2 min read

Are you a better pilot if you like flying for fun?

During a recent hangar flying session, one pilot made the following complaint: “It used to be, pilots were real aviation enthusiasts. They learned to fly in a Cub, then stepped up to faster airplanes. Even when they were flying Bonanzas or Cessna 310s, they did it because they loved flying. But this new breed of pilots, especially the guys who learn to fly in a Cirrus, they don’t care about the joy of flying. They just use their airplanes to travel.”

Whether you agree with this statement or not, the obvious question is: so what? Does it matter if some pilots see general aviation simply as a convenient way to get around? Do aviation enthusiasts make better pilots?

Some argue that they do. When pilots are really passionate and engaged, they spend more time learning the art of flying, from real world weather to aircraft systems to smooth flying techniques. There’s a desire to understand the finer points of flying and to continually improve. After all, being a safe and proficient pilot means more than just completing the checklist and meeting the PTS standards. A piston airplane, even a Cirrus, is not a mini-airliner.

Other pilots say this is baloney–just a bunch of old timers reminiscing about “the good old days” that never existed. A pilot can be totally committed to safe flying without getting misty-eyed every time he sees a Cub. Thousands of airline pilots prove this every day. Besides, we should welcome pilots in no matter what their motivation.

What do you think? Are some pilots only in it for the transportation value an airplane brings? Does this matter? Is one type of pilot safer than the other? Add a comment below.

John Zimmerman
25 replies
  1. Dave
    Dave says:

    “It used to be, drivers were real automobile enthusiasts. They learned to drive in a LaSalle, then stepped up to faster cars. Even when they were riving Mustangs or Camaros’, they did it because they loved driving. But this new breed of drivers, especially the guys who learn to drive in a BMW, they don’t care about the joy of driving. They just use their cars to travel.” Gee that old LaSalle ran great, those were the days.

  2. SamuelW
    SamuelW says:

    It depends…

    In some ways, the question is circular. If my idea of a “good pilot” is someone who has an acute understanding of stick and rudder basics and appreciates tailwheel airplanes, old-fashioned flying, and an understanding of the how and why of flying, then by definition he’s going to be an enthusiast.

    If the definition of “good pilot” is “he who gets to the meeting on time with the most amount of fuel saved,” then stick and rudder skills and an aerodynamic understanding are irrelevant….

    ….until the latter pilot is caught in a base-to-final stall/spin situation. Then suddenly those “good ‘ol days” that supposedly never existed seem a little more good, and that Cub with the peeling paint looks more like a learning tool than an outmoded, “thank God we’re past that” relic.

    Hope I make myself clear. Anyway, if you’re looking for a yes/no answer from me, my answer is “Yes. Absolutely.” :-)

  3. G.
    G. says:

    I think it is a false analogy to compare the 1940’s and 50’s to today – people learned in a J-3 back then because that was what was available, and they were cheap. Today, nothing is cheap, and many who can afford to learn to fly can afford to learn in a SR-22.

    I also hate to say it, but the remark about the “good old days” being nothing of the sort is spot on:

    We hear of Cirrus pilots with very few hours attempting low level aileron rolls.

    We heard of low time Bonanza pilots flying into IMC conditions, ending the lives of Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper.

    Human nature doesn’t change, but the training actually has, and to good effect. Accident rates in the mid-century were abysmal, regardless to if the pilots were more of “enthusiasts” than today. I find it hard to believe that there are fewer people today committed to safety than when flying was expected to become as commonplace and standard fare as driving a car after the war.

  4. Wayne
    Wayne says:

    Enthusiast: noun: a person who is highly interested in a particular activity or subject

    What you fly does not make you an enthusiast. Someone in a SR22 may be just as interested in aviation as the Cub pilot. How you use the machine does not reveal much of the pilot except the size of their bank account.

    Also being an enthusiast does not make you a better pilot. Unfortunately the statistics show that high-time and low-time, IFR and VFR pilots continue to do things that should not be done.

    The SR22 pilot that uses the plane primarily to get from point A to point B is likely to also have an IFR rating. Need to have some interest in aviation to go through that process.

    What we fly or why we fly does not make a difference in safety. It is the professionalism in which we do it that does.

