Knowing What We Know

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Brad Hayden comes from an aviation family. His father and uncle had avionics shops, and he confesses to flying so much as a kid that he "kind of got sick of it." Of course, that might also have been due to the airsickness he and his five siblings battled on all those hot summer flights in the back seat of a family plane. But in any event, none of the Hayden kids pursued a pilot's license as adults.

Until this year. Three weeks ago as of this writing, Hayden, who's the marketing director for Aspen Avionics (think affordable, retrofittable glass cockpit instruments for GA aircraft), got his private pilot's license. At the age of 46.

"My last job, which was in the high-tech industry, overlooked the final approach path for SFO," he explained. "And I'd watch the planes land, day after day, and I finally decided I wanted to get back into aviation." So he joined Aspen, relocated his family to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and started taking flying lessons. "I guess if it's in your blood, it's in your blood," he said. "So I just finally decided to succumb to it."

Hearing him talk about his early lessons and solo opened a creaky door to some very dusty corners of my own mind. Fact is, the past blurs, after a while. Ask me today what went through my head the first day I flew after my solo, and I'm not sure I could have told you. But my memories came trickling back as Hayden related his recent thoughts and experiences.

Interestingly enough, he said, he didn't really feel like he'd attained pilot status when he soloed. It was the week after he soloed, when his instructor left town and signed him off to go practice on his own, that he first felt like a real pilot.

"I got up, checked the weather by myself, went to the airport, and they just handed me the book. So I went out to the airplane and realized it was completely up to me to get the preflight right. Nobody was there to back me up. So I preflighted, and then ..." he laughed as he said it ... "I just got in and took off. I was really scared about that." He paused and thought about it for a minute. "I think the first time I had to make a go/no-go decision on the weather all by myself, and realized I didn't have anyone in the right seat, or even watching ... that was the first time I really felt like a pilot."

Hearing his description brought back the overcast day in southern Indiana when I first got the airplane book from the FBO counter all by myself and realized, upon getting out to the airplane, that NOBODY WAS HOLDING MY HAND ANYMORE. Terrifying doesn't quite cover it. I don't remember anything else about that flight. Just the knee-shaking butterflies I felt when it hit me that all the responsibility for taking this 2,000-pound machine off the planet and returning it safely again was squarely and completely on my highly inexperienced shoulders.

But is that when I first began to see myself as a pilot? Technically, of course, I guess I was, in the most basic of senses and definitions -- certified to operate an aircraft by myself, by an FAA-approved authority. But I knew there was a whole lot more to being a pilot than just managing some touch and goes, or surviving a brief trip to the practice area. So while that first solo adventure was a momentous milestone, I don't think I felt deserving of the full label yet.

In theory, I guess we're all supposed to feel like legitimate pilots the day the FAA examiner gives us a pass on our check ride. But is that really when it happens?

"I think [that point] moves along as one's aviation career advances," Eric Radtke, president of Sporty's Academy, says with an amused laugh. "I mean, when I soloed for the first time, I really did feel like a pilot. I thought I was IT. Then, when I received my first certificate, I thought, 'well, I wasn't really a pilot before. But now I'm a pilot.' Then I took my first passenger up, and I thought, 'well, now I'm really a pilot.' Then, the first time I had to divert and land at an alternate airport ... when I got down, I thought, 'Wow. Now I'm really a pilot. I really wasn't before.' I just didn't know enough to know I wasn't really a pilot at that first solo."

Indeed, it's said there are four stages to learning. First, you don't know what you don't know. Then you know what you don't know. Then you don't know what you know. Then, finally, you know what you know.

The overconfidence of a student who's just soloed would fall into the first category. The respectful humility of the second stage (reached by all but the most idiotically cocky of pilots) probably sets in soon after a pilot seriously scares him- or herself for the first time, and it lasts ... well, that's the interesting point. If a pilot gets out and does enough cross countries and has enough diverse and challenging experiences, he or she will eventually move -- perhaps without even knowing it -- from the second category into the third. You begin to have a reflex for how to counteract that crosswind gust. You sense when you have to add power, or when the airplane begins to wander off course. You battle unexpected weather challenges and turbulence and land more tired and annoyed than scared. If asked about your piloting skills, you might answer, "Yeah, I'm a pretty good pilot," conveying an increasing confidence in your ability but a lingering humility for what you still don't know.

