Ruffled Feathers: Airmanship

By John Wyman, EAA 462533, Chapter 266 Montreal

From The Ground Up

I recently came across a ninth edition copy of From The Ground Up by Sandy A.F. MacDonald while rummaging through some old aviation books. I estimate it was published around 1954, based, in part, on the old advertisements in it for new de Havilland Otters and Avro Canada CF-100 Canucks (the Clunk) then flown by the RCAF. A close mentor of mine used to fly those. I have a fondness for old books. They lend you an insight to the past and how information was passed along then versus how it’s presented now. There’s something to be said about “old school” teachings that differ greatly with their modern counterparts that are all business and no play. Yup, I’m from the ol’ school camp.

Right after the ads and introductory summary (bio) of the author’s life is the first chapter of the book – Airmanship. The elementary summary on the cover has it at the top before the other seven parts of what a student would then think what flying was all about (yes, exams are par for the course). It subconsciously implies that you may think you know what it’s all about, but unless you start at the letter “A” you ain’t goin’ nowhere until airmanship is briefed. It even comes before the theory of flight that every student must know to fly. You’d think that knowing how the Wrights made it into the air would be at the top of the hierarchy of knowledge. Nope. Airmanship comes first. It’s important!

The Rights and Wrongs of Airmanship

What is airmanship and why did it merit so much attention then, and are we giving it enough attention now? In this particular 1954 edition the author states that “There are two ways of doing anything, a right way and a wrong way. With the exception of a certain episode which amused the world once upon a time, the wrong way in aviation is generally the quick and certain way to keep from growing old.” In other words, if you mess up, you’ll pay the price with your life. I believe the ‘exception’ was a reference to Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan — another great story. Some stuff gets lost with time. It then goes on to talk with a bit of flavor about “Captain Wise” and “Flatspin Fumble” who are at odds with one another in the way they approach flying. Captain Wise, being the right way to fly and oppositely Flatspin Fumble being the wrong example. It states that “Airmanship is the proficiency in the knowledge of handling and operating aircraft on the ground and in the air.” It is still used today. To answer the last part of the first question — I think it could be emphasized more now. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be at the top of the charts over the technical subjects and the regulations that the schools focus on. Of course, these are important subjects, but I also think that more could be done in the curriculum today at the schools as evidenced by the lack of airmanship imparted on their students and reflected by private and commercial pilots alike.

This is the crux of the matter. It was valid then and it’s valid now. But how often have you seen other pilots who aren’t practicing the concept? If you step back and take a look at it, it’s a pretty simple subject. Common sense comes to mind first. Then again, there’s a real lack of that these days just from what you see on the highways. So, it is a bit more all-encompassing. I like to think that it is a greater awareness of the people around you and how your actions (or inaction) can inadvertently cause grief or worse, cause them undue risk.


One of the things that happens all the time is a pilot’s lack of attention to their aircraft’s propeller blast. This is really frustrating, especially for the owner who’s just cleaned his/her ship and the offending aircraft taxis into the gravel/dust-covered ramp, and then decides at the last minute to turn their airplane with its tail blasting dirt and debris into the hangar all over their machine. You ask “Really, couldn’t you have just shut er’ down and turned the plane around by hand?” Then, if that airplane made the mistake of stopping first and then accelerating to make said turn, its propeller would suck up all kinds of pebbles, damaging it! If the mechanic who just serviced said aircraft saw the pilot doing that,  they’d get an earful  — unless he’d already given up on that point knowing that any knowledge he tried to impart on the offending pilot would sail in one ear and out the other. So, in this case, airmanship pertains to two elements — one, respecting your fellow aviator and two, respecting the aircraft.

