Life Lessons I Learned From Flying Airplanes

About 20 years ago, my wife gave me an introductory flying lesson as a birthday present. I loved the experience and was soon on my way to earning my private pilot’s license. I was fortunate to meet an exceptional flight instructor, Tony Hicks, while taking ground school through the Florida State University Flying Club. Tony, a former Navy F-14 Tomcat pilot, was a great instructor because he not only taught the mechanics of flying an airplane, but also the psychology of being a pilot. With Tony’s guidance and training I was granted my Private Pilot’s license on September 11, 1998. I enjoyed flying regularly until the events of another September 11th three years later forever changed general aviation. Although I’ve flown a few times since then, the cost of aviation, plus the loss of freedom associated with increased security, have pretty much grounded me, and many of my pilot friends. However, the lessons of aviation have stayed with me and I often think of aviation problem-solving when facing a problem or challenging situation on the ground. Here are a few of the lessons that often go through my head:

Fly the airplane – No matter what happens in the air, a pilot’s first and foremost job is always to fly the airplane. It doesn’t matter if the wing is on fire; you fly the airplane first, and then worry about the fire. In 1972 the crew of an Eastern Airlines L-1011 violated this rule with disastrous consequences when they flew their aircraft into the ground after they became focused on trouble-shooting a burned-out landing-gear indicator light.  This is true in life too.  Paying attention to our task and our mission prevents unnecessary problems and failures.  Things are going to go wrong sometimes.  Our job is to stay focused and not create disasters by neglecting the fundamentals while we try to solve what are often minor problems.

Know your Limits – Not all pilots are the same. Experience, training, and proper equipment can safely take one pilot where another would be at great risk.  Just because you have an instrument rating and spent some time in the clouds doesn’t mean that you’re ready to fly an instrument approach at an unfamiliar airport after a 3 hour flight, with 200-foot ceilings, gusting winds, rain, and ¼ mile visibility in a Cessna. However, you might be fine at your home field with 1000 ft. ceilings, 1.5 miles visibility, and light winds. It’s a pilot’s job to know his or her limits and know that those limits aren’t constant. Recent experience, proper equipment, and being healthy and rested all impact on a pilot’s limits. It’s true for life on the ground too.  Sometimes it’s better to wait until conditions have improved, or we have better prepared,  before launching a new project or trying something new. There are limits to the number, type, and severity of challenges we can all handle.

Aviate, Navigate, Communicate – This is the prioritization for pilots when things go wrong. One of the best examples of this is Captain Sullenberger and the Hudson River landing. If you listen to this recording of his communications with air traffic control, it’s clear that his focus isn’t on talking with the control tower but on flying the aircraft and navigation. The reason for this is, there’s very little an air traffic controller can do to assist in an emergency other than get other aircraft out of the way.  A pilot’s first priority remains flying the aircraft, the second job is to know where the aircraft is, and where it’s going. Once you have those down, then you worry about talking to the tower. This is true in life too, when things go wrong our first job is to maintain personal control and do our part as best we can. Next, we need to figure out where we are, and where we want to go. Lastly, we can reach out to trusted others for guidance and assistance.