  5. Louis Sell
    Louis Sell says:

    Count me as one who enjoys traveling from point “A” to “B” and IFR too.
    I don’t think that diminishes my passion for flying and aircraft one bit. I can get great satisfaction from completing a leg as planned and on schedule, safely.
    I have flown both J-3 Cub and Taylorcraft, they were not for me. However, for those who enjoy flying low and slow they were both wonderful.
    Am I an enthusiast? Well after 49 years, I guess yes. It’s just my type of flying is different than some others.

  6. greg
    greg says:

    A pilot in the 30,40, to now is someone that a full understanding of flight, flight rules, type of aircraft and the equipment therein. I know a lot of “pilots” that still do not know their way around an “FMS” they know enough to do the job.

    The problem is pilots are held to a higher standard, its not like when things go bad you stop the Sim and reset. Those are lives in your hands even if you are by yourself you could still hurt someone on the ground.

    The ANA pilot admitted he did not understand the system, but to scared to tell anyone…What was the check airman doing, not monitoring the situation.

    So to go back to the being pilots need to be pilots first video game operators second.

  7. Dick Davis
    Dick Davis says:

    Some people seem to have both forgotten what the question was and proven something to those who still remember the good old days. The question had nothing to do with safety and yet many of you attempted to turn it into that. First, it is important you know that aviation is not safety. Aviation is freedom, freedom to fall off a ladder no matter how good a carpenter you are, freedom to slip on ice no matter how good a skater you are, and freedom to enjoy aviation unhindered by this ridiculous obsession with safety. The safety obsession, perhaps more than anything else defines the difference between the good old days (aviators) and today (pilots). Those who lived to the fullest possible mark and came out the other side were aviators and yes they were vastly better. Those that come out the other side of safety training, once known as “basic flight instruction” are mere titles encumbered by fear and a lack of basic training that did not happen due to the focus on safety.

  8. Louis Sell
    Louis Sell says:

    An old flying saying;
    There are some old pilots and there are some bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.

  9. Duane
    Duane says:

    Seems like a couple of non-constructive questions to me, but they’re typical of how too many pilots think.

    Yeah, there is certainly some Cirrus envy among some pilots, who with classic “sour grapes” attitudes denigrate the pilots who can afford to fly something beyond their own financial resources. A lot of “the old days were better” stuff is crap too – flying today is better than ever, with more choices, more safety, more capability, and more comfort.

    In any case, today one can choose to fly just about any airplane that ever flew, from old classics like the Cub to the ubiquitous spam cans to the latest and greatest all glass high performance time machines. So fly what you like and begrudge nobody else their choice in flying machines.

    As for enthusiasm, any pilot is a special person who went to a great deal of time, trouble, injury to their ego, and damage to their bank account in order to learn to fly, and stay in the air. You cannot NOT be an enthusiast and invest so much of yourself in flying, regardless of how many dollars are wrapped up in your aircraft.

    Finally, practical air travel is not mutually exclusive with the joy and wonder of flight. Anyone of us pilots would, if time and safety allow, prefer to fly our own aircraft from point A to point B over riding back in coach on a cramped airliner, or poking along in traffic on a congested freeway. Flying for the purpose of transportation is one of the great joys of general aviation – it provides a great sense of personal freedom to “fly my own airline”.

    Some folks should just stop drawing lines in the sand and dividing us pilots … there’s already too few of us in this world to be picking sides, instead of making friends and allies.

  10. Fortson Rumble
    Fortson Rumble says:

    Funny, how about all these guys that came home from WWII as pilots who DIDN’T keep flying? I know that it was war but my point is they had a job to do and did it. For these of use that use GA as transportation, it is just that – a means to an end.

    Does that mean that I don’t work at being a better pilot? Of course not, it’s my butt up in that plane at times with my family.

    • Louis Sell
      Louis Sell says:

      Some who didn’t keep flying–many had bigger fish to fry !
      School, family, building a career and making up for lost time (play time). I know several who, in their 50s and 60s began to fly again. As an indication of this I would mention the sales expansion in the late 1970s.
      In my pre and early teen years I knew several WW-II Veterans. They played hard and drank hard. But they were always courteous and friendly to us kids. Drunk or sober they were avid Church attenders, some would go to Mass on Friday night and be “Knee Walk’in Drunk” on Saturday. The improvised musical instruments worked very well. They were generous and many a summer I made good money digging fish worms for a penny each. Car washes were $1.00 and grass cutting was $1.00 to $2.00.
      Many weekends the road would be blocked with a Jeep with small trailer attached, men didn’t get by without getting a beer from the trailer keg.
      Children were never offered anything but soda and I never tasted a beer until I was 18.
      I never saw them with any kind of firearm and cuts and broken bones almost never occurred. Grandpa was a Dentist and Grandma was a Registered nurse so they would come to us first because the Hospital was 40 to 50 miles away.
      They have been called the greatest generation and of the ones I knew, they were the greatest and kindest.

