Should I Become a Pilot in Command?

One hot morning back in June, just before my pass to Qatar, an instructor pilot approached me as I was getting off work for the day. He asked if we could talk outside -- in a tone that indicated I had violated a regulation or acted insubordinate in some way. I followed him with my mind racing, wondering what he wanted to discuss. He began with a disclaimer that I needed to hear him out.

He pauses often while talking, as is his nature, and in a his halting way told me I needed to check my attitude in the cockpit; that I was too argumentative and needed just to follow instructions from the PC (pilot in command). I was defensive and did not respect the authority of the pilot in command, the instructor pilot told me. He was right, but as I began to answer to the accusations, he quickly cut me off, saying, "let me finish ... let me finish." I backed down and listened.

"There was a PC meeting last night and your name came up as a candidate for pilot in command. I was chosen to inform you of their opinion of your progress as a pilot. They concluded you need to adjust your attitude and hit the books harder, learning more about the aircraft systems."

I shook my head in agreement and said, "Yes sir!" We parted ways without another word.

While I walked back to my wood hut, I thought about what I had been told. This was not the first time I had considered becoming a PC. I imagined many more hours would pass before I was comfortable taking on the responsibility. At this point I was about200 hours in country, 350 total, nothing compared to the vast experience of many of our pilots in Alpha company. Three pilots flying with the unit served in Vietnam and each of them hold thousands of hours as pilots, individually. Collectively they hold tens of thousands of hours.

None the less the conversation gave me cause for thought. Would I be ready to take on PC? I decided to hit the books and try to log as many hours as I could in preparation.

By Bert Stover |  August 1, 2006; 7:33 AM ET  | Category:  Al Taqaddum, Iraq
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Comments

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I have never known you to shy from a challenge. Since your Jr. year in high school, I have never known you to not naturally take responsibility when offered.

Your pleased former teacher.

Posted by: Alex J | August 1, 2006 07:55 AM

If they did not respect you, they would not have mentioned your name. Obviovsly, a lot of discussion took place and it must have been very positive, or the IP would not have approached you. You are flying in Iraq. What could be more challenging than that! Take the challenge, but do not lose your sense of humor, nor take yourself too seriously.

Posted by: aces | August 1, 2006 09:36 AM

Bert, trust the judgement of your PC's....they would not put you in a position that they felt you were not ready for, and they also see how you fit into the bigger picture of the unit. Stay focused and good luck!!

Posted by: KR | August 1, 2006 09:56 AM

CWO2,
Welcome to the military! You obviously have the right stuff if you are seriously being considered for aircraft commander. Please take the instructor's comments to heart.

You're obviously very intelligent and a well respected, but junior aviator. The difference between being a good co-pilot and the aircraft commander comes with -- as you have already summarized -- many years and hours of in the air experience. The stuff that will get you and your crew in trouble is a lack of exposure to different situations.

I am also a fellow rotor head (recently retired Navy) with several thousand hours, and can certainly verify you'll be in countless new and old "been there, done that" situations in your career. Flying close to the earth and often at night or in poor weather conditions doesn't leave a lot of room for error. Cockpit discipline and solid execution will keep you alive. I would have to agree with your instructor that the flying is neither the place nor time to argue. Leave the questions about why the aircraft commander performed a certain manuever to the debrief. Only challenge in the cockpit when performing checklists or when you know a maneuver to be unsafe or prohibited.

Read up on aircraft mishaps (as you know military doesn't have accidents) - they are a cause and effect relationship. Often the true cause is pilot error for failing to execute properly for a system malfunction or out-right flat-hatting (showing off - or performing stunts which are prohibited). Flying is much like riding a bike or driving a car. What makes you really good is having the maturity and respect to know when to knock off the fun and complete the mission safely. The US Taxpayer has entrusted you with a multi-million dollar sports car - have fun with it but don't mess it up!

You've must have heard the adage that a helicopter is more than a 1,000 parts moving in opposite directions trying to tear itself apart. Only when each part performing its function correctly is it able to fly. If a component gets out of line, the whole system crashes. A few words of advice... don't be the malfunctioning one in the seat.

Good job on the column and good luck flying. Enjoy your tour - keep your turns up!

R/
CDR L

Posted by: CDR L | August 1, 2006 10:15 AM

Never a flyer myself, thank God, but can endorse comments that encourage suggestion rather than argument with superiors.

Presumably, PC has tactical command of the machine.

And always memorize manuals and operational statistics; seek mentoring more often.

