Bob Hoover once told me that “if flying is boring you, you’re not flying accurately enough”. I’m not sure what you make of his words, but here are my thoughts.
As pilots, we strive for perfection. Every time we strap into or strap on an aircraft, our goal is to achieve the elusive, perfect flight. I say “elusive” because in my 21 000 hours of airline, sport and other types of flying, I’ve yet to attain perfection in flight.
The Perfection Dilemma
One of the biggest problems with this quest is that the more your flying skills improve, the harder it becomes to pull off a flawless flight. This statement might not make sense to you, but think of it this way: For a student pilot learning to fly steep turns, a 100-foot height gain or loss is acceptable. As you get better at flying those steep turns, the height gains and losses get smaller and smaller.
You should be happy right? No, because as your skillset expands, your tolerance for your errors or inaccuracies shrinks. Tiny mistakes feel catastrophic when operating at a level of excellence.
Back in the day, the Virginia Airshow was the event for South African airshow pilots to showcase their skills. It was the biggest and best show of the year: a great venue, good weather and a hugely festive crowd.
Pilots would start rolling in on the Thursday and Friday afternoons. Friday was a practice day, with all the pilots from the interior and reef taking advantage of the thick coastal air, and getting as much flying done as possible ahead of the weekend show.
If there was ever the possibility of performing a perfect display, it was at the Virginia Airshow. Virginia set you up for success with its moderate temperatures, a low-altitude airfield and, more often than not, very little wind.
Set up for success
I know we’re cooking from the moment our breaks release! The join-up is fast and crisp; you can feel the energy and excitement in the formation. Rolling in, four aircraft feel like one. No movement from the wingmen, the first two manoeuvres are perfect.
It’s going to happen today − the perfect flight! As we reach the display’s halfway mark, I haven’t moved. I’m thinking of the calls I’m going to get from the Blue Angels, Thunderbirds and Red Arrows, all begging me to come and fly for their team.
Going into the last loop of the day − a three-ship line abreast loop, I still haven’t budged an inch. I pat myself on the back, thinking that Chuck Yeager could learn a thing or two if he wassitting back seat.
Fuck! A momentary lapse in concentration in the midst of my delusions of grandeur see me float outside the leader over the top of the loop, slipping back half a foot. Perfection out the window.
Now, on any given hot and bumpy summer day, half a foot would mean nothing, but today it feels like a country mile! As I said, the better you fly, the smaller your tolerance for error. We complete the show without any other mistakes but that half foot gnaws at me for the rest of the weekend.
I never received any calls from the Blue Angels, Thunderbirds or Red Arrows, and my great hero Chuck Yeager sadly passed away a short while ago never having known my name.
Perfection − the quest of a lifetime
The great fighter pilot Robin Olds said he learnt something new on every flight and warned against thinking that you know it all. Achieving excellence in aviation requires huge focus, dedication and commitment.
Your flight begins before you enter the plane and only ends once it is safely secured. Every detail of your flight must be considered, from starting the engine to how you apply the brakes. Smoothness and accuracy are the goal in every phase.
And of course, flying is not just about flying. There are so many different niches in aviation, all biased and weighted in different directions and areas.
The skillset required to fly an airliner is very different to that required to fly aerobatics. Having said that, however, whatever your niche or the direction you take in aviation, there’s no substitute for a solid foundation of good, old-fashioned flying skills.
Flying is a lifelong journey in learning. I’m not sure if perfection in flight is attainable, but every time I strap into an aeroplane, whether it be for fun or for work, I strive for perfection. Who knows, perhaps one of those flights will be the ONE.