10 things “real pilots” do

Have you ever met a “real pilot?” I sure haven’t–at least not the ones some aviation experts talk about. According to them, real pilots only fly taildraggers, real pilots don’t use GPS, real pilots don’t cancel flights, etc. Apparently, like many things in life, the new generation of pilots is a bunch of sissies.

But I have a different definition of a real pilot. It starts with someone who is smart enough to stay alive while flying, and it ends with someone who has fun doing it. So with apologies to those experts (you know who you are), here’s my list of 10 things real pilots do:

1. Real pilots help a fellow aviator when in need. While the extent of a pilot fellowship can be debated (we’ve done it here at Air Facts), I do believe real pilots go out of their way to help a fellow aviator. Whether it’s helping to tie down an airplane in the rain or offering to share operating expenses, most pilots recognize that our group is a small one and needs all the support it can get.

John Wayne pilot

Is this what “real pilots” look like?

2. Real pilots don’t get into arguments on CTAF. Is there anything more pathetic than listening to a couple of arrogant pilots arguing about who cut the other guy off in the pattern? Real pilots know that such arguments only make flying more dangerous, so they avoid them. Even better, real pilots fly a standard traffic pattern if it’s busy.

3. Real pilots are not afraid to cancel a flight. There is no purple heart in aviation, in spite of what some NTSB reports suggest. A real pilot feels no shame in canceling a flight, whether it’s due to weather, mechanical issues or just not feeling up to it. Unless you’re in the military, no flight is worth dying over.

4. Real pilots are also not afraid to push themselves. Just because real pilots are humble enough to cancel a flight does not mean they lack confidence. To keep improving, they have to deliberately–but safely–push their boundaries. That means taking on a 15 knot crosswind when the time is right, or opting for annual recurrent training instead of the minimum BFR.

5. Real pilots embrace new technology, but never become slaves to it. There is no extra credit for completing a flight without a GPS. Sure, it’s a fun thing to do in a Cub on a beautiful day, and real pilots know how to fly without the latest gadgets, but only a dyed-in-the-wool contrarian would suggest that a KX170B is better than a GTN 750. Likewise, nobody is impressed if you don’t use the autopilot. Real pilots use all the tools at their disposal.

6. Real pilots are polite to FBO staff. Some pilots step out of their flying machines as if they are John Wayne inspecting the crew of a World War II battleship. Real pilots know better. Line techs and FBO staff are partners, not employees, and just might bail out a needy pilot one day. Best not to burn that bridge.

7. Real pilots fly the right airplane for their mission, skills and budget. One of my least favorite phrases in all of aviation is, “I only fly a Cessna 172.” Real pilots don’t care if they are flying a fancy new King Air or a well-loved Skyhawk. Both are excellent airplanes, depending on the mission, and both require real pilots to fly them. Likewise, the position of the third wheel does not determine the skill of a real pilot.

8. Real pilots view ATC as a friend, not an enemy. Air Traffic Control, far from being the aerial police, is an invaluable resource for anyone willing to use it. Real pilots aren’t afraid to ask for a controller’s advice on weather or to request progressive taxi instructions at a big airport. Amateurs try to fake it; pros ask for help.

9. Real pilots are humble. Mother Nature, gravity and Murphy’s Law are constantly working against a light airplane. Real pilots understand this, and appreciate the fine balance that’s required to complete a flight safely. That means they never overestimate their abilities or their airplane’s performance. It also means they are open to criticism, whether it’s from a flight instructor or from themselves during a post-flight debriefing.

10. Real pilots act like ambassadors for personal aviation–all the time. Just like a professional athlete or a politician, pilots are “always on,” at least in terms of representing personal aviation to others. Real pilots don’t brag about breaking the rules or tell dare devil stories at a cocktail party. Real pilots share the honest truth about flying: that it’s hard work and involves risk, but that it’s immensely rewarding and incredibly powerful.

Are you a real pilot? What would you add to this list?

40 Comments

  1. Edward McNames says:

    I’d like to add, real pilots know when to hit the autopilot disc button too! As soon as that thing is doing something weird (more like me not doing something right and seeing it do something I wasn’t expecting) turn the damn thing off and fly the plane.

  2. Chris says:

    John,
    Thank you for this great article.
    ” Safety is no accident”.
    It’s all of the 10 points you made.
    Improving constantly is our best choice.
    Safe and enjoyable flying for all !!!

  3. Duane says:

    Like any other group, pilots come in all variations, including good guys (the majority by far, in my experience) and a handful of arrogant SOBs (most of the guys that John is referring to in his list of not-real pilots).

