Pilots need to be generalists, not specialists
Air Facts Journal

American education has been obsessed with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) for at least a decade, and the aviation industry has eagerly jumped on the bandwagon. The FAA is leading the charge to fit our square peg into this round hole, declaring aviation to be the ultimate STEM career path. I’m in favor of anything that attracts a new generation of pilots, but this framing is a radical oversimplification—and it sets up some pilots for failure. 

Flying an airplane, especially a general aviation airplane with one pilot, is not simply an engineering job. As airline pilot and Cub owner Joe Costanza said on a recent podcast, “flying is the artful application of a scientific process.” Yes, you need to understand weather, engines, and aerodynamics. But a good pilot also needs to learn softer skills like decision making, teamwork, and self-awareness. A truly great pilot should have some understanding of history, an appreciation for beauty, and even a creative streak. Engineer, meteorologist, psychologist, coach, artist—it’s all in a day’s work for a pilot.

Cub on grass runway

Is flying a taildragger a STEM activity?

Aviation is certainly not unique in requiring a broad range of skills and experiences. As David Epstein recounts in his book Range, many of the best musicians, athletes, and inventors succeeded precisely because they did not specialize in one narrow discipline. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, two of the greatest tennis players of all time, played a wide variety of sports as kids; both credit that variety with helping them succeed. 

We certainly don’t do that much anymore. Youth sports have come to resemble The Hunger Games, a fight to the death where kids are told to pick a sport and specialize early or risk being irrelevant by age 10. Second graders end up working with private coaches and kids who should be going to slumber parties instead travel 500 miles for yet another “showcase” tournament. This sounds completely insane—and it is. Injuries among young athletes are skyrocketing almost as fast as burnout and anxiety, all while parents’ bank account balances plummet.

I worry that we might make the same mistake with “STEM kids” in general and pilots in particular. When the airlines are advertising six-figure signing bonuses, it’s understandable that prospective pilots might chase the simplest path to the right seat of an RJ, one that focuses on learning the essentials of airline flying in the least amount of time. This usually means focusing on the what without considering the why, and there’s definitely no time to explore subtle nuances or different perspectives. This fast track will almost certainly result in a job, but it may not result in a well-rounded pilot who is ready for the dynamic environment they will be working in. And if, instead of an RJ, the pilot should end up flying a King Air or (heaven forbid) a Cherokee, they may find themselves totally unprepared.

Epstein recounts a study of remote villagers that should serve as a warning to one dimensional pilots: “They were perfectly capable of learning from experience, but failed at learning without experience. And that is what a rapidly changing, wicked world demands—conceptual reasoning skills that can connect new ideas and work across contexts.”

The word “wicked” is used by psychologists to describe a type of environment that is erratic and lacking in clear feedback mechanisms that link actions to results (in contrast to a “kind” environment). Pilots definitely get feedback, but often that feedback is delayed or confusing. Was your route through convective weather successful because of your great technique or because you got lucky? Did you make the right decision canceling today’s flight? Sometimes it’s hard to know, because flying is not chess. Sure, pilots and chess players both have very explicit rules, but the board pilots play on is ever-changing: capricious weather, complex mechanical systems, and unpredictable humans can ruin the best plans.

In a wicked environment, it’s not enough to simply follow a checklist and hope it works out. As Gary Klein describes in Sources of Power, his classic book on decision making under pressure, true experts think, sometimes creatively, about the big picture before they take action. They are also skilled at pattern matching: “their experience let them see a situation, even a non-routine one, as an example of a prototype, so they knew the typical course of action right away.” There’s no way to recognize a pattern if you haven’t first accumulated prototypes, and that means putting yourself in new situations. As a pilot, riding around the pattern 1000 times in a Cessna 172 does not qualify; it’s nothing but the same prototype over and over again.

To be clear, this article is not intended as some rant about “kids today” or a demand that every pilot should be required to solo a glider and a taildragger before they touch a Cessna 172. That might be fun, but it’s completely impractical. Likewise, many of the classic time-building jobs of the 1970s and 1980s are long gone: flying checks at night in a worn out Cessna 210 or delivering auto parts in a Baron are simply not options anymore.

G1000 panel

Understanding both glass cockpits and round dials can improve your instrument flying skills.

So what does range look like for a pilot in 2023? It’s a bias towards new experiences and a curiosity about the entire aviation industry. Remember, you’re building your mental library of prototypes, so it won’t always be easy. Here are eight types of range to pursue.

