Seven habits of highly effective pilots

6 min read

Last week a customer of our flight school earned his Private Pilot Certificate with 44 hours of aeronautical experience. Our average is about 55 and some take more than 70 which is closer to the national average.  I began to ponder how we could have this range of total experience with the same instructors using the same curriculum in the same aircraft.

While sitting at the desk in my home office, I looked up at my modest collection of books. Late last century “self-help” was a popular subject in bookstores (note: before iPads and Kindles people went to retail bookstores or the public library and read actual books written on actual paper). One of the most popular was The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People written by Stephen Covey in 1989. It had probably been 20 years since I last read this book but the 7 habits immediately came back to mind. These habits were written for business people but I think they can pertain to flight students as well. Consider.

Be Proactive

Covey would warn us not to settle into a reactive mode, waiting for problems to occur before taking action. Could anything be more applicable to flying an airplane? Flight planning, keeping potential landing areas in sight, and devising alternative plans are something pilots do on a routine basis. Being proactive also means taking an active role in flight training. Does your instructor use a training course outline? Do you see it? Do you take the opportunity to preview your next lesson, “chair fly” the maneuvers, and study the appropriate material? If so, you are being proactive – our first habit.

Begin with the End in Mind

Envision your success

This habit is about goal setting and envisioning what you want in the future so you can plan and work towards that goal. It’s easy to get bogged down in the regulations, maneuvers, radio phraseology, intricacies of airspace, etc. and forget why you wanted to learn to fly in the first place. Are you looking to make flying your career? Then picture yourself in the left seat of an airliner with a hand full of throttles. Buy yourself a captain’s hat and hang it up as a reminder of your goal. Do you want to fly for your personal business or pleasure? Plan that first big trip, whether it is to the beach, mountains or grandma’s house. Plot it on a sectional chart and put it where it’s accessible when you need some encouragement.  And then smile at the prospect and get back to work.

Put First Things First

Covey writes that leaders are able to perform a triage of tasks to see that the most important and urgent things are completed first and the less important put off to last. Pilots perform these calculations on a continual basis from pre-flight planning to post-flight cocktail. Operating within the limits of your abilities, the airplane’s abilities, and the range of the fuel tanks are always paramount. During flight training a well thought out course of study will lead to the quickest and most economical route to your certificate. That is why we practice ground reference maneuvers before traffic patterns, stalls before landings, and learn about charts, weather and airspace before cross country flights.

Putting first things first is why aircraft have checklists and why those memory items are first.

Think Win – Win

Winning involves being a good aviation citizen

Whereas the book emphasizes a win for all involved will make for a better problem resolution than if only one side gets their way, I look at win-win from the practical way we, as pilots, need to think about sharing airports, airplanes and airspace. Sure we can always assert ourselves and see that we are the first to our “favorite” airplane, keys and fuel. We can probably stick our gum wrapper in the seat pocket and no one will notice until you are well away from the aircraft. We can force our way onto the taxiway and runway and be the first in the air.

Returning for landing, we can enter the pattern a little farther downwind or on base to cut off that other airplane. If that makes you feel like a winner, consider taking up skydiving, where sometimes, the first one to the ground is the big loser. Largely the pilot population views itself as an exclusive club where a perfectly executed crosswind landing is the secret handshake and we all have learned to get along.

Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood

Covey touts the power of empathetic listening to fully consider both (or all) sides of a proposition in order to understand the best way to promote your way of thinking. In flight training, I have found our most successful students study their assignments before coming to the lesson.  The simple task minimizes the time in “ground school” and maximizes learning while in the air.

The aircraft cockpit is a lousy classroom for learning anything but the physical skills needed to fly the airplane. It is noisy, often a little cramped, and where keeping the aircraft upright and on course can take our full attention. Trying to learn anything else can lead to a cognitive overload with its tunnel vision that may keep the student from learning anything.


Pre-flight inspection

Your instructor is part of your team

The ability to synergize means to accomplish a goal by forming and working as a team. Your team is your flight instructor, yourself, and hopefully a mentor. A pilot mentor who has been through the process will be able to help you see the big picture and keep you on track. FAR Part 61 (the regulations governing pilot certification) requires a minimum amount of instruction from an “authorized instructor.” An FAA Certified Flight Instructor has that authorization so he or she is a federally mandated part of your team.

That leaves you. For the team to be productive you must come to your flight lessons prepared both mentally and physically to get the most from the time and money you are about to spend.

Sharpen the Saw

In late winter one of the chores on the farm is cleaning out the fence rows of the new tree saplings that germinated and grew last year. Working with small trees and brush growing close to the fence, the chainsaw will either make contact with the dirt or the fence dulling the cutters. In order to be productive, it will be important to sharpen the saw daily or maybe more often. Mr. Covey explains the “Upward Spiral” model where sharpening the saw with meaningful and consistent progress resulting in growth, change and constant improvement.

As pilots, we sharpen our saws by staying current. In a legal way, this is accomplished with the required landings, approaches, etc. Now we must also stay current with technology as GPS Com-Navigators replace the old Nav-Coms and our charts move from paper to tablets.

Again taking reference from the farm, if a plant is not growing it is probably dying.  As pilots, we want to continue our growth which will lead to continuous improvement.

Your instructor may teach you about the need of staying ahead of the airplane and warn of the often dire consequences for those who fall behind. Learning the 7 habits and applying them to your flight training will go a long way of getting you ahead, keeping you ahead, and making you that highly effective pilot.