Did you know there are more PhDs in the United States than there are pilots? It’s true. Few individuals with a doctorate are apologetic or shy about their achievement. On the contrary, many of them go so far as to attach this educational status to their very identity, adding it to their name, email signature, business cards, and more. It’s a big deal and they’re all too happy to let people know about it.
Since earning a pilot certificate places one in even more rarefied heights, it always surprises me to hear an aviator speak in apologetic terms about their flying. Typically it happens when they’re with others whom they perceive to be of higher achievement — an airline or military pilot, for example. They’ll say “oh, my plane’s just an old 152”. Or “I only have a sport pilot certificate”. I hate to see that. Whether the subject is their aircraft, training, or experience, there’s no cause for apologies. Quite the opposite. Don’t be fooled by the number of ratings on a pilot’s certificate, or assume they’re a better aviator because their logbook has more hours than yours. The worst physician in the world still managed to earn a Doctor of Medicine degree.
Brent Owens (aka Fixed Wing Buddha) recently wrote about this:
Let me go on record. If you are flying, no matter what kind of airplane, you should hold your head high. You are among a tiny population of people and you have nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it is ludicrous to think otherwise. In a sea of grounded mortals, we have a very special skill that lets us command the air. It doesn’t get much cooler than that, and it doesn’t matter what kind of aerial conveyance you choose.
In fact, I’d take it a step further. The “higher” a pilot goes in the food chain, the less actual flying they’re likely to do. I bet a low-time rag-wing tailwheel pilot could land my Gulfstream a lot better than the average jet pilot could land that taildragger. But for some reason we create this pecking order which is dictated by the size, cost, and speed of the aircraft we fly.
It’s human nature to equate bigger with better — the advertising industry is based on it — but it’s completely illogical. In fact, as the years go by I find my affinity for smaller, simpler, less expensive planes only grows. The Cub, the Citabria, the RV-3. These airplanes provide a more visceral connection between man, machine, and nature. They’re simpler and less expensive to buy, own, and maintain. And they’re not used for practical purposes so much as just enjoying the art of flying. A stick and a throttle. That’s it.
There was a story — I can’t seem to find it now — about an instructor bumping around the pattern with a student in the summer heat in a modest Cessna. He looks up, sees a turboprop flying thousands of feet above, and muses about how lucky those guys have it to be in smooth, fast, air conditioned comfort. The guys in the turboprop notice a 747 flying overhead, up in the stratosphere, and can’t think about much beyond moving up to a “real airplane” that flies a lot faster than 250 knots. Oh, to have lavatories, flight attendants, and travel the world! The bored 747 pilot, on the other hand, looks waaaay down at an airport below, sees a little Cessna flying around the pattern and says to his co-pilot, “Boy that guy’s lucky — I can’t wait to retire and get back to some REAL flying!”
Larger airplanes are just that: larger. Sitting in pressurized comfort at FL450 might seem like the end all/be all to those who fly more “modest” equipment, but I assure you it’s more system management than actual hands-on-the-controls flying. It can take on an antiseptic quality.
And doing the same thing day after day after day? I’ve met more than a few burned-out jet pilots for whom flying is no longer a passion or joy. It has been reduced to a job, nothing more. It’s sad, because they started out with that fire in their belly, that urge to hang out at the airport all day every day. And now? There’s nothing they’d rather do than get away from it all. That’s why I was extremely careful when I started flying professionally. It’s easy to allow the enthusiasm for a shiny jet to lead a person down that unfortunate path.
You didn’t ask for my advice, but I’m going to give it to you anyway. I see a lot of pilots who are always looking to the “next thing” rather than enjoying where they are right now. When they’re in a single, they’re totally focused to jumping into a retractable. Once they fly one, it’s all about moving into a twin. If they’re flying a recip, life seems like it will be “perfect” once they start flying the turboprop. Once they’re flying that, they’re already obsessed with a jet. It makes me sad, because their career will be over before they know it, and they’re well on the path to missing the whole thing.
So no matter what you fly, and whether you do it recreationally or professionally, be proud of your steed, and most of all enjoy every minute in the air. The clock is ticking; every day brings us closer to our final flight. We may not know when that door will close, but rest assured it eventually will. What a shame it would be to reach the end of the road and realize we never savored the journey.
