6 min read

Sometimes you learn things that you didn’t expect while looking through airplane windows. I noticed this when I first started to fly and it has become the most beneficial part of the experience.

It doesn’t happen on every flight. But it happened again recently.

Coming home from historic Wings Field (KLOM), outside Philadelphia, toward suburban Chicago I was battling high head winds and moderate rain in the October sky.

The first part of the journey was busy. In the clouds at 2000 feet, a change to the airways in the Northeast had the controllers confused and they did a good job passing the uncertainty on to me. Five different routings were punched into the GPS before I passed the Pottstown (PTW) VOR. Harrisburg approach apologized after giving me the penultimate change. The final directions were served with a heavy sigh and an even more expressive apology.

Pilot looking out window

When you look out the window in an airplane, who do you see looking back?

Before I started to fly, I would have been petulant and abusive if someone asked me to do the same thing five different ways. Flying has made me more tolerant of the challenges others face, more willing to be a part of the team, more accepting of the constraints others place on me.

I am not the only one who has noticed how cooperation comes more easily when I no longer respond to difficulties with condescension or impatience.

In my future that day were widespread rain, ice and turbulence. Calls to Flight Service and study of the print outs I brought compared to the on board weather consumed the next hour.

There were no thunderstorms and the lower levels were ice-free so the work was manageable and not frightening. At 500 hours experience, I am severely afraid of both these enemies.

When I was becoming a pilot, I was often described as “fearless.” I would ride the wicked roller coasters, bungee jump from great heights, take enormous risks at work. I thought fear a weakness.

I was astonished when this did not transfer to my flying. I never suspected I would be anything but coldly analytical and resolute against the flying dangers. I foolishly believed I would never have problems in an airplane and would never be afraid.

I have made peace with the fear that shows up for me on some flights. I recognize it as the handmaiden to safety. Far from a weakness, my fear is a talisman that keeps me safe, points out the things to watch for, motivates me to pay attention.

Outside the cockpit, I have been more accommodating to my associates and have more respect for the business and personal risks they choose to avoid.

As I approached Ohio and the storms at their zenith, I had made peace with my choices and settled down to enjoy the ride. Everything I had learned about flying had put me in the position to bump through this sky safely and with confidence.

It was not until I passed Toledo and was handed off to Fort Wayne approach that the clouds gave way and I saw it.

1979 must have been a great year in vehicle creation because two machines born then turned my head. My 182 was built in 1979; and so was my baby blue BMW 320i, a car I truly loved. Both were bought with little thought to economic reason. It would be as hard to pick a favorite child as to choose which meant more when I first held their keys.

Even at 4000 feet I could spot it. A rare twin of that German coupe was motoring down the Indiana Toll Road. Against that monster breeze, I was barely gaining on it. It was doing at least 85 mph.

I asked for and got a right deviation so I could cross over the highway and watch it closer for just a little longer.

Less than a mile away, as the wings swept past the wheels, I felt a sense of accomplishment, pride and nostalgia. Looking through that window pane I realized the journey between these two vehicles was my story of success.

Recently I reread a book by Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success.

An “outlier” is a scientific term for something outside the norm. A freezing day in August would be an “outlier;” a .450 batting average would be a Major League “outlier.”

In the book Gladwell spoke of what makes a person a success, what makes them an “outlier.” He believes success requires three ingredients: talent; opportunity; and, the discipline to practice.

There’s a chapter in it about flying, and the often quoted statistic from the book is that to be a success in anything you need to practice it 10,000 times.

All of us pilots are outliers. Statistically, we are way out there compared to the population.

Marines in uniform

The Marines’ recruiting slogan appeals to the “outlier” instinct – should pilots do the same?

The aviation industry needs to pull more Americans into our little group, because we need more pilots. There are many ideas on how to do this. Recently I read a thesis that rang true to me: emphasize that to be a pilot you must be exceptional, you must be an “outlier,” and advertise the activity that way.

