What Makes an Expert?

Most pilots like to think they do pretty well at the whole flying thing. In fact, surveys show that overall most people rate themselves as above average in performance. This is obviously impossible, as half of all pilots would have their performance rated as less than average. In his new book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell looks at the top end of the performance scale to determine what makes someone an expert, the very top of their field. He found that experts obviously had a lot of innate talent. They also had typically received many "lucky breaks" of being in the right place at the right time. However, there were many very talented people who never rose to the level of being considered an expert. The final deciding factor was experience. From musicians to athletes to economists to chess players, those at the very top of their fields typically hit their prime after achieving at least 10,000 hours of practice and experience.

Since the average person works about 2,000 hours in one year, it would take five years of dedicated eight hours a day, five days a week effort to reach 10,000 hours. Many of the experts Gladwell looks at achieved much more experience in a much shorter time. Mozart's father made him practice relentlessly from the time he was a young child. Gladwell says that by the time Mozart composed his first masterpiece at the age of 21, he had been composing concertos for 10 years. Early in their career, the Beatles got a job playing eight hours a night, seven nights a week, in Hamburg, Germany. By the time they achieved their first success, they had performed over 1,200 times. Gladwell points out that many bands don't perform that many times in their entire career. By the time Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard to start Microsoft, he had been programming practically nonstop for seven consecutive years, and had much more than 10,000 hours experience.

So what does all this have to do with flying an airplane? Technically a person can become a licensed pilot after only 40 hours of training and practice. Most people take more than that, but very few people require more than 100 hours before they pass their written and flight tests. Add in some time for ground school and self study, and you still end up well under 200 hours, which is a mere drop in the bucket when you consider the 10,000-hour threshold for being considered an expert.

The requirements for advanced ratings are not significantly more stringent. An instrument rating requires only 50 hours of cross-country time as PIC, 40 hours of actual or simulated instrument time, and 15 hours of instrument flight training. There is no requirement that the applicant has ever actually flown inside a cloud before receiving the rating. To become a commercial pilot you only need 250 hours total flight time. Even the top rating available, Airline Transport Pilot, requires only 1,500 hours of experience.

The danger is that a pilot who receives a new rating may think that rating shows that he has achieved a new level of competence that allows him to relax and rest on his laurels. Even worse, some new pilots decide to show off to the world, or at least to their friends, what a great pilot they are now that they have a license. Some new instrument pilots, who have almost no experience in actual weather, launch off into the most challenging weather imaginable.

There is a critical difference between flying and other occupations. A budding pianist who is practicing very hard will gradually work his way up from local recitals to playing with a small orchestra to a more prestigious orchestra. Finally, after many years of playing and practice, a few pianists get invited to play Carnegie Hall. There is literally no chance that a pianist playing local recitals will suddenly receive an invitation to play in Carnegie Hall. On the other hand, any pilot can suddenly find himself facing the most challenging conditions imaginable. If that pilot has been learning and practicing over the years, that may not be a problem. For a new or relatively inexperienced pilot, it could be disastrous.

Another difference involves the quality of practice and experience. A serious musician or programmer will gradually tackle more and more difficult assignments. Each new piece or program involves some new twist that requires additional learning and practice to master. This is not necessary true for pilots. It is easy for pilots to get into a rut, flying the same airplane over the same routes in the same weather. As the saying goes, some pilots have 2,000 hours flying experience, others have flown the same hour 2,000 times, which results in very little learning and limited experience.

The most important difference between flying and other careers involves the cost of a mistake. In most occupations a mistake, even a big one, will cause some embarrassment and may even cost a lot of money. In flying, a serious mistake may be the last mistake a pilot will ever make. As the death of Scott Crossfield demonstrated, even the most experienced pilots, pilots who might be considered experts, are at risk. Another accident in November 2007 demonstrated that even massive amounts of training and experience are no guarantees for a safe arrival. Both pilots of the Civil Air Patrol Cessna 182T were in their early 70s and held airline transport ratings for airplane multiengine land. The NTSB report states that the pilot in the left seat had multiple type ratings, a turbojet flight engineer rating as well as flight navigator certification. He had accumulated over 25,000 hours total time and had been the commander of the Nevada CAP Wing for four years.

The right seat pilot was reported to also have ATP ratings for single-engine land, single-engine sea and helicopters, and possessed multiple type ratings for airplanes and helicopters. He had a commercial glider license and was a certified flight instructor for single and multiengine airplanes, helicopters and gliders. He also held a flight engineer certificate for turbojet and turbopropeller airplanes, airframe and powerplant mechanic certification, and flight navigator certification. He had over 28,000 hours of military and civilian flight experience, and was the director of operations for the CAP's Pacific Region, former national vice commander and California wing commander.

You literally can't get much more training, experience and expertise in a cockpit at one time. Over 53,000 hours of total flight experience and almost every certificate and rating in the book. In addition, they were flying a new Cessna 182T with a Garmin G1000 glass cockpit. It includes a Terrain Proximity Page that indicates the terrain elevation relative to the airplane's altitude, with red indicating terrain at or above the airplane's current altitude. Yet these two extremely experienced pilots flying on a clear night with a state of the art navigation system flew straight into the side of a mountain about 1,000 feet below the summit.

While we will never know what was the fatal flaw that killed these pilots, as a CAP pilot trained in the C-182T, it is easy for me to come up with a likely scenario because I have experienced a similar situation. The pilot in the left seat had accumulated 75 hours in the G1000-equipped C-182T, while the pilot in the right seat had not been trained in the G1000 Cessna 182 yet. It is easy to see how the left seat pilot could have taken off from North Las Vegas Airport on a clear but very dark night and immediately became immersed in demonstrating how to operate the complicated G1000 navigation system to the right seat pilot, while at the same time handling communications with departure control, opening the VFR flight plan, staying below the Class B airspace and maintaining visual contact with reported traffic. They had reached what might seem to be the safe altitude of 7,000 feet when they impacted the side of the mountain. With the emphasis on staying out of the Class B airspace, the pilots may not have had the Terrain Proximity Page activated, as the bright red and yellow areas indicating terrain at or just below the airplane's altitude can be very distracting, especially at night.

There are important lessons here for all of us. First, we need to consider each new rating as a license to learn. Paraphrasing Laurence Gonzales in Deep Survival, to stop being a student is to stop flying. Any pilot who is not constantly seeking out new information and skills as a pilot will actually see his skills and knowledge decline. There are many opportunities to learn. You can attend a seminar, work towards a new rating or simply fly with an instructor as you practice in conditions you may not be comfortable in.

On top of that, we need to be conservative when assessing whether we can adequately handle forecast conditions, taking into account that things may very well be worse than forecast. Remember Murphy's Law, which states that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong, usually at the worst possible time. If you don't have much advanced training or experience, if you have been a fair weather pilot for many years, or if you haven't been flying for a while, don't expect to be able to go out and "play Carnegie Hall."

Finally, it is important to remember that attaining a significant level of training or experience, even becoming what some might consider an expert, is no excuse to let your guard down. As demonstrated by Crossfield and the CAP pilots, just one moment of inattention can result in the disastrous end to an illustrious flying career. Even a simple VFR flight deserves the same attention to detail as an IFR approach to minimums.

This is the 200th article I have written for Flying magazine. Besides the gratifying feedback I get from readers, the reason I especially enjoy writing these articles is how much I have been able to learn over the past 17 years, and then pass on to our readers. I hope that we will all continue to learn and improve our skills in the future, while at the same time realistically assessing our capabilities relative to the demands of the flight, and thus avoid becoming a statistic on the aviation accident charts.


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