7 min read

Lessons learned after 20 years of flying

I’m certainly not the world’s most experienced pilot and I’m not facing a terminal illness, so it may seem an odd time for reflections about the meaning of life and all that. But this summer I passed 20 years as an active pilot, and that got me thinking: what do I know now that I wish I knew when I started flying? What parts of being a pilot have been better than expected, and what parts have been worse? Here’s what I would say to my 10th grade self, about to embark on a life in aviation.

Dear 15-year old John,

So you’re taking a flying lesson tomorrow. Congrats. You’ll have a blast (yes, the instructor really will let you fly the airplane), but you may be surprised how much this flying thing will change your life. While you’re mostly focused on making the varsity football team right now, the rest of your life will have a lot more to do with airplanes than sports.

Logbook entries

It’s not a straight path, but that first hour in the logbook will lead to many more.

With that in mind, here’s some free advice from someone who knows a little about the journey ahead.

Earning your private pilot license will be harder than you think. You’re smart and hard-working, so you assume earning a pilot’s license can be knocked out like a history paper. It can’t. It will take two years of training, lots of canceled lessons (does anyone fly in winter in Cincinnati?), plenty of frustration and even a few moments when you question whether you can do it. Don’t worry – this is typical and you can do it.

It’s totally worth it. After that pep talk, why even start on this road? Because it is worth every bit of effort you put into it. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” applies to many things in life, including flying. Being a pilot will give you a new outlook on life and a new appreciation for the people you meet in it. More than just a hobby, it will become a lifestyle for you, an identity. Here’s one shocking example: you’re going to spend a lot less time partying in college and a lot more time at the airport.

Slow down on your first solo and enjoy the moment. The weather won’t cooperate for that solo on your 16th birthday, but the big day will come soon enough. You won’t feel ready for it, but nobody ever does. And while some people describe it as thrilling, surreal is probably a better description. Try to step back for a second and take in the scene. After you land, don’t be so anxious to rush on to the next milestone – this is a red letter day, and you’ll be surprised how little you remember.

John and Shanon

Her mom will let you take her for an airplane ride your senior year in high school. Do it.

Take that cute girl you just met for an airplane ride. She seems like a keeper because she is. Twenty years and two kids later, you’ll fully appreciate what a great co-pilot she is – both in flying and life. Some of your best memories as a family will involve airplanes and half-baked flying ideas you came up with. Having a partner who appreciates general aviation adventures is critical to future happiness for a pilot. You found one.

Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.” Especially early on, this will be hard to do, since you want to fit in with the old pros. But there’s so much to learn, and a little humility will go a long way. Some of those old pros have a lot to share, if only you’ll listen to them.

Your instrument instructor will be a bear. Suck it up. Earning your instrument rating will be harder than your Private license, partly because it’s a tough rating and partly because your CFII will push you like a drill sergeant. No, it’s not going to be particularly fun, but instrument flying is deadly serious and his focus on precise flying will pay off. You’ll learn more in two months than most pilots learn in two years. Rise to the challenge.

Embrace pre-flight planning as part of the fun, not just a chore. It’s popular advice these days to “buy experiences, not things,” because an experience can be enjoyed in both the preparation and the doing – it’s lasting. The same goes for flying; it’s not all about the time you spend in the left seat. When you fly to Oshkosh, don’t just check the box; enjoy the whole process of packing your gear, choosing a route and watching the weather. It’s all part of being a pilot.

John Zimmerman Citabria

Think you’re a good pilot? Fly a tailwheel airplane.

You’ll think you’re a great pilot. Then you’ll fly a tailwheel airplane. You passed your Private checkride, you survived your instrument instructor and you even got a high performance/complex checkout. You may think you’ve got it all figured out. Then you’ll go for your tailwheel endorsement and come back down to reality. There is always more to learn in aviation, and you never have it all figured out. And here’s a tip for your Cessna-trained feet: those metal things on the floor are called rudder pedals. Use them!

Actual fuel burn matters a lot more than the POH numbers. It doesn’t matter how long you stare at the performance charts, those numbers are not guarantees. One night flying home from Rome, Georgia, in a Cessna 210 will prove it forever. Admit defeat, land short when those fuel gauges start to scare you and never make that mistake again. One hour in the tanks at all times – it’s an absolute minimum.

Just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean it’s safe. You know this, but you’ll have to see it in person to fully understand it. 1000 foot ceilings and 5 mile visibility in light rain may be legal VFR conditions, but you probably shouldn’t do it. That scud-running trip through Kentucky will bring you face to face with the line between safe and legal. Stop before you cross it. Mother Nature doesn’t care how badly you want to get there.

Instrument flying will be the most demanding thing you ever do. That day you fly a Pilatus to New York in bad weather, deviate around storms, break out at minimums and land in a 25 knot crosswind? It will be one of the most engrossing experiences of your life, when your brain is moving at full speed and nothing outside the cockpit of that airplane exists. It’s like a treadmill set on max, and the only way to keep from getting hurt is to keep moving. Because of that challenge, real instrument flying will offer a high no drug could ever match. You’ll practically skip off the airplane that day.

John Zimmerman with kids

Being a pilot will help with those two little ones.

