Stayin alive – 16 favorite aviation quotes

Stayin’ Alive is the name of a 1977 hit song by the Bee Gees. It was about life in the big city, and the radio stations played it so much I became thoroughly sick of it. It still airs occasionally. The song popped into my head recently when researching the origin of the quote, “Any landing you can walk away from is a good one.” (It was first penned by Gerald R. Massie in 1944 after the crash-landing of his B-17 while serving as a photographer.)

The site where I found this is called Great Aviation Quotes – Piloting, and there were a number of gems on the list. Taken together, they give a pretty good idea of what flying is really all about. First and foremost, it is about staying alive. Therefore I am offering up some of my favorites. They speak for themselves.

“Get rid at the outset of the idea that the airplane is only an air-going sort of automobile. It isn’t. It may sound like one and smell like one, and it may have been interior decorated to look like one; but the difference is — it goes on wings.”
— Wolfgang Langewiesche, first words of Stick and Rudder: An Explanation of the Art of Flying, 1944.

“My first shock came when I touched the rudder. The thing tried to bite its own tail. The next surprise I got was when I landed; she stalled at a hundred and ten miles an hour.”
— Jimmy Haizlip, commenting on his only flight in the Gee Bee.

“From a safety standpoint, in our view one of the things that we do in the basic design is the pilot always has the ultimate authority of control. There’s no computer on the airplane that he cannot override or turn off if the ultimate comes. In terms of any of our features, we don’t inhibit that totally. We make it difficult, but if something in the box should behave inappropriately, the pilot can say ‘This is wrong’ and he can override it. That’s a fundamental difference in philosophy that we have versus some of the competition.”
— John Cashman, former Chief Test Pilot, Boeing 777.

“Great pilots are made not born… A man may possess good eyesight, sensitive hands, and perfect coordination, but the end result is only fashioned by steady coaching, much practice, and experience.”
— Air Vice Marshal J. E. “Johnnie” Johnson, RAF.

“I have flown in just about everything, with all kinds of pilots in all parts of the world — British, French, Pakistani, Iranian, Japanese, Chinese — and there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between any of them except for one unchanging, certain fact: the best, most skillful pilot has the most experience.”

— General Chuck Yeager

“A pilot who says he has never been frightened in an airplane is, I’m afraid, lying.”
— Louise Thaden

“If you’re faced with a forced landing, fly the thing as far into the crash as possible.”
— Bob Hoover

“Mistakes are inevitable in aviation, especially when one is still learning new things. The trick is to not make the mistake that will kill you.”
— Stephen Coonts, naval aviator and author.

“It’s when things are going just right that you’d better be suspicious. There you are, fat as can be. The whole world is yours and you’re the answer to the Wright brothers’ prayers. You say to yourself, nothing can go wrong… all my trespasses are forgiven. Best you not believe it.”

— Ernest K. Gann, advice from the “old pelican,” The Black Watch, 1989.

“Prepare for the unknown, unexpected and inconceivable… after 50 years of flying I’m still learning every time I fly.”
— Gene Cernan, last man to walk on the moon.

“You’ve got to expect things are going to go wrong. And we always need to prepare ourselves for handling the unexpected.”
— Neil Armstrong, 2005 movie Magnificent Desolation: Walking On The Moon.

“I enjoyed my service flying very much. That is where I learned the discipline of flying. In order to have the freedom of flight you must have the discipline. Discipline prevents crashes.”
— Captain John Cook, British Airways Concorde Training Captain.

“If you are bored flying, your standards are too low.”
— Lauran Paine Jr., article in Sport Aviation, June 2014.

“Cloud-flying requires practice, even if you have every modern instrument, and unless you keep calm and collected you will get into trouble after you have been inside a really thick one for a few minutes. In the very early days of aviation, 1912 to be correct, I emerged from a cloud upside down, much to my discomfort, as I didn’t know how to get right way up again. I found out somehow, or I wouldn’t be writing this.”
— Charles Rumney Samson, A Flight from Cairo to Cape Town and Back, 1931.