To be a pilot you must be: talented enough to afford it; courageous enough to seize the opportunity; and, disciplined enough to get through the difficulties of flight training.

Many people express a strong desire to fly. There must be plenty of them whose talents have attracted the money that is required; most if not all have demonstrated the discipline.

So why are they not seizing the opportunity? How can we motivate them to get past whatever is stopping them?

As night fell and I thankfully closed in on home, there was one more cloud bank to penetrate. Turning up the interior lights I entered the gloaming.

At night in an airplane in cloud when you look outside, all you can see is a reflection of the cockpit.

I looked out and saw me.

Flying holds up a mirror to you and makes you understand that no matter who you think you are, who you are in the cockpit is who you really are. Do you like that person? Shouldn’t they change just a little?

Flying has many contradictions that force you to think in different ways, to challenge your assumptions. Because of this becoming a pilot can be the ultimate self-improvement tool for successful people. By following your dream to fly, you become better at everything else you do.

The message needs to be that learning to fly feeds the passion of exceptional people, opening vistas both outside and inside of them.

When you are looking through an airplane window you learn things you didn’t expect. You learn about you.

Mark Fay
Latest posts by Mark Fay (see all)
25 replies
  1. Amy
    Amy says:

    Great article Mark! Flying is the most humbling thing I have ever done, and you articulated the exact reasons why.

  2. robert
    robert says:

    Great and inspiring article. As a 40-year old student pilot, I have to agree on your ingredients. I aspire to the discipline.


  3. Chris
    Chris says:

    A truly terrific article. There are a lot of parallels to flying and the profession that I’m currently in that make me both a better pilot and professional.

    When I fly with someone, I tend to be a little more patient than what is ordinary for my character, and I always try to bring that quality (among several others) outside of the cockpit and into the office.

    Thanks for a great article, Mark!

  4. Steve Phoenix
    Steve Phoenix says:

    Excellent. You might consider operating a flight school.

    I especially liked your self description of being fearless before getting into flying. It reminded me of my brother, whom I taught to fly some years ago. At the time he was a professional motorcycle road racer in the old superbike class; the type that flies through the corners at 120 mph. I never had a more cautious student in my instructing career; it amazed me.

  5. Sean
    Sean says:

    Thank you Mark. That was a trans-formative read for me. I’m just getting back into flying after a 2 year absence and I can’t wait to be back to working on being a better pilot and a better version of myself. I’ve thought that pilots can never show fear or nervousness, but handling those emotions and making good decisions is part of doing the job well. Thanks again.

  6. Mark Fay
    Mark Fay says:

    Many thanks to all for the really kind comments! It is an honor to contribute to Air Facts with its rich tradition, important mission and top shelf talent. I am up to 550 hours now and I am hopeful that Air Facts will continue to post some of my stories.

    Don’t forget that Sporty’s Pilot Shop makes Air Facts possible.

    I have always wanted to fly. We are all so lucky to get to go aloft. I feel sorry for those who don’t and am thrilled beyond words that something I may write can help people seize the opportunity and make their own dreams come true.

  7. Daniel A. Bernath rv12 driver
    Daniel A. Bernath rv12 driver says:

    Delayed fear. When confronted with an unusual event whilst flying I do not feel fear (which could inhibit correct action) but merely move forward to correct the problem.

    THEN, later, I muse as to the earlier event and if there is any fear it as I think about what happened already. I think that came from flying experience and training.

  8. Kayak Jack
    Kayak Jack says:

    Thanks, Mark. Good job.
    I started to learn to fly when I was 70. It took me three years, two check rides, and three instructors. Most of that time was spent growing around my fears. 75 now, still learning and still growing.

    • easyas
      easyas says:

      kayak jack,what a legend you are,here I am,a mere 60 and think I,m doing well.its true what you said about conquering your fears,occasionally questioning wether you should be up there at all,but the truth is persistence pays off and a challenge is what we all need to become more wordly.thanks again for your view .