  11. Larry Coleman
    Larry Coleman says:

    You’ve posed a false dichotomy. “Enthusiast” and “competent” are neither mutually exclusive nor necessarily mutually inclusive qualities, even if the former overlaps with the latter more often than not.

    A Cirrus is a beautiful, powerful, incredibly-capable machine that will beautifully, powerfully, and capably kill the non-competent regardless of where they fall on the enthusiast spectrum.

    But remember what Max Stanley, the test pilot for Northrop, said: The Piper Cub is the safest airplane in the world; it can just barely kill you.

  12. Liad B.
    Liad B. says:

    I fly the champ low and slow, and work on my landings, and fly the Mooney when its time to go make some money in the meeting that is 300nm away. I don’t see why I need to choose one or the other.

    I would add this to the discussion; If everyone got their PPL in a taildragger, we would have much better pilots. I still find it amazing how badly one can mess up a landing on a tricycle and still make it home for dinner.. try that in a champ(!)

    my 2 cents.

    • Duane
      Duane says:

      Liad B. – I disagree with you on students getting PPLs in tailwheel aircraft being superior pilots as compared to those who learn in tricycle gear aircraft. I know that tailwheel owners love to say that as if it were gospel, but it’s just not true. It’s another example of the same undeserved-superiority-complex attitude displayed in this post as written by Mr. Zimmerman.

      Granted, learning to fly a conventional gear aircraft makes one more attentive to the rudder pedals on takeoff roll, landing rollout, and taxi back to the hangar, but that phase of flight is only a tiny slice of flying and of the skill set that makes for a “good pilot”. And it’s arguably the least dangerous phase of flight.

      Accidents on the ground rarely result in fatalities, mostly just bent metal and bruised egos and bank accounts. Aside from weather related accidents, which constitute the largest proportion of aviation accidents – especially fatalities – the other biggie is the stall-spin accident in the traffic pattern or other maneuvering flight. There is nothing about learning to fly in a taildragger that makes a pilot better at maintaining airspeed or properly controlling the aircraft in maneuvering flight. Stick and rudder and power management skills in the air are just as important in any fixed wing aircraft, regardless of its landing gear configuration.

      And lastly, in the long run, it makes little difference which aircraft you flew as a student pilot. Most of one’s pilot skills, attitudes and habits are learned and earned over the course of hundreds or even thousands of hours of pilot experience after passing the PPL … usually in aircraft that are rather different than our initial trainers. Flying skills, once learned, quickly fade if not practiced routinely.

      • SamuelW
        SamuelW says:

        Duane, I appreciate your passion. In many way’s you’re right. But I’m sorry, some of your assertions are just opinions and are not backed up with verifiable facts. Example:

        “…the other biggie is the stall-spin accident in the traffic pattern or other maneuvering flight. There is nothing about learning to fly in a taildragger that makes a pilot better at maintaining airspeed or properly controlling the aircraft in maneuvering flight.”

        Not true. Get some dual time in a 7AC Champ with no electrical system, no slip/skid indicator, and lots of adverse yaw and you’ll see what I mean. I learned in 150/152/172 planes and I can tell you from my own experience that the quality of my subconscious handling of the plane increased *dramatically* after the tailwheel endorsement.

        For one, many of the characteristics of these old tailwheel planes have been engineered out of the modern planes. This is nice, but in another sense it can lead to complacency and like you said, a degrading of skills. Also, these planes were not as “designed” and took a lot more control finesse to fly satisfactorily. Plus, with a low hp / high drag plane, coordinated (and therefore streamlined) flight is vastly more important than in a nice slippery Cirrus. (I’d love to fly one of those btw!)

        On the question at large here, I know I originally answered it with a “yes.” I think I would qualify that now after reading these comments. I believe that the AirFacts audience is by definition composed mostly of enthusiasts, which do make better pilots because we are self-consciously trying to improve, no matter what we fly. The potentially “unsafe” pilots out there are those who don’t “love to fly” but do it just for the utility or convenience.