“There is no reason to fly through a thunderstorm in peacetime.”
— Sign over squadron ops desk at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona, 1970.

“There is no reason to fly through a thunderstorm.”
— Sign over squadron ops desk at Udorn RTAFB, Thailand, 1970.

 

Anything you would add to the list?

119 Comments

  • Keys to a long aviation life:
    – Don’t run out of fuel
    – Avoid the terrain
    – Don’t pick up a package by its string

    Memorized from an old Flying Magazine article – writer remains unknown

  • fly the airplane–if all else fails around you–fly the airplane—no matter what you do or what happens–fly the airplane. too often we forget to do the one thing that we are trained for–and that is–fly the airplane

  • Always try to fly in the middle of the air. It is much safer there. The edges of the air can be recognized by the presence of the ground, houses, mountains, the ocean, and outer space.

  • Quoting my flight instructor. Who probably quoted his flight instructor. Who probably quoted his flight instructor…

    The three most useless things to a pilot in case of emergency:

    The fuel you left on the ground.
    The runway behind you.
    The air above you.

  • Very true advise
    Been down two times in single engine one time in twin, never scratched the paint or bent anything, just lucky

  • ” Know your systems ”

    Exercise self-discipline at all times.

    Sterile cockpit, focus on safety and enjoy the experience like a bird !!!!!

    ” Safety is No Accident “

  • This one isn’t exactly a “favorite saying” … rather, it’s the reason I almost never fly at night in a single engine aircraft:

    “When forced to make a dead stick off-airport landing at night, at about five hundred feet above ground turn on the landing light.

    If you don’t like what you see, turn off the landing light.”

  • Seen more than 40 years ago on a brass plaque in the cockpit of a replica WWI fighter at a wonderful Warrenton, VA grass strip:

    “All airplanes bite fools.”

    My wife calligraphed this wisdom below a lovely pen-and-ink Stearman, and advised me to read it before every flight.

  • From my zen master CFI Bob:

    “In aviation it’s ok do to things wrong… Just make sure you don’t make any mistakes ”

    🙂

  • definition of a plane: 10.000 loose parts flying in tight formation
    definition of flying: willfully accepting the fact, that they always come down
    remember: ther are bold pilorts nad there are old pilots. But there are no old and bold pilots.

  • A passage from Lindbergh’s account of the first flight across the Atlantic. Longer than a quote, but a favorite still:

    I make the mental and physical preparation for flying blind.

    The body must be informed sternly that the mind will take complete control. The senses must be drafted and lined up in strictest discipline, while logic replaces instinct as commander. If the body feels a wing dropping, and the mind says it is not (because the turn indicator’s ball and needle are still centered), the muscles must obey the mind’s decision no matter how wrong it seems to them. If the eyes imagine the flicker of a star below where they think the horizon ought to be, if the ears report the engine’s tempo too slow for level flight, if the nerves say the seat back’s pressure is increasing (as it does in a climb), the hands and the feet must still be loyal to the orders of the mind.

    It’s a terrific strain on the mind also when it turns from long-proven bodily instincts to the cold, mechanical impartiality of needles moving over dials. For countless centuries, it’s been accustomed to relying on the senses. They can keep the body upright on the darkest night. They’re trained to catch a stumble in an instant. Deprived of sight, the can still hold a blind man’s balance. Why, then, should they be so impotent in an airplane?

    The mind must operate as mechanically as the gyroscope which guides it. The muscles must move as unfeelingly as gears. If the senses get excited and out of control, the plane will follow them, and that can be fatal. If the senses break ranks while everything is going right, it may be impossible, with the plane falling dizzily and needles running wild, to bring them back in line, reinstruct them, and force them to gain control while everything is going wrong. It would be like rallying a panicked army under the fire of an advancing enemy. Like an army under fire, blind flying requires absolute discipline.

