Do you need to be good at maths to be a pilot?

This is one of the most common questions from people who would like to learn to fly, but it is far from the only one. In fact, there are loads of misconceptions about what it takes to be a pilot, and what they must be ‘naturally’ good at.

So if you’re thinking about getting into flying, you might think you need to be:

Good at maths

Let’s get this one out of the way first. It depends on what your definition of maths is, but it’s certainly true to say that maths doesn’t have to be a primary interest or something that you particularly enjoy. You just need the fundamentals.

For British audiences, if you have a GCSE C grade in maths then you understand all the concepts that you will need in for even the commercial theory course.

Understanding the basics such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division is pretty much essential, as you would expect. You will also need to understand or learn very basic algebra, and concepts such as ratios and the display of data in graphs and charts.

You will sometimes hear aviators refer to ‘pilot maths’, this is nothing complex; in fact, it’s quite the opposite! Pilot maths refers to rules of thumb or simplification to a really basic level so that it can be done ‘by pilots’, who are usually doing something else at the same time.

That brings us nicely on to…

An expert at multi-tasking

This one comes up a lot, mostly from people worried that they won’t make a good pilot because they can’t concentrate on the TV while they cook dinner. But the truth is, this isn’t the same thing. Believe it or not, pilots themselves are rarely truly ‘multi-tasking’ anyway because the limitations of the human brain generally make it a bad idea. 

Next generation cockpits will allow a huge amount of information to be intuitively displayed to the pilots. Hill Helicopter photo.

It is widely considered that a human brain can only do one complex task at a time properly, so it stands to reason that a pilot controlling an airliner full of passengers shouldn’t try to do more than one thing at once.

This sounds absurd when you consider how complicated airliners are, but the aircraft themselves are designed to reduce the complexity of the information presented to the pilot, who has trained and practiced. Having two pilots on board also means that you have one brain constantly checking the other.

When people talk about pilots being good at multi-tasking, they are usually referring to division of attention or task-switching. This comes down to being able to recognize and prioritize between competing demands and it is usually possible to train these skills into a prospective pilot.

One of the most realistic depictions of an aircraft emergency in film. The qualities that enabled the crew of Cactus 1549 to save all their passengers were undoubtedly the product of training and practice.

Repetitive training can also turn what looks like a complex task into almost a reflex action, and this is what allows pilots to handle situations like engine failures and other technical aspects of aircraft operation with apparently deft confidence.

Speaking of which…

Confidence

“I wouldn’t trust myself” or “I’m not confident enough” are two manifestations of the same misconception about the fundamental role of the pilot. Dig a little deeper and ask what people mean when they say this, and you’ll find out that they believe they can’t be a pilot because they would make mistakes.

By far most important kind of confidence in aviation is having the courage to ask questions. Artem Maltsev photo

The truth is, like everyone else pilots frequently make mistakes. The procedures that they follow, and often the aeroplanes themselves, are designed to catch these errors or minimize their impact on safety. It’s actually really important that pilots are able to recognize when they’ve made a mistake and admit it. They also need to be able to question those around them and accept that questioning of themselves. Rather than be faultless, pilots need to actively search for their errors and be prepared to learn from them.

The impression of confidence often goes hand in hand with calmness under pressure. Aviation can certainly be a pressurized environment, where a measured demeanour will keep tempers even and get the job done.

But this isn’t what most people are referring to here. They mean being able to keep a cool head in a crisis, such as an in-flight emergency, and their mental image is of the pilots and crew calmly and confidently applying their expert knowledge to solve the problem. Most pilots will tell you that actually, the right thing to do under these circumstances is almost always to follow the procedure that was written for it. That’s what pilot training focusses on and that’s why pilots seem so confident; they are doing what they have practiced.

The confidence to do this comes from endless practice, not bluff and bluster. Neil Mark Thomas photo.

If you can learn to handle new situations that push you outside of your comfort zone, you’ll be well prepared not only to undertake pilot training, but also for a lot of other things that life throws at you. Whether it is rock climbing or public speaking, learning to overcome something that frightens you is a really powerful skill.

However, the confident image that pilots project is usually the product of the fact that they are doing a job they love, and are used to interacting with a variety of people to get it done. I can speak from experience when I say that there are tonnes of pilots who would rather be away from the limelight. A pilot’s confidence usually stems from the belief that their training has adequately prepared them for anything that might go wrong, rather than believing that they have the innate ability to tackle anything.

Hand-eye coordination

Speaking of innate abilities, probably the top misconception about becoming a pilot is that you need good hand-to-eye coordination. This may have been true in the past, but it is becoming less important as the control of aircraft is designed to be more intuitive.

Often, people referring to hand-eye coordination are talking about dexterity or fast reaction time. In reality, little in flying that relies on either.

What most people mean when they invoke hand-eye coordination, is the ability to move the controls of an aircraft with both hands and feet, to make it do what you want it to do with precision. Well, the same is true (if not truer) of digger drivers, and it may be no coincidence that a good friend of mine who flies warbirds and teaches military pilots to fly, grew up driving excavators!

Hand-eye coordination. Probably not as critical as it once was for aviators! Library of Congress photo.

The truth is that aircraft are controlled in a very specific way that you will be taught from your first flying lesson. The controls have been refined over years, and the aircraft designed to be ever more predictable, so if you have the hand-eye coordination to drive a car, you can almost certainly learn to fly an aeroplane. It’s an important ability, but it’s a long way from the top of the list.

When asked what skills pilots need, most pilots will list the ones that they have, or that they value in others, and these are unlikely to be the ones that are innate, because those go unnoticed.

It’s easy to forget that most of the skills that you have as a qualified pilot are the ones that you learned during your training, and which get constantly practiced and refined. By far the most important skills to have before you become a pilot, are the ones that will help you to learn the skills you need when you are one, and these are nothing to do with practical aptitude, and much more related to how you interact with others.

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