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Observing a Lot by Just Watching


Article appeared in Flying Magazine May, 2017 by John King

Flying is always deeply satisfying, but for the last three decades or so what has made it especially so for Martha and me has been flying together as a two-pilot crew in an aircraft that requires two pilots.  To us, it is a graceful dance—a special way for us to enjoy intense and intimate teamwork while sharing our deep love of flying.

Pictured here are King Schools CEO Barry Knuttila the right seat, Martha is PIC and John is in a seat he is not accustomed to. on the Falcon 10.

Flying together hasn’t always gone so smoothly for us.  For ten years Martha and I flew our Cessna 340 on a circuit to 50 cities a year teaching our ground school courses.  The Cessna 340 was, of course, a single-pilot airplane.

Since we were both flight instructors, it was all too easy for the pilot-not-flying to slip unsolicited into flight-instructor mode.  Since the pilot-flying hadn’t requested any flight instruction, it was very easy for them to resent the instruction and resist.  Meanwhile, the one in instructor mode would be annoyed and frustrated that their instruction was being ignored.

Often by the time we got home, we’d put the airplane away in stony silence and drive home with steam coming out of our ears.  We weren’t having a good time flying together and sometimes it could be flat out dangerous.

It takes a lot of patience, practice and respect to be able to fly and thrive as couple. Here is John & Martha near the start of their journey.

It’s no wonder.  We had never been trained to operate as a crew and we simply didn’t know what we were doing.  Like most of us, we never got that training until we learned to fly as crew in an airplane that required two pilots.  After we learned to fly as a two-pilot crew it became the most rewarding flying we had ever done.

One of the most important things we learned as a two-pilot crew is to treat each other with great, almost extreme, civility and respect.  The one of us designated as second in command addresses the pilot-in-command as “Captain.”

Another thing we learned from our training in two-pilot operations was that the captain needs not only to accept input from the other pilot, but to solicit it.  After all, the most important role the second pilot plays is to catch mistakes in procedures or strategic risk management.  To fulfill this role, they must able to challenge the captain.

Martha and I have to be very careful to ensure these challenges don’t represent a threat to the captain’s authority, or descend into a husband-wife argument.  We know from experience that it is not comforting to our passengers to see John and Martha arguing with each other in the cockpit.

We were taught to make a challenge in reference to standard operating procedures (SOPs).  SOPs are pre-thought-out ways to do things to provide the safest, most efficient results.  We learned that the pilot-not-flying needs to offer information, not an opinion.  Plus, that information has to be delivered in an agreed-upon, standardized format.

For instance, when I am the co-pilot I am not allowed to say, “You’re too low!”  This, by the way, as I know from personal experience, is guaranteed to start a fight over how low is too low.  What I can say is, “Altitude 3,400 feet, and descending.”  That’s information, not opinion, and it’s helpful to Martha because it’s precise.

Or when I am flying, Martha can (and frequently does) say, “Bank angle 40 degrees and increasing.”  Again, this is precise information that is useful to me, not just an opinion.

Now another part of this deal is that the captain has to respond properly to challenges.  Since our standard operating procedures say our maximum allowed bank angle is 30 degrees, I can’t just say to her, “That’s OK, I know what I’m doing.”  Nor can I just say “OK” and keep on doing what I was doing.  The only thing I am allowed to do (and this is tough for me) is say one word, “correcting.”  And then I have to take action to correct the situation.

The word “correcting” acknowledges the non-standard operation and represents a commitment to return to standards.  If I say “correcting” and fail to make the correction, Martha is not only authorized, but required, to say, “No correction noted.”  If I still fail to make a correction, she is to assume I have gone brain-dead and say, “I have the controls.”  I can assure you that Martha is quite willing to do this.

As you can see, for us, getting along in the cockpit means that while the authority of the captain is clear, so is the responsibility.  The captain is required to fly by standardized procedures, and to accept and respond to challenges when the procedures are not standard.  At the same time, the non-flying pilot must provide information in an acceptable format.