A large part of airmanship is just this — respect. It’s applicable in the air and on the ground. It’s even applicable around the airplane without the engine running. Take for instance an example that was shared with me from an instructor, colleague, and friend. He chose to debrief a student by explaining to them that by leaving the airplane in a disheveled state that they were being disrespectful of the next person who’d fly the airplane, or, in other words, they demonstrated a lack of airmanship as the airplane was left unfilled, parked in a rut, controls not locked, uncovered, and with a cockpit strewn with scraps for the next unlucky soul to clean up. Surprisingly, said instructor was berated by the student’s father for trying to impart some airmanship onto them, who just happened to be the son of a fellow pilot at the airline who the father asked for instructional help! Hard to believe, but true. Personally, if he went to the trouble of lecturing another company pilot on airmanship with his son leaving an airplane in a bad state, I, for one, wouldn’t want to take the next leg of the airplane he was flying when it pulled into port!

Another question, relating to airmanship, is to ask, why do we do circuits? Or, specifically, why do we enter an uncontrolled airport on either the crosswind or downwind legs? Couldn’t we just as easily land an airplane from a straight-in approach as long as we adequately make our intentions known? It is often pretty tempting (considering the cost of avgas) to just skip the routine of a circuit and land because there are always other pressing matters on our agendas. Besides, if no one is around, what difference does it make? The difference is that it doesn’t demonstrate good airmanship. For starters, there could be a NORDO aircraft around. Some aircraft still rely on battery-powered radios (like gliders or J-3s or ultralights) and if you’re not saying visually what you intend to do with the airplane, by flying a circuit, then you’re not really demonstrating that your intention is to land. That’s the real purpose of the circuit. Fundamentally it states, by your actions, what you intend to do with the airplane. It also gives you the chance to study the airport environment and know what the conditions are. Is the wind the same here as it was over there? What’s the surface like? Where’s the mower — is it parked out back behind the barn where it normally is or is it out there with Charlie cutting the grass?

Is Airmanship Taught or Innate?

I think it is a bit of both. A lot can be imparted on the student or new aircraft owner from day one. Just showing up on time and ready for the lesson is a demonstration to the instructor that you’re responsible and that airmanship might come easily. In the same breath, I believe it takes time to learn its subtleties. You don’t arrive at the circus knowing all the tricks to the acts. The same can be said about flying. We are not instructed to do a walk-around on our car each time we leave the parking lot, nor is it necessary. Though it is when flying, so it’s taught until it becomes a habit. If you make a mistake forgetting that walk-around just once, only to realize that the pitot cover was left on and you’re forced to return to the airport to remove it, then the mistake reinforces the error of omitting the walk-around in the first place. Voila. You have been imparted with a bit of airmanship to heed the next time around. Now you know that forgetting or skipping a walk-around is not good practice and it demonstrates poor airmanship. All the more reason for having it in a checklist, right? It’s probably a worthwhile item in the list, but what about if you just knew that good airmanship dictates that you do it every time, without a checklist? That takes the effort out of having to think about it.

It is often just a question of repetition and practice that enforces good airmanship. In the glider community, we perform a positive control check every time (with no exceptions) after “rigging” a glider (that means putting it together). This entails one pilot holding the control surface and another moving the stick or rudder. If there is too much play or a surface hasn’t been attached to a push/pull rod or cable, it’ll be discovered at this point prior to flight. I personally know a pilot who just narrowly escaped disaster when this was not done after rigging. The elevator seemed to move but it wasn’t attached. Fortunately, the elevator’s push rod was designed in such a way to still move the elevator in one direction (up), ultimately preventing it from colliding with the ground. “When in doubt, check it out” is another good expression that I like to use anywhere around airplanes. Being suspect to a flickering oil gauge could lead you to discovering that the oil leak is from the oil line to the gauge and your airmanship dictated that it was a good idea to return to the field, or seeing that the lights in the cockpit suddenly went down a notch signals perhaps that the alternator has just kicked out and that if you don’t do something about it (like land ASAP) the battery might not last long enough for you to handle the approach or seek help on the radio.

No matter how you look at it, airmanship is the final product of respect, experience, and hard lessons learned. It is often that sixth sense that triggers you to ask “Hey, this is something that I heard or read about and is it the right or wrong thing to do?”

John’s a self-proclaimed airport bum. When he isn’t in the saddle at the airline, he can be found out at the airfield doing any number of things. He likes to fly gliders, practice aerobatics, work on airplanes and fix stuff…

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