Happy New Year + Life lessons I learned as a pilot

Becoming a pilot changes who you are, even if you don’t realize it at first. Sure, there are the practical lessons about math, physics, and engineering you don’t encounter in everyday life. But as a recent trip through my logbook proved, aviation offers courses in the humanities as well as the hard sciences.

I remember my first solo like it was yesterday. I looked at all of my gauges, flipped a few switches, and stared down the long runway ahead of me. I pushed the throttle and as I slowly lifted off the ground in a small single-engine Cessna, it suddenly hit me that I was the sole operator of an airplane. Though terrified at first, I ultimately welcomed the challenge and the freedom liberated me. After being a passenger in a general aviation aircraft a few times as a child, I was always fascinated by flight. Pilot training has been unlike any other endeavor I have ever experienced. Student pilots learn so much beyond the complex rules of airspace or thought-provoking calculations. The challenges extend much farther than the classroom.

Life lessons make you wiser and more successful. The road to becoming a pilot is full of hard work, dedication and ultimately, success. It changes who you are as a person. You finish your course with strong knowledge in mathematics, physics, aviation and practical lessons but you’ll also come to find that some of life’s most important lessons are learned throughout this period. Like flying an airplane, leading an organization can be exhilarating, terrifying, and rewarding all at the same time. And many of the lessons for successful piloting well apply to leadership. Doing so won’t guarantee success, but it certainly helps.

There will always someone better than you

No matter how successful you are, there will always be someone higher-up and better than you, and that’s okay. Even though this is hard to hear for many pilots, this is where humility comes into play. There’s always someone better than you.Feeling great in that Cirrus? Be patient – you’ll probably park next to a gleaming new King Air 350 and suddenly feel inadequate. Love that turbocharged twin you just bought because it can take you to 18,000 feet? One day you’ll be slamming through the summertime buildups, dreaming about the jet jockeys at FL390 who are above all the weather. No matter how far up the food chain you climb – in houses, job titles, airplanes or pilot ratings – there will always be someone higher. While pilots aren’t known for their humility, aviation has a lot of important lessons to teach here. The best advice is to fly because it makes your life better (in whatever way matters to you), not because of the signals it sends to others. Fly because it’s your dream, your goal and your passion. If you must compete, compete with yourself to continuously progress, grow and be better today, than you were yesterday.

Keep Calm

When something abnormal happens, whether it’s a flashing red light in the cockpit or a sudden life event, some people can’t help but panic. In the cockpit, it might be the difference between tragedy and a good story at the bar. Perhaps the single most valuable skill aviation has taught me is how to manage my emotions and remain focused in the face of serious situations. One flight a few years ago illustrates the point. The air was so rough that I attached the upper air analysis charts to my logbook entry, as if to prove that it really was that bad – over an hour of continuous moderate chop, with an occasional jolt of something even worse. Miserable is about the only word that fits, but I can clearly remember a sort of calm that came over me. The only option was to slow down and focus on keeping the wings level. Everything else was pushed out of my brain, which felt strangely comforting. Besides, panic would have done no good in this situation.

The most useless things in aviation are the altitude above you, the runway behind you, and the fuel you left in the truck

While flying, a lot of times it’s easier or more fun to fly lower than safety dictates — altitude being important for both avoiding obstacles and for glide distance. When running behind, it’s easier and faster to avoid topping off the fuel tanks or to accept a takeoff beginning at a taxiway halfway down the runway instead of all the way at the end. 999 times out of 1000, that’s no big deal, but on that 1000th flight we have an engine failure or need to circumnavigate bad weather and we realize we should have done things the right way instead of the easy way. Oftentimes, due to sloppiness or laziness, we decide that it’s no big deal that we’re taking a shortcut. If there’s a right way to do something, it’s probably that way for a reason. Do things the way you were taught and the way you planned them before you got in a hurry.

It’s not always easy, but hard work usually pays off

You can do it if you keep working. Hard work doesn’t fix every problem, but it’s a good start. Just about every pilot I know, no matter how good, has struggled at one point in his or her flying career. Whether it was crosswind landings or VOR approaches that caused the speed bump, the answer is almost always to rededicate yourself and push on through. This comes as a shock for some pilots, especially for older adults who learn to fly and are used to being successful at everything. The reality check can be tough, but it’s a valuable reminder that we are all students. That’s the word that appeared frequently in my logbook as I learned to fly on instruments after 15 years of flying VFR in fixed wing aircraft. One entry simply says, “I am a student again and I feel like it!” Part of me doubted whether I could actually master all the skills required for the checkride. Mastery and confidence eventually came, but not before I spent a lot of late nights studying the textbooks and a lot of sweltering days practicing my hovering skills. No one is born knowing how to be a pilot – or a doctor, an engineer or a parent for that matter – it takes practice.

Aviate, navigate, communicate

Whether things are going really well or really poorly, you need to concentrate on what’s important first. In an aircraft, the most important thing is to keep it flying, in my case that means keeping the rotor side up and the wheels side down. Until you’ve got that under control, don’t even worry about anything else. Then you can start to navigate, figuring out if you are where you need to be and making corrections to get on course. Only after all that’s done should you try to tell anyone about it. As another cliché goes,”Don’t drop the airplane to fly the microphone.” On the ground, at perhaps the most literal level, this means don’t crash your car while texting your friends to tell them you’re coming. But there’s a broader ramification, especially in today’s communication- and media-driven world — we often worry more about when and how we’re going to tell people about what we’re doing than actually doing it.

Know what you’re going to do when things go wrong

Knowing your emergency procedures is a huge part of aviation training. Questions like “What would you do if your engine failed right now?” or “What would you do if your oil pressure was at 20 psi?” are constantly peppered at students. Pilots memorize basic steps for almost anything that might go wrong. Eventually, pilots start asking themselves these questions as they fly. A pilot who constantly asks himself,”If my engine failed right now, where would I land?” actually improves the way he flies during normal operations because he is constantly making himself ready for the worst case. In everyday life, think about what could go wrong. Don’t let that stoke a panic attack. Instead, figure out solutions and keep them in mind. If you know you can handle the worst case, that confidence makes everything easier. You are at ease while waiting to give your presentation because if your computer goes down, you know you’re ready to do it off a whiteboard. If your car doesn’t start, you aren’t panicking because you already know which of your coworkers lives closest, and if that doesn’t work you already have the train schedule linked on your phone.

Happy New Year and many happy landings in 2019 – keep it safe and be happy!