Smoke On Go

Mental approach vs raw talent

Which is more valuable- the right mental approach or raw talent?

I have mentioned in a past article, that (for me at least), a good pilot is someone who is utterly reliable in being able to always successfully and safely achieve their flying mission, whatever it may be, under all conditions and circumstances to a consistently high standard.

The question is, to achieve this, is it better to have natural talent, or to rather have the right mental approach to flying?  Assuming of course that you must make a choice; most great pilots I know have both.  It is an interesting debate?  I will try answering it based on my own experiences.

How it all started

I remember my very first logbook entry. After my inaugural flying lesson, I marched into the flight office, opened my shiny new flight bag, pulled out my unused logbook and proceeded to proudly and very carefully log my very first hour as a flying crew member.

A good friend of mine who had recently earned his license (and who is today a test pilot for Boeing), was watching, and said something that seemed a little odd and that I did not understand at the time – he said something along these lines – “I hope that you will always be able to take the same care with all your log book entries, I hope you never use ditto marks in any of your logbooks, and I hope that this care is reflected in every minute that you have in the air.”

I did not think much about that comment at the time, but I did remember it, and over the last 36yrs that I have been flying, I have never used a ditto in my logbook, I have always taken care to write as neatly as I can, and I have always tried to fill in as much detail in the comments column as possible, including – people, places, and even important lessons. This has been tedious at times, but what I initially never thought much about, has now became a firm habit.

Welcome aboard

Fast forward a few short years from my first lesson, it is now 1989 and I have logged a few hundred hours as pilot in command. I have done the required training and I have successfully passed all the requisite tests and evaluations, including preparing and delivering lectures as well as the dreaded instructor flight test. Hence, I am now legible to apply to become an instructor at a local flying club.

Having all the required qualifications sorted, I now just needed to get past an interview with the CFI and a senior club member (a hugely experienced a very well-respected pilot).  From my application form, they knew all important details about my hours and qualifications, so I was surprised when I was asked to bring my logbook to the interview- did they perhaps not trust me in filling in the application accurately?

While the CFI quizzed me, the senior pilot slowly and silently paged through my logbook. He seemed to be analyzing every entry in some detail.  When he finished doing this (it didn’t take too long, as there weren’t that many pages back then), he looked up, smiled and asked one or two short benign questions, and then quickly and simply said “you can instruct here, welcome aboard”.  That was it!?  No deep probing interview, no long-winded intimating interrogation, and no trick questions.  

He saw my surprise and, being a perceptive chap, he answered my unasked question by saying – “I can tell almost everything I need to know by simply looking at a pilots log book”.  Now I was really confused, What? How? 

Cherish every flight!

Years later when I had proved myself as a worthwhile instructor, and when we had become friends, I asked that senior pilot about our interview and the importance of the logbook. I asked him if someone’s handwriting perhaps reveals deep secrets about their personality to an experienced flyer like him.  Or was he perhaps some sort of a flying oracle or soothsayer that could discern the future from the pages of an aviator’s logbook?  

He laughed and replied, and it was something far simpler and more obvious – he went on to explain something like this – “the way a logbook is maintained doesn’t tell me about a person’s character, but it does talk much about how a pilot approaches their flying. For example – Is every hour valued? This can be determined by the detail that one chooses to capture in the comment’s column.”

He went on to explain that if a pilot does indeed appreciate and even cherish every flight, then they are also likely to want to get the most out of every hour and would therefore be a pilot who was constantly seeking to develop their abilities and improve their performance with every single flight.  

He described other things that he looked for, such as – is the format (and ink colour used) consistent?  This tells him how methodical a pilot is. All very practical stuff- no wizardry or mystical sixth sense.

As far as neatness of handwriting is concerned- that, he said, is not relevant. You can have terrible handwriting but still keep a consistently neat and methodical log. Good handwriting is like natural flying talent- great if you have it, but not relevant if you are neat and try hard, and totally wasted if you are sloppy.

Coordination and technique take time

Where you start on the skill gradient is not that relevant after a few hundred hours.  Just don’t ever plateau- keep getting better.  By way of example, one of the most famous pilots of all time, The Red Baron Von Richthofen, took over 30hrs to go solo. This was in an era when one was washed out of the air force if they were not solo after a mere 12hours. He was certainly no naturally born stick and rudder pilot- yet became one of the most successful pilots in the demanding arena of air combat.

I have said before that the difference between a naturally talented pilot, and one who is less so, is about 50hrs. Even the most ham-fisted flyer will gain the requisite skill and finesse after working hard for 50hrs. Imagine if you worked consistently hard for 5000hrs or 20 000hrs.  

I have flown with some hugely talented flyers around the world. People who pick up things in an instant, and who have proven their immense ability by winning dozens of medals and trophies. Yet- I would not allow my family to fly with one or two of them.    

And then there are the pilots who take a little longer to pick up the necessary coordination and technique, but who possess a burning desire to always learn, coupled with an ingrained humility. These are the people that I trust, these are the dependably good pilots.

It’s all about the approach

Technique and coordination are critical components of flying, but equally important is situational awareness and correct decision making, and these skills are developed through learning and through experience. The benefits of experience can be greatly accelerated if one analyses and learns from every hour. Hence, the enemies of skill development are laziness and ego, if you think you know it all, then how open are you to learning more?  And if you are so enamored with your current talent, how driven are you to improve, and how many great lessons are you missing?

Talent or approach? For me, approach wins hands down; and the really great thing about this is the fact that whilst you can’t do much about the talent you are born with (or not), you can determine your approach to flying.  Even if you are supremely naturally talented- how much better could you become if you had the right approach to flying?