    I always get a chuckle out of listening to or reading online comments from a certain faction of arrogant SOB taildragger pilots who like to spout off about their irrefutably superior “flying” skils as compared to those of those of us sorry nosewheel-flying pretenders.

    The comeback that I use is the following:

    The only difference in piloting skills between flying a taildragger and a tricycle gear is when you’re no longer flying an airplane .. i.e., when the airplane on the ground, during taxi, takeoff, and landing rollout.

    So technically speaking, when the wheels matter, you taildragger pilots are not flying – you’re “driving” a very squirrelly three-wheeled vehicle. Once you’re actually flying, or while you’re still flying the airplane during approach to landing, there is zero difference in aircraft handling based on the location of the third wheel. By definition, wheels only matter when you’re on the ground.

    All that braggadocio about taildraggers knowing more about how to use their rudder is immaterial once an airplane is, you know, flying.

    So I’ll grant that taildragger pilots are superior taxi “drivers” as compared to us nosewheel pilots. And I’ll grant that conventional gear airplanes are better suited to landing on unimproved runways, Alaskan river gravel bars and such than are tricycle gear aircraft.

    Beyond that, I much prefer my lower hull insurance rates (what’s a ground loop, anyway?) … and the fact that I routinely land and take off in crosswinds that I don’t even think twice about … you know, the same crosswinds that scare the bejeezus out of all those big bad “real” taildragger pilots.

    Moral of the story – all airplanes, all flying, and all pilots are great, no matter what you fly.

    • Jim Cole says:

      I actually admire a good tailwheel pilot and I was fortunate to be able to get some tailwheel time on a PA12 and a GCBC Citabria by two of the best in my local. I felt that it actually improved my flying/ground handling skills even though I fly a docile PA22 Tripacer. The tri-gear airplanes were brought out in the 1950′s because they were much easier to handle on the ground and the flight schools figured if the student didn’t get scared during the first 5 hours of training they had a good chance to move ahead and get their licence. A tailwheel Champ or Cub in the hands of an experienced pilot can get in and out of the shortest of airstrips that only 172 and Warrior pilots could dream about. I say fly the airplane you enjoy the most, safely, don’t push the weather. A “real pilot” doesn’t have to boast how good he is because he will have already earned the respect of others.

      • Duane says:

        The tailwheel isn’t what makes a Champ or Cub a short field performer – it’s the basic airframe design which results in a very slow stall speed (about 38 mph in a J-3) and a lightweight airplane that eats up very little runway landing or taking off.

        I’ve seen others comment that the old Cubs and Champs are better trainers than more modern tricycle gear designs because they haven’t had all the adverse yaw engineered out of them like more modern airplanes. Well, yeah, that makes it a little harder to fly the antiques well, but by that line of reasoning, we should all learn to fly in a Wright Flyer, because it’s hard as heck (impossible, really) to fly well! An airplane being harder to fly is not what makes a pilot “good” or not. A pilot’s skill is shown in how well he or she flies the airplane he or she flies.

        Maule makes a great backcountry airplane (the M7 and most recently the M9) that comes in both tricycle and tailwheel gear versions. The aircraft stall, approach and touchdown speeds are identical … both models have more or less identical flying characteristics and performance specs. Both are great short and soft field performers, especially the 235-hp models.

        Buy the tailwheel version if you’re intending to land on rough unimproved strips and open areas in the bush … get the tricycle gear version if you expect to stick to grass or graded dirt or gravel, reasonably-well maintained airstrips. Other than the third wheel, the two versions of the airplane are the same.

        • Jim Cole says:

          I guess you missed my point Duane , I’m not saying taildragger pilots are necessarily better pilots when the aircraft is in flight however during takeoff,landing and ground handling you have to be on the airplane more so than with a tri-gear so you attain better skills. My Tri-pacer is a pussy cat on the ground in high winds compared to a tailwheel Maule that requires more skill to keep it straight. I have seen many tri gear pilots get into a tailwheel aircraft for their first lesson and loose directional control on take off because their feet get lazy let alone trying to land one so that’s where you develop skills you don’t really see flying a 172 or Warrior because they are so forgiving. Now my Tripacer has landed and taken off on a 750′ strip with fruit trees at both ends,I call it the poor man’s Super Cub. Yes the fabric and tube aircraft are lighter and will out perform newer aircraft in that respect which now allows you to operate out of short grass strips, hayfields etc. again a kind of flying that many asphalt pilots are not use to, requiring different skills thus making you a more versatile pilot.It was because of Capt. Sullenberger’s glider experience he was able to land successfully in the Hudson River so what I am saying is that experience is knowledge.

