The pilot brotherhood – only as good as your next action

“Welcome to the club.” My flight instructor’s words are about all I remember about my first solo, and I suspect most pilots have heard a similar comment. The implication is that by learning to fly, we don’t just add a new skill or earn a piece of plastic with our name on it; we join a timeless, international brotherhood (or sisterhood) of pilots dedicated to supporting one another and improving aviation.

Doolittle crew by airplane
We’re all in this together… right?

It’s a nice idea, and it’s not completely without merit. More than once, I have been helped by a fellow pilot, whether it was relaying a message to ATC or giving me a ride to a hotel late at night. You can also read about a recent Air Facts contributor’s first trip to Sun ‘n Fun and see that chivalry isn’t dead.

But I think we get carried away with this brotherhood talk. Sure, pilots can be accepting and caring folks, and the common bond of aviation often does bring wildly different people together. That hardly means such behavior is guaranteed, though. Pilots are still human beings who often bring their own powerful emotions, biases and agendas to any situation.

Three recent (and representative) examples come to mind. The first is the continually depressing state of comments online, where the shield of anonymity encourages people to behave in ways they never would in person. Fortunately, Air Facts is a rare exception, with thoughtful and supportive readers. We don’t get into fights very often, and name-calling is not tolerated. But it’s not always about these obvious habits.

In a recent article, a relatively new pilot shared his story of a simple flight gone wrong and the fear it caused him. He humbly asked for advice from the assembled aviation experts at Air Facts. What he got was a lot of snarky comments and Monday morning quarterbacking. An irresistible reaction? Perhaps, but when we judge other pilots after an incident, we aren’t acting like citizens of a supportive community.

My second cause for concern happened at the Sun ‘n Fun fly-in in Florida this spring. An enthusiastic kid (with his father) approached one of the many simulator booths at the show and asked to fly the demo setup. Instead of a warm welcome and an encouraging word for a future pilot, he was swatted away like a troublesome fly. This although there was absolutely no line and the simulator displayed a welcoming “Fly Me!” sign. I’ve worked plenty of airshow booths, so I know the hours are long and the air conditioning is non-existent. But this well-behaved kid had all of his enthusiasm squashed in a single moment, and his father walked out mumbling something about “no wonder we don’t have enough pilots.”

Kid at airport fence
He needs a welcoming hand.

Finally was one of the all-too-predictable CTAF fights. You’ve been there: a pilot supposedly commits some awful aviation sin and someone else takes it upon himself to publicly chastise him for all to hear. Regardless of the pilot’s original guilt, chewing out a “brother” on the radio does nothing for aviation safety or unity. I have yet to hear one of these incidents end well, so why do we continue to do it?

You can probably add your own examples, so I won’t pile on. Pilots aren’t perfect, and we shouldn’t expect them to be. The point is, the whole “brotherhood” thing only exists if we work at it. It’s not some constitutionally-mandated organization, it’s an idea.

That kid who walks up to you this weekend doesn’t know (or care) how many Young Eagles rides you’ve given or how many pilots you’ve helped out on a rainy night. He’s looking for a welcoming presence at an intimidating place, for someone to tell him he’s not crazy for liking airplanes.

That 100-hour pilot who accidentally flies a right hand traffic pattern while everyone else follows the chart and turns left doesn’t need a lecture on the radio. He needs a friendly nudge to join the pattern, like a first baseman reminding his teammates that there are two outs.

We live in a world where we’re judged by “what have you done for me lately?” Unfair perhaps, but it’s reality – and aviation is no exception. It’s not enough to talk about a brotherhood of pilots; we have to live it each and every day.

11 Comments

  • I get the message but if my wife read it she would be spitting mad: “What about a sisterhood, or just people?” would be the cry — for a good 10 minutes.
    And the last time I looked all those young brothers had mothers influencing them.
    Most male only clubs now face falling numbers and social pressure to change.
    Maybe it is time to invent new language.

    • John, I agree with the sentiment – which is why I wrote “(or sisterhood)” in the first paragraph. But the reality is that I almost always hear “brotherhood” when pilots are talking – it’s certainly what my CFI said to me.

    • Most reasonable female pilots will interpret the word “brotherhood” as encompassing everyone in the community. It’s a non-issue, please don’t bring down the trolls on us (as all too frequently happens).

  • John,

    As a participating commentor in the thread you linked to, regarding a post by Shyam Ja, I believe your characterization of the thread, re:

    “What he got was a lot of snarky comments and Monday morning quarterbacking” … is wrong and off base.

    There was one particular commentor, “Rich” who seemed to ride Shyam hard about his Cirrus chute-equipped airplane and all the nonsense from Cirrus-haters about rich guys in Cirrus’s endangering others on the ground. He was out of line, and Shyam responded appropriately to him.

