The Malone Column
If you know you're brilliant, you need someone to tell it like it is
Some decades ago, I shot off to California with a bunch of mates to participate in the Robinson Safety Course at Torrance Airfield outside Los Angeles. There were maybe thirty people on the course, all male, and we were a pretty capable bunch – Americans with mirror shades and stetsons they didn’t take off indoors, Australian ranch hands in kneelength boots, Brits who quietly gloried in the exalted title of ‘helicopter pilot’ and found it hard to be humble.
The course was full-on, five days, culminating in a flight with a factory test pilot that put the R22 through its paces and no mistake. My guy was an ex-vietnam Huey jock, and after turning the machine inside out we essayed an autorotation almost down the Number Two funnel of the Queen Mary in Long Beach Harbour and ended up with a low-level run back to Torrance, “not above 500 feet”. Loved it.
When we got home we petitioned Robinson for the test pilots’ appraisals of our performances. They were reluctant at first – they were for internal consumption and they didn’t normally dish them out – but eventually they sent them over. To say we were taken aback is not enough; we were stunned. Particularly me. The highest mark I had been accorded was ‘average’. Handling: below average. Anticipation: below average…
Below average? What had I said to upset this guy? Every instructor I’d ever had, fixed-wing and rotary, knew I was significantly better than average, and said so. I had more than 100 hours of incidentfree helicopter flying! Maybe it was company policy, a liability issue… I couldn’t figure it out, and I was pretty burned up about it. I even thought about sending them a letter, to set them right on a few things. Never got round to it.
A few years later I started training to be an instructor. Well, a PPL instructor need not be any wiser than a PPL, but he needs to understand in depth everything he was taught as a PPL, theoretical and practical. He needs to fly sufficiently well to coordinate his instruction with what is actually happening to the helicopter as he goes along. He needs to do the right thing in a precise and timely manner, and he needs to inculcate in the student a culture of safety. It was then that the full truth of the matter came home to me – I was crap. And when I was at Torrance, I must have been even crapper; I was lucky to get ‘below average’. Looking back, I was – still am – astounded that I could have been so arrogant that it never crossed my mind even fleetingly that the Robinson test pilot could have been giving it to me straight.
For me, the epiphany came at that time in life when, if you’re lucky, you begin to suspect that everything you believe is wrong, and the more passionately you believe it, the more wrong it’s likely to be. Doesn’t fit all circumstances, but it’s a good rule of thumb. It happens to most people, but not all; some remain bumptious and self-
It never crossed my mind that the test pilot was giving it to me straight
satisfied until the day they kick the bucket. And while we spend our time teaching people to handle engine failures, lousy weather and all the rest of it, we’re not so good at shaking misplaced self-confidence out of the equation. Malone’s First Law of Aviation states that a pilot’s ability and understanding is in inverse proportion to his readiness to gob off about it on a web forum or in a clubhouse bar. It is a law established through years of self-study, and it’s vitally important, because arrogance and ignorance, which so often go hand in hand, are where accidents go to happen.
Some of the greybeards I instructed with were well-equipped to prick selfimportant balloons. Bill Barrell, an old curmudgeon who’d been flying helicopters since the war, had a student whom he thought seriously full of himself. This chap was a partner in a City finance house and had bought a Squirrel, and Bill was struggling to teach him to fly it. Finally Bill had had enough. “Take me back to the hangar!” he said. “You’re not listening to a word I say. Get out of the helicopter and go and do something else, because aviation’s not for you.”
Bill went in for a cup of tea and a fag while this chap walked up and down outside muttering “He can’t talk to me like that”. Then, to his credit, he sought Bill out. “You’re absolutely right. This is your world, not mine. Let’s go again, and I’ll try to do what you say.” And he became a good pilot; unfortunately he lost his medical quite young. Me, I would have been worried about him not coming back. I found myself doing my best to build up my students, even those who were clearly not frightened enough of the machine; accentuating the positive, reinforcing the good points, avoiding undermining their confidence – the very things that had worked too well in my own case.
I’ve been fortunate enough to interview some of the world’s best pilots – 'Winkle' Brown, Alex Henshaw, André Turcat, John Cunningham, Duncan Simpson, Jim Lovell to mention a few – and they all had one thing in common; they couldn’t muster an ounce of arrogance between them. Really good pilots, however exalted, genuinely embrace criticism. I recall a day spent with the Red Arrows at Scampton when, during the debrief, they were unsparing in their appraisals of their colleagues’ shortcomings – one might even have thought there was a row going on. In the civilian world, it would have been deemed inexcusably impolite. But those guys are too good to be arrogant.
It’s not enough to grit your teeth and accept the criticism of others – critical selfappraisal is what will keep you alive. Only you can find the right balance between selfconfidence and self-awareness. Arrogance and ignorance are the great enemies of safety. Arrogance is often a cover for insecurity, but ignorance isn’t a cover for anything – and we’re all in a position to do something about both.
A decade after my first visit I went back to Torrance for a Safety Course refresher and my appraisal was, by some distance, not as bad. And forty years into my flying career I’m sufficiently secure to admit that I’m still aspiring to be average. And at the risk of sounding arrogant, may I ask whether that fact – just maybe – makes me safer than you?