          • Duane says:

            No, Jim … I got your point. Yes, you did not say that tailwheel pilots are better pilots. But you did say, “A tailwheel Champ or Cub in the hands of an experienced pilot can get in and out of the shortest of airstrips that only 172 and Warrior pilots could dream about”. You’re comparing apples to oranges on your airframes, which is the same error that lots of pilots make when comparing airplanes. My point is that the third wheel configuration only matters when you’re on the ground, and does not determine short field performance for any given airframe. That’s why I brought up the Maules which are the only airplanes currently being built that come in either configuration, allowing an apples to apples comparison.

            A capable pilot in a tricycle gear Maul M-7-260 Super-Rocket can get in and out of airstrips (600 foot takeoff over a 50-foot obstacle) that even a 65-hp J-3 Cub could only dream about (750 ft takeoff over a 50-ft obstacle). The Maule even slightly out-performs the modern-day Cub successor the Aviat Husky A1A at 625 ft over a 50-ft obstacle.

    • Mooney says:

      Nice response. Regarding the taxi service, nothing like having to S turn on a narrow taxi way in a good cross wind because you cannot easily see where you are going. Sorry, that is not what flying is, it should be a great recreational activity and the less work, the better.

    • Prairie says:

      I was always taught that you are flying the plane “BLOCK TO BLOCK!” Specifically, from engine start to wheel chock at the end of the flight. A lot of people mess up and wind up in accidents after they’re on the ground by thinking that the flight is over and they lose the attention that has got to be maintained to be safe. Flying a conventional geared aircraft – yes, it does take more diligence because they are inherently more touchy when on the ground. That is the whole reason for the advent of the application of a “NOSE WHEEL” in the first place. But, it doesn’t make a tricycle geared airplane any less of a plane or a pilot of those types of aircraft any less of a pilot. The supposed “PILOT’S” that bash anyone about flying a tri-geared plane just need to stay in the FBO lounge and do their couch flying from there. I know I don’t want to share the tarmac or the sky with that type of arrogant and lax pseudo “PILOT”!

  4. lindsay petre says:

    try being a line guy (gal) for a couple of days. you might appreciate the service more.

  5. William "Pete" Hodges says:

    John, your 10 points are right on! When I was in the later stages of flight training with tpractice instructor, he worked me half to death! One afternoon he asked if he was pushing me too hard. I said no, and that one of my goals was to become a really good pilot, not just an average one. His reply? “You already are” He went on to list many of your 10 points as he told me the things that I was doing that make me a good pilot. I was surprised but also pleased. It was a real confidence booster for me and it helped me with the check ride.

    I know I’m not perfect and sometimes that shows when I fly. I try to fix my errors with my practice and training. I try to be polite to others both on the ground and in the air. I try to mind my own business but help others if asked.
    I sometimes ask for help myself, so I know how it feels to be in a tight spot. Most of the pilots and ground personell I have met are great people and I enjoy interacting with them.

    I’m going too long here. Sorry.

  6. Adam Smith says:

    Nice article John, I like #7 especially.

  7. Jon Sanders says:

    #6 is especially true. I work as a Line guy at the local FBO were I live, and occasionally there are pilots who think they’re above everyone else. And we do go out of our way to help polite, friendly pilots. But the ones that are above everyone else finds they have a lot less help than the guy sitting next to him in the same exact type aircraft.

    Another note I’d like to add is that ALL pilots learn what marshaling signals are and what they mean if you intend on flying into an FBO. I’ve been nearly run over by a 152/172 driver more times than I care to remember because they didn’t understand that I want them to turn, or had them almost run into another, more expensive, airplane because they decided to turn when I wanted them to go straight. The biggest pet peeve of a line guy/gal is that pilots do whatever the hell they want on the ramp, no matter what you instruct them to do or how fervently you try to emphasize what you want from the pilots. I’m done with this soapbox now, someone else can have it.

    Good article.

    • Jon Sanders says:

      I should mention that not just 152/172 pilots don’t know marshaling signals, had the same problems with people in GIVs and everything in between.

    • SBarnettW says:

      Good point. I should brush up on those signals.

  8. Randy Michel says:

    Real pilots give credit where it’s due. While fortunate to own a tailwheel, which caused me to not take the rudder for granted l did take it for granted early on when I started flying. 172′s are good airplanes but they spoil students because of their behavior in stalls. If the ball isn’t exactly centered you have a good chance of recovering without spinning but in a 170, it will spin. It teaches you to have more respect for what you’re flying. Another thing that makes a real pilot is they seek the right answers and aren’t afraid to go find those answers to someone’s questions rather than get cocky and give him or her BS obtained from an Idolized pilot’s viewpoint, from who they hung on to their every word and assume it to be the rule.