    That must be fully understood before it starts.”

    • One of my favorite av stories is about a couple of guys at a small airport somewhere in USA. They’re doing their pre-flight when one of them notices a weird-acting old man messing around a small SE, maybe a Piper Cub, taking off various parts of the fuselage and then checking the various control cables operating the rudder, flaps, etc.

      The observer then asks the other guy, the pilot, if he has any idea what that nutty old man was doing and why.

      The pilot replied: “Oh pay no attention to him…that’s just old Charlie Lindbergh.”

  • My favourite, from my instructor:

    A good landing is one from which you can walk away; and excellent landing is when you can use the aircraft again!

    And always, as he hammered into me: Fly The Damned Plane!

  • Step on the ball; center the turn needle; stop the climb or descent.

    Before takeoff, if you hear a strange sound, don’t go until you determine what caused it.

    Relax, and sit straight and comfortable in the plane, to flare gently to land.

    Fly your wing, with your AOA. The wing’s the thing!

  • From my CFI, yipping at me during training:

    “NO, we’re NOT diving for the runway today!” Oh and,

    “PUSH THAT THING BACK IN!” (As I pulled the mixture to idle cut-off, instead of the carb heat to hot.) :/

    Rick Bazzo

  • Here’s one of my favorites. Wish I could take credit for it, but unfortunately I don’t know to whom to attribute it.

    “A mile of road will take you a mile, but a mile of runway will take you anywhere.”

  • When the engine quits the airplane belongs to the insurance company…..don’t try to save it, save yourself! -Tom Mayo, a crusty curmudgeon!

  • Three statements you don’t want to hear in the cockpit.
    Flight engineer: “What was that?”
    Copilot: “I’ve got an idea!”
    Pilot: “Hey, watch this!”

  • When an Emergency develops, the first thing you throw out is the Rule Book…Three things to remember about landings, Air Speed, Air Speed, Air Speed…

  • “Pilots are the only people in a corporation who make multi-million-dollar decisions in a split-second.”

    Three questions you must ask during the captain upgrade / initial operating experience (IOE) flights:
    – What’s the inbound? (instrument approach/airway course)
    – What’s the outbound? (airway course)
    – Was that for us? (ATC communicaton)

  • OK, here’s another advice quote:

    “How to make a small fortune in aviation: start out with a large one.”

    Dan Kap,
    Whittier, CA

  • “More than anything else the sensation is one of perfect peace mingled with an excitement that strains every nerve to the utmost, if you can conceive of such a combination.” – Wilbur Wright

  • “The problem with aviation ‘facts’ on the internet is that you never know if they are genuine.” — Orville Wright

  • Frank’s comment above reminds me of a quote I heard a long time ago from Rod Machado (hoping I quoted it right); it’s also the title of one of his magazine columns (“License to Learn”):

    “Getting your private ticket, besides flying, is really a license to learn.”

    Dan Kap,
    Whittier, CA

  • (don’t remember exactly where I read it, but the context stuck with me)…

    When all goes to hell, don’t sit there with a stupid blank look on your face all the way to the ground … hell stick your arm out the window and start flapping like hell if you have to, but don’t just sit there doing nothing.

  • And another I took a liking to
    An airplane does not care if you saved an orphanage and go to church every Sunday, it will not “give” you anything. An airplane will not “give” you a better glide, more fuel, or better climb just because you are a “good person”.
    …on the other hand…
    An airplane will take them away if you try to get greedy.

  • “Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.” – Captain A. G. Lamplugh

    • I was a submariner and ours went like this:

      Professional submarining, like professional flying, is not in itself inherently dangerous. Both consist for the most part of long periods of monotony punctuated by brief moments of panic. The sea, however, unlike the sky, is very unforgiving of the slightest mistake.

  • The best place to transit an airport is directly overhead, unless it’s Cape Canaveral. Heard this one from my instructor. Not sure if he coined it or not.

