“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.
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.”
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.