this series of being better, we will follow this article with “Being a Better Pilot,” “Being a Better Crewmember,” “Being a Better Captain” and, finally, “Being Better.”

You might wonder what qualifies me to write such a series. When I was a brand-new KC-135A tanker copilot, I made the mistake of admitting to my aircraft commander that I made a mistake.

Captain: “Why did you leave out the winds in that last HF position report?”

Lieutenant: “I made a mistake. I make mistakes.”

Captain: “Well I think you should be pretty good at that.”

Lieutenant: “Everyone has a skill.”

I’ve admitted a lot of mistakes from my many decades flying airplanes, and I suspect that trend will continue. Thankfully I now end up having to retell old stories because there are fewer and fewer new mistakes to admit to. I guess that is progress of a sort.

James Albright

James is a retired U.S. Air Force pilot with time in the T-37B, T-38A, KC-135A, EC-135J (Boeing 707), E-4B (Boeing 747) and C-20A/B/C (Gulfstream III…


1 Comment
Good Evening James, I read your article being a better student and skeptic; it was very interesting. Thank you for your service. And thank you for trying to keep other pilots safe with your timely articles.
My flying experience was as a flight instructor, commuter airline captain, flight instructor, DC-3, Convair-240, G-159 , pilot.
Being skeptical sometimes saved my rear end. For example, one day, just about to takeoff in an Aero Cmdr. 680 FL, and, with everything looking really good on the engine instrument panel I said, to myself, that perhaps I should take a look at that left engine sitting over my shoulder, overhead; thankfully I did, because when I looked at that engine and was covered in oil from a leaky prop governor. I promptly shut the engine down and taxied in to the maintenance area on one engine. Had I taken off I would probably burn my wing straight off. Feathering the propeller would probably be difficult.
My friend, John Moniz, an excellent aircraft mechanic I had known for years, handed me an O-ring seal that I replaced- yes, I am an A&P mechanic. I casually asked John what he was up to. He said to me, 'I'm replacing a fuel tank in an Air Coupe'.
Next day John and the owner took off in the air coupe- you are aware that the mechanic who works on the controls will take the first ride in the aircraft- for a test.
The control yoke/stick broke off and the plane rolled inverted into the ground.
Talking about little things that can kill you, here are a couple for your perusal. 'On and Off' Switches - make sure that when you put a switch to the 'On' position something actually happens. Another one: make sure you look out the window before you make a turn to the left or the right.
Number one of my pet peeves is Cockpits and Flight Decks. Because the ladies are on board now, perhaps it is high time to use the word 'Flight Deck' at all times. And, while I'm on the subject of females; the females that I taught how to fly made some of the males look to be better prepared to guide the plough.
On a lighter note; I wrote a little review to an article in an aviation magazine. This article about ONE PILOT flight deck operations; here it is.
Where and when did airline flying start to go downhill? Was it when they got rid of the radio operator or the navigation or the flight engineer? Maybe it was the desk jockeys at Wall Street that wrecked some good airlines; Some of them have a lot to answer for. Then again, Boeing, and Airbus, have not helped either with some disastrous upgrades that have left several planes scattered about the landscape and the oceans. Deregulation has allowed the unwashed to get on board. Not only do they get on board, but they bring the kitchen sink with them in baggage. I am sick and tired of watching unruly passengers on YouTube beating up on each other and crew members. So far, nobody has damaged the thin skin of the aircraft.
Now, all we need is one pilot, probably a computer geek pilot captain, Sinless (Does not drink Adult Beverages-LOL) of course, up in the front guiding the ship. I'm not going, because this is a disaster waiting to happen. I can still dream though; at times I hear the Northeast Airlines’, Yellow Bird, song on the radio, and I think of their medium rare Filet Mignons while I’m on the way to Bradenton, Florida.
'Wish that I were a yellow bird
I'd fly away with you
But I am not a yellow bird
So here I sit, nothin' else to do'.
Fasten your seat belts-Tight- this is not going to be a happy ending. Robots, cross check the doors.
Dan McCarthy, [email protected]