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.
Confidence is required to make any decision, good or bad. A good decision will always have the right balance of confidence, offset by respect for environmental factors, aircraft capability, pilot experience and ability. Don’t ignore your gut feeling if something doesn’t seem right, and believe in your abilities when you’re making a decision.
Another decision-making factor, one of the most challenging to deal with in the air-racing world, is one that we’ve all faced before and might not even have known it. I call it the “cost-benefit trap.”
In aviation, the nonfinancial cost side of the cost-benefit equation is generally clear as it pertains directly to flight safety. The benefit side is less clear, especially in a noncommercial setting, but could be driven by ego, competition or something as trivial as not wanting to get stuck and spend the night 20 miles from a final destination. In the race environment I’m often faced with critical decisions influenced by emotion and the cost-benefit trap multiple times in a flight.
In the last race of the season, we were experiencing poor weather with showers on and off all day. Rain is a huge safety factor in the track as it drastically reduces the available G in a corner, significantly increasing the potential for a low-level accelerated stall. Airborne and in the final hold, engine leaned, prop set and positioning for my final run in, I was effectively “all systems go.”
Seconds before my clearance into the track, I had some light rain on the canopy and noticed a shower had begun on the north side of the track. Race control confirmed the track was clear of rain and cleared me into the track. Despite the pressures of being mentally and physically ready to go, TV cameras rolling and 100,000 fans in the grandstand, I aborted the run. When everything is ready to go and they give you the “Smoke-On” call, it’s not an easy decision to make based only on the chance of shower waiting for you on the 11-G corner from gate 3 to 4. It was a good decision as the rain forced a delay in racing.
This illustrates both how imperfect information and a cost-benefit trap can make a seemingly simple decision quite difficult. Whether it’s to the benefit of a happy sponsor for a win in the track or a happy spouse for making it home on time from a Sunday fly-in, it’s not worth the cost of even the smallest amount of unmanaged risk. I think we can all agree that both the sponsor and the spouse would rather accept the necessary change in plans over the potential alternatives.
From the last example, you can see how one of the biggest contributors to a poor decision can be imperfect information. This could come in the form of an inaccurate weather forecast or even a faulty fuel gauge. Be defensive with the information you use to make a decision and always consider the possibility it’s not perfect. When I race, I have to trust my aircraft and my track data 100%. However, if something isn’t right, I’m ready to alter my plan in an instant because I accept the possibility that something might have changed.
Strong pilot decision-making is the boundary layer that separates us from the often immediate and potentially dangerous consequences we all can face as a result of poor decisions in the air, whether racing under a 40-foot bridge or in the pattern at your flying club. The next time you fly, don’t forget to bring your head with you to keep your hands and feet company!
Pete McLeod, 26, is the youngest pilot ever to compete in the Red Bull Air Race. In 2010, Pete captured 33 world championship points, finishing the season in fifth place overall. Pete grew up flying float planes in northern Canada and excelled at unlimited competition aerobatics.