(We originally wrote this article for the
National Association of Flight Instructors)
As instructors we have many responsibilities—creating pilots who are great risk managers and truly prepared to be pilot-in-command would be high on the list. It would seem that teaching good aviation citizenship would come way down this list. But in my view, teaching aviation citizenship should also be near the top.
Helping pilots move from aviation klutzhood to citizenship is a very simple way to help them greatly reduce the stress and increase the enjoyment of flying, and at the same time, markedly reduce their risk of having an accident.
Not being a good aviation citizen clearly has its risks. Pilots who finally do themselves in often have had a long history of not following the rules, and of self-centered and cavalier behavior. 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 is those pilots who don’t pay their premiums on time and argue heatedly about training and currency requirements.
As instructors we need teach pilots to manage what they care about. It is what pilots care about that causes or prevents accidents. Pilots who care about saving money on fuel will press on to an airport with cheaper fuel even at the risk of running out of fuel on the way. It is my contention that the habit of thoughtful aviation citizenship and what pilots care about can be trained, and that it will carry over into all of the pilot’s flying.
Now the truth is, being a good aviation citizen isn’t all that easy. When you are in an aircraft you are busy. Your attention is focused on what you are doing. Unless you take special effort to think about how you are affecting others, it won’t come to mind.
Historically, thoughtful citizenship has not normally been included in the flight instruction program. In fact, occasionally pilots have been trained to do something that has an unnecessarily negative impact on others. For example, instead of being trained to fly quietly on approach, pilots are often told to increase propeller RPM early on a constant-speed prop to be ready for a go-around.
I had never thought much about how my flying was affecting folks on the ground 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. 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.
There are a few little things we can teach pilots to do that will make a big difference. For instance, climbing at best angle-of-climb speed right after takeoff not only multiplies their alternatives in the event of an engine failure, but it reduces their noise impact to the neighborhood geometrically as they gain altitude.
Since much of the noise made by airplanes is caused by the speed of the propeller blade tips, teaching them to keep prop RPM low anytime they are over a populated area will make a huge difference. Most manufacturers approve RPMs as low as 1800. Many pilots with constant-speed props are afraid of operating their engines at that low an RPM, because they were erroneously taught never to operate over-square (with manifold pressure in inches greater than RPM in hundreds). So consequently, they needlessly fly over neighborhoods with their props screaming away.
You can also reduce neighborhood noise by teaching pilots to keep their pattern tight and delay their descent in the pattern until they are on a normal descent path to the runway. Unless taught otherwise, lots of pilots tend to start their descent abeam the landing point regardless of how extended the traffic pattern has become, and wind up flying an extended pattern at low altitude over neighborhood homes.
The alternative is to teach pilots that when the pattern becomes extended they should to hold their altitude, slow down, keep the airplane to follow in sight, and turn base when they pass abeam you on final. This keeps their noise footprint closer to the airport and has the safety advantage of making it easier for everybody to keep pattern traffic in sight.
The traffic pattern is one place where exercising courtesy and civility is especially critical to safety. Regardless of how big or fast an airplane they are flying, at an uncontrolled airport it is the pilot’s responsibility to monitor the frequency. It is disrespectful, dangerous, and contrary to the Aeronautical Information Manual for pilots to assume that they are exempt from the obligation to monitor the frequency and say, “All traffic please advise”. The likely result is everybody talking at once. This is a real setup for a midair collision.
Flying something big or fast, even when 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 am certain that I won’t interfere with pattern traffic, and weather conditions would make circling risky. We should teach all our customers to do the same thing.
Aviation citizenship is important on the ground too.
Even the smallest plane can blow things around a hangar or fill it with dust, just by turning the wrong direction. You can teach pilots to avoid this by something as simple as taxiing past an open hangar before they start a turn.
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. He just hadn’t been taught to reduce RPM to idle after startup. We should teach pilots to whenever possible copy ATIS and get their clearance before they start up and then move the airplane away from the restaurant area, or any other populated area, right after start up.
