Over the last 20 years, Dana and I have collectively provided more than 15,000 hours of flight instruction to hundreds of students. With our extensive experience, we can quickly determine a person’s capacity to be a safe, responsible pilot by a behavioral characteristic we’ve come to call “pilot-in-command-ness.”

According to FAA regulations, the “pilot in command” of the airplane is the person who is solely responsible for the safe outcome of the flight. This responsibility encompasses not only the act of flying the airplane from A to B without breaking it or violating the law, but also providing for the well being of any passengers. We’ve found that individuals who demonstrate pilot-in-command-ness tend to share the following characteristics:

  • They take responsibility for their training from day one. They arrive early for lessons, take detailed notes during ground lessons, and ask intelligent questions that let us know they’ve been doing their homework.
  • They do not make excuses for poor performance. Instead, they acknowledge their mistakes and see them as opportunities for improvement.
  • They want to earn their flying privileges, and don’t expect or want these privileges to be handed to them just because they’ve met the minimum requirements.
  • They have excellent self-awareness and are able to control their actions and emotions.
  • They take charge of situations and are able to make decisions quickly.
  • They are able to perform under stress.
  • They are confident in their abilities, but recognize their own limitations.
  • They are disciplined in their life outside of aviation (work, domestic responsibilities, exercise, etc.).

An important part of a flight instructor’s job is to maintain a positive, fun learning environment while guiding students through their flight training programs. The FAA Aviation Instructor’s Handbook provides insight into various psychological theories as to why flight students behave in certain ways. “An effective instructor uses knowledge of human behavior, basic human needs, the defense mechanisms humans use that prevent learning, and how adults learn in order to organize and conduct productive learning activities,” the handbook states. “Instructors should be prepared to deal with a number of circumstances in which motivation levels drop. It is natural for motivation to wane somewhat after the initial excitement of the learner’s first days of training, or between major training events such as solo, evaluations, or practical tests. Drops in motivation appear in several different ways. Learners may come to lessons unprepared or give the general sense that aviation training is no longer a priority. During these times, it is often helpful to remind learners of their own stated goals for seeking aviation training.”

While a good instructor will support a student’s motivation to learn, the instructor cannot and should not be the sole source of the student’s motivation. As the old saying goes, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Once a student pilot passes the practical test and becomes a full fledged private pilot, they are largely on their own to act as pilot in command. Unless the student joins a flying club or makes the effort to become actively engaged in the local aviation community, there is no established structure for maintaining the pilot’s motivation to do what is necessary to act as pilot in command.

The FAA requirements for acting as pilot in command of an airplane are surprisingly limited. From the day a student pilot passes his check ride and earns a private pilot certificate, he can legally act as pilot in command for the next two years with little to no recurrent training or regular practice required (see FAR 61.57). So from a regulatory standpoint, the FAA is not providing much motivation for a pilot to maintain proficiency. The FAA Private Pilot Airman Certification Standards (ACS) states that “the goal of the airman certification process is to ensure the applicant possesses the knowledge, ability to manage risks, and skill consistent with the privileges of the certificate or rating being exercised, in order to act as Pilot-in-command (PIC).” But there is nothing in the ACS that requires the examiner to evaluate the applicant’s motivation to maintain proficiency once the certificate is issued.

This is why we at Holladay Aviation emphasize “pilot-in-command-ness” when training and evaluating our students. We are looking for people who possess not only the required knowledge and skill to pass the test, but who demonstrate an inherent motivation to step up to the plate and do whatever is necessary on any given day to fulfill their duty as pilot in command. Pilots who demonstrate “pilot-in-command-ness” don’t have make perfect radio calls or lay down butter smooth landings all the time. They don’t have to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of the FAR/AIM. What they do need is an inner motivation to keep learning and improving. What we are looking for are people who are willing to accept that they probably don’t know what they don’t know; who go the extra mile to prepare detailed and accurate flight plans; people who think logically and are able to evaluate situations accurately and quickly; and people who are able to consistently make safe decisions. These are the people who give us, as the instructors, confidence in letting them act as pilot in command of our aircraft.