Building a Better Yardstick

January 30, 2013 by Jamie Beckett – as published in General Aviation News

Jamie Beckett, VP of Operations Winter HavenPeriodically, I, like all pilots, am asked to divulge how many hours I’ve logged. How much of that total is single engine and how much is multi engine? I’m asked to break out the land plane time from the seaplane time. Like you, I’m asked to break out night time, cross-country time, taildragger time, and every other category of time the form’s author could envision. My most recent entanglement with this came this past week. And once again I was forced to tell the truth — I don’t know how many hours I’ve amassed. Maybe more importantly, I don’t care.

Is my total time really much of an indicator of my skill level, my depth of knowledge, my willingness to help another pilot, or anything else of value? I think not. It’s a number, and in a society that covets information, a bigger number often signifies a better result. Or that’s what a cursory examination of the data might suggest. That’s not always the case, however. Certainly, the collection of more time has not been a reliable indicator of greater safety in aviation. Not on its own, anyway.

Let’s assume we have a 200-hour private pilot who flies two or three times each week. She’s building time toward her commercial certificate, and she’s motivated by a real affection for being in the air. Let’s compare her to a 2,000-hour ATP who flies once a month or less. He was headed for the airlines, but things didn’t work out, so now he’s selling real estate on a full-time basis.

Which of those two individuals has the higher level of professionalism? Which is more proficient, more capable, more situationally aware while flying? Which of them do you suppose is more adept at receiving a briefing, or is more skilled at shooting a precision approach?

The answers to those questions are all ascertainable. But their flight time alone will not divulge any secrets that provide real insight into their character, their capability, or their proficiency. So why do we collect that information? I couldn’t tell you. I really couldn’t.

Now let’s deal with another aspect of this data collection issue: Bragging rights. Pilots are famous for grading themselves, each other, and whoever just landed out there on the runway — too long, too short, too hard, or with a satisfyingly gentle squeak of rubber on pavement. For my part, I will not participate in this practice. Partly because I just don’t have the ego required to pretend I’m better than anyone else. And partly because I’m not sure there’s any way to really measure who is better than whom — especially since that distinction is often only valid in a limited range of aircraft under a limited range of conditions.

Any relatively low-time CFI who has had the distinction of flying in a light single engine GA airplane beside a high-time pilot who exclusively flies large, heavy jets has had the eye opening experience of finding out that not all skill sets translate well from one aircraft to the next. The lowly CFI may have one tenth the time of the turbine driver, but the turbine pilot has forgotten much about torque, the proper use of the rudder, and the limitations a low-horsepower engine can put on your in-flight plans.

That is not to say the jet jock isn’t an excellent pilot. They might be exceptional in the aircraft they routinely fly. But move them from the big iron with a crew mate sitting beside them, masses of power and multiple systems to support their decision making into a small, piston-powered machine with nothing more sophisticated in the cockpit than a wet compass, and you’ve got a whole new level of entertainment coming your way.

So let’s at least consider inventing a new yardstick to measure our status. Let’s consider shifting the focus of our comparison systems from measuring ourselves against others to instead just measuring ourselves. Time totals would be useless in this new method of tabulating our potential. Recent upgrades in certificates and ratings might matter though, a newly endorsed proficiency check would count, even adding a taildragger endorsement to your certificate would indicate a serious interest in being good, being better, maybe even being the best we can be.

If the truth be told, I don’t expect anyone to change the way they log time because I advanced this argument. But I would be personally and professionally gratified if at least a few people started thinking their total time wasn’t really much of an indication of how safe they are.

We could all stand to look at the industry now and then as a new applicant might. Each of us could do with an honest self-evaluation, too. Maybe if we weren’t quite so impressed with ourselves and our hour counts, we might take that review of our skills and knowledge a bit more seriously — which would benefit us all in the long run.

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