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Captain Speaking — License to Learn

by Capt. Ron Rapp

Few comparisons are as unlikely as an aircraft to an onion. Yet — both offer similarities, because there are so many layers one can peel back. I have been flying the Gulfstream IV-SP for five years now, and on every trip I discover something new. Most recently, for example, a mechanic informed me that it was legal to fly the aircraft with one of the wingtips missing.

This goes to show that the one constant in the life of every professional aviator is learning. We have to be experts on aviation law, meteorology, aircraft systems, human physiology, and dozens of other topics. We learn mostly through practical experience, but even after reaching the highest certificate and rating status, we still undergo regular federally mandated training of one sort or another. We simply are not allowed to fly without it.

Every six months I head to Dallas for a long week of recurrent ground and simulator training. We review every single system, from hydraulics and electrics to pressurisation, engines, fuel and oil systems, and more. We then get to experience various failures and extreme flying conditions in a full motion simulator. Apart from that, there are international emergency training procedures, courses on FAA regulations, hazardous materials handling, and so on. As a flight instructor, I also take a refresher course on teaching fellow pilots every 24 months.

“YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT TINY MORSEL OF INFORMATION MIGHT SA VE THE DAY WHEN THE CHIPS ARE DOWN”

Pilots take this stuff pretty seriously. Many of us go beyond the required elements, pursuing what I call ‘electives’. For instance, I frequently fly tailwheel and aerobatic aircraft, in order to keep my manual flying skills at the highest possible level. This helps to ensure I’m fully prepared to deal with any upsets caused by windshear, wake turbulence, autopilot malfunction, severe weather, or other causes.

Pilots share experiences, delve into maintenance manuals, and read aviation magazines. We’re even known to pore over accident reports. It sounds morbid, but learning what not to do can be as powerful and important a lesson as anything you’ll find in a textbook. You never know what tiny morsel of information might save the day when the chips are down. After all, as one flight training company puts it, “the best safety device in any aircraft” is a well-trained pilot. Because aviation is so unforgiving of carelessness or inattention, the learning must continue throughout one’s career. In a larger sense, it’s part of the human condition. Much like a flower, a human cannot remain static. We’re either blooming or wilting.

I remember the day I earned my pilot certificate. It was a beautiful Christmas Eve nearly two decades ago, but it still feels like yesterday. The examiner sat me down and solemnly said that the piece of paper she was handing me wasn’t proof that I had reached the pinnacle of flight, but rather was simply a “license to learn”. I’ve tried to take that message to heart. That day, as I got into my car, still floating on cloud nine after my check ride success, I promised myself that the day I stopped learning, it would be the sign — and I would hang up my headset and walk away from the cockpit for the last time.