  • I don’t have this quite right, but I think I got the spirit of it right.

    It’s better to use good judgement to avoid putting yourself at great risk than it is to use great skill to recover from using poor judgement.

  • Make sure the gear is down and locked son, because in a low wing airplane, if you land gear up, when you step off that wing onto the runway, even though it’s an inch, it feels like you’re stepping into the Grand Canyon. My old flight instructor when I was a young punk trying to get an upgrade to my flying privileges.

  • If you don’t have the finances to own both, remember this: “You can always sleep in an airplane, but you can’t fly a house.”

  • If you think you can probably make it, stay home, some day you won’t. Plain and simple “probably” isn’t near good enough.

  • Helicopters do not fly. They beat the air into submission.
    All takeoffs are optional – All landings are mandatory.
    The time to make the decision on whether to fly or not ends as soon as the wheels leave the ground.

  • I heard this one from Martha King in one of her instructional videos many years ago: “The definition of a pilot who is a superior individual who uses his superior knowledge and superior judgment to keep him out of situations that would require his superior skill.”

    Amen.

  • Flying an airplane is often counter-intuitive:

    “If you want to go down more steeply, point the nose down less steeply. If you want to go down less steeply, point the nose down more steeply… The rule just given runs contrary to all common sense… and because it runs contrary to one’s experience it is extremely hard to do the right thing– especially in an emergency when glide control really matters; and extremely hard to refrain from doing the wrong thing. ”

    Wolfgang Langewiesche, Stick and Rudder, p 242.

    I remember and think about this concept all the time.

    • How about, “Push the stick forward, the houses get bigger, pull the stick back, the houses get smaller, pull the stick WAY back, the houses get WAY bigger!” LOL

  • Don’t know for certain who said this one; but I think it was great. The Cessna 150 is one of the safest airplanes, it can just barely kill you.
    Then there is the one about the propeller being like a fan. If you don’t believe it, if it ever stops, just watch the pilot sweat.

    Though my all time favorite is: A single glimpse is worth a thousand instrument cross check.

  • I have a pilot buddy with whom I’ve worked on some non-flying projects. When he’s frustrated about a solution to a problem, he’ll say, “Dan, I’m out of altitude, airspeed, and ideas, all at the same time.” Sure does get his point across!

    Dan Kap,
    Whittier, CA

  • Training is expensive. Ignorance is more expensive.
    Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you wanted.
    You know you’ve landed gear up when it takes full power to taxi.
    Any plane can be a sea plane once.
    What keeps a helicopter up? Money.
    Mother’s instruction to pilot son, “Fly low and slow.”

  • I used to fly an A36 Bonanza for a gentleman who claimed to be a pilot, but never exhibited any aerial skills. He was always looking for an instructor to “sign him off” in the airplane, but never did. On one trip, he had a relatively inexperienced instructor accompany us in the right seat, and asked me to evaluate him as a possible candidate for giving him dual in the plane. After a two day trip, that nice young man demonstrated a lack of skill bordering on the dangerous and, even worse, no interest in improving. At the conclusion of the trip, and after the young man had left, he asked me if I thought it would be safe for him to fly with the instructor. I told him that he would be quite safe, because when the airplane crashed, both he and the instructor would be at least 30 miles behind it. He thought a minute, laughed, and agreed with me.

  • “Aggressive finess marks an Ora of a pilot with a sense of touch to experience the freedom of flight from the surly bonds of an earthen bossum and a passion to share that delight with others less gifted”. EPG

  • I was arguing with a retired USN submarine captain once as to whether it was better to be an aviator (my opinion) than a submariner: Wagging his finger under my nose, he said “you idiots have left a heck of a lot more airplanes on the seafloor than we’ve left subs in the air!” He had a point.

    • Captain Schwartz – as a private pilot and a former submariner, I’m not sure that the logic of your submarine skipper quite works, as both naval aircraft and subs end up on the sea floor when their luck runs out.

