Skill vs Judgement

If I look back to the day I got my private pilots certificate over 20 years ago, I don’t think I was ever as technically proficient. Sure, I couldn’t do the commercial manuevers, or shoot an ILS to ATP standards, but my precision, and finesse in take offs and landings was never better. It was the same with straight and level. I could hold +/-10 feet for extended periods, and it was rare I would deviate much more than +/-50 feet. Of course at the time, I was shooting about 50 landings/week, and my goal was formation flying, so I worked for precision. My judgement at that time, well thats another story.

I often wondered why private and commercial pilots had to jump hoops in order to fly a specific aircraft with insurance whereas the CFI would only need a cursory checkout to teach in such a plane. This excludes of course multi-engine aircraft where we need 5 hours in type. I think its the judgement issue.


As a CFI, we capture a lot of experience very quickly, much faster than just earning a rating, or flying from A to B. As quoted from cut to cure, which they quoted from Training.

“Good judgment comes from experience, experience comes from bad judgment”

And what does a CFI do. We teach judgement, and skill. Skill is pretty easy, we know the PTS, we know the manuevers, we understand rudimentary educational psych, and we can tailor our teaching to the student. It is a rare student indeed that cannot be taught the skills to fly, at least to the level called out by the private pilot PTS. But judgement is the tough one.

As far as teaching judgement goes, we use textbooks, sims, and scenarios to try and demonstrate proper and improper judgement. Our students put us in situations that prior to that, we never would have experience. The net result, is we have a ton of bad experiences due to our students lack of skill, which serves to increase our own personal judgement. We also take students out into MVFR, high density altitudes, and high crosswinds routinely, in other words, we fly with them when we personally would not choose to if it were just a personal flight. Its one of the ways of teaching them judgement, but it also serves to keep our skill and build our judgement. It is however critical, that, we ourselves down grade what we know that we can safely handle, such that if the student puts us in trouble, we still have a good safety margin to recover. This is known as CFI judgement, and for some amazing fact, at that point in time, it seems to come very quickly, just like the first time you solo a student. Every mentor will tell you; “you will know when the time is right”. Every newbie CFI can’t believe it, until it happens.

I guess judgement is the same deal that surgeons have to work with. They are finally getting decent simulators, (a rad friend from many years back had to build his own, some type of funky borescope deal back in the early 80’s). And with them, they can improve skills, but sims although safer than an airplane, still don’t cut it when it comes to judgement, just as cut to cure alluded to when they compare lectures and texts with actual experience.

Sure, in a sim, I can fail a students instruments, I can throw unexpected weather their way. I can fail an engine and create a host of troubles that would be way to dangerous to do with a live aircraft. I’ve experieneced getting soaking wet with sweat in a sim. It seems realistic, but its pretty hard to preload a pilots emotional and physical status. In the sim, there are no deadlines, no passengers that have to get to a meeting, no air ambulance patient that is in trouble enroute (one of the reasons, that its common practice not to let the pilot know whats going on back there). We also can’t we emotionally burden the pilot with family, work, or personal trouble that can impair their judgement, nor can we sleep deprive them, or make them sicker than a dog after eating a proverbial pilots vending machine lunch.

In a nutshell, about the only thing long term we really can do is to have our students set absolute limits, and then let judgement build on its own with in those limits. At least during IFR flight, the FAA’s limits are pretty cut and dried. Eg at DH, its go or no go, but the bigger issue is, what is the appropriate adder to DH for a newbie. What is the limit on fuel, what are the limits on sleep, what are the limits on forecast and enroute weather. And what happens when the young pilot just looks at DH, or VFR fuel minimums, or encounters ice, or rapidly deteriorating weather. Thats where experience enters in, and from that, is where judgment is born.

Gee, I sure wish if was as easy as the graphic in my first FOI, where they had a pitcher of judgement, and all one had to do was pour it into a hole in the students head.

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