Frank and Helena

The 4 Steps of Growing Up as a Pilot

Embrace the challenge and transition from fear to mastery.

As a kid, I always assumed there was some process by which you formally transitioned into adulthood, perhaps earning a badge that certified you had the knowledge to handle any situation life could throw at you. Grown-ups just seemed so different. Then I had kids of my own and realized everyone is faking it — there is no light-switch moment. Instead, you slowly evolve until one day you admit, “I’m one of the grown-ups now.”

The same is true in aviation. As a student pilot, I marveled at the confident pros, with thousands of hours in their logbooks, who seemed to know everything and be intimidated by nothing. Then I passed 3,000 hours and realized I was just as wrong about flying as parenting. You’re never done growing up as a pilot. It’s a journey, not an event on the calendar — and it’s one that requires a delicate balance between confidence and complacency.

This process is different for every pilot, but most of us pass through four distinct stages on the path from newbie to veteran: fear, poise, overconfidence and mastery.

This process is different for every pilot, but most of us pass through four distinct stages on the path from newbie to veteran: fear, poise, overconfidence and mastery.

The first stage, fear, is characterized by an all-encompassing apprehension about airplanes, engines, weather and ATC. And why shouldn’t we be apprehensive? After all, we are taking an airplane into the sky all alone with no option to pull over and sort things out if we get confused. It’s the opposite of so much else in our nonaviation lives: It’s real, it’s in person, and there is no undo button. This fear is a healthy response; it keeps us alert and conservative while we figure out what we don’t know. Ten-knot crosswind? Time to cancel!

For many, this fear stage quickly transitions into a more manageable feeling: You know what’s going on and what to expect, but you retain an edge, not completely certain that all is well. Like a 10-year-old who’s beginning to feel comfortable without mom watching every move, there’s a mix of excitement and nervousness. This stage is an awful lot of fun, but it usually involves some nervous preflight weather-watching and a skeptical eye on the engine gauges.

The logbook entries are more like scrapbook pages, filled with lessons learned and fond memories rather than boring currency details.

Soon a more dangerous attitude can creep in as confidence blooms into full-fledged complacency. This mindset suggests to us that by surviving 300 or so hours in the cockpit, we must be pretty good at this flying thing, so we can relax a bit. That doesn’t mean you become dangerous overnight, but some discipline fades. You might even find yourself mocking those fearful student pilots. A 25-knot crosswind on an icy runway at night? No problem!

It’s a miraculous transformation. In the span of a few hundred hours, you go from timid student to overconfident expert. But, as any experienced pilot can tell you, aviation has a habit of ending this adolescent stage ­rather dramatically. Whether it’s a low-fuel event or a weather scare, cocky pilots are often knocked down a peg in a memorable way.

Whether it’s a low-fuel event or a weather scare, cocky pilots are often knocked down a peg in a memorable way.

What happens next is critical. Some pilots get their comeuppances and promptly walk away from flying, forever scared to fly solo again. Others don’t hang it up, but they spend the rest of their lives uncomfortable with the responsibility that comes along with a pilot certificate. That’s a mistake and waste of a major investment. It brings to mind Mark Twain’s mythical cat, who burned herself on a hot stove: “She will never sit down on a hot stove lid again, and that is well; but also, she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.”

If you endure a learning experience in the cockiness stage, don’t let it knock you all the way back to that ­initial fear stage. And if you haven’t experienced overconfidence yet, skip it altogether. Better to seek out the middle ground where you respect the risks involved in flying and acknowledge your limitations, but you still embrace the challenge of being a pilot. You might say your “confidence CG” is in the middle of the envelope.

This means moving beyond simple advice, such as “fly conservatively.” It may be helpful for a 20-hour student pilot, but for someone who’s using a light airplane for ­serious transportation flying, it’s far too simplistic. A conservative mindset can quickly turn into a timid mindset, in which a lack of confidence prevents you from ­flying on all but the most perfect days. At the other end of the spectrum, a gung-ho “if the airplane can take it, I can take it” attitude is just as bad. To get both utility and safety from an airplane, you have to embrace the gray areas of decision-making.

Even harder than that is finding the patience to keep working on your skills, especially when part of you thinks you have it all figured out. There isn’t much of a requirement for formal training after passing the last check ride. That hardly means the grown-up stage has to be stationary. In fact, it can be a time of great learning and fun.

The goal is mastery, one of the most satisfying feelings in life. How do we get to this final stage in a pilot’s ­development? Test standards aren’t enough; we have to understand both the art and the science of flying.

How do we get to this final stage in a pilot's development? We have to understand both the art and the science of flying.

A lot of pilots like to promote flying as a STEM ­activity, meaning it deals in the worlds of science, technology, engineering and math. We certainly do spend our formative hours focusing almost exclusively on STEM subjects: aerodynamics, regulations, airplane systems, weather theory and so much more. Depending on your flight instructor, you may have spent far too much time on such minutiae. (Hint: When you start quoting FARs verbatim, you have a problem.)

A grown-up pilot doesn’t just know a lot about aviation, he applies this knowledge in ways that make flying safer, easier and more fun. This is the art of flying. He knows what ATC needs before it asks, so his communications are short, clear and precise. He notices the groundspeed is slower than expected on an ILS approach, so he instinctively adds 100 rpm to stay on glideslope. The result isn’t sporadic flashes of brilliance that save the day; it’s a series of thoughtful decisions and smooth control inputs that make such brilliance unnecessary.

One of the best ways to understand the artistic part of flying is to seek out new experiences and maintain a ­restless energy about your aviation adventures. It’s all too easy, especially as we get older, to seek comfort instead of challenge. Whether it’s flying with a new copilot or pursuing a new ­rating, pushing the boundaries of what’s comfortable can have profound effects on your flying skills. That even means, every once in a while, it makes sense to take on some additional risk. Go flying when the wind is a little higher than usual, or practice instrument approaches with the weather just above minimums. Just be sure to have an out (or two) and a safety pilot.

Done properly, the relentless pursuit of flying mastery can transform aviation from a hobby into a life-changing commitment. Understanding how your mind works, confronting risk and pushing yourself to learn new skills aren’t easy, but neither is growing up or raising kids. Major life events — and flying definitely qualifies — often force you to confront who you really are, understand your fears and conquer your weaknesses.

Embrace that challenge.