Positive Flightpath Control

This is the Tenth in a series of posts that will provide an improvement strategy that covers the entire family of 9 Automation Airmanship® principles. Following this post, there will be one more to close out this series which began just over one year ago, in January 2017. If you have not been able to follow the entire series from the beginning, the last 12 months of posts are available as archives on our blog’s home page.

When we complicate our lives with new technologies, we often bury the fundamentals while focusing on the faster, higher, farther aspects of progress. Inevitably this approach “comes back around,” as the most experienced professionals around us know. So, it’s not as much a matter of if, as it is a matter of when you will find yourself tested by forces far greater than those under your control; leaving you wondering how it happened and what to do next. We could use this space to provide you with a “top ten” best (and worst) aviation “saves” to exhibit as evidence, but every high-stakes professional probably has a short list of his or her own favorites, in addition to a few personal experiences that are probably best kept private.

Foundational airmanship principles—if you maintain them—hold their importance as safety factors long after you have achieved the highest level of professional certification. They don’t become less significant as technology improves, and need to be renewed with every new type rating.

It seems, as we discussed in last month’s post, that experienced experts have some ground rules when it comes to how they view flying in the 21st century. Take William Langewiesche, one of the finest contemporary aviation authors (and son of the author of the 1948 classic, “Stick and Rudder”). He has described the now-revered Captain of US Airways flight 1549, Chesley Sullenberger, as having maintained his commitment to basic principles of airmanship throughout his career, along with “intense mental focus” and “exceptional self-control.” In his book, Fly By Wire, he goes on to say,

“Normally these traits do not much matter for airline pilots, because teamwork and cockpit routines serve well enough. But they had emerged in full force during the glide to the Hudson, during which Sullenberger had ruthlessly shed distractions, including his own fear of death.”

So what are we mere mortals to do, while hoping that we never have to face a catastrophic, dual-engine failure at takeoff weight in one of the world’s busiest air traffic control sectors? There are few simple answers in aviation, but I think that there is one to that question: which is that we must always practice and be prepared to “fly first”—which may include being ready to “ruthlessly shed distraction” when it really counts.

It’s been found to be true in countless other dangerous and high-stakes professions: establishing an initial “stable” state [flight path] that addresses the immediate danger, allows you enough space to figure out the rest of the problem. Among my own favorite writers on the topic of high-stakes and improbable survival situations is Laurence Gonzales. His comprehensive research emphasizes what the best among us can contribute to the survivability of the less experienced, saying that our chances improve if we would only,

“…discover the flow of the expert performer, in whom emotion and thought balance each other in producing action.”

We’ve written extensively about some contemporary situations that required the survivors to exhibit exactly this behavior in the split seconds and anxious moments after meeting with untimely and seemingly insurmountable forces. To make sure that you have this ability ready to put into action with precision, you should contemplate this simple formula: Accept as foundational to Airmanship the importance of being ready to simply “fly first”—and build meaningful practice into your routine flying activities. Do these two things and you will have taken a significant step towards becoming as capable as the role models that currently represent the best of our industry. The first step is easiest, and the second step may simply include regular “hand flying” practice without autoflight assistance (say, every other takeoff and landing, or flying a non-precision approach where a precision approach would be easier).

While you take time to measure or reaffirm your commitment to foundational airmanship, consider this additional observation by Langewiesche:

“There are families now raising their sixth generation of pilots, each with the knowledge that all airplanes are fundamentally alike, despite variations due to speed, weight, and power, because every airplane in its soul is still a Wright Flyer.”

Think about it.

Until our next post, fly safe, and always, fly first.


William Langewiesche: Fly By Wire: The Geese, The Glide, The Miracle On The Hudson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, NY. 2009.

Laurence Gonzales: Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. W. W. Norton & Company, New York, NY. 2003.

Christopher Lutat and S. Ryan Swah: Automation Airmanship: Nine Principles for Operating Glass Cockpit Aircraft. McGraw-Hill, New York, NY. 2013.

Leave a Comment