Is bigger really better? Forty years of flying and instructing have given me meaningful insights into human behavior as it relates to aviation. I have learned that some pilots who think they’re moving up-to bigger, more complex, more expensive airplanes-are actually moving away from the things that they enjoy about aviation.
I saw my first example of this during a refresher training session-I’d call it a flight review today-with the owner of a well-equipped and well-maintained light twin airplane. I’d worked with him in the past, and he was one of those individuals who make instructing worthwhile-likable, sincere, open-minded, and conscientious. After this particular session, I said, “Joe, you’ve got it all: a great airplane, the means to fly whenever you want, and a love for flying, but I think you’ve lost your enthusiasm. How come?”
That took him by surprise. After a long pause, he said, “You’re right, I’m not happy. Every time I look at this airplane, it costs me an arm and a leg. And when I fly it, I feel like I’m swimming through glue. I was nuts to sell my Cessna 182. Everything was simple: It took me where I wanted, and it did, indeed, make me happy.” Joe’s aviation environment had become too complicated and too costly. He had lost the fun.
I’ve seen the same thing happen to professional pilots, but for different reasons. When airline management mandates almost full-time dependence on autoflight in today’s advanced-technology cockpits, pilots’ basic flying skills suffer, as do job satisfaction, self-confidence, and happiness. Some smart pilots ignore this autopilot mandate. They hand-fly the airplane whenever possible in order to maintain their skills and have fun.
One of my former copilots provided another example. This young, low-time pilot majored in a university aviation program, worked as a flight instructor, interned at an airline, and subsequently was hired. I can’t say that he wasn’t happy, but if he was, his demeanor didn’t show it.
On one leg, another pilot who was riding the jump seat asked him where he got his experience. He replied, “I’m just from general aviation.” Wow! The airline’s training department had obviously undermined his self-confidence and his self-esteem. That’s bad news. When we were alone after the flight, I told him I would fly all the legs for the rest of the month. He asked why, in a surprised if not shocked voice.
I said, “Because you told that jump-seater that you were ‘just’ from general aviation. You should be extremely proud of your background. Don’t put yourself down, and don’t let other pilots intimidate you. The best pilots come from every segment of aviation, and they have one common trait-the continual desire to learn and do well.”
Continuing, I said, “I’m just kidding about flying all the legs. I’ll split them with you, but only if you promise to be happy-and proud-about your accomplishments.” He made that promise more than once that day, and he did, in fact, start smiling.
When I reflect on my past flying endeavors, my mind quickly jumps back to the days when I owned an old Aeronca 7AC and flew it to build flight time. I’d take off at sunrise, climb to 3,000 feet, enter a steep-bank turn, and close my eyes. When I chickened out, I’d open my eyes and roll out of the turn. That was my initial heading, but if I were headed toward the ocean, I’d fly the reciprocal. I always wanted to see how far I could fly based on the winds and still return by sunset-the airplane didn’t have an electrical system for lights and radios. On some days, I would just chase trains or see how many different airports I could land at. Needless to say, I became quite skilled at chart reading, pilotage, and dead reckoning, and I’ve never been happier in an airplane.
Many people are apprehensive when they start flying, but that feeling soon turns to satisfaction and happiness. You must do whatever is required to maintain this state of mind, and don’t be intimidated by the words or actions of others. Remember, bigger is not necessarily better, and a private pilot certificate is one of the best bargains anywhere. The ability to climb into an airplane and fly away-and the feeling that experience gives you-says it all.
Originally published Sept Flight Training “Size Does Not Matter”