Earning a Good Conduct Medal


I recently signed up for Social Security and had to dig out my DD214, the military service record that summed up my two years in uniform. Reading through the form, I was reminded that I'd actually earned the Good Conduct Medal. No big deal, really, it just meant that I'd toed the line and curbed my rebellious streak.

But I got to thinking about what "good conduct" really means. At a time when civility seems to be a lost personality trait I'm frequently reminded that good conduct is simply a matter of being considerate of others.

While I was mulling over the idea of good conduct, I got an e-mail from John King of King Schools about the Aviators' Model Code of Conduct and an attached article he titled, "Moving From Aviation Klutzhood to Citizenship."

The Aviators' Model Code of Conduct (secureav.com), developed by Michael Baum, recommends voluntary practices for pilots to advance flight safety, airmanship and the general aviation community. There are "sample recommended practices" that do provide some guidance, and they provide valuable suggestions, but they're aimed more at risk management than ways for pilots to demonstrate good conduct in day to day operations. Talking to John about his effort to "convert" from an aviation klutz to a responsible aviation citizen provided some real-world suggestions about how we can demonstrate good manners.

"It is a terrible admission to have to make," he admitted, "but I have to tell you that I have been an aviation klutz from time to time. I've inadvertently flown with my prop howling at high rpm over neighborhoods near the airport, directed my prop blast into a hangar, and copied ATIS and my clearance with the engine running loudly while parked next to the outdoor seating area of the airport coffee shop."

Although he admitted being thoughtless, like most pilots, he said he didn't think he was mean spirited. "What's worse, even though I've resolved to be a good aviation citizen," he said, "it's possible I'll still descend to thoughtless klutzhood every now and then."

But, John argued, making the move from aviation klutz to citizen is a very simple way for a pilot to greatly increase his enjoyment of flying and, at the same time, markedly reduce his risk of having an accident.

According to John, not being a good aviation citizen clearly has its risks. "Pilots who finally do themselves in often had a long history of not following the rules, and of self-centered and cavalier behavior," he said. "The folks who run aviation insurance companies will tell you that there is one very identifiable group of pilots with a significantly higher than average accident rate. It's those pilots who don't pay their premiums on time and argue heatedly about training and currency requirements."

Unfortunately, demonstrating good conduct-being a good aviation citizen-as a pilot isn't as easy as it was for me to earn the medal as a GI in Uncle Sam's army. "When you're in an airplane you're busy," John explained. "Your attention is focused on what you're doing, so unless you make a special effort to think about how you're affecting others, it won't come to mind."

Another impediment to good citizenship is that it's not normally included in the training we get when we're learning to fly. "In fact," John argued, "occasionally we've even been trained to do something that has an unnecessarily negative impact on others." For example, he said, instead of being trained to fly quietly on approach, we're often told to increase propeller rpm on a constant-speed prop early in the approach to be ready for a go-around.

"I had never thought much about how my flying was affecting folks on the ground," John admitted, "until I attended a series of neighborhood meetings about a proposed runway extension at our local airport." Some of the meetings had over a thousand attendees-and most had showed up to let everyone know how much the noise from airplanes bothered them, John said. "The number and intensity of these folks was a great surprise to me. For the first time I realized that if we wanted to keep our airport, we were going to have to be more considerate of our neighbors."

Fortunately, it turns out there are a few little things we can do that will make a big difference. For instance, climbing at best angle-of-climb speed right after takeoff not only multiplies our alternatives in the event of an engine failure, but it geometrically reduces our noise impact on the neighborhood as we gain altitude.

As John pointed out, since much of the noise made by airplanes is caused by the speed of the propeller blade tips, keeping prop rpm low anytime you're over a populated area makes a huge difference. "Most manufacturers approve rpms as low as 1,800," John said, "but many pilots with constant-speed props are afraid of operating their engines at that low an rpm, because we were erroneously taught never to operate over-square (with manifold pressure in inches greater than rpm in hundreds). So consequently, we needlessly fly over neighborhoods with our props screaming away."

Another way to reduce neighborhood noise is by keeping your pattern tight and delaying your descent in the pattern until you're on a normal descent path to the runway. "A lot of pilots start their descent abeam the landing point regardless of how extended the traffic pattern has become, and they wind up flying an extended pattern at low altitude over neighborhood homes," he said.

According to John, if the pattern becomes extended simply hold your altitude, slow down, keep the airplane you're following in sight and turn base when it passes abeam of you on final. This keeps your noise footprint closer to the airport and has the safety advantage of making it easier for everybody to keep traffic in the pattern in sight.

"Through the years I've realized the traffic pattern is one place where exercising courtesy and civility is especially critical to safety. Regardless of how big or fast an airplane you're flying, if you're at an uncontrolled airport it's your responsibility to monitor the frequency (just like the Aeronautical Information Manual says you should). It's disrespectful and dangerous for pilots to say, 'All traffic please advise.' The likely result is everybody talking at once. This is a real setup for a midair collision."

John went on to say that flying something big or fast, even if you're on an IFR flight plan, is not an excuse to make a straight-in approach to a crowded pattern. "I make it a policy to always fly the pattern, even in a jet, unless I'm certain I won't interfere with traffic in the pattern and the weather conditions would make circling risky."

Bad behavior on the ground can also damage a pilot's good conduct reputation. John said he got a wake-up call about what he was doing to things behind his old Citation when mechanics had the engines running. "Another mechanic ran and got me, and said, 'John, I want you to look at this.' The engines were at idle, but a pick-up truck about 100 feet behind the airplane was rocking from side to side. The mechanic asked me, 'Can you imagine what would happen to that truck if the power was advanced?' I got the message. I had been using too much power when leaving the area, and had no idea what I was doing to everything behind the airplane."

But you don't have to be flying a Citation or Falcon Jet like the Kings now operate to wreak havoc on the ramp behind you. Even the smallest airplane can throw things at parked airplanes or blow dust and dirt into an open hangar. It's simple to avoid these examples of bad conduct by being aware of what's behind your airplane whenever you're about to advance the power.

John said it's not just airport neighbors who can be bothered by inconsiderate pilots. "The other day we were sitting at an airport restaurant wondering when the guy sitting on the ramp with his engine blaring away was ever going to move away from us. Part of the problem was that the pilot was running his engine much harder than he needed to," John related. "But then it dawned on me that I'd done the same thing earlier, without realizing how annoying it can be. So now I make sure to reduce the rpm to idle after start-up. If I'm in an especially noisy airplane, I try to copy the ATIS information and get my clearance before I start up and then move the airplane away from the restaurant area, or any other populated area, right after start-up."

Even professional pilots aren't immune from exhibiting bad conduct. John reported an incident he'd observed when a crew of professional pilots in a Citation pulled up to the hold line and blocked everyone else from taking off. "As it worked out the airspace in the direction they wanted to go was saturated, but the airspace in other directions would allow immediate takeoffs. But because they had blocked the path to the runway no one else could move. When the tower controller asked if they could move out of the way, they said they didn't have room to move and added that turbine aircraft were always entitled to taxi directly to the hold line."

As John pointed out, it's only considerate for someone waiting for an IFR clearance to pull out of the way, if possible, to allow other aircraft access to the runway-even if they're otherwise ready to go. Many times a faster aircraft or one going another direction can go out ahead of them while they wait for their release. It'll cost them virtually nothing in the way of time and it'll save others a lot.

Finally, it's really important as pilots that we realize the enormous responsibility we have toward our passengers. "We often fail to think about the flight from the passengers' view point instead of our own," John said. "I can't tell you how many folks have been lost to the aviation community because a new pilot wanted to show them stalls. Clearly the pilot was thinking of his own needs-not his passengers. We lose a lot of potential members of our community because of thoughtless actions." But while being considerate of our passengers' needs in terms of comfort is important, the most important responsibility is for us to carefully manage the risks of every flight.

John was upfront about his performance as an aviation citizen. "Realizing I've been an aviation klutz from time to time has helped me in my efforts to be more tolerant of other pilots who, while wrapped up in what they're trying to do, have joined the aviation klutz club and inconvenienced me. One of the things we all need to remember is that we need other pilots to help keep the critical mass necessary to sustain our industry. We should welcome and include others into our aviation community and treat them with civility and respect."

There's no question that as new pilots come into the industry they'll make the same kind of annoying and frustrating mistakes that we made when we started flying, John said. "We need to be tolerant of their mistakes as well as those of us who are rusty old hands and still make an occasional faux pas." John admitted that he's been least considerate of others when he's been in a hurry. "Being in a hurry in an airplane is not a good thing. These days when I find myself being in a hurry, I remind myself that the airplane is fast-so I don't have to be. When I slow down and enjoy what I'm doing, I become a safer pilot, have more fun and am much more considerate toward others."

The Aviator's Model Code of Conduct details general responsibilities for aviators. According to the code, pilots should make safety their number one priority; seek excellence in airmanship; develop and exercise good judgment; recognize and manage risks effectively; adhere to prudent operating practices and personal operating parameters (e.g., minimums); aspire to professionalism; act with responsibility and courtesy; and adhere to applicable laws and regulations. All admirable goals. But if, as John suggests, we just think about the effect we have on others-airport neighbors, other pilots and our passengers-it'll pay rich dividends in safer, less stressful flights and result in greater support for airports and encourage more pilots to stay with flying. Earn it and then wear your Good Conduct Medal proudly!