Our shared piloting in our old Falcon came to an abrupt halt for Martha and me recently when the FAA denied me my medical certificate.  I can fly with her in an aircraft that does not require two pilots, and I can even handle the controls.  But until my appeal is a finally resolved, I can’t be a required pilot.  As a result, Martha has had to recruit and train other co-pilots.

Watching Martha in action with them has been a great learning experience in multiple ways.  One of the most important things I have learned is how to be a knowledgeable passenger without interfering with the crew.  I’ll have to admit this has been difficult for me.  I have for more than a decade been a crewmember in that very aircraft.  But while Martha is only a little bit better pilot than I am, as the captain she is entitled to full respect from me.

Now that my role is to keep my mouth shut and observe, I have become aware that Martha not only has learned to practice good crew resource management, she has learned a lot more.  She has had to recruit and train four other copilots who had to learn our standard operating procedures.  Three of her new co-pilots had military turbine experience.  One came up the piston general aviation route.

She has learned to work with them as crewmembers with thoughtfulness, kindness and patience.  She gives them the help they need with specific avionics.  She gives the different pilots room to do the cockpit checks differently as long as the key things are covered.  She isn’t picky about read-backs as long as they are complete.  And she solicits help with situational awareness and error trapping.  She gets a great performance from each of them and sees to it that they are having fun.

Meanwhile, I have petitioned for a hearing by an NTSB Administrative Law Judge regarding my appeal.  I am eagerly awaiting a response.  In spite of the fact that I am observing a lot by just watching, I am eager to get back in a pilot seat next to Martha.  After all, it never has been one of my fantasies to watch Martha with other men—even if only as flight crew.

Late news:  After I submitted this article, I received my medical certificate from the FAA with a restriction of “valid with another qualified crewmember.”


  1. Frncisco Tames

    Buenos días

    John y Martha.

    Happy to read your story. One day I wrote to you because my son is a pilot also.

    I just retire from flying after 44 years I retire from Volaris Airlines in Mexico on a Airbus 321 with 27,368 total hours.

    Now to keep my mind busy I am teaching technical English to private and commercial students pilots.

    Yesterday one instructor was playing your video in meteorology and I found it very interesting and profesional. Congradulations. The school bought all your videos. I love how you explain the subjects.

    My son Rodrigo who flew with me in my last flight has just been upgraded to captains position at only 24 years old.

    I want to felicitarlos both in your flying and instruction courses.

    I would like to share some photos with you both. Just tell me where I can forward you he photos.

    Best regards
    Capt Francisco Tames
    Retire Volaris Airlines México

  2. Tom Ortman

    Great article on Crew Resource Management as well as the communication skills and attitudes needed in the cockpit of high performance jets. As always your stories provide a lot of insight into effective ways to fly. Maybe some day I can get you in the back of the Lear and watch us as a crew. I value your observations. So glad to hear you are back in the saddle.

  3. Allen Stanley

    So happy to hear this news. I saw a video today with you boarding the plane and had to make a right turn and sit down…I want you both to know that I started flying at 19, did my solo in 5 hours and got plenty of hours just flying on a student license. I gave it up after my first try at passing the exam written part, FAILED!! I’m now 63 and planning on giving your teaching DVDS a try, who knows I may pass…
    I would love to say I’m a Pilot…..

    • Pilot One

      Thank you for your business. If you would like you can call in and upgrade your DVDs for online courses. Those are updated for the life of the course. Have fun flying.

  4. Gary Frick

    I am hoping that the AOPA and EAA will revisit the PRB II and return to the original plan of 180 SP or equivalent without a 3rd class physical revisit. Simply speaking it would expanding the LSA category. There’s a lot of pilots that are past that 10 year benchmark that are perfectly healthy but are concerned about what could happen. I guess it’s like going to Vegas if you win, win big and if you loose; well you’ve lost everything and for me the thought of not flying at all is not worth the risk

  5. Casper Broadus

    I enjoy the courses you guys teach. I continually revert back to your courses for review. You two are a wonderful team. Continue to be that way. God Bless You both. How do you say it, keep the dirty side down and the clean side up. Lol, Thank you for all you do. I’ve learn a lot from you.