    • John Zimmerman says:

      Randy, as a tailwheel pilot myself I agree that getting that checkout does make you acquainted with the rudders. I do think it helped my stick and rudder flying skills, but it certainly doesn’t give anyone the right to look down on other pilots.

  9. Aaron says:

    Wow, some of y’all have apparently had some unpleasant run-ins with taildragger pilots. Sorry about that! We’re not all John Wayne!

    How about this: while tailwheel pilots (I don’t drag my tail–it has a little wheel installed) aren’t necessarily better pilots, training in one can improve multiple skillsets. Just like adding an instrument, seaplane, or multi-engine rating, high-performance endorsement, etc. New stuff is good. All our certifcates and ratings are but learners’ permits.

    Side note to the gentleman who believes only the “non flying” phases distinguish a tailwheel from a tri-gear: I would encourage him to come out and experience a new tailwheel student, landing on pavement for the first time, on a gusty day in the Cub with me. Fly it to the chocks. That strategy works marvelously in the Skyhawk too, but is rarely taught to great effect in one.

    It’s all about perspective!

  10. Chris says:

    Excellent read. As a student pilot, it’s great to hear from humble pilots and not just ‘heroes’. In my opinion, the newer pilots are learning to be flexible in their approach (all credit to their instructors). The non-real pilots are the old banner towing / crop dusters that tell war stories and refuse to be faulted.

  11. George says:

    The Only real Pilot is any pilot of any aircraft that can bring his (or Her) aircraft to a safe landing no matter what circstances you face.

  12. Karlene says:

    I love this. Spot on!!

  13. nick says:

    Real pilots actually do tell people their dare devil stories. Your list is wrong

  14. Cary Alburn says:

    I would add, “A real pilot is always learning, so that he/she can become a better pilot.” Whether that’s by adding ratings or certificates, or by studying and doing recurrency training, or by pushing one’s limits to become more skillful, we are all students at some level and must be in the “always learning” mode.

    I have no problem with “war stories”, as long as they are true, and that they provide a lesson for the listeners–again on the theory that we are all students. If all they are is to brag about taking some unnecessary chance, or to “prove” their incredible piloting skills, then there are better things to do with one’s time.

    • John Zimmerman says:

      Good distinction, Cary. We share a lot of “war stories” on Air Facts, like our I Can’t Believe I Did That series. But as you say, the goal is the learn from prior mistakes and become better pilots–not to boast about what dare devils we are.

  15. DC Roberts says:

    I learned from a great friend at EAA there are pilots, and there are aviators.
    Pilots fly because its a job, sure they may train, they may work to get a type rating step up, but the love of flying is not weaved into their heart and soul. Aviators fly because it is.
    Good article, it really says Aviators are not a## holes, and we are a family, and we need each other as our numbers go down. Through attrition and legal red tape.Oshkosh shows us what aviators are, and what we are capable of. Aviators ask what do you fly, not what are your assets.
    And I wanted to point out maybe some aviators do snore (sleep apnea)
    I don’t think that makes them a menace to society

  16. Joel Godston says:

    Yes, I consider myself a REAL pilot. Your 10 points are good John; and the comments made by others are interesting, some good: while others are just BS. You ALL can sort them out. I would add one other to your list John. Don’t be afraid to say No. If you are asked to do something that you think is not safe; tell the CTAF, ATC, or another pilot, “No I will not do that because…” I have done that a number of times during my 57 plus years of flying in the Air Force, ANG, and civilian flying. The person, and/or Agency making the request, understood: and we agreed to another approach.

    • John Zimmerman says:

      Joel, great addition. I think having the guts to say “no” is really important. Early on, it’s hard to tell ATC that their preferred heading just won’t work or you can’t accept that immediate takeoff. But it’s a must.

  17. Erv Vogel says:

    When asked why I became a pilot, I always said, It was the only job
    I could get that didn’t really require any skill!!!

  18. Will Borgers says:

    Great article. One of my favorite quotes that i read in the book “Flying The Mountains” by Fletcher Anderson is “A superior pilot is one who uses their superior judgement so that they dont have to use their superior skills” i think this fits in a few of your points on real pilots. I always love pushing my boundaries, but not with a degredation in safety. Its shameful to bend a plane, heroic to make a go around!

  19. jim griffith says:

    Boy! Looks like you really poked the bear on this article Air Facts! Good discussion. lets have more of the same.