        • Duane
          Duane says:

          Sorry, SamuelW – I stated not opinion but facts in my response to LiadB, and I stand by them all.

          You’re mixing apples and oranges. Sure, an antique design like a Cub or a Champ has greater adverse yaw than a more modern C172 or PA-28 or similar design … but that’s got nothing to do with the landing gear. Adverse yaw is a function of how the ailerons and their actuators are designed, and it’s rather easily designed out of modern airframes.

          You can buy modern aircraft today in either landing gear configuration from Vans and Maule, on the same airframes. Whatever adverse yaw that’s in the tailwheel version is also in the tri-gear version of the same airframe.

          You may claim that a simple aircraft like a Cub or a Champ requires more skill to fly. Actually, I argue the opposite … which is actually quite obvious, as based upon FAA licensing and insurance underwriting standards as well as widely accepted flight training practices. The more complex and higher performance the aircraft one flies, the more demands are made on the pilot beyond basic stick, rudder, and throttle controls. That’s precisely why tens of thousands of Cubs were built and sold to training organizations in the 30s and 40s, both civilian and military – being relatively simple and easy to fly, the Cubs were a logical primary trainer.

        • Eric Plane
          Eric Plane says:

          “Get some dual time in a 7AC Champ with no electrical system, no slip/skid indicator”

          I’d just like to point out that after 200 hours of flying Cubs, I discovered that every Cub does in fact have a slip/skid indicator: The two open windows.

  13. Stephen Hunter
    Stephen Hunter says:

    I count myself as both. Driving to any airport anywhere in the world and just watching aircraft take off and land is almost a “it’s Christmas” feeling. But there’s also nothing like planning out every detail of a multi-leg trip and knowing that you put together this enormous puzzle that resulted in a beautiful airport, hours from home, materializing underneath you out of the clouds.

  14. Don Purney
    Don Purney says:

    “Takeoff and landing are probably the least dangerous phase(es) of flight”? Somehow I don’t think droning along at cruise altitude with OTTO engaged in straight and level flight is as risky.

    The value of tailwheel training is in that it teaches the pilot awareness of the aerodynamics of flying. Once you get accustomed to a tailwheel you will always be aware of what the tail is doing and this will greatly enhance your understanding of stall/spin potential. Why? Because you learn what a rudder is for. I have given nearly 3000 hours of dual instruction and have seen too many people use ailerons to try to correct yaw in a stall and too many that cannot land straight. Sure, you can land in a crab and the nosedragger will straighten itself out; usually. Every now and then though the “airplane driver” tries to fix a botched landing with aileron and wonders how the airplane wound up in the ditch. This happens to tailwheel pilots too but it can almost always be credited to a lack of rudder control. Tailwheels are the best teachers of rudder control.

    Another value of training in an old taildragger is speed control. These aircraft have such a small speed envelope that the pilot must know pitch and power. The low experience in type high performance pilot frequently adds “a few extra knots for the family” or because he is uncomfortable flying slow and winds up trying to force the aircraft onto the runwqay while it is still flying.

    When it comes to insurance you are wrong. Insurance premiums are based on hull value, period. A Champ costs a lot less than a Cirrus therefore it is cheaper to insure.

    FAA licensing? What about it? You never said. The FAA requires separate endorsements for tailwheel, complex and high performance aircraft because all require additional training. I can check out a student in a high performance or a complex aircraft in a couple of hours. Many insurance companies then require ten hours in type. A tailwheel endorsement takes probably ten hours of dual or more and a frequent insurance requirement to solo a tailwheel aircraft is twenty five hours in type. 10 hours VS 25 hours. What do the insurance companies know?

  15. Michael Cowan
    Michael Cowan says:

    Enthusiast and professional are not the same thing. However I believe anyone who is an enthusiast at any activity is more apt to stay abreast and stay involved in whatever can make that activity more successful and make it feel more worthwhile.

    I pray the comparison of the La Salle owner and the BMW owner is incorrect!

    Today I find many people are convinced their car’s anti-whatever devices will take care of them. That’s why they always seem to be on the phone, eating, texting, receiving oral sex, etc. while “driving” an automobile. It seems to never occur to them that they should look out the windshield, scan their mirrors, and keep both hands on the steering wheel.

