Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Pilot In Command

Decision-making is key, not just for Red Bull Air Race competitors, but all general aviation pilots

Being a professional aerobatic and race pilot for the past several years has given me the opportunity to meet many civilian, military, helicopter, fixed-wing, professional and recreational pilots. Being fortunate enough to race in the Red Bull Air Race, there’s no shortage of interest in my racing adventures. But as much as I love what I do, the truth is I would much rather talk to another pilot about their flying experiences than my own.

I’ve always thought it to be a special opportunity when I have a chance to chat or fly with talented and experienced pilots from different disciplines of aviation. Whether they be military fighter pilots with hundreds of night landings on carriers and combat missions, bush pilots flying in the rugged north, fire bombers, crop dusters, or corporate or airline pilots with thousands of hours, I’ve found that there’s always one common skill set these pilots excel at to stay at the top of their game: decision-making.

It’s no secret that to do the type of flying I do, one’s “hands-and-feet” skills have to be finely tuned. However, to be both safe and successful in the track, the most challenging aspect of racing is good decision-making. This is what unquestionably connects the cockpit environment of being at an altitude of 30 feet, doing 200 knots in a 10-G corner around pylons, and any other cockpit environment, from a Cub to a Concorde.

My experience has taught me that the best way to make good decisions in an aircraft is simply not to make bad decisions! Yes, I know, easier said than done. While an entire book, and I’m sure it has, could be written on pilot decision-making, a few factors play as much of a role in my Red Bull Air Race world racing as they do in everyday general aviation.

In the race world, 30 minutes before I walk to the start grid, I mentally prepare my entire flight. I visualize strap-in, startup, takeoff, holding patterns and, of course, the race track, right through to the last gate pass. Over the course of race week, I’ll run through different options and scenarios, everything from the perfect flight, changing lines to account for wind and various emergency procedures. Everyone prepares for a flight to some degree or another, so next time you’re going to fly, take a few minutes to think in detail about the flight you’re about to make, and before you leave the ground, you’ll already be well on your way to making better decisions in the air.

The most common question I’m asked by nonpilot media and fans is, “Do you ever get scared in the plane?” Truth be told, in every type of flying I’ve done, I have—at one time or another—ended up in a situation I wasn’t comfortable in and added it to my “Lessons Learned” book. But at the same time, I can honestly say that I’ve never been scared in an airplane.

Fear and how you deal with it has a great deal to do with decision-making. Confidence, on the other hand, plays an equally important and opposite role in PIC decisions. When it comes to the race environment, there’s no shortage of confidence-boosting factors: hundreds of thousands of people watching you race, TV cameras everywhere and journalists touting you as one of the best pilots in the world. To be successful, I have to have a certain level of confidence when I’m headed into the track. However, a healthy respect for the risks I’m about to take on is the force that makes the fear-confidence balance such a valuable asset in decision-making.

When I was a teenager, my father once told me my biggest weakness in an airplane was lack of fear. I didn’t fully grasp the concept at the time; after all, why would a pilot want to be afraid in an airplane? It took me some time to figure out that he wasn’t talking about being scared. He was talking about the role fear can play in making good decisions when applied—not as a response to danger in a reactive stage, but instead, as a preventative measure to identify the potential cause or source of risk in a flight.

Every time I strap in for a race, I’ve consciously acknowledged and analyzed the risk factors. When considered as a source of essential flight information, there’s no doubt this is a vital tool in good decision-making.


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