Airplanes. This one is obvious, but for good reason. Every airplane is a teacher if you pay attention, even if you’re in the right seat and can’t log the flight. Notice how the systems are designed, how the airplane feels through the controls, and how the checklist flows. Does the airplane have a personality? How do you get to know it?

Avionics. Glass cockpit vs. steam gauges is probably the first thing that comes to mind, and having experience with both types is definitely helpful. But there’s more to avionics experience than that. You can also compare integrated glass cockpits (like a G1000) to more federated ones (like one with dual Aspens and dual GTNs), or contrast rate-based autopilots to attitude-based ones. Even changing a few settings on your GPS can be educational.

Pilots. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut with a single instructor, especially early in your flying career, but this will almost guarantee you develop blind spots. That’s why stage checks and independent flight reviews are so valuable. Even if you can’t find a different CFI from time to time, just go flying with other pilots. Some of my most meaningful flight lessons have been with non-instructors, as I observed how more experienced pilots approached weather or IFR procedures. Resist the temptation to judge the other pilot and simply observe like a scientist. Write down questions you can ask after the flight, or topics to research.

Weather. For pilots who learned to fly in popular flight school states like Arizona or Florida, weather might mean nothing more than checking density altitude. For pilots in Cleveland, weather means thunderstorms in summer and ice in winter. Experiencing both extremes should be high on the list of any aspiring professional pilot. Understanding weather theory is underrated among pilots, but it must be complemented by real world experience. I’ve come to believe there is always something to learn about weather… always.

Geography. While it’s often overlooked, where we fly has a big impact on what we learn. By mixing up the destination for your next $100 hamburger flight or taking that long cross-country that’s on the edge of your comfort zone, you expose yourself to new terrain, weather, airspace, chart symbols, and even controller accents (bonus points for international trips). If nothing else, this variety prevents complacency and is usually a lot of fun.

Airports. Beyond simple geography, different types of airports can deliver different lessons. If you fly out of a non-towered airport, plan a flight to Big City International and get comfortable with the complicated airspace, taxiway layout, and communication procedures. It goes the other way too. Are you proficient at picking up an IFR clearance over the phone, via an RCO, and in the air? Do you know how to use self-serve fuel pumps? Have you ever borrowed a crew car before?

Time of day. Most GA pilots fly almost exclusively during the day, but night flying is a great mental workout. It exposes your weaknesses with instrument scan and cockpit familiarization, and forces you to fly more disciplined procedures. Sunrise, when weather can change quickly, is another great time to gain experience.

Time of year. While not as important as total time logged, there is something to be said for calendar time as a pilot, since flying through multiple years allows you to experience different seasons.

Mountains from Cessna

There’s a lot to learn by venturing beyond your local area—sometimes far beyond.

There are dozens more examples of valuable aviation experience, so especially early on there’s no point in being picky. If an experienced pilot invites you to ride along while he flies a Malibu to O’Hare at night, or if a taildragger pilot offers an hour of free instruction on a grass runway, embrace the opportunity—even if you don’t completely understand what’s going on. Not every flight will lead directly to a new skill and not all of them will be fun, but you may be surprised at how each one builds on the previous. Patterns will start to emerge and once confusing concepts might start to make sense once you understand the broader context. You may even find yourself sounding like an old timer: “this reminds me of one time when…”

I’ve had the great fortune to log over 4000 hours in my flying career, but the variety of hours matters much more to me than the quantity. Riding along with an experienced corporate pilot early on taught me how to approach every flight like a professional, no matter what I was flying. Flying a Cessna 172 from California to Ohio taught me what mountain wave felt like, something no textbook or Midwest flight school could ever do. Earning a glider rating taught me how to read clouds and visualize glides, even though I’m nowhere near current in gliders. Practicing autorotations in a helicopter finally made the concept of energy management click. Flying with kids made me consider passenger comfort in a way I never had before.

I’m not suggesting the FAA create a new rule to mandate variety in pilot training, but anyone who wants to get the most out of a career in aviation should have a restless curiosity and a long bucket list. Flight schools and flight instructors can help, by encouraging pilots to pursue a range of flying experiences and creating the opportunity for that whenever possible. Organized fly-outs with multiple pilots, mandatory international cross-countries, and regular stage checks are a great place to start. Experienced pilots can help too, by inviting new pilots to fly with them on interesting trips or in unique airplanes.

Logging 1500 hours can land you a job, but it won’t automatically make you a great pilot. Like most things in flying and life, it’s about the journey, not the destination.

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