My Way Or the Highway

Your hands freeze on the controls as your instructor barks out “No! Don’t do that! Why on earth did you just do that? Who told you to do it that way?” Ever been there? Say, somewhere between righteous resentment, and being humiliated into a near-comatose state? Well, it’s one thing to be debating some acknowledged subtlety of technique in a classroom, like leaning, or when to bring up the gear after takeoff in a retractable gear airplane (or when to lower them, for that matter). It’s another thing entirely when personal preferences assume the elevated stature of right vs. wrong (and worse, a pilot’s self-esteem gets pummeled in the process). In the case of new pilots in particular, it can be the greatest disservice an instructor can offer.

To succeed in aviation, we develop the athlete’s ability to live in the present moment, at times exercising every last ounce of skill, discipline, and judgment — wisdom, if you will. Well, we’re at least cognizant of what’s around us, even while we’re reaching back in our minds for the knowledge we have acquired at an earlier time. Although there is very little athletics in the serenity of cruise flight, throw in one or more of any number of challenges, and sooner or later, we all meet The Wall.

The ingredients in the recipe for what makes a good pilot don’t have quantities attached to them, and what makes for the Right Stuff is pretty fuzzy. Just as the definition of the term “airmanship” is indistinct in the minds of most, in our day to day flying we sometimes forget that there is a distinct difference between procedure and technique. Just because someone does something a different way doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a lack of proficiency involved. Yes, for many critical actions, there is only one right way — but for even more of the things we do in aviation, there isn’t just one way to get from point A to point B. That may mean going around the airplane counterclockwise on a preflight … choosing the “wing low” method versus crabbing into a crosswind on final … or even within the more rigid procedural realm of instrument flight … the exact way one chooses to enter a holding pattern.

What is procedure? What is technique? What’s the difference? Well, they’re both listed in the dictionary as being nouns… Here is a consensus on these two terms, taken from several dictionaries. The italics are mine.

  • pro·ce·dure: a set of actions which is the accepted way of doing something, or a particular way of accomplishing something or of acting. 2. a series of steps followed in a regular definite order, taken to accomplish an end. 3. a set of traditional or established forms or methods for conducting the affairs of an organized body such as a business, club, or government.
  • tech·nique: a method of accomplishing a desired aim, or a way of doing an activity requiring skill, in the arts, sport, science, etc., or the way in which the fundamentals, as of an artistic work, are handled, or the manner in which technical details are treated, or basic physical movements are used; also, the ability to treat such details or use such movements and the skill or command in handling such fundamentals.

Perhaps the best example of the difference between these two terms as they apply within aviation occurs near the very beginning of your training. Example: If you experience difficulty with something and your flight instructor recalls that different people learn differently, he or she might try a different approach (i.e., technique) to teach you a particular procedure.

So, it’s no overpowering mystery…

  • Procedure is what you do;
  • Technique is how you do it.

When I was a student pilot, I had a great instructor. He didn’t belittle me, and he didn’t show off (well, not too often) what a great pilot he was. He didn’t micromanage me, and he let me make my own mistakes (some of which I kicked myself around the block for, later) so that I could learn from them. But he had his own particular philosophy about certain aspects of flying. I flew with him during training for both my private pilot license and my instrument rating. (The residence time of the average flight instructor was much greater then, upwards of a year or more.) He always taught me to keep my hand on the throttle below 3000 feet AGL. In case something happens, my hand is already there, ready to take action, he said. (Note that he never said, “Any other way is wrong.“) That’s just what he taught me. And as we know, first impressions stick with you … a long time. Ten years go by. I’m flying with another instructor (at 2500 feet), and he sees my hand on the throttle. Why am I doing that? The rpms might creep up, he says, if I unknowingly were to push it in as I was resting my hand there. Okay, I say, point taken — and I let it go.

When someone makes a new pilot (or even an old one) think twice about something they were taught, yes, that can be a good thing — if it’s done right. One of the great benefits of flying with many different instructors is the tips and tricks you pick up. I used to agonize over not really being able to accurately tell what was the fuel level in the main and auxiliary tanks during preflights of the Robinson helicopters I learned to fly. Then one day, my CFI, Nick, shows me how, by tapping up the outside of the tanks from the bottom up, you can easily tell when the pitch changes, and thus know where the fuel level really is. (A calibrated dipstick would be better, but I’m trying to make a point here.) It was one of those “came the dawn” realizations. How obvious! Why didn’t I think of that?

But when someone dispenses information as gospel and you even suspect might involve personal preferences rather than being inviolate and absolute (and unless they have a long white beard or an FRS after their name), I would say make a note of it, sure, but keep an open mind. Always be ready to soak up new knowledge — even if it’s just a good way to do the same thing you already know how to do. The emergency procedures in your POH, the FAA regulations we must obey, those don’t have much latitude. But how you preflight, or whether you think it’s best to make your radio calls in the pattern while you’re turning because that’s when other pilots are most likely to see you … that’s the realm of technique, and the thinking pilot. We can always stand to improve our skills through procedural drills, yes. But there’s always more.

Even though we may fly with dispassionate surgical precision, it also creates a place within us for enchantment and wonder; flight broadens our perspective on the world, but it also broadens our soul. Such ostensible omniscience ought to breed a more philosophical tolerance for differences in how we do what we do, even though of course, we must respect the limits and laws of physics allowing us to fly through such an insubstantial medium as air. But don’t ever let anyone bully you out of being able to think. (I know, believe me. I’ve been there.)

BOTTOM LINE: Many things are not inscribed in stone. Holding pattern entries; leaning over-square; even such a sacrosanct procedure as how best to depart a short field has been taken to task by some of the older pelicans among us. Over three years ago, John Deakin described the difference between the “FAA way and reality” on the subject of how best to get out of a confined area in an airplane. Don’t blindly adhere to Vx, he advised. Fly over the runway at a higher speed, then pull up until you’re just over the obstacle near or at stall speed, then lower the nose, and off you go, he said. Well … I’m not going to try that with the next proverbial concrete wall, but it sure made me think. It’s interesting stuff. And if anyone’s in a thinking game, it’s us. Just remember that even though one pilot’s “technique” might be another pilot’s pet peeve, most of us are just doing the best we know how. Just remember to stay open to new experiences.