  20. Robert says:

    Failed on number 5 – my no electrics, no gyros aircraft does have a bracket for a portable GPS, but my only close encounter with controlled airspace has been while navigating with the GPS.

    I have since reverted to compass, map and watch mode.

    Yes, the aircraft is also a tail wheel aircraft.

    The active private pilot population is in secular decline, but controlled airspace busts continues apace despite ever bigger magenta line screens – methinks basic ded reckoning skills are eroding fast.

    I am not a luddite on GPS, but would regard it as an IFR tool, not a VFR crutch.

  21. Jerry Smith says:

    I like this article. And recently on a truck driving forum it was amazing at the thoughts that were thrown at old truck drivers by many who had been only driving for a year or two, how much more they know about tucking up & down the highways than us old timers. Some were quite brave, saying we were stupid & foolish.

    Reminds me of something I said to my grandmother when I was a little boy. I was setting in my grandmothers lap & told her, “I’m bored, there’s nothing to do, & time goes by so slow.”

    She told me, “Jerry, when you get as old as me time will seem to fly by.”

    I told my grandmother, “Your foolish.”

    She did not correct me but said, “When you get old & I’m gone, I want you to remember this day & what you said to me, I promise you that you will find out that time will go by very fast when you grow older.”

    At her funeral service this hit my mind, & I have never forgot it, & she was 100% correct, I was the young foolish one.

    Many people make the same type of mistake that I did, sad to say for many its more costly for them than it was for me that day, or even the day at grandmother funeral.

    Those who are older than us & or more experienced, we would all have a much better outcome if we listened to them. When I was a young boy setting in my grandmothers lap, she was a wise woman, I was the foolish one. I’m thankful that I learned a very valuable lesson from her, & its been much help for me.

  22. Hunter Heath says:

    One does not have to strap on a G650 or pilot for pay to fly like a pro. The ten traits strike me as characteristic of the best pilots I’ve known, whether they flew for fun or francs.

  23. FlyingCarpet says:

    This is one of those articles I print out to keep in my “zen of flying” training binder. But I am laughing at the image of John Wayne with “real pilot” under his picture.
    As far as I can find out Wayne was not a licensed pilot – nor served in uniform as a military member, for all his “military man” Hollywood persona (which is merely a mask hiding the substance of a person beneath its well-developed public image) through the years.
    Still the simple wisdom herein is not negated by having a picture of popular REAL PILOT plastered above the headline.
    Thank you, as usual, for sharing your valuable learning.
    Don

    • John Zimmerman says:

      That’s exactly my point. The “real pilots” that some people talk about are like John Wayne–not real at all!

  24. Doyle Frost says:

    Thank you, Mr. Zimmerman. Really enjoyed this. I was very lucky with my instructor. He believed the more aircraft I learned in, from the standard tricycle Cessna’s, to the C-140 for tail wheel familiarization, was the best way to learn the intricacies of flight, and also, the risks of flight. A key ingredient, for all of them, was using the rudder pedals, a very important, but often maligned, and sometimes ignored, part of any aircraft, including the modern “big birds.”
    When I was a young airman, I worked on autopilots on the big bombers and tankers, and remember one pilot complaining about his not working, (his quit while he was halfway between England and the U.S.,) and the wing commander reading him the riot act about a pilot’s job, “…to fly the airplane, not let some damn machine fly it for him.”
    My delayed point is, regardless of what type aircraft we may fly, how big, how technologically advanced, is actually less important than WE FLY THE PLANE.

  25. SBarnettW says:

    Great article John. You’re spot on.

    Regarding the whole “tailwheel debate,” while I am dogmatic that it increases your stick-and-rudder skills, I think it’s telling that the largest missionary aviation organization working in sub-Saharan Africa uses Cessna 210s, 206s, and Caravans. Same goes for Alaska with the exception of extreme backwoods stuff.

  26. MORT MASON says:

    Well, DUANE, you might be just a tad off the mark. There really is a difference in the flying characteristics between tail draggers and nosewheel machines. It begins with the location of the plane’s CG. And it IS true that those pilots who have no tail dragger time are nominally lax with control surface inputs while taxiing. On a particularly windy day at Anchorage International Airport, I was following a taxiing C-172 to the tiedown areas. I could tell by his airplane’s control surfaces placement that he was looking for trouble. Suddenly, his docile C-172 pitched up on its nose, wiping out the prop, air scoop, and the lower portion of the engine cowling. Could happen to anyone, you say? Well, yes, but it didn’t happen to the taildragger that was following the C-172.

    The next time you roll into a turn while flying, glance first at the little black ball. Did it stay centered as though it had been epoxied in place? I wonder . . . . .

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