But while any good pilot always retains a level of respect for both the unknown and the ability of an airplane or Mother Nature to throw an unexpected curveball, most pilots also reach a point where they gain a more solid confidence in what they know -- either about flying in general, or flying a particular aircraft. As my good friend Jim Dale puts it, "You go from saying, 'Well, I'm a pretty good pilot," to saying "You know, I'm a pretty good pilot!"

** Flight instructor Lee Truitt with Brad Hayden.**

But when and how does that transition occur? The exact point, it seems, is a moving target that differs from pilot to pilot. John King reports that he realized that he and Martha had mastered flying their Falcon 10 when their passengers started commenting, at the end of a flight, on how smooth the flight had been. My friend Jim says he knows he knows how to fly a particular kind of aircraft when he feels comfortable instructing in it. The shift can dawn on us slowly, like the realization that spring has finally arrived. Or it can come in a moment of unexpected enlightenment -- which generally occurs when we find ourselves in one of those oh-dear-god-please-let-me-survive-this moments or situations with a plane and we manage to get through it okay.

My own such moment with the Cheetah came in October of 2001, in the giant metropolis of Waco, Texas. By that time, I'd owned my Cheetah for almost three years. I'd flown it to Mexico, Canada and across the continent -- solo -- three times. I'd even handled a few small- and medium-sized emergencies in it. So if you'd asked me, I would have said, "yeah, I know how to fly this airplane."

As it happened, my Cheetah had the misfortune of being in a repair shop in the New York City area when the 9/11 attacks happened, so I had to recruit an instructor friend to help me fly it out of New York and through all the "Enhanced Class Bravo" airspaces back to California. The trip (chronicled in a column called "The Long Road Home," January 2002) was an epic weather disaster. Even with two pilots and IFR capability, it took us eight days just to reach the California border.

After being stranded in Jackson, Mississippi, for three days due to tornadoes, we decided we could scoot through to the west side of the burgeoning storm front if we left very early the next morning. Our flight to Waco was turbulent, in and out of clouds, and in solid, rain-soaked IMC for the last hour and a half -- all hand-flown, because the Cheetah doesn't have an autopilot. It was supposed to be 4,500 broken and good visibility in Waco, but I ended up shooting an instrument approach there, breaking out somewhere between 800-900 feet, with a little more than two miles' visibility, in rain and a gusty, 25-knot crosswind. As a VFR-only pilot, it was quite the challenge, even with an instrument instructor sitting in the right seat.

I wrestled the airplane all the way down to the runway, but the landing itself was pretty nice. I taxied in, shut down, and still clearly remember thinking to myself with a smile and shake of my head, "you know... I know how to fly this airplane."

My time with the Cheetah is now divided into two worlds: before that moment, and after. Which is not to say that I think I'm invincible, or that I could fly the plane in any conditions, or that I should get cocky, especially if I'm not current in the plane. The difference is just that now...well, I know what I know. As for why that moment didn't happen earlier -- my best guess is that it had something to do with the magnitude of the challenges I faced on that particular flight ... which were so far outside my normal envelope that I never would have dreamed of undertaking them without a CFII in the right seat.

"The thing about those 'aha' moments," Jim says, "is that you may have had that competence for years beforehand. But you didn't have it defined, or have anything to measure it by, until something happens where you have to perform or save a situation and you realize you can."

Of course, the other thing about those moments is ... while you may finally know what you know ... the frustratingly wonderful thing about flying is that your beloved airplane, Mother Nature, or any of the other intimidatingly talented pilots in the world will soon remind you that there's still a long distance between that point and mastery of all there is to know.

"I have a friend who's an FAA inspector, and he's flown all these different kinds of airplanes, and had all these different experiences," says Sporty's Radtke with a laugh. "And every time I talk to him, I go back to thinking, 'wow, I'm not really a pilot. That guy's really a pilot."

In the end, the stages of knowledge may be more of a cycle than a progression. We know what we know, then remember what we don't know. We learn something else, gain that confidence, and then face a new horizon, over and over again. So perhaps wisdom is simply learning how to live in peaceful coexistence with all stages at the same time: knowing what we know, but keeping a respectful humility about what we still have to learn.

So to Brad Hayden of Aspen Avionics -- and every other new pilot out there -- congratulations, and welcome to the family. I wish you a rich and rewarding journey to wisdom that's full of tailwinds, blue skies, laughter and joy.