      Nevertheless, it’s interesting to note that in the last big shooting war, World War Two, the US submarine force suffered the highest casualty rate of any American fighting unit during the war. And the US Army 8th Air Force (the American European theater bombing forces) were close behind in terms of casualties suffered. Both forces also did a heckuva lot of damage to the enemy, while acting as “tip of the spear” operating far inside enemy waters and airspace and surrounded by highly capable enemies.

      Both forces – subs and flyers, Army and Navy – naturally operated in an unforgiving environment, and that is still true today. We all owe a great deal to those folks.

  • Flying is all about attitudes….The attitude of he PILOT & the attitude of the AIRCRAFT….they must be CORRECT in that order, or your going to have something more than a bad hair day!

  • In one hand you have luck, in the other you have experience. The goal is to have enough experience when your luck runs out.

    I believe it was Bob Hoover

  • In An emergency, don’t just do something, sit there. The aircraft isn’t going to kill you immediately. You have choice to either add to the emergency through panic or calmly use the training you have received and the checklists to put you in as good a condition as possible. If you simply must do SOMETHING, wind the clock.

  • 1. Keep the dirty side down.
    2. Don’t trust FAA standards to keep you safe.
    3. Don’t memorize the book, understand it.
    4. Fly the airplane like your life depends on it. it does.
    5. The difference between the bottle and the throttle is the throttle takes you to the heavens, the bottle sends you to hell.
    6. A good first officer is a keen observer.
    7. A great captain mentors by example.
    8. An uneventful flight is seldom remembered
    9. Misuse of in-flight radar is responsible for more passenger discomfort, injury and death than any other single pilot controlled factor.
    10. In this post 9-11 world the airplane is the best self defense weapon at the pilot’s disposal.

  • I can’t believe no one’s submitted this one yet: There are two kinds of pilots – those who have landed gear up and those who are gonna.

    I learned this one the same day I ran to fetch a bucket of prop wash!

  • On behalf of a test pilot friend whom whom I forwarded this link – he wanted to add –

    “I’ve always said “Test pilots are fearless not foolish.”

  • From Dad, who flew F4U’s off a carrier, often at night, all the way from San Diego to Tokyo: “Always believe your instruments. If they’re wrong, you’re dead anyway! “

  • The airplane was designed to fly, trim it and let it do its thing.
    Nobody on the radio can really fly te plane for you, so fly the airplane and leave the microphone alone.
    Even the best CFI cannot teach you everything you need to know. They can teach you to pass a test. Remember that every pilot error was done by a certificated pilot.

  • A different take on Bob Hoover’s from one of my CFIs…
    If you’re going to crash, find the softest & cheapest thing around, and hit it as slowly as possible.

  • From my father, first uttered in the midst of a night flight over hostile terrain in Texas (although it’s probably as old as the earliest aircraft with electrical systems): What to do if your single engine quits at night: trim for best glide, do the engine-out checklist, and watch the altimeter. When you are about 300 ft above the ground, turn on the landing light. If you like what you see, go ahead and land. If you don’t like what you see, turn off the landing light!

  • It’s not the crash that kills you, it’s that suden stop at the end.

  • If you want to fly at night, close your eyes. That way you can control the sunrise.

  • I don’t know where this one came from – possibly a clay tablet found early last century……
    The first commandment for pilots:
    “Maintain thy airspeed lest the Earth arise and smite thee.”

  • While doing classroom training for theorical ditching of airliner in the North Atlantic. One pilot remarked that the weather and water conditions were not generally favourable. He summed up his philosophy with these words,
    “”Point your toes, we’re going in””

  • Mil Oldies…

    “better to be lucky than good”

    “better to die than to look bad…
    …but you can do both”

    Lead to wing:
    “Only two things I want to hear from you…Lead, you’re on fire…and… I’ll take the fat one”

    From Air Boss to COD upon wrong way (bow to stern) fly by:
    “Hook up, clean up and just go away”

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