I am, in my own estimation a damn good pilot. But then I should be, given the number of years I've been doing it and the amount of experience I've attained. There are two types of professional pilots – the very good and the dead. No in-betweeners, no room for "just average" pilots up there. You’ve got to be good when you're doing it for money (insert cheap, hooker-joke here). I know that must sound horribly pompous, but I have not stayed alive all these years by luck and my movie-star good looks alone. Even the worst of the pro-pilots I've ever known was still pretty dang good.
The trick in all flying (private and professional) is to not think that you're better than you are. Oh boy, is that easier said than done! We get to thinking that we're Chuck Yeager. Or we not-so-subconsciously assume that the very fact that we've survived all these years and amassed all these flight hours makes us good by default. Nope. Not at all, not at all.
If that sounds contradictory to my first paragraph, let me explain. Because of my experience I better be good, yes. But that, by itself, does not make it so. Many pilots make that mistake, and it is a doozy. We pilots are cautioned to guard against complacency, and most of us try pretty hard to avoid it. Despite that, sometimes there is an insidious complacency that worms its way unknowingly into even the most careful pilot’s psyche.
Being a good pilot requires constant work. You can never sit back and rest on your...um...laurels and think that "good" is automatic or even continuous or self-sustaining. And so I work very hard at maintaining my proficiency. And I very much admire those other pilots who do likewise.
Take Mike, our fixed-wing pilot. (He reads this, so I have to choose my words carefully.) He's not the only good pilot in the world, obviously, but Mike is - no shit - one of the best pilots I've ever flown with. The guy just flat knows his stuff and can make that King Air dance and sing. Of course, Mike's been doing it forever (you should see his resume), and he’s flown much bigger things than a King Air, so he should be good. The thing I love is that he still puts as much effort into his work this far down the road as he undoubtedly did when he was first starting out. That's is the very definition of “professionalism” and “dedication,” words we sometimes throw around all too casually these days.
I like watching other pilots fly – always have. You can learn a lot. When I was working for Petroleum Helicopters Inc. in the Gulf of Mexico, I was assigned to a base that had thirty resident aircraft. Most days, after I got off duty I’d just hang around, watching the stragglers come in. End of the long day, tired, hot, worn out…you could forgive these guys if they just swooped in and plopped it down like a sack of wet cement. But no, they would put as much effort into that last landing as they did to the first one this morning, twelve hours ago. It was inspiring.
There was this one guy…Joe Bell (an ironically coincidental name for a helicopter pilot). Older guy, retired out of the Army. Been around. Soft-spoken (unlike most of us) and very likeable (also unlike most of us). He got assigned to a oil company customer flying a snazzy, shiny-new Bell 407. But it was a h-o-r-r-i-b-l-e job. Always first to take-off in the morning, right at sunrise. And his customer flew him the absolute FAA-maximum of eight hours every damn day. Usually he’d come dragging in right at sunset, but other days he’d get his eight hours in by three p.m. and be done before all the rest of us. Oh God, I felt sorry for him. I’d come skipping and whistling in from my air-conditioned, twin-engine helicopter after a “grueling” 3.5 hour day in which I'd done maybe eight or nine landings, my day done by 4:30. My paperwork would be finished and I’d be having a cup of coffee in the pilot lounge when Joe would come in looking like a wet dog at 6:50.
Hovering a helicopter is work. It takes incredible concentration. The Bell 407 is a particularly twitchy, not to say “squirrely” helicopter, especially near the ground. It takes finesse to fly smoothly. And here would come ol’ Joe after one of his eight-hour, “thirty-five landing” days. He’d hover up to the front pad and set ‘er down just so smoothly and gently. I'd watch and just shake my head and smile. I admired that guy, I’ll tell you what.
Watching a really good pilot is quite literally like watching an artist at work. It's like looking over Picasso's shoulder as he paints and wondering, "Why is he dabbing the brush like that? Why is he using that particular color? And what the hell IS that thing he's painting?" Pablo himself might not even be able to respond with anything more than a simple, shrugged, "Eh - beats me..."
It's never good to look too closely at something lest you spoil the magic or kill the spirit. Kind of like how looking at a ghost sometimes makes it disappear. Or how your car keys disappear the moment you go looking for them. (Okay wait, strike that last, but you get the idea.) We have these God-given talents. We shouldn’t question them, just make the best of them. As the artist’s talent flows through his hands to the brush and onto the canvas, so a pilot’s talent flows through the stick or wheel and out to the control surfaces or rotor blades.
Ah, but if only it were that simple for us. There is so much other technical stuff to know and keep abreast of. But it is one of the reasons I so love flying: It is the perfect left brain/right brain activity, requiring the constant involvement of both, and as rewarding to the artistic side as it is to the technical side.
I hope that the day I have to lay my paintbrushes down is a long, long way off.