Airmanship and the Max

Just finished reading this very interesting NY Times article about the Max disasters. It’s definitely worth a read if you’ve got a free 30 minutes or so. What caught my eye was this notion of “airmanship.” To quote from the article:

“‘Airmanship’ is an anachronistic word, but it is applied without prejudice to women as well as men. Its full meaning is difficult to convey. It includes a visceral sense of navigation, an operational understanding of weather and weather information, the ability to form mental maps of traffic flows, fluency in the nuance of radio communications and, especially, a deep appreciation for the interplay between energy, inertia and wings. Airplanes are living things. The best pilots do not sit in cockpits so much as strap them on.”

The article posits that the pilots of the doomed 737s weren’t so much at the mercy of faulty machinery as they were lacking in airmanship. So now I wonder - how do pilots acquire such a thing? Is airmanship something that can be taught in flight schools like ATP? Is airmanship something that just comes from countless hours of practice? Is it something that eventually clicks intuitively with an individual (and maybe not in another)? I’ve heard the mentors say many times that some just aren’t cut out to be pilots (even despite the desire). Is this one of the reasons why perhaps?

If anyone feels inclined, I would be very interested in others’ perspectives on this notion of “airmanship,” its importance in the operation of these “living things,” and how something like this might be taught, or at least promoted, in flight schools.




I read through some of the article, but I have to admit that it was too long for my liking. I have heard these arguments about the pilots and airmanship before, but I think it is generally accepted now that they were given faulty airplanes and that the crashes were out of their control.

I disagree with many of the author’s points. I feel like we in the airline industry, particularly the US airline industry do a great job of instilling airmanship into our pilots. This begins in school with understanding the fundamentals of flight, then continues on to the airlines where skills are refined and experience continues to grow.

I looked up the writer’s credentials on the FAA’s website. He does hold an ATP rating, but no type ratings, which means that he has likely never flown for an airline. I do not think that airmanship is learned by “flying aerobatics” or flying the “back strips of Idaho”. It comes from excelling in what you do as a pilot and taking pride in it. I would love to see Mr. Back Country fly an ILS approach down to 200 feet above the ground in driving rain at 160 miles per hour, that is airmanship in our world.

I would dismiss this article, but I am not a fan of the NY Times in general either.


Airmanship is not a notion, it’s a very real thing but hard to define. In fact when I used to be an instructor at the airlines we’d often have very long class discussions on the subject. To me it’s being a professional and that means ALWAYS doing your job to the best of your abilities. It means being knowledgeable, maintaining your skills, avoiding complacency and many other factors. It’s not some nebulas quality nor do you need to born with it. In my opinion it comes from hard work and dedication to your craft

As for the article I as a rule I NEVER Monday morning quarterback any pilot. I wasn’t in the cockpit so I cannot say with certainty what took place (nor can anyone else). I’ll read the report from the NTSB and have some thoughts but to publicly make statements and write articles is unprofessional in my mind.

It’s always easy to blame the dead guys, they can’t defend themselves.


Listen im not a pilot yet but ive jumped out of many helicopters in the Coast Guard. But anyways i think when new or veteran pilots should be trained from whoever airlines that have them working for them. Those jets were faulty but they need to be corrected.

Thanks Adam and Chris. This post was a bit on the theoretical side, so I appreciate your taking the time to respond. You both have a perspective I lack, and I’m always interested to hear your take on things. I like how you characterize airmanship, Adam, and note that it’s an attainable thing for anyone through discipline and hard work. It gives me a lot of confidence in air travel knowing there are guys like you at the helm.

And perfect timing, too. I’m IAD–SFO bright and early tomorrow!

Ciao! :slight_smile:


Following up after discovering this October response from Sully about the NYT article. Very interesting as he corroborates a lot of what you all said. Thanks for the discussion. :slight_smile: