Pilots Versus Fools

by David on August 1, 2010

Recently, I’ve been tweeting a little nugget of semi-random goodness, sometimes thought-provoking, often funny, and never a David Allen original. I find this stuff on the internet and say to myself, “Ooh, I like that. I bet at least one of my followers will like it, too.” So I tweet it.

Most of the responses to these tweets have been positive, and there have been plenty of retweets. I love interacting with people, so of course it puts a smile on my face to see this kind of thing.

In honor of AirVenture Oshkosh, my tweets this week have all been aviation-related. Here is today’s tweet:

He who demands everything that his aircraft can give him is a pilot; he who demands one iota more is a fool.
@DaveFlys
David Allen

The first (and so far only) response to this was one of my followers questioning the experience – as a licensed pilot – on which I could base such an observation. This was followed by a couple of back-and-forths regarding limits and how they are not necessarily “clear cut” when it comes to airplanes.

Frankly, this whole conversation has just been bothering me. No, I am not a licensed pilot. Those that know me also know that I am the first person to admit that I know relatively little when it comes to the operation of a flying machine. I am no expert.

First of all, this tweet was mine, but the comment was not created by me. That said, I did say it, so I am obviously behind the idea.

Now this may be a debate about aircraft limitations, but I guess my question is, why? Why would a pilot ever flirt with these limits? Don’t all airplanes have them? Yes. Is there such a thing as a limitless aircraft? Goodness, no. Every flying machine on this planet has an envelope within which it is designed to operate. The vast majority of pilots operate their aircraft in a small fraction of that envelope. They are still pilots, though and through. Many of my friends and I define a pilot as anyone who has sat all alone in an aircraft, firewalled the throttle, charged down the runway, and rotated.

Some pilots learn to use much more of that envelope. That is the guy I want to be.

But what I don’t understand is why it would ever, EVER be okay to exceed that envelope? Whether it be flying in excess of Vne, exceeding the maximum G-loading, or performing prohibited maneuvers, I cannot ever imagine a circumstance that would call for such action.

Is it possible to over G an airframe and have no damage occur? Maybe, I don’t know. I’m sure it depends on the plane and the circumstance.

Is it possible to perform aerobatic maneuvers on an aircraft that wasn’t designed or tested for such things? Maybe.

Buy why would you, as a pilot, ever want to find out? If you are wrong, it could kill you, and your passengers, and anyone on the ground that you end up cratering into. I call THAT sort of behavior foolish.

Sure there is the argument that if you get into a bad situation and need to do something outside if the airplane’s envelope to recover. But how did you get into that situation? Are you a VFR pilot who just flew into IMC and you are now in a descending dive? Do you need to pull-pull-pull to get the plane level again to save your skin? Will it work? Maybe, but the big picture here is this guy was a fool for flying into IMC in the first place. They are clouds. Stay out of them unless you are trained.

Perhaps I am closed-minded or prudish. But I feel like I have done enough flying to understand that each airplane has its strengths, its niche, its envelope. If I want to engage in a particular type of flight, I should use the correct aircraft and pursue the proper training. A good friend of mine put it this way: learn to use the full envelope of an aircraft, but only push one corner at a time.

This quote says it best:

Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.

— Captain A. G. Lamplugh

So now I need to know what you think. Am I ignorant or prudish? Am I missing the essence of being a pilot? Do I not “get” the fundamentals of commanding a flying machine? Is there ever, ever a good reason to demand more than your aircraft can give you?

Or do aircraft have limits that should never be toyed with, whether clear-cut or not?

I am extremely interested in your thoughts on this. If nothing else, I am teachable, and I am open to correction on this. But everything I know as an aviation enthusiast says that you just don’t try to make your aircraft do things that it cannot do.

What say you?

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark Jones Jr August 1, 2010 at 9:48 pm

Dave,

As a general precept, I agree with your statement.

There is at least one instance in which demanding more from an aircraft is NOT foolish. This instance is the universal exception to almost all guidelines, regulations, and principles. I like to call it “end game”. But it should, perhaps, be labeled “use only in an emergency.” If your life or someone else’s life depends on in, then sacrifice your aircraft. But be sure that you give due diligence in determining that your life depends on it, because if you are wrong, your life may depend on it. Even those of us (test pilots) who get paid to push flying machines to the edges of the envelope realize the inherent danger of living near the edge, and we have lost some dear friends along the way.

Just my thoughts.

Sincerely,
Mark

Reply

David August 2, 2010 at 3:05 am

I tend to agree with you. If a plane breaks or has some sort of critical failure, then do whatever it takes. If aircraft never had problems, we would not equip them with things like ejection seats and ballistic recovery parachute systems. But that sort of thing is incredibly rare. I am talking about the guy who demands more from his aircraft than it can possibly give him. Sure, fly the thing to its limits. Don’t exceed them, or else you may find yourself in a situation that requires you to exceed them just to save your own skin.

