AIN Blog: Wanted: Birdbrains

 - March 1, 2012, 9:15 AM

“Birdbrain…” It’s more an insult to our feathered brethren than to the human deemed short on intellect.

Even if you have never been fortunate enough to watch at close quarters as a peregrine falcon does the avian equivalent of a transonic dive, seen a bald eagle just yards away somehow propel itself back into the sky after topping its tanks on a carcass, marveled at a hummingbird sipping nectar or watched a hawk pursue its prey through the woods without poking an eye out and snapping a wing off, it’s clear that even the lowly starling or pigeon has mastered skills that eluded man until the dawn of the last century. Troublingly, as Matt Thurber’s special report on pilot training examines, these innate skills elude some allegedly trained pilots even to this day.

Broadly speaking, ab initio training has withered under the spectacular advances in technology that have given the inanimate airplane itself more innate intuition than possessed in some cases by the pilot, thanks to fly-by-wire and the positional awareness of modern avionics displays. The concern has frequently been voiced that modern professional pilots are more steeped in systems operation than in the fine print of using the laws of aerodynamics to defeat the laws of gravity.

Two birdbrain airline pilots who (in 1983 and 2009) spectacularly pulled off deadstick landings in people-packed jetliners symbolize the payoff of putting early emphasis on solid stick-and-rudder skills as the foundation for all that follows. Their feats stand in contrast to two recent airline disasters that cast doubt on modern pilot stick-and-rudder skill. The two birdbrain heroes each had experience in gliders. That’s how I started flying at the age of 15, and the experience taught me at the outset how to recognize and nurture every knot of speed and every foot of altitude. There is a case to be made for all aspiring pilots, even in 2012, to start laying the foundations with this rawest form of flying and energy management.