You’re at the local airport. You watch landings,
What do you take away from the experience?
Gossip, certainly – if you're standing there with fellow pilots. Comfort, possibly – if you feel you can do better than most of what you're watching. Or perhaps chagrin, if the reverse is true and a recent example of your own work sticks in your craw.
But there is a more important take-away: forming an opinion or evaluation by discerning and comparing.That is the dictionary definition of judgment. And the aviation version of judgment is more practical: if I find myself in this situation, can we do it?
The we in the last paragraph refers to you and your airplane. You learn skills and you memorize your airplane's limitations. You are a team.
The situation is whatever pickle you're going to get into on your next flight. Can I land on a 2000-foot runway?
You look up the Landing Distance Required in your Flight Manual or Pilot Operating Manual. For my N-Model Bonanza I find 1600-2000 feet (no wind, 75°F. or less, 2000 feet pressure altitude or less). So we can do it, right?
Not so fast. The runway at my local airport is just under 4000 feet long. I consistently turn off on the center taxiway, but not without some braking. I have a bit too much speed over the fence and I float too long. So I'm not quite ready for that 2000-foot strip. My airplane is, but I am not.
Here is another clue. My POM also lists Landing Distance Required for a Short Field Landing. Same configuration, but the over-the-fence speed is 5 knots less. Instead of 1600-2000 feet, the required distance is 1200-1400 feet. Add five knots and add five hundred feet! Nope: my energy management – hey, my hands and feet, if you get right down to it – are not good enough yet.
Why not, you may ask? After all, I have been a pilot for 45 years. Well, two things: first, I'm 68 years old; and second, after I retired from airline flying I didn't touch a yoke for six and a half years. So I had to write exams and do a lot of re-learning. Now I'm learning the hands and feet again.
In short, for the moment my airplane is better than I am.
Hours, Experience, and Judgment
How do we discern and compare on the road to developing pilot judgment? First, look at the one or two Bottom Guns who touched down in the last 1000 feet. “Good enough,” they say. I guess so, if their airplane can stop in that distance. Then the fifty percent who touched halfway down. “Plenty of runway left. No sweat.” These guys are like me. Their airplanes are better than they are. It's just a matter of how much better.
What's missing? A path to learning judgment.
Experience is measured in hours. Judgment, theoretically, comes from experience. But it is not automatic. Hours of flight or even hours of practice take you nowhere unless they are accompanied by some discernment and comparison. Neither the Bottom Guns nor the halfway-down-the-runway pilots are safe trying to land on a 2000-foot runway. But do they know that?