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Dustin August 1, 2010 at 10:17 pm

It’s all-to-true that every plane has it’s clear cut limits, be it weight and balance, G load, or Vne. But! In order to understand them, man has always had to exceed them to figure out where the limit really was. So it’s a bit of a conundrum. Aviation has always been trial and error, but those trials have led to incredible things. The X-15 is a terrifying idea on paper, but I’m sure it was a thrill knowing that you were deifying all common aviation sense the faster and higher you went. No, a good pilot would never intentionally put themselves in a situation where the limits were needlessly and senselessly pushed. But a good pilot also knows that a properly maintained aircraft will always give a little more than the POH may say. The speedometer on my bike only says 140, but the needle keeps going…If you need to push a plane, it better be a life or death situation, because doing it any other time will probably just result in death. That’s just me. Nice site, by the way.

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David August 2, 2010 at 3:42 am

First off, thanks for the comments regarding my website! I’ve worked hard on it, and I appreciate your thoughts.

So let’s discuss the “knowing of limitations by exceeding them” scenario. In my opinion, that’s a test pilot’s job. Huge amounts of respect for those guys and gals. That being said, even they had some idea what to expect from an airplane. Yes, there were people trying to set records and fly the X-15 (mmm, the glorious X-15) to 350,000 feet MSL and 4,500 miles per hour. But they (a:) flew an aircraft that was designed for such things, and (b:) already had some idea of what it should be capable.

Airplane designers don’t just throw parts together and then try to fly the result to the limits to see what it can (and cannot) do. Even the Wright brothers used a wind tunnel and had some idea of the machine’s capabilities. Will a well-maintained aircraft give a little more than indicated in the POH? Sure, I’ll agree to that. But how much more will it give before it breaks? I’m not smart enough to know how far it will go, and perhaps that is why I am not a pilot. But I would hope that when I do get my ticket I’d be smart enough not to test it.

There, perhaps, is a grey area for the very, very few that are trying to find the limits. But I don’t believe it is the job of a test pilot to try to break an airplane. I believe test pilots know what the aircraft was designed to do, and they fly it to that limit. Sometimes things go wrong, and they have to handle it and figure out where the weak link is.

My stand on the subject, at least for now, is for a pilot to know thy aircraft, and fly within its limits.

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Dustin August 2, 2010 at 7:50 pm

@Mark Jones Jr made the point I was trying to make. He just did a much better job of it. There’s always a little more, but using it is usually a one time deal. I always prefer to stay inside the happy, comfortable part of the envelopes. I stretched fuel once, and it’s far more unsettling to see the gas light in a plane during IMC than it is in a car or on a motorcycle. I see both sides. I definitely agree and understand not pushing, but as a pilot I also know that if my life depended on it, I could push, plane be damned! Live to fly another day.

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terry_flys August 1, 2010 at 11:52 pm

Dave, I think I understand where you are going with this. It is my belief that you as a pilot should be able to safely use your aircraft to the “edge of the envelope”. If you don’t know where this, get a competent CFI and find it. My reasoning for this is if you don’t know where the edge is, you may inadverdently exceed it and at best damage the airplane and at worse kill yourself or your loved ones. Of course this doen’t mean that you fly on the edge all the tine, only that you know where it is. In short, get the right training. You will be a better pilot for it.
Terry
P.S. Enjoy your podcasts. Missed you at #OSH10 Podapaluzza.

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David August 2, 2010 at 3:52 am

Exactly my point, Terry. Know thy airplane, and never stop flying it. Don’t be stupid.

Thanks for the comments on the podcast! Will and I love to do them. I am super-bummed that i missed Oshkosh this year, however, my wife has said #OSH11 will be a family affair. Hope to meet you there!

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Nona Mills December 22, 2010 at 4:21 pm

@Mark Jones Jr made the point I was trying to make. He just did a much better job of it. There’s always a little more, but using it is usually a one time deal. I always prefer to stay inside the happy, comfortable part of the envelopes. I stretched fuel once, and it’s far more unsettling to see the gas light in a plane during IMC than it is in a car or on a motorcycle. I see both sides. I definitely agree and understand not pushing, but as a pilot I also know that if my life depended on it, I could push, plane be damned! Live to fly another day.

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David January 12, 2011 at 8:56 pm

I think there is a difference between reaching the limits of a flying machine and exceeding the limits of a flying machine. You mentioned the fuel situation. If the fuel light comes on, you are low on fuel. Sure, it is plenty unsettling, especially in IMC, but it is by no means a limit. The limit is when the fuel runs dry and no amount of pilot proficiency or skill or dumb luck is going to get the engine to run and generate power without fuel. Period.

Thanks for weighing in on this! I really cannot tell you how much it means to interact with people on this.

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Avis Maxwell January 12, 2011 at 7:35 pm

Dave, I think I understand where you are going with this. It is my belief that you as a pilot should be able to safely use your aircraft to the “edge of the envelope”. If you don’t know where this, get a competent CFI and find it. My reasoning for this is if you don’t know where the edge is, you may inadverdently exceed it and at best damage the airplane and at worse kill yourself or your loved ones. Of course this doen’t mean that you fly on the edge all the tine, only that you know where it is. In short, get the right training. You will be a better pilot for it. Terry P.S. Enjoy your podcasts. Missed you at #OSH10 Podapaluzza.

Reply

David January 12, 2011 at 8:33 pm

Terry,

Thanks for your comment on this. Aircraft have limits and pilots have limits. The nano-second the limitations of either is exceeded, the potential for disaster becomes exceedingly real. Get the proper training to include a deep understanding of the capabilities of the flying machine. Then, fly within those capabilities. Only thus can a pilot not act foolishly.

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