Thanks Ron for the awesome article. I am an older pilot. I took and passed my check ride at the age of 70 years in a Cessna 172 after I retired. My first wife always wanted me to take flying lessons in my younger years because she knew how I would love to do so. However, my work kept me traveling a lot and when at home, I wanted to spend time with our four children and I considered that my priority. After our kids left the nest and my job responsibilities no longer demanded much travel my wife said okay it is time you start taking flying lessons. However, my company had transferred me to a new location that did not have GA training available nearby. So after I retired and build our retirement home back in Texas I did start flying lessons. Long story but the available training at our location was limited and I did experience a series of instructors that were young and accumulating hours to get an airline job. I became discouraged and gave up the training. Meanwhile, my wife’s health started failing and for the next few years, I was pretty much her care taker up to the time she passed. After several months, I checked into starting my lessons ago and did complete my physical, but the only flight school near me was short on CFIs and I was assigned one that was only part time. My training was a joke… my instructor was only available about once every six weeks and I knew I was just wasting my money, so I stopped again. I later met and married my current wife and relocated to San Antonio, TX. My current wife suggested I should go ahead and get back to flying which I did… My new flight school went out of business, but I did progress up to the point of my first solo. I later found another school in an adjacent town airfield and completed my training and check ride. I have since completed my two year review (BFR) and manage to fly a couple times a month. I am a VFR pilot and am not checked out on a complex airplane. I have limited finances being I am retired, so I will probably fly no more than a couple more year at best. Notwithstanding, I always fly safe. I take several magazines on GA and keep up on all the safety information I can glean. I enjoy the navigation in flying almost as much as I do flying the aircraft. Even though I have GPS in several forms with me on cross country, I always do dead reckoning just to stay current on same. I never count on my GA flying for transportation… All flights are open ended to address any unplanned events that occur. Again thank you for your writings, Ron. I follow them online… A fellow pilot… Stan Hill
What a saga! Both your spouses sound like phenomenal people. Many pilots don’t have that kind of support from their significant other. It takes a special person to recognize another’s dream and ensure they don’t let that fall by the wayside.
I also have to say I admire your commitment to your family. It’s not easy to pursue flight training when you’ve got a wife and four kids. It saddens me that even when you had the time and money, the training industry let you down so many times. I’ve been the “finish up” instructor on numerous occasions. While I understand instructor shortages and the need for CFIs to take advantage of opportunities while the iron is hot, it really hurts general aviation when someone had the resources and desire to fly but can’t find a decent instructor.
If you still love flying, you can continue long past the time you feel qualified to act as PIC or obtain medical certification. You can just fly with someone else. That can be a really rewarding kind of flying, especially if you’re able to mentor a younger pilot!
Thanks for your story. I don’t feel alone now. I got my ppl in 1970, after 88hrs I had to stop flying. After 36 years and some encouragement from my wife, I got re certified at the age of 65. My instructor laughed when I told him I left the cockpit in 1978…..that was the year he was born! Well so be it. Its an awesome accomplishment at any age and we should take great pride in that. Just awesome!
It IS a tremendous accomplishment — and yours is an inspiring story, Bill. Congrats on returning to the cockpit!
Hi, I am a student pilot who already has a PhD. While I am very proud of my Doctorate, I will be incredibly proud when I finally get my PPL. I soloed in the spring and am now preparing for my written test and check ride. I started flying at age 57, and for me, this has been tougher than graduate school. I blame my age and the fact that my natural abilities are in other areas. Learning to fly has also been the most amazing thing I have ever done. I am a woman, so I hope to join the even more rarefied aviatrix club….when you look at the history of the world, so few women can actually do this! I fly a C172, but I have co-piloted a friend’s jet, which I can taxi. I know what FL450 refers to now! If you had told me I would do this when I started lessons, I would have laughed at you, but I can! I agree with you-pilots should be proud of what they do-I respect them immeasurably more now than I did when I started flying-it helps me deal patiently with the constraints of flying commercial. Hand flying a plane is a great achievement!
What a great story ! Best wishes from Poland.