Posted by: Old Sapper | August 1, 2006 11:07 AM

Burt,
Those vets from Vietnam with the thousands of hours started out in the same position you're in. They probably were sent overseas fresh out of flight school with less than 200 hours total and within a couple of months were made PIC in the UH-1. Think of it as major step in your aviation career. It can be a very positive one and you'll appreciate what the IP told you. Just remember one day you'll have to manage a crew including a co-pilot who you will think needs to check his attitude in the cockpit; that he is too argumentative and needs just to follow instructions from the PC (pilot in command). He will be defensive and does not respect the authority of the pilot in command. Then it will be up to you to nuture and guide him.

Good luck and God bless,
A former PIC

Posted by: Bill | August 1, 2006 11:12 AM

Dear Burt,
It seems that you were given some very useful advise from folks that have been there and done that; don't dismiss it.

The responsibility you are being offered is awesome and the consequences of failure can be life altering if not life ending.

The answer is already inside of you somewhere, all you have to do is find it. The way to find it is to be sincere to yourself. If you accept the responsibility be aware that you will make mistakes. That comes with the territory. Do everything in your power to be the very best that you can be so that regardless of what may happen, you can look in the mirror and know that you did everything that you could to have a successful mission.

If you don't feel like you are ready for the challenge or you simply don't want the responsibility - that's OK too. Better to pass than risk your life and that of your crew to make someone else happy or prove something to someone.

Regardless of what you decide, my prayers will be with you. Good luck.

Posted by: James | August 1, 2006 04:30 PM

Just reiterating what the other guys have said but adding the following. Just remember flight school and when your school instructor told you something he expected you to pay attention and remember it. Always and with good reason. Stick with it, best to keep your mouth shut, listen to your elders, and take it all in. The experience is coming as you mature with every minute flying. It's also not personal. Those guys who discussed your skills must have something to base their belief that you have what is necessary to hand you a PC, just let it happen with time. I'm old (56-4) and fixed wing but the same things apply. Good luck and God speed.

Posted by: WallyB | August 1, 2006 05:11 PM

I never flew a plane, but I logged a few thousand hours in the back of the plane.

The only thing I can add is this: the day you take command of the plane, you become the instructor. Your job, besides keeping everyone alive, is to train your replacement(s). If you have a co-pilot who wants to argue with you in the cockpit, you'd better be ready with the facts and with complete awareness of the situation, so that all he can say is, "I guess you're right." Then HE learns from the experience too.

Posted by: Jerry B | August 1, 2006 09:52 PM

There is a leavening of spirit that comes with experience. It's crucial that your youthful exuberence, and self confidence - so necessary in your very challenging endeavor - NOT morph into arrogance. It will get you killed. In instrument training , one must come to accept what the aircraft is telling you, rather than your own senses. .....There was a student that wished to learn from a famous Zen master. As they sat together for the first time , the student babbled on excitedly. Saying nothing , the Master instead began to pour tea into the young man's cup. He continued to pour , even as the hot tea started overflowing.The student jumped up with a shout of surprise. The Master said, 'You are like this cup , so full of yourself that i cannot add anything more.' I've made my share of stupid mistakes in general aviation. Obviously , the tolerances in military ( and combat ) aviation are far more stringent. You must listen w/ our ears AND your mind. Good luck, keep the dirty side down, and the pointy end forward !

Posted by: jimbobuddy | August 2, 2006 01:23 AM

Bert,

What are you talking about - other than to generate discussion here on this Washington Post website?

If you are still a CW2 aviator - and wish to stay in that honorable avocation, it's not likely you'll progress much further unless you attain a PIC (Pilot-In-Command) rating. And you've said nothing about qualifying in multiple aircraft. So why even write about the topic?

Listen and learn from some of those crusty CW4's - I am certain that by now you have been exposed to more than one.

Fred Evans
LTC (Ret), US Army
email: fredevans50@yahoo.com

Posted by: fredevans50@yahoo.com | August 2, 2006 07:01 AM

Bert,

Take it all in stride. After 26 years in the Army, I have seen my share of pilots who are PC material and those that are not. The best advice I can give you: Attaining PC status is a license to learn. You will do things in the aircraft as a PC that challenge your abilities. Learn from your mistakes and those made by others. Remember the your ACT classes..the most conservative repsonse is generally the best response..If it dosn't feel right then it probably isn't. Don't look at the last hour your flew, think about the next one you need to fly. Keep the greasy side down.

Great work you are doing over there.

v/r

CW4 Randy Cupit

Posted by: Randy Cupit | August 7, 2006 10:40 AM

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