Apollo 8 astronaut and former Eastern Air Lines chief Frank Borman once defined a superior pilot as one who used their superior judgement to avoid situations that require the use of their superior skills.
Superior skills would include those demonstrated by the crew of an Air Astana Embraer 190 who found themselves the unwilling participants in a terrifying 2h drama in the sky over Portugal last year, as their aircraft – its ailerons mistakenly misrigged during maintenance – persistently and violently rebelled against commands.
At one stage, the twinjet entered a left roll exceeding 90°, despite the yoke being turned hard to the right, according to simulations performed by Portuguese investigators based on flight data.
To diagnose such a problem during flight is complex enough. To deal with it requires undoing hard-wired instincts reinforced by years of training.
The situation had precedent. Some pilots – like those of a misconfigured Lufthansa Airbus A320 in 2001, saved by the first officer’s swift intervention – are fortunate. Others, like the crew of the prototype Spectrum S-33 five years later, are not. Every student pilot, before they first leave the ground, is taught to turn the wheel towards the instructor, look at the aileron, and check it deflects the right way. “Up yours, captain,” goes the mantra.
Although the error was missed by the maintenance organisation that overhauled the E190, the crew also failed to notice the problem during pre-flight checks.
There is no substitute for visual reassurance, when it essentially amounts to the difference between life and death. Better to be down here wishing you were up there, than the other way round. Any superior pilot would tell you that.