Thank you! I am lucky to be here in the US where there is great GA.
I’ve been told by others that flight training was a greater challenge than grad school as well. It always makes me smile to hear about a woman pursuing flying, because you’re right, there are far too few of them in aviation. But women make great pilots. In the world of aerobatics, the women — already much smaller in number — often beat the men at the highest levels of competition. Keep us posted on your progress toward that pilot certificate!
I encourage my women friends to try flying, but most say they are too scared to try, as if fear is a barrier. I was scared too, which is one reason it has taken me this long, but as you acquire skill, the fear recedes. I will keep you posted. Currently going out regularly to practice steep turns, stalls, slow flight and other maneuvers, plus solo pattern flying. That said, I have landed at 22+ airports in the LA Basin and already have a lot of XC time, plus some experience instrument flying. I have been most inspired by the stories of early aviatrixes-my favorites are Pancho Barnes and Jackie Cochrane, but they were all amazing. I happen to be Indian, and there are a few Indian women pilots out there too-one is a good friend of mine.
I’m proud to say I’ve just joined this rare group as I completed my checkride and got my Private Pilot certificate last Saturday (9/13/14). At 40 I have no plans to make a career out of it, so I’ll be looking at an instrument rating, along with tailwheel, high-performance, and complex endorsements. After that, who knows. I fly out of a pretty active Class C, so it’s fun to share the airspace and frequencies with airliners and corporate jets.
Congratulations, Jim! And welcome to the fraternity. You sound a lot like I was when I started flying: no plans whatsoever to make a career out of it. Now look at me. Turns out I loved to fly so much that I was driving myself into the poor house. I had to either fly a lot less…. or make The Jump and fly a whole lot more. Either way, you’re in for a great ride. Enjoy that pilot certificate — I predict you’ll love the tailwheel flying quite a bit.
You are absolutely correct, pilots at every level should remember to be proud of their accomplishments, Also, the professional pilot has earned the right to have an ego comparable to that of our clients, which can be quite large.
Ron, couldn’t have said it better myself. I was very fortunate to fly a fair amount of corporate iron early in my career. It taught me very quickly that I wanted to fly the smallest plane possible and still make a living. I’ve enjoyed flying smaller and smaller planes over the last few years. Give me a tail-dragger with an 8kt crosswind over a Gulfstream any day. Problem is, it’s hard to make money flying the smaller stuff, so the dreams and aspirations of $$$ are usually related to the bigger equipment. Of course, you know what the hump on the front of the 747 is for right? After flying Citabrias and Christen Eagles, I’m convinced my Bonanza is too big also. Great write up, fly safe.
So true! Someone needs to invent a way to make good money with small aircraft. I had a plan to do that by using a low-cost RV for transition training on the Van’s series, but haven’t had the time to execute yet. Perhaps the best strategy is to live a simpler, less expensive lifestyle and do what you love. Easier said than done, of course… especially when you’ve got an Aviation AddictionTM. 🙂
I completely agree. After progressing over 45 years from Citabria through 1949 Bonanza, C210, P210, and Duke to a Citation 551, I recently added a beautiful vintage 1953 T-34 to my stable. The Citation is great long-distance transportation and I fly it about 150 hr/year all over the 48 states. The T-34 is fully capable of long cross-countries but in the year I’ve had it, the most fun is local flying and aerobatics. I’m also very lucky to have a friend with a Eurocopter A-Star who let me get my helicopter rating in it – and it’s so much fun to fly because you can’t stop flying it for more than a second (or two)!
Walt Woltosz! How are you? Glad to hear you are flying all kinds of different planes.
You’ve owned some demanding airplanes, Walt. I just read an Air Facts article where Richard Collins details the many parts and systems failures he endured with his P210. And he had limitless support from the factory. I’d imagine the Duke also required frequent and careful maintenance. I bet it feels good to step into a simpler airplane where the mx requirements will be significantly lower!
agreed ron! although i haven’t flown any larger aircraft it always irks me to hear, say, the owner of a 6-seater look down on a 2-seater. flying is so special no matter how you do it. i’ve met more than one retired airline captain at the glider field!