    The rest of the comments, including mine, were given as helpful advice, inasmuch how, as you said, Shyam was looking for such input. My principal contribution in the thread, echoed by several others, was to suggest that Shyam take a mountain flying course. And Shyan agreed and said he would do so. Others offered additional advice about flying in or near high winds in mountainous areas as Shyam experienced (he was actually flying downwind of the mountains when he encountered the moderate to heavy turbulence).

    Anyway, there will always be one or two complainers or critics in any group, whether pilots or any other kind of gathering. But I think the majority of comments in that particular thread were honestly intended to be helpful. Hey, a thoughtful pilot wants to help others avoid making every single mistake in the book on a first hand basis. If we each had to learn it all first hand, that would be the recipe for a fairly short flying career.

  • While some people do come across as rude in their comments, “armchair flying” as I call it is an essential part of these stories. What would I do in that situation? What would be the best course of action? We all go through this exercise after we hear of a mishap or someone making a mistake. Open debate is important to learn and engage. Though I agree some commenters can do a better job of using tact to do it. Instead of “You should have…” try, “Maybe a different approach would have been…” or “I think in this situation I would have…”

    • I love the armchair flying part – it is indeed an essential part of sharing stories and becoming a better pilot. I don’t mean to discourage that in any way.

      But we need to be careful that “here’s something to consider” or “next time I’ll do…” doesn’t move into “you’re not a safe pilot.” We don’t see a lot of that at Air Facts (thankfully), but it’s all too common many other places.

  • Pilots are a ‘breed’ of our own! GREAT article. I am an Aeronautical Engineer who graduated from RPI in 1955… was trained to be a pilot during the 3 year commitment in the Air Force (now it’s a comittment of 12 to 14 years after you receive your wings) flying the Piper Cub, T-28…’T-Bird and B-47 aircraft…. ~4 years in the Mass ANG flying the F-84 and F-86H aircraft…after not flying for ~30 years purchasing and flying a Cessna 182 for over 10 years… total of 55+ years of flying experiences. Have had the pleasure to meet and ‘chat’ with Chuck Yeager, Harrison Ford, and Reeve Lindbergh(daughter of the ‘Lone Eagle’) …and enjoy mentoring with ‘Youngsters’ and ‘Oldsters’ about many, MANY Aviation topics. Thanks for sharing the ‘exciting’ adventures of other Pilots! Keep it up!

  • John. That was a good article! Thank you.

    As a student pilot with very little hours of flight training, a critical harsh spirit is something I will be having to be careful for when I get “enough hours” under my “wings”.

    I’m sure there are very good pilots out there. Some who struggle with having a hard attitude with other pilots mistakes, due to their experience and not tolerating errors. I totally understand that, and I respect their experience.
    I’m thankful to have two instructors who are one of the most patient pilots I’ve met. They both have thousands of hours of flying experience. When I make mistakes during my training, my instructor gently corrects me so that I get back on track, and that’s very encouraging to a new pilot.

    That’s a good virtue I’d like to have if I become a CFI.

  • Great points – before I became a pilot I went to a local event thinking it was open to the public and was rudely escorted out by an FAA rep and told it was only for pilots – which is fine, however, it could have been handled in a much better way. Being a tax payer supported salaried employee, he might could have spent a second pointing me in a more helpful direction while politely explaining that the event was for certificated pilots. I agree the internet does bolster a new breed of web warrior who feels empowered to speak in ways they never would in person – I tend to believe that most of them are speaking from somewhere in their mother’s basement.

  • I want to relate a little about the ‘brotherhood.’ When I was 12, for a brief time I was in a civilian defense ‘corps’ whose duty was to direct townspeople to fall-out shelters (remember those!) and help people in emergencies-hurricanes. I used to carry around this Key book on flying, total cost $2, that as I remember had pictures and diagrams not unlike today’s FAA Airplane Flying Book and Aeronautical Manual. Couldn’t get enough about airplanes, helos and flying. Then one beautiful morning, a Huey landed on the base and the CO told us to “Get in!” Whew! Unforgettable flight for a bunch of us twelve year olds! Few years later I would go down to the wharf on the weekends to watch the helos land and take off full of passengers-the sight of the Bell Jet Ranger III taking off-the sound of the rotors as they torqued the sea breeze with the smell of Jet-A…One time, the pilot ran over to me before the flight and said if he took in 3 adult fares, he’d “put em’ in the back and I could fly up front in the pilot’s seat.” Needless to say I think my smile has never gone away from that flight either. As ‘Co-Pilot’, my first responsibility was to see to the passengers- they were turning green during the flight when I looked back- ex-‘Nam pilot piloting! 🙂 To this day, I understand little of why I never made a flight deck my true home. Life, I guess! Never give up. Never forget. Keep looking-its still there, folks!
    May your flights always be CAVU ones!

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