While I was on the treadmill this morning I listened to a couple of the podcasts in my subscription list. One had a discussion about the utility of getting a tailwheel endorsement. The bottom line was that, if you can find some way to do it you should – it will make you a better pilot. Why?Cessna training aircraft.

My opinion – you will be a better pilot because it will make you pay attention to what the airplane is doing and it will develop your ‘airplane sense.’

Some of you who frequent this site probably know that I retired from professional flying last month. I was an airline pilot for 22 years, most of it spent flying international routes.  But was I really a pilot? No, not really.

It took lots of flying experience to get the job, but the job itself required very little flying. Most airline pilots these days – especially the ones flying international routes- is far more a systems operator sand crew managers than hands-on-the-controls pilots. On a 12-hour flight the pilot might manipulate the controls for two hours – including taxi time.

Some pilots will hand-fly the plane from applying take-off power until 10,000 feet while others will engage the autopilot at 300′ on take-off. Some airports require the autopilot to be engaged in order to guarantee a specific sound-reducing ground track. On arrival most pilots will wait until the aircraft is in the final landing configuration before taking over manually. Others will wait until 500′ agl to take over.Piper tailwheel aircraft.

Now more and more of our general aviation aircraft are being manufactured with glass panels with integrated GPS navigation and autopilots. Add to that the ease of landing and ground maneuvering associated with the nosewheel configuration and you have a perfect breeding ground for systems operators.

Most of us fly less than 100 hours a year in our general aviation aircraft – that’s almost 2 hours a week all year long.  The general aviation accident rate – and the types of accidents we are having indicates that we are trending toward being systems operators rather than pilots. You don’t increase your skills (or even maintain them) by pulling the plane out every couple of weeks, programming it, driving it to the end of the runway and then watching the autopilot take you to your destination.

We, as a pilot group, need to spend more of our time flying and less time programming. On the surface all the fancy new glass panels, GPS navigation and integrated autopilots are great safety improvements – but the person in command has to be a pilot with real piloting skills. In my opinion the best glass panel on the market is the clear one above the instrument panel that lets you look outside and see what the plane is really doing – and it leaves you enough brain computing power to actually feel the plane move around you. Try it – you’ll really like it.


6 responses to “Systems Operator or Pilot?”

  1. Vincent Avatar

    Good post, you make some good points about what a pilot should be. And in my humble opinion, the answer depends what kind of pilot we’re talking about.

    Someone flying a single engine piston aircraft (preferably tail-wheel) around at the local airport does not need to be a system manager. There’s not that much systems in a Piper Cub anyway.

    On the other end of the scale, there is no other way to be an airline pilot. Because there you have to manage all these things, and being a system manager also means managing things in the most efficient way – including from the economical point of view.

    In the middle are pilots flying complex operations, like single pilot IFR, who have to be a mixture of both.

  2. Tracy Avatar

    Yes, being a good systems operator can be a good thing, but at some point you are going to have to be a good pilot because the electronics aren’t going to save you. You have to be a good pilot first, then develop your systems and crew management abilities. I’m not sure that the glass panel trainers are allowing new pilots to do that.
    Sport pilots will always operate on the flying side of the equation – that’s why they got into flying – for the fun of it. That’s why I got into flying and that’s why I’m still flying (you’d be amazed at how many airline pilots retire and never touch another airplane). I’ve seen both sides and I much prefer flying around looking out the window.

  3. Cedarglen Avatar

    Tracy: Some how I missed the notice that you had retired. Congratulations (or sympathy?) as appropriate. I certainly share your thoughts about flying skill vs. device operator and maintaining and increasing those skills as a safety device. (The best safety device is the one that supports one’s ears!) Frankly, with about 600 hours under my belt, it was the lack of very regular flying that caused me to give it up about 25 years ago. My ‘ear support’ suggested that I was not getting enough practice to be as thorough and safe as I thought necessary. I hanger fly a bit and ride with others now and again, but my PIC days are long gone. To do otherwise iss simply not fair to the others sharing the airspace. Now that you are retired, perhaps you will have more time to fly your small machine – and hone those all-important driving skills. Best wishes, -Craig

  4. Tracy Avatar

    Thanks – and it’s congratulations. I still keep in contact with a couple of the guys I worked with who live nearby – but I don’t for a minute miss the rest of the ‘airline life.’ The weather here finally turned nice a couple of days ago and I took advantage of the opportunity. I flew the Swift to my favorite breakfast spot and had a ‘$150 omelet’ – where I met a really nice couple in an RV-8 who had the same idea for spending the morning.

  5. Cedarglen Avatar

    Thanks for the follow up. I hope that retirement fits you well, the Swift keeps you an honest pilot (and not a systems operator) and that the $150 omelets continue to be good. FWIT, I ‘retired’ (stopped working for salary) about 2.5 years ago. Since then, I’ve *never* worked so hard. I love every minute of it. On a less-than-ideal, typically wet winter day, I simply watch my trees grow. I hope that your retirement is a much fun. I guess someone has to step up and say this: After 22 years with your line, and 15-20 years of military flying before that, apparently flying some of the largest machines in the world, there is something slightly *wrong* with a system that ‘ages you out’ as a +/- junior First Officer. With +/- forty years of safe flying and many thousands of hours, leaving without several years of wearing that fourth stripe must be annoying. I understand the system and I can appreciate that you are probably not angry. Still, there is an injustice, someplace. I cannot offer a perfect solution, but I hear your unspoken thoughts; loud and clear. Best wishes, congratulations and I hope that you enjoy those $150 omelets. God (and more than a few mortals) knows that you have earned them. Lastly, A big **Thank You** for your years of military service. Every veteran and serving member deserves our thanks. -Craig

  6. Tracy Avatar

    Thanks for the kind comments. No problems staying awake in the Swift – especially on the takeoffs and landings.
    I had no problems flying in the right seat with the airline. I flew as an A-320 captain for about 18 months just before I turned 60 and could have gone back to that lifestyle when I got back in a window seat at age 62. I knew I had the ability to jump through the type rating hoops, I just decided that for my last few years I’d avoid all the other hassles that come with the left seat. Yeah, the pay would have been nice, but it was worth it to me to be able to say – ‘well, you’ll have to go ask the captain’. As an FO I still got full type certificates in the B-747-400 and the A-330 – with the same training program in the left seat as a captain – the only difference was the lack of line operation training in the left seat after getting the type certificate.
    And it’s really nice to not have play you-bet-your-life with the scheduling program every month…