    • Rodney
      Rodney says:

      Thanks Mark, I really do enjoy your articles. This one especially. I feel inspired by this gentleman, Kayak Jack, at 70. I’m 60 and was wondering if I’m not a bit late. I do fly Radio control Aerobatics or Pattern as it’s called. I’ve never been up in an aeroplane other than a air transport jetliner.
      Rodney Potter. Cape Town South Africa

  9. Gabriel S
    Gabriel S says:

    “Five different routings were punched into the GPS before I passed the Pottstown (PTW) VOR”

    I had the identical musical routing game last week inbound on my return! Never did figure out what was going on that made them so confused. My routing game even included throwing in a STAR and then taking that back out after sending me up to Wilkes-Barre (LVP I think) after Lancaster (LRP).

    Like you I was overly adventuresome (read stupid) in my youthful efforts to defy the laws of physics and ignore the rational probability of bodily harm, or worse, yet find flying to be something that keeps me exceptionally grounded (pun intended) when it comes to methodical risk evaluation and decision-making. I may never know if that would have been the same if my first time in the left seat was 20 years earlier. I think I’m glad I can never go back and find out.

    The freedom to fly in the United States is one of the greatest freedoms and privileges that we have, especially in comparison to other countries. Responsible flying is our obligation to ourselves, our passengers, and our fellow aviators. It is a great perspective that you see that flying bettered you in other ways in life, and I never appreciated that about myself until I read this, but it’s true – thanks.

  10. Frank Martin
    Frank Martin says:

    Nice article. and believe me (at 2500 hours) you won’t be any less afraid of trw and icing in another 2000 ( or 20,000) hours if you are as smart as it sounds you are.

  11. Mike Gray
    Mike Gray says:

    Hi…excellent article. I’m not a pilot, well not qualified anyway. Apart from a couple sessions in helicopters I’ve only ever flown one fixed wing airplane, a Piper Cherokee, but that was what I consider a proper flight. A flight lesson with a qualified pilot from a local commercial airport (Bristol). Whether it counts or not, I’d spent many hours on Microsoft’s Flight sim, which helped me considerably with instruments. 30 minutes cockpit familiarisation then we queued for take-off behind a commercial 737!!! You bet…I was wondering what the hell I was doing there. Anyway, he disappeared and it was our turn. My tutor looked after throttle, flaps and the com, I physically flew the Cherokee. Take off was good and we climbed to 2000ft on a heading south west. Our flight plan was Burham-on-Sea, on the Severn Estury coast, south west side of the UK and then back to Bristol.
    Weather was clear if just a little misty at 2000ft. I was to maintain 2000ft altitude and my tutor put me through trim corrections whilst maintaining altitude. The flight was uneventful and we approached Bristol on our return. I mentally choked when my tutor said I was to land the aircraft! He set flaps and throttle and we descended on the glide path. At about 600ft everything began shaking and I asked him to take control but he said I was doing ok and to stay with it. I successfully landed the Cherokee. In a video my wife had taken of the landing the shaking (ground turbulence) wasn’t visible and it looked quite professional! My tutor invited me to join their club, which for various reasons I couldn’t manage and have always regretted that decision.

  12. John Pate
    John Pate says:

    Mark Fay has hit very close to the secret of a not only a successful, but a satisfying life. I’ve been up there several thousand hours so to those beginning flight or having done it I have to say: take MARK’S article to heart, copy it, absorb it, and keep it close. Not only could it save your life, it can help you get to a joyful and satisfying life. Wow!

  13. Ron Boston
    Ron Boston says:

    Nice! As I have told many a student going off on a first solo, he/she is the only person who will truly know if he or she followed their checklist, cleared sufficiently (if anyone can), and did it “right.” (Also not to come back until they had three landings they were pleased with.) Your article articulated this well: flying is one of life’s true integrity checks, and a wonderful classroom for life where there is only a pass/fail grade.

