Birdman or Birdbrain?

Logged: 03 October 2019

It’s common knowledge among pilots that air traffic controllers as a species have a belief, born it has to be said of some justification, that inexperienced pilots can be more hazardous in the vicinity of airports than a flock of birds. Some would say they’re more hazardous than terrorists. When events overwhelm them they have an inclination to panic and land on the nearest flat open stretch of ground, regardless of where it is.

There’s no hard data about the number of pilots who have turned onto final approach for a car park, but the figure is probably embarrassing. Nobody knows what it is because pilots are a close-knit and suspicious group, like mutant villagers in a Hammer Film from the 1960s. They doodle self-consciously on table tops in an abstract way when asked about near-misses, and don’t talk to strangers. In their defence, and unlike Hammer film villagers, they don’t chase anyone across the moors armed with pickaxes and baying hunting dogs; not often anyway, unless it’s in pursuit of someone from the Civil Aviation Authority. If it is, anything goes.

Alert controllers are usually all that stands between a child-like voice saying “Xray Echo – turning finals” and a brisk afternoon’s business for the emergency services. Experience has trained them to intervene quickly enough to prevent a tragic conclusion to short finals for a car park or the bus lane. Unfortunately, there may have been instances where a controller’s loss of patience has been elevated by a sense of mischief. It can lead controllers to remain silent, while a tense fool attempts to land just ahead of a dawdling bus. With an air of resignation that “this is for the best” the controller just lets nature take its course. It means one fewer class three medical certificate to be re-issued later, but that’s the way it goes sometimes. It’s the harshness of Darwin applied to aviation; survival of the fittest.

In case anyone’s wondering, a class three medical certificate is something all pilots have to seek prior to going aloft. These have to be issued by Civil Aviation Authority approved doctors following a physical examination. Re-issue is mandatory because the certificate expires every two years. Cynics might say this is because two years is the maximum life expectancy of a stupid pilot, so their certificates don’t need to be valid for any longer. Aviation isn’t inherently dangerous, but it is inherently very unforgiving.

Student pilots who weather the initial storms of sensory overload when first introduced into a real cockpit, then go on to being hosed with venom by flying instructors, apparently just for the effrontery of occupying physical space in the aircraft. From there eventually they graduate to a phase known as learning. These lessons comprise the bricks of knowledge that will build the platform from which a pilot’s license is issued. Just as bricks require mortar, learning for pilots requires contempt from instructors. It’s the cement that holds all of the lessons in a fixed position. Without it, students would be all over the place, like dogs going through puddles. The underlying message is don’t make excuses, and pay attention.

Within the context of a very unforgiving environment, it makes sense for instructors to be harsh. It’s rare to get a second chance at 2000 feet when you’re on your own. You can’t pull over to the side of the sky and think something through, or wait for somebody to come and rescue you. Whatever it is you have to deal with, you have to deal with it now. Don’t expect fairness or coddling. Being savaged on a regular and routine basis is sound preparation for the harshness of circumstance in relation to random weather, or aircraft component failure. What it teaches above all else is the necessity of dealing with the situation immediately, and not wasting any time in a thumb-sucking fantasy that “it’ll probably all be alright if I just carry on”. If aviation has its foundations in anything, it’s in an absolute reverence for the truth.

The seed that grows into flying is often something planted subtly in childhood. I know mine was. For most children who go on to become pilots when they get older, it starts innocently enough. Swooping about with aircraft models, or with arms extended while making an approximation of jet or propeller engine sounds, is the first worrying symptom (though it’s a lot more worrying if someone’s doing this as an adult). Most small boys used to go through a phase where they made instinctive use of condensing breath during cold weather in a naive quest to pass as a steam engine. They grow out of it quickly enough. Even if they don’t, nature intervenes and robs a child of it’s steam as soon as winter gives way to the milder weather of spring. Aeroplanes, however, are a year-round madness. They don’t only manifest when it’s cold. Wherever there’s air, a child can make aeroplane noises. If there isn’t any air, well, you’ve got much more serious problems, so your priorities really need looking at if noises are all you’re concerned about.

First flying lessons are an odd compendium of thrills and utter humiliation. Light aircraft are exceptionally lively in the air. They twitch unexpectedly at the slightest gust, and produce corresponding twitches from novices. Pilots try vainly to stop the nose from going up or down, the wings from rolling one way or the other, and the nose from yawing to port or starboard all at the same time, plus monitoring heading, airspeed, altitude, engine rpm, temperatures and pressures, and (during the early stages of training at least) position in the circuit. This leads inevitably to a condition in novice pilots known technically as brain lock. It’s a phenomenon that occurs along with a droning sound that should not be confused with the engine. The droning is the voice of a weary instructor reminding a pilot of everything they’re not doing that they should be doing. The list is generally a longish one.

Typical student pilots emerge from their first lesson haggard and humiliated, though the hardier among them can manage a weak smile. Aviation is in their blood if at that juncture they buy a log book and resolve to do it again, and again, and again, and again, all at enormous expense to their finances and dignity. If ever anyone asks for a textbook definition of madness, direct them towards the nearest flying school.