Gliders! Now that’s some fun flying. Beyond a variometer, airspeed indicator, and a piece of yarn, you’re free of anything distracting you from the view. I got my rating but sadly there’s no place near my home to use it. I’m always in awe of the things glider pilots do, from the long distance flights to the incredible altitude records. Nobody is more “connected” to the air.
Great article! I learned to fly in Airknockers and Cubs in the early 50’s. Through flying clubs, I progressed to 172’s and a 175 Cessna. After a while, I was able to use a plane in business. I was then flying Comanches, Bonanzas and Mooneys. I owned two Bonanzas and a Mooney and enjoyed them a lot. After retirement and a bout with cancer, I got tired of the hassle with the FAA. This year I will forego my medical and fly as a Sport pilot. I bought an experimental Rans S6S (Light Sport) and am having a ball relearning the art of proper tailwheel flying. I became eligible to join the UFO’s this year and it will be low and slow for me for the rest of my flying. I no longer have any need for complex aircraft and don’t miss them all.
I enjoy your writing a lot.
Thanks for the kind words about my writing, Bill! That S6S looks so inviting, almost like a cross between a Cub and a Maule. Between the high wing and those massive windows, you’ll have a view on the world better than any Mooney or Bonanza ever could. I would say “enjoy”, but there’s not much chance you won’t! If you’re ever in the Orange County area and in the mood to give rides, let me know 🙂
Your story about the pilots all looking at each other with envy remind me of a scene from my novel, “The Last Bush Pilots,” where the main character DC looks up wistfully at a contrail while bouncing around in his Cessna while flying a Grand Canyon tour. There’s a scene I cut at the end of the book, where an older DC looks down from the flight deck of his airliner, and watches wistfully while a DHC Beaver puts along at treetop level in Alaska….yep, you hit the nail on the head! The higher up the food chain, the less “real” flying a pilot tends to do!
Hold your heads up high, brothers and sisters!
I forgot about that! Yes, it’s a common theme over a professional pilot’s career. For those that don’t fly for a living, I hope they realize that the older and smarter we get, the more we want to be like them: flying when we want, where we want, in a small but honest ship.
Yes, yes, yes! Well said!
Just renewed my CFI, and although I’m not currently active, I’m planning on going for my water-wings here in Seattle next year. So many fantastic flying destinations in the Pacific Northwest, it’d be a shame not to take advantage!
“…. my Gulfstream…”
Bloggers make more than I suspected.
Nah, you can get a little G-IV model for just a few dollars. Ebay, baby! 🙂
Actually, if the values on the IV series continue to fall the way they have been, eventually I will be able to buy one. Mind you, I wouldn’t be able to actually operate it… but it’ll make one hell of a lawn ornament.
I sort of followed that trend by moving through all the military trainers (except the PT23)…always wanting to fly something faster than the Stearman. the T6 was fun as was the Ryan and the Vultee. I even got 3 takeoffs and landings in a C47-DC3 but ultimately it was back to the Stearman which satisfies my soul more than any other plane I have had the opportunity to fly.
All best, Martin Benson
I’ve never heard anybody say a cross word about a Stearman or look at one with any expression other than that which suggests they’d rather be flying it above all others. Truly one of the all time great airplanes, not to mention one which will certainly still be in active use more than a century after it first flew!
Ron = right on! I was looking for the “-” button on my darkened Cape Cod porch on this beautiful frog chirping fall night and thinking you are right on! The = was an accident, but also apro po’ (to lazy to look up the correct spelling)…again – nice night. I agree – flying is amazing and we are a community of great accomplishments! Thanks – Kevin
Every pilot should have a t-shirt that says, “Pilots: Looking down on people since 1903.” There are a few companies out there that sell it, just google it and get one. I can help it but it’s just another way I let everyone know I’m a pilot! Lol…
Great post: I am also a believer in the concept of the universal brotherhood of all pilots, regardless of the aircraft that they fly, their total aviation experience, etc. ad infinitum.