  14. Gogona
    Gogona says:

    ****By following your dream to fly, you become better at everything else you do.****

    Very true! My own flying experience had a great influence on me, and my entire personality has been changed since I started to fly.

  15. Aloyisus Fornortener
    Aloyisus Fornortener says:

    My first flight was from the high sand dunes bordering the Pacific Ocean at Cantamar, Mexico. It was 1972. I was a sailor (19 years old) in Fleet Composite Squadron Three at Naval Air Station North Island, Coronado/San Diego, California. I had happened upon some plans for the Regallo wing design hang glider that had caught my eye on the cliffs at La Jolla. Our squadron was building various drone/RPV aircraft stands out of aluminum tubing. I decided to see how much tubing was needed to build two hang gliders, wait until the Chief was busy……he was……and he signed the requisition. Three days later a supply truck pulled up outside of our hangar and with the help of a friend, we unloaded, un – crated, cut tubes to length, took them home, assembled it all in a few weeks and the rest is history. That first flight…….lifting into the air…….approx. 100 feet above the dunes (sand is softer to collide with than hard earth…it is…..as I did) was indescribable…so I will not attempt. Ten flights above the dunes that day …the longest lasting 15 minutes (I learned that very careful “crabbing” will keep you stationary in that 20 to 35 – 45 MPH breeze and gusts off of the ocean)….maneuver around then “crab”…..do it again…then “crab”……….smiles….lots of smiles. Theft of Govt. Property? Yes. But it kept us out of trouble and had me in the 150’s/172’s/Cherokee 140’s and up and up and up………..but my memory always goes back to that first lift off from the sands of Cantamar. Oh…I always smile with that memory of flight and sand and the beautiful Pacific and the wind it provided.

  16. Tom Comet
    Tom Comet says:

    Wow, what a great article and subject matter! I have been struggling a little with some of these same thoughts – that I am a (or think I need to be) a different person in the cockpit when compared to the person I have self created in the rest of my life. I was once a professional daredevil (world record holding chain saw juggler among other things) and now, as a 400 hour pilot, sometimes find myself terrified in the airplane plane. Usually this happens during those brief interludes of unknown when things are not going as expected or as planned. I worry that there are potential life threatening gaps in my knowledge and abilities. Yet I am drawn back to the sky time and time again in my never ending quest for improvement. I push myself and think of little else.

    Since reading this I now realize that my aviation quest is a similar compulsion with the same problem solving skills that once enabled me to master other high risk pursuits and live through them with success.

    Yes, this is something I must think about some more. Thank you so much for the article!

  17. Jerry
    Jerry says:

    “By following your dream to fly, you become better at everything else you do.”

    Either you have a generous amount of humility going into those first lessons. Or, if you’re like me (and some others here), those first 40+ hours forces some humility into you. I certainly AM a better person than I was when I started flying.

  18. Robert Thomas
    Robert Thomas says:

    The people that have embraced risk understand the consequences. Flight is notoriously unforgiving of mistakes. If you understand risk, that is right at the front of your thoughts, all the time. The people who are unaware or not slightly afraid of the aircraft are the dangerous ones.


    Two major fear reduction factors: I have plenty of fuel and land when in doubt

    In regard to our profession generating more pilots:
    The PROBLEM DOD and others say they/ USA needs more pilots …i agree!
    The SOLUTION Require every base commander to use WMR monies and base media to support aero clubs.
    The BENEFITS are many 10+ more readiness, more pilots, more opportunities
    1. More women in aviation
    2. More minorities in aviation
    3. More pilots in pipeline
    4. More aviation
    5. More aircraft
    6. More jobs for those separating
    7. More MWR
    8. 0 impact DOD budget
    9. More AIR more commerce
    10. More members
    All base commanders all services should be directed to establish and support these aero clubs …either on-base or off-base unless they are too small an installation.

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