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It's in the Recovery

When I dine at a restaurant, I expect great service. We all know that things can go wrong. The food may be under or overcooked, the temperature may be off, or a serving might be dropped. Anyone can have an off day and make a mistake. If humans were perfect, just imagine how boring sports would be. Some customers tip based on how perfect the wait staff was. But it is more reasonable and fairer to base the amount of the tip on how well the server makes up for what went wrong. Errors or mishaps provide an opportunity to prove (or improve) oneself.

Mistakes are opportunities to learn. My snow-skiing instructor once told me, “Every time you fall down, you become a better skier.” The same applies when flying an airplane. Recoveries from a bounce, a stall, a spin, a flummoxed steep turn, an upset, or an unusual attitude are more important than the error themselves. Few of us can maintain altitude to the nearest foot, but most of us can correct back to our desired altitude accurately and with minimal deviations. It is the lazy pilot who is letting the airplane fly them—instead of them flying the airplane—who has large deviations.

When a pilot fails to perform a recovery, an accident happens. Of course, we can learn from these accidents if we study them. Problems and mistakes happen. They are inevitable. Skilled pilots recognize errors and mistakes early, and they are more tenacious at correcting them. The earlier an error is recognized, the smaller the correction required. For example, if you depart a fix on a long leg only a degree or two off heading, the farther you fly without applying a correction, the further off-course you will be and the required heading to correct will be greater. If you allow the airplane to wander several hundred feet below your intended cruise altitude, a full-power climb may be required. If you correct when only fifty feet low, a slight pitch change might do the trick.

Think of steering an automobile. Driving in a straight line is not without turns, but rather it is a series of corrections. A good driver’s corrections will be imperceivable. No one drives with the steering wheel still.

Making timely and assertive corrections is important but be careful not to over-correct. This is exemplified by the pilot who is constantly too high or too low, too far left or too far right, or too fast or too slow. I teach students how to correct early during takeoffs and landings. Not everyone can nail the centerline perfectly—especially without making steering corrections. It is easy to stray left or right of centerline. But when I see a pilot stray from the centerline and not correct towards it, that is when I become critical. S-turns across a centerline, however, are not acceptable either. I have yet to see this maneuver in any Airman Certification Standards. Maintaining the centerline requires a series of constant corrections. To prevent over-correction, I teach pilots to aim for the end of the centerline (where the centerline intersects the end of the runway) and then make small corrections. This starting point offers a safe heading that is converging with the centerline at a shallow angle. This keeps the airplane pointed toward the end of the runway and never toward the runway’s edge—which is somewhere you do not want to go.

I will ask students who are aspiring to become airline pilots if they know what the runway centerline is for. Their answers typically include things like obstruction clearance and such. But I reply, “no, the centerline is for professional pilots.” That usually does the trick.

Recovering from mistakes during takeoff and landing can include a go-around or a rejected takeoff. The success of these maneuvers and the aggressiveness with which they must be accomplished are proportional to how late you make the decision. Decide early, take prompt action, and perform assertively. And as always fly first, then talk. It is better to correct a mistake that was not there than to make a mistake without correction. So, when in doubt—go around or do not take off.

So, when you make a mistake, do not spend any time beating yourself up over it. View it as an opportunity for improvement. Get over the fact that you have made the error—you cannot undo that—get your head immediately into the recovery.

After my ski instructor told me that the more I fall down, the better a skier I would become, I fell a lot, and I mean a lot, and I did become a great snow-skier. It is ok to err—I’ve heard its human. Try to avoid mistakes, but when you do make them, it will be the correction that you apply which will determine your fate. It is not the mistakes by which we are measured, but rather our recovery.


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