    I also read about pilots who have become so used to Autopilot & the “APPROACH” function taking care of their landings that they fly into flood walls, have hard landings, etc. when the automated system is down for repair or operating incorrectly. (Both things are apt to happen at any given time!)

    I lost two good friends and two more crew members when they set their altitude hold then flew into the side of a mountain because they (apparently) both dozed off with the sun coming in through the windshield of their helicopter. Even in helicopters today the adge of not having a spare hand to wipe your nose or change a radio frequency doesn’t apply.

    As Captain Sullenberger often says, we all need to balance the use of automatic functions to the point they don’t take away our manual skills! And I believe we all still need to keep our “weather eye” and “common sense” abilities about us as well. So yes, I’m probably what some would call an enthusiast.

  16. Gerhard Rieger
    Gerhard Rieger says:

    I owned a small charter bussiness and I had a PPL and the Comm pilot flying for me had dreams of flying ever faster and smarter aircraft. He had about 500 hrs on C210 and I talked to him about the stability of the C210, and I mentioned that one of the reasons was that the ailerons and rudder were connected, at that time I had about 3hrs on the C210, He told me that it was not the case. I want to know all that there is to know about the airplane I’m flying. I had to go and dig out a old magazine with an artical on the C210 to prove to him that it was so. So the one that gave him the conversion didn’t knew it either.He didn’t mind landing my C206 all wheels touching the runway at the same time, When I talked to him about it, his comments was that ” what do you know, I’m the one with the comm ” with less than a third of his hrs I landed the C206 properly. It is not about the type of aircraft you fly, but about the attitude you have regarding it. If you can’t fly the cub properly, don’t think you will do better with the C210, Cirris or King Air. Master every one, and give it your all, it might just save your life one day. Thanks for the great journal, I learn a lot every time I read it.

  17. Michael Gray
    Michael Gray says:

    Hi, I’m an enthusiast but not a qualified pilot. I’ve received about an hour’s formal training in the basics. I comment because 2 days ago I was fortunate enough to fly a 737-800 in a commercial simulator and after several take offs and landings at Chap Loc made an almost perfect landing at Hong Kong’s infamous Kia Tak. I’ve got to admit to the excellent tuition and support of the tutor/real world pilot, sitting in the right hand seat. A second attempt wasn’t so pretty but still successful.

    I believe the factors that make a good pilot are in place long before you step into your first airplane…good spacial judgement, anticipation, attention to detail, an accurate perception and situational assessment supported by the ability to remain calm and logical under pressure.

  18. Roy W. Hogue
    Roy W. Hogue says:

    I just stumbled across this site by accident. I’m a private pilot but have not been able to fly for a long time. To me, it was always the love of flying, the desire to get that license, which had been a longtime dream and then keep going, growing, getting instrument rated and moving up to larger aircraft that could take me and my family on serious cross country trips, even getting aerobatic training. And a beautiful Stearman biplane was available to me for that. I never quite made it to that final goal because money became a problem — I could no longer fly more than enough to keep myself legally current.

    That finally scared me because if you aren’t growing you’re stagnating and that’s when you become a bad, unsafe pilot. At that point I dropped out as gracefully as I could, even gave up my AOPA membership and the magazine I so much loved to read.

    As far as my opinion goes, yes, you need to be an enthusiast to do it well. And anything less than well is going to become unsafe at some point. Flying isn’t anything like driving a car where a certain level of competence, once obtained, will do for the rest of your driving career. Starting to take yourself for granted isn’t a good idea when the wheels are off the ground and you’re on your own, nobody there but you to pull off a safe landing from a potential disaster.

    It’s probably true that the non enthusiast, the one whose interest is only a means to an end, can fly for a lifetime without trouble, or most of them can. But I wonder about how motivated they are to keep up with changing regulations, air space usage and other things a pilot needs to keep on top of. It was hard enough for me, a guy who loved it. I don’t have access to general aviation accident statistics anymore. But when I did, it was quite evident that a very large percentage of pilots who didn’t make it had passed up probably as many as 2 or 3, maybe more, chances to catch what was going wrong and do something about it before it became a statistic.

    Flying is demanding, even under the best of circumstances. And a professional attitude is required as far as I’m concerned. You don’t have to actually be a professional pilot but you have to have that attitude.

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