The Malone Col­umn

If you know you're bril­liant, you need some­one to tell it like it is

Pilot - - CONTENTS - Pat­malone Pat has worked as a jour­nal­ist on three con­ti­nents and is a fixed-wing pi­lot and for­mer he­li­copter in­struc­tor with 1,500 hours TT

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?

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