If I had a nickel for every time I have heard the cliché that the pilot certificate is a “license to learn,” I would have at least 25 cents in my pocket. That would be more than I have now, mostly because I keep my pocket change in the car. But the point of that cliché isn’t to create cents in the pocket as much as it is to create sense in the head.
On its simplest level, the idea that the certificate is a license to learn just means that now that you’ve got your ticket, don’t let it get to your head and turn into a hotshot. You know, there are old pilots and bold pilots….
Over time, however, as is true for many cliches, I have come to better grasp its significance. Certainly, or perhaps arguably, our primary training does equip us for the task at hand. We couldn’t pass the written test without knowing what a mode C veil is and what we need to do if we’re in it. But realistically, many of us (don’t look at me) just memorize the answers and often forget them soon afterward. Passing the practical test is another thing. It means that we have convinced the examiner that we can make the airplane do certain things and do them within certain limits. It’s a good test, the practical one, because frankly, there aren’t too many people who could pass the practical test without having developed some skillset along the way.
So, what we know when we get our certificate is that we can do some things passably. If we know our capabilities, and we know our limits, and vow never to fly beyond them, shouldn’t the certificate be enough?
Flying, as is true with the rest of life, brings surprises that will push us beyond our limits, so it makes sense to keep getting better at what we do just in case we have to resort to doing something out of the ordinary, such as the unexpected mountain wave that flips your airplane around as if it were a pair of pants in a clothes dryer.
A newly minted plastic certificate is, or at least should be, a symbol that you have mastered fundamental skills, and now have a sense of what you can do. That’s important, certainly, but it’s less important than knowing what you cannot do. The real challenge for the examiner ought not to be that she is assured that you can perform certain tasks within prescribed limits, but rather that you have achieved a level of discernment to know what you cannot do. It is achieving that level of discernment that ought to be the difference between the day you took your first white-knuckled grip on the yoke and your sweaty palm as you shook your examiner’s hand and welcomed you to the club.
Although I have been a certificated pilot for more than 15 years, and do whatever I can to keep learning, the most important thing I have learned is that there is always more to learn. When we do our biennial reviews, it’s as important to learn a few new tricks as it is to practice the fundamentals. It could be something as simple as practicing the use of oxygen equipment and donning the gear in flight or practicing callouts—both things that my primary training never included.
It has been said that an unexamined life is not a life worth living. In flying, it could be that an unexamined life could lead to a deadly lack of humility, because if you don’t know where and how you can improve your flying you won’t know what you need to get better at, and, well, you know the rest of the story. Most importantly, you may have missed the unwritten disclaimer that ought to accompany every new certificate. Your plastic card should tell you that you have reached the point in your flying career when you know enough to know that you don’t know everything there is to know. It is a master’s degree in humility, a certificate of discernment, a license to learn.