So who’s the best pilot?

What makes a good pilot? Why did some survive and others did not?

A quick zip through Google turns up plenty of definitions:

“A GOOD PILOT has knowledge of one’s own abilities and limitation; knowledge of the aircraft limitations; good flying skills which are acquired through experience and a willingness to maintain a high degree of proficiency. They are a constant risk evaluator, not a constant risk taker; they stay focused and aware and do not permit complacency.”

“A superior pilot is one who uses superior judgment to avoid situations that require the use of superior skill.”

“A good pilot is always learning from their mistakes, always trying to get back on altitude, heading, correcting, correcting, and correcting. In reality perfection only lasts a few seconds in between corrections.”

Pilots need the following characteristics (this list is supplied courtesy of the Alberta Provincial Government):

  • good spatial perception
  • good motor co-ordination
  • good judgment and the ability to make decisions and act quickly
  • leadership qualities
  • the ability to work well with others in a team in a fast paced, dynamic environment
All the definitions seem to centre on making good judgments and maintaining a humility that enables them to learn from their mistakes.
I can’t seem to put my finger on anything more specific than that. I have known a handful of pilots and I’m trying to think if there is something definable that is common to them all. I suppose the first point is that not all pilots are really good pilots. If I think of the most talented flyers, there is a peculiar combination of complete confidence (perhaps coming across as brisk or cool) tied up with utter caution-a thoughtful, diligent and careful manner.
There has to be a final edge to it. I was reading a news article, which interviewed a flying instructor and asked him why he didn’t prefer to earn a fortune flying trans-atlantic commercial flights. The author asked him whether he got tired of the daily routine: he just beamed out at the lively airfield and asked with incredulity “How could you?”
Did the best pilots who flew during the war love flying? Or did they just have better skills? Or more luck? It’s probably all of those things.

The True and Beautiful—The Sky
Sometimes gentle, sometimes capricious, sometimes awful, never the same for two months together; almost human in its passions, almost spiritual in its tenderness, almost Divine in its infinity.
—Bayard Ruskin

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7 responses to “So who’s the best pilot?

  • Amy Scott

    “In reality perfection only lasts a few seconds in between corrections.”

    I loved this. In my semi-philosophical mood this morning I see its applicability to all facets of life. Especially my own right now. I think all of us could use a bit more of the pilot mentality in our lives. I love the idea of knowing one’s limitations. This at first might appear as admitting one is vulnerable, fragile, but it is actually the key to strength. Who knew I could gain so much insight from a discussion of “Who’s the best pilot?”. I fly, therefore I am.

  • Angels 14

    That is a beautfully deep way of looking at it. Again, you bring the philosophy to the debate.
    I feel a bit sheepish having to admit that I was just being silly with the heading ‘Who’s the best pilot’ (as this is cheekily stolen from Top Gun).

  • So who’s the best pilot? (via Place to land) « Calgary Recreational and Ultralight Flying Club (CRUFC)

    […] May 25, 2011 by bikeal Leave a Comment What makes a good pilot? Why did some survive and others did not? A quick zip through Google turns up plenty of definitions: "A GOOD PILOT has knowledge of one's own abilities and limitation; knowledge of the aircraft limitations; good flying skills which are acquired through experience and a willingness to maintain a high degree of proficiency. They are a constant risk evaluator, not a constant risk taker; they stay focused and aware and do not … Read More […]

  • kookabat

    I feel like I’m intruding slightly on an extremely personal conversation here, but what the heck…
    I was adding a post to my own blog earlier this evening when a link to yours came up in the ‘related articles’ box. Looks like we’re both on the same sort of quest. By way of intro, my grandfather’s uncle was a Lancaster navigator with 467 Sqn, RAAF, stationed at Waddington. He was killed over Lille in 1944. My family have his logbook, which is where the fascination (which some might say has become an obsession) came from.
    On topic of this post – luck or skill? I reckon, like you, that it was a combination of the two. There were some things that might have given a crew an ‘edge’ – weaving over the target, superior navigation to stay in the protection of the bomber stream and away from known flak zones, gunners staying alert to spot fighters, and quicker reflexes to corkscrew instantly when required, for example. But there were many dangers that even the best-drilled crew had little practical means of avoiding – radar-predicted flak, ‘schrage muzik’, collisions, ‘friendly’ bombs dropped from above… when your number’s up, your number’s up I guess.

    On a slightly less-serious note, there’s a well-known saying in flying circles. There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots. There are, however, no old AND bold pilots.

    Best wishes, and I’ll be interested to watch where your journey takes you…
    Adam Purcell
    Melbourne, Australia

    • Angels 14

      Hello Adam

      Thanks very much for your message. I suppose it has been a fairly private conversation- but only because I don’t think it’s particularly interesting to anyone else! Very glad to have your comments!

      My grandfather was stationed with 458, which was a RAAF squadron. I’ve just received a book from Australia (a nice second hand bookseller managed to track down an out of print squadron history for me). The blog has so far been a record of ‘getting up to speed’ on some background reading, but I’m just about ready to really start digging into the specifics of his service now. It does become an obsession…

      What’s the name of your blog?

      Thanks again for getting in touch and good luck with your research.

      JB

  • kookabat

    G’day JB,
    My blog is http://somethingverybig.wordpress.com – I’m adding posts every couple of weeks or so. Like yours, it’s a record of what I’ve been looking at, working on or thinking about on the general topic of Bomber Command and my great uncle’s part in it. That and I’ve never been trained as either a historian or a writer so it’s a way of ‘practicing’ those skills!

    Adam

  • Angels 14

    Thanks! Will look forward to reading it.
    JB

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