Your more important premise, regarding the comparison of pilot skills of GA pilots and pilots flying sophisticated jet equipment, is extremely important. I devoted an entire chapter of my book, The Rogue Aviator, to elaborate on this concept. The title of that chapter is: “An Accident Looking for a Place to Happen- Jet Pilots in Small Aircraft.” (http://therogueaviator.com/)
What a title! I’ve just gotta get that book of yours. I’m reading Eric Auxier’s latest tome right now, but yours is next on the list.
Hey Ron . . .That’s me flying the cub in that photo. It is just one of several photos taken that day. And, actually there was one of my husband and I flying formation in cubs. We later used it as our wedding announcement card. Wonder where you found it? I’m a Citabria, RV-3 and cub kind of gal (still own a cub and an RV-3 but longing to have my Citabria back). Here’s a plug for our Fly In this weekend Sept 19, 20, 21 at Lee Bottom Flying Field http://www.LeeBottom.com – just outside of Hanover, Indiana. Designed to be an event for pilots, there is no real schedule and there is no airshow. It’s just a time to come and hang out with your friends. “It’s the most nothing you’ll ever do.” All proceeds keep this little country airport operating for current and future generations to enjoy.
Lee Bottom and Triple Tree are at the top of my list! Two of the coolest sounding grassroots fly-ins — kind of an anti-Oshkosh (not that there’s anything wrong with OSH, mind you!). As for the photo, I can’t recall where it came from. I’ve had it on file for a long time; a friend of mine used to send all sorts of aviation images and videos.
I’ve got a bunch of time in Cubs, Citabrias, and other such airplanes… but the grass, that’s the missing element. There just aren’t any turf runways in my neck of the woods.
Well, I’m sure we’ll see you here someday soon. We have plenty of grass! I enjoyed the article.
Outstanding post! You hit the nail on the head.
Like you, I see some – not all – who take their current flying position for granted. In some extreme cases they will sabotage it because they have convinced themselves that they actually HATE it.
Unfortunately, human nature leads us down this road from an early age. We have things, we grow tired of them and we discard them. It happens with relationships as well as material possessions and careers. It’s an interesting dichotomy.
I always appreciate it when I hear a pro pilot who buys a small airplane, because then I know they GET IT.
ps – thanks for the shout out!
Some great observations there, Brent. Flying can be so much fun…. but when you do it for a living, there are times when it can also be work. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but some folks have a hard time keeping it from permanently damaging their enthusiasm for aviation — especially when they’re “in the trenches” with a low seniority gig at a regional or are making minimal wages as an instructor.
Thanks for the inspiring post on FWB!
This is a great article. I have been flying for close to a decade now from the singles to the twins to now the A330. Always loved airplanes from probably the age of three. I’ve clocked the maximum number of hours allowable in a year, over the past year, and although it’s really tiring — I still enjoy it until this very day. No complaints but I do agree that the bigger you go, the less you actually fly it. My advise to potential aviators would be to know what you are getting yourself into and remember that once you are in it — the only way back is out. So unless cash grows in your backyard under the rocks, stick to what you want to do best and take up flying for recreation. The airlines aren’t most definitely for everyone.
Ron — Very good, and thoughtful.
There is a Biz jet lawn orniment in the Quartzite, AZ
I thought I heard everything in Aviation, but I actually never heard the one about the CFI, the turbo prop and the 747. No wonder you can’t find it. Its a rare one but a good one.
I had my first solo in 1998. Since then, I haven’t logged anything more than 4 cylinders SE. Ive tried to progress, but time and money (oh wait, there is an article on this?!!) came in the way. I nearly went to Embry Riddle when I was 18 and got accepted and I thought of ATP….but I wanted to fly organically as well.
I am now in my CFI program, and who knows where it will lead, but I will certainly enjoy the ride!
Enjoying the ride is important — it’s why we first climbed into the cockpit in the first place! ERAU is a good school but you’d likely have an extra six figures of debt when you came out the other side. I know several grads — names you’d recognize — who are 15 or 20 years out of school and still making hefty payments on their training.
Thank you very much for pouring your heart out here in this blog, I find your talent amazing and I always come back to check what you’ve been writing.
Thanks for the kind words John — and also for reading! I appreciate it.
I love this article. I am currently learning to fly lsa aircraft and love it. I think that the best aircraft in the world is the one you are a flying at that moment in time.