The other day a couple 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 go was saturated, but the airspace in other directions would allow immediate take-offs. No one could move, however, because they had blocked the path to the runway. When tower 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.
We should teach pilots that anyone waiting for an IFR clearance should pull out of the way, if possible, to allow other aircraft access to the runway—even if they are otherwise ready to go. Many times a faster aircraft or one going another direction can go out ahead of them. It will cost them virtually nothing in the way of time and it will save others a lot.
We should teach pilots to think kindly towards ATC. We pilots can often be an anti-authority crowd. I remember in my early days of flying, I’d be taking off VFR and the controller would say, “Say your destination”. This would annoy me because I thought of controllers as being part of the federal government. My reaction was, “What business is it of the government where I am going?” The fact was, the controller just wanted to know which direction I was flying so he could help get me on my way.
I also used to have a chip on my shoulder about ATC when I didn’t get an altitude or route as quickly as I thought I should have. After we got a traffic awareness system that let us see the airplanes around us, I realized that the controllers were giving us the clearances we wanted just as soon as it was possible. Now I realize that they are working every day trying to solve a giant puzzle in the sky to get everybody on their way efficiently.
After having flown internationally, I have come to greatly appreciate our ATC system. I now realize that we have a magnificent system that accommodates general aviation better than anyplace else in the world. I see the relationship with Air Traffic Control as a beautiful dance in which each partner plays a cooperative role. In those cases in which a controller makes a mistake or is impatient, I remind myself that through the years I have caused controllers much more trouble than they have ever caused me.
We should teach our pilots that it they ever do feel that they have a grievance with a controller, the thing to do is call a supervisor on the phone after they land. The radio is never the place to air grievances.
We should also teach pilots to appreciate FBOs. Flying a general aviation aircraft internationally has led me to appreciate FBOs. Most of the rest of the world doesn’t have them in the way we do, and when there are FBOs, they are much, much more expensive than ours.
In most parts of the world fuel is supplied by a roving tank truck that serves the airliners first and general aviation only when there is spare time available. It is not uncommon to wait hours for fuel. By the same token, since there is no FBO, there is no place to park your airplane or rent a car. When you arrive at an FBO in the U.S. people usually come to greet you to ask what services you’d like. In other parts of the world, when they run up to you as you arrive, they say, “You can’t park here.” You have to beg permission to park on someone’s property and figure a way to schlep your luggage through the security gate.
We should also teach pilots to appreciate business jets. It is very difficult even in the U.S. for an FBO to make it based solely on business from piston-powered aircraft. Yet FBOs often accommodate us in pistons with the same service they give jets—even though jets take on 10 to 20 times the fuel. We should teach pilots to develop the habit of buying at least some fuel every time they use an FBO and of saying to FBOs, “Thanks for being here, and thanks for the service you provide.” Our aviation life wouldn’t be the same without them.
We should also teach pilots to understand their enormous responsibility to passengers. Passengers trustingly put their lives completely in our hands. They have a right to expect us to identify and manage the risks of every flight. We often fail to think about the flight from the passengers’ view point instead of our own. 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 their own needs—not their passengers. We lose a lot of potential members of our community because of thoughtless actions.
Realizing that I have been and still am 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 are trying to do, have joined the aviation klutz club and inconvenienced me. One of the things we all need to remember is 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.
As new pilots come into the industry they will make the same kind of annoying and frustrating mistakes that we made when we started flying. We need to be tolerant of these mistakes, including those of the rusty old hands who still make an occasional faux pas.
I know that I have been least considerate of others when I have 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. We need to teach pilots to slow down and enjoy what they are doing. They will become safer pilots, have more fun, and be much more considerate towards others.
We need to teach pilots that to be thoughtful aviation citizens, they don’t necessarily have to put others ahead of themselves. They just need to think about the effect they have on others. It will cost pilots very little, if anything, to minimize that effect. The little effort it does take will pay rich dividends to them directly from safer, less stressful flights, and to the aviation community from greater support for airports and more pilots who stay with flying.