Marketing departments willfully ignore the difference between objective and subjective statements, especially the marketing department claiming $3990 is an affordable monthly payment for a new general-aviation airplane. They haven’t seen the rust-perforated rocker panels on my 2008 Jeep. Or they feel my otherwise frugal lifestyle allows me an indulgence. No, thank you. I’ll keep company with those who smell of fiberglass resin, have Sitka spruce dust in their hair, and track chips of aluminum into their homes.
A marketer’s subjective proclamations (always accompanied by an exclamation mark, “low time engine!”) make great advertising bullet points but provide no concrete information. Affordable!…for whom? Easy!…compared to what? Comfortable? Who can define what you find comfortable?
Builders Are Guilty, Too
Runs hot. It’s slow. Feels tight. Seems low.
These descriptors, used by builders and aircraft owner’s describing a problem, prove builders aren’t immune from making meaningless subjective statements either. Those statements, like the marketing claims above, are subjective and provide no concrete information for a mechanic to act on. Subjective terms (affordable, comfortable, fast, hot, slow) can be thought of as opinions. They may be true statements to some degree for some people, but they don’t hold true for everyone.
Never is this more on display for me than when I work an airshow and help people try on a Sonex cockpit. One couple, both thin, tried on a Sonex and, after leaning left and right until their shoulders contacted structure or each other, de-scribed the cockpit as “tight.” Two men of linebacker proportions (that I felt had no chance of fitting) shoehorned them-selves into the same cockpit, looked at each other, and proclaimed, “Yeah, this is comfortable!” Objectively, the cockpit is 40 inches wide. Subjectively, 40 inches may be too narrow for some, and spacious for others, and there’s no telling who will judge it how.
Objective terms are statements of fact. People may interpret them differently (as I just illustrated), but they are, nonetheless, facts. When discussing cruise speed, the pilot of a Heath Parasol may subjectively define 80 knots as fast, while the pilot of a Lancair will surely call it slow. Both pilots, however, understand that 80 knots is an absolute, measurable value.
Consider for a moment how wind direction and speed are communicated to pilots: “Winds are zero-four-zero at seven gusting to 12.” It is precise because it is objective. You know exactly what to expect as you begin your takeoff roll or enter downwind. You can anticipate the control inputs necessary to maintain directional control. You can request a more favorable runway or divert to another airport if the numbers exceed your comfort level. If the winds were reported subjectively, it may sound like this: “The wind is from the left but isn’t that bad.” Not that bad for whom? Not that bad for what kind of airplane? From the left while facing which direction? A subjective wind report would be useless to everyone.
Airplanes, like many mechanical objects, particularly vehicles, are often described subjectively. I’d never want to hear a Spitfire’s appearance described as “a pleasing form that stimulates me emotionally.” Nope. “Sexy” can always describe a Spitfire’s appearance and no one will argue. But when that sexy form needs maintenance the mechanic would rather be told “the left brake drags after extended braking on a roll-out” than hear “the brakes are bad.”
Subjectivity serves us fine when we’re hangar flying with our buddies, but when we’re communicating technical matters with other builders, a DAR, FAA inspector, a mechanic, or the company who designed the kit, communicate with objective terms that can be universally interpreted. When a pilot tells me his engine runs “hot” my only option is to respond with questions, often many questions. Hot is subjective and the statement doesn’t describe the conditions under which the temperatures are observed. On the other hand, if a pilot tells me, “The cylinder-head temperature in cruise is 410°,” I’ve got something to work with. I will still ask follow-up questions, but my questions will be more specific—and I can offer possible corrective actions in my initial response.
The Impossible Question
When you ask a kit manufacturer, or the owner of the same aircraft you are interested in building, a subjective question—“Is it easy?” “Is it fast?” “Is it comfortable?” and my favorite, “Can I build it?”—you are asking them to make a judgment call on your behalf. That is something no manufacturer can do, whether they try to or not. Of course a salesman will never say their cockpit is cramped, their avionics are expensive, or their headsets are uncomfortable.
But even sales staff who want to be as straightforward as possible are placed in the position of providing an opinion. If you don’t trust sales staff, you can turn to strangers on the internet for advice. What you’ll most likely get in return are subjective statements, dozens of them, increasing your confusion and still leaving you to form your own opinion and make a decision. All of the following statements are valid: A Sonex cockpit is spacious; a Sonex cockpit is cramped; a Sonex cockpit is 40 inches wide. Only one of these statements is an objective fact, the other two are subjective opinions.
Few people will argue when you point to a Pitts Special at an airshow and say it’s beautiful, or say an SX300 is fast, but when discussing the performance and mechanical detail of an aircraft, or when you get to comparing apples with apples, be aware of the words being used so you don’t confuse an apple with an orange. Leave subjective statements to the salespeople who, with luck, will be on hand with delicious donuts, hot coffee, and refreshing soda to make the fly-in both enjoyable and successful! Wink.