  6. John Franks

    While watching your Private Pilot course you stated “You have never been lost in an airplane.” Very Funny. Guess sitting in the back is as close to being lost in a plane as you have ever come.

  7. Ken Moore

    John & Martha, I scored a 95 on my exam years ago thanks to your flying videos and test review, you have updated them once and I bought the Cessna Learn To Fly online course as part of my rusty pilot relearning process, so my thanks to you both. John, glad you made it back into the cockpit! I more than chuckled at your describing Martha as willing to take over the controls, guess you could’ve married a bad pilot and died at a young age. 😏 Fair winds and happy flying to you both!

  8. Jeffery Scott Pelton

    Great you can get into the seat John. I hope the restriction will be removed.

    While I’m not multi engine qualified, during my career, I sat right seat in various multi engine aircraft while in the Navy. That and my other position as EWO/Radar in P-3 aircraft, as the OTHER Safety of Flight position by NATOPS, besides the Plane Commander over the years. I learned the NECESSITY of knowing the Plane Commander in flight, and the Plane Commander had to learn how to work with me. 8000+ hours, flying with many Plane Commanders, from the places like Adak, Thule, Kef, Diego Garcia, Japan, CREW COORDINATION, and SKILL got us home.

  9. Jim Wills

    My flying career has grown up and matured thanks to the tutelage of John and Martha King. As I approach my dotage, I am struck by the melancholy thought that it won’t be long before I will be unable to fly – at least there’s far less time ahead than behind. I hope you and your lovely spouse are able to fly to at least one hundred. After that, I probably wouldn’t fly in jets with you.

    All best,

  10. Kevin Bolender

    Good luck John and Martha, I wish you plenty of the greatest commodity in life, Good Health! John, I’ve been on a special now for 12 years, and haven’t been able to proceed with a professional flying career (restricted to third class).
    I’m a product of your flight training on all levels including my CFII renewals. We met once, when a group of us from ‘Paul Kramer’s Learn to Fly’ (KPMP) attended a Cessna affair in Orlando. I now Fly my personal C340A and enjoy your sharing of your experiences of your days in the Twin Cessna! Thank you both for being John and Martha King, your courses are productive, enlightening and enjoyable! Semper Fi, KB

  11. Kevin McDowell

    Excellent article! I am going to share it with my wife because we also love flying, and there are so many important life lessons in this piece that you have written. I always appreciate your light-hearted but yet clear style of communicating, along with the impressive amount of important information that you share.

    It’s great to hear that John ultimately received a medical.

  12. John Thomas

    Life is such a journey! Thank you for sharing your experience with frank and warm candid impressions.
    I have always wished to be a pilot. I’ve been on the commercial airliners since I was 2, but as missionaries my family could not afford it. Now i’m 43 and have a 9 year old son who is keenly fascinated with airplanes. When my father was alive he took us to the national air and space museum and my son was so astonished at the inventions. What sweet memories.
    Flying an airplane one day still continues to be one of my dreams.
    Take care as you continue your wonderful program!

    • Hector Torres

      Dear John, I am 41, soon to be 42 and finally made the decision to pursue a career change as an airline pilot. Let me tell you, often times I feel like I am fooling myself! I started training back in 2015 and I’ve had to stop twice, making the endeavor that much longer and expensive. I finally am scheduled for my Private Pilot check ride on 8/1 and am terrified! but then again, I have a dream to pursue. Don’t give up, you never know what opportunities life will bring about. Here’s hoping I pass on my first attempt…good luck!

  13. Alan L. Carpenter

    Congratulations John, on getting those wings back to flapping!!!

    Dr. Alan L. Carpenter
    El Paso TX
    Sport Pilot King School

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