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Safe Pilot/Ace Pilot

I knew a guy in college who was an “ace pilot”. He got his pilot’s license about when I did and had every skill needed. I wouldn’t go up in a plane with him though, because he thought it was really cool to smoke marijuana while he flew. I didn’t really think that was the best idea. He ended up flying helicopters in Viet Nam. After the war, he flew helicopters for banks, zooming around the southeast at night picking up cancelled checks. He could land on a dime or swoop down over the roof of a bank and grab the bag of checks off a pole. He loved nothing more than to get up in a helicopter and enjoy smoking a joint as he darted around the southeast on his appointed rounds. As far as I know, he survived it all.

So here is the thing that you need to understand if you fly with a friend who is a pilot. Being a safe pilot requires some good skills, good judgement, and an awareness of one’s own limitations. Being an ace pilot means flawless execution of things like landings and instrument approaches, or even flying aerobatics or Top Gun fighter jets. My own thought is that you can be either, neither, or both of these. If you are both, I would call you a great pilot.

I have always been a safe pilot. I do not fly in weather or circumstances beyond my capabilities. I don’t drink much the night before a flight. I don’t run risks like overloading a plane, landing on too short a runway, or buzzing my friends on the beach. I don’t take needless risks to make a planned trip. If the weather turns bad or there is a problem with the plane, we don’t go, or we rent a car. The rules are absolute, and I never make what I call “the first bad decision”. I also used to be perhaps a near-great pilot, at least for the planes I flew and the type of flying I did. I was no fighter jet Top Gun, but I could make perfect landings and execute instrument approaches in daunting situations where engines had quit or electrical power had failed (in a simulator).

Today, I’m still a safe pilot. My approaches are a little rusty, but getting better every day. My landings are a little bumpy. But the flight is safe. I will become a near-great pilot again, but I’m still practicing to get those skills back. This week I went out Wednesday and practiced landings with an old friend and very experienced corporate pilot. Today, I flew again with an instructor and did practice instrument approaches in Montgomery, Auburn, Sylacauga, and Birmingham. The instructor is ready to sign me off for my Instrument Proficiency Check after we complete a couple of more procedures tomorrow. So I will be legal to file Instrument flight plans again, and to fly in some instrument weather within my own limitations. I’m getting all of this back, one step at a time.

So what you need to understand is this. Don’t make a decision about flying with someone based on how smooth their landings are or some other ace-pilot abilities they have. That would be like choosing a spouse based solely on how good they look. Go with a pilot who has good judgement and an awareness of his or her own limitations. The pilot may cancel a trip because of weather, or the landing may not be perfect, but you will arrive safely, and you will be in good hands.

Here’s a view of my instrument approach into Montgomery today, done while I was wearing “Foggles” so I could only see the instruments, and recorded using the “CloudAhoy” Ipad App. It is shown at 4X actual speed with a Google Earth simulated cockpit view. We didn’t land, but flew down to 200 feet above the runway and executed a “missed approach” as you would do if the weather was so bad you never spotted the runway. The 4X speed makes things look a little more abrupt than they really were. We ended up right where we were supposed to be.

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