Flying will make you a better father. Sounds crazy, I know, but it’s true (oh yeah, you’re having girls). Flying will teach you supreme patience, the ability to improvise and a knack for staying calm under pressure. These are all valuable traits for raising kids, too. When something goes wrong at Disney World in 2014, just treat it like a minor emergency in the cockpit: identify, verify, feather.

Everybody is faking it. When will you be a “real pilot?” Never. At 15, you assume there’s some light switch moment when people go from kid to adult, or from anxious expecting mother to wise parent. But life doesn’t work that way, and neither does aviation. There is no sudden upgrade to expert, no morning you wake up with all the answers. Instead, you just age into experience. When you pass 1000 hours and still feel like you have so much to learn, it’s because you do. But relax – the guy who just passed 10,000 hours feels the same way.

So have fun, work hard and try to tuck away a few memories along the way. It’s a wild ride but the ups will far outnumber the downs. And as your grandmother often says, “Keep your airspeed up.”

– John

John Zimmerman
25 replies
  1. Dan Littmann
    Dan Littmann says:

    John, well said. Having learned to fly in southwestern Ohio myself, I had similar experiences along the way. Thanks for bringing those memories back.

  2. Ross Clarke
    Ross Clarke says:

    Hi John
    You are absolutely on the button with your story. Im just as excited about flying now, as I was when i flew my first solo back in 1967.
    And this year will be about my 20th trip to Oshkosh from Australia. I just cant get enough of a good thing!
    Looking forward to seeing you there this year.
    Best regards

  3. Scott Wothe
    Scott Wothe says:

    After 40 years I couldn’t agree more! I had many similar thoughts on my flying adventure. Wish I savored a few moments more (my first carrier landing, first type rating, etc.). I would have never imagined how it could change my life when I first got the bug back in High School.
    Thanks for your story!

  4. Tiffany
    Tiffany says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I am halfway to becoming a private pilot and I love hearing stories and advice from other pilots. I flew my first solo and it was so much fun, I couldn’t stop smiling. It does get hard(all those acronyms) but aviation just grabs and holds onto you.
    I like the advice thanks for sharing!

  5. David Eberhardt
    David Eberhardt says:

    I would add two comments to a good article. One – try and budget your flight training money so you can fly often enough to knock out the private license in as little time as possible. If you fly infrequently, your costs will go up because you will not retain as much knowledge or skills from one lesson to the next. I made it a point to fly at least once a week and knocked out my license in the minimum time. If you can’t do that, chair fly as much as humanly possible. Lots of ways to do that. Two: Ask questions after you get your private license. Don’t be afraid to ask CFIs for continued guidance. Pay for their time if you need to. I made some bad mistakes early on because I was too proud to continue to seek advice and even some additional dual instruction from time to time. My biggest mistakes involved cross country flying.

  6. Braveheart
    Braveheart says:

    Hi john what a brilliant article. Learning to fly here in Australia has given me similar memories which seems to be a common theme. Reading this has brought back memories particularly of my first solo what a day. Sadly after only 220 hours and an accident at work I am no longer able to fly but I will always have the memories and my first solo. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  7. Emmett ottaviano
    Emmett ottaviano says:

    Great story,I lost my plane a nice 62 T Bone had a charter business to the Bahamas 9-11 put me out of business,but I have always read AOPA to keep up with trends and l am a,building contractor and am on a,upswing after 5 years and looking to do it one more time before I go West.I have never lost the passion that drives my life.

    MORT MASON says:

    Sound advice, John, as usual. After 60-years as an active pilot, I still agree with you . . .

  9. Don R
    Don R says:

    Great letter John. It reminded me to “smell the coffee” more often. Off to Oshkosh tomorrow.

  10. Jeff Meyer
    Jeff Meyer says:

    Nice article. Two more thoughts: You don’t know what you don’t know and things you never thought could happen do happen.

  11. Wayne W. Wibby
    Wayne W. Wibby says:

    Wonderful read, John. Thanks for taking the time and sharing. Unquestionably, flying is an unending trip…and there is always more to learn.

  12. Bob Shlafer
    Bob Shlafer says:

    23K+ hrs. Retired Regional Airline/Commercial Pilot

    It’s the way it was for me!! So well said. :)

  13. Jim Frankenfield
    Jim Frankenfield says:

    That was great John…..Brought back many memories, both giving and receiving dual, not to mention the quiet and solitude (mostly) of solo flight and the satisfaction of aerobatics. You’re writing skills are giving Richard a ‘run for his money’. low-n-slow jim

    Have a great time at Oshkosh, Don R.

  14. Richard
    Richard says:


    Great article and so true. Always one hour in the tanks. I remember one trip back to Columbus, Ohio from Canada. International flight plan, customs waiting for us in Columbus. Had to make a precautionary stop in Marion to get gas. Was late to customs by about 45 mins. Got a stern talking to, paid an $150 overtime fee to the customs agent, but at least I was safe and sound. Oh btw, yes I was scared since it was a rental out of Bolton. Never made thT mistake again, and that was 36 years ago. Always take the extra time to top off!

  15. Gary Kevorkian
    Gary Kevorkian says:

    Great article to share with family members. Life is better because of the experiences and lessons learned due to flying. It teaches us to take risks, manage risks, think about safety all the time, to be disciplined, work hard, and enjoy life. Thank you for sharing.

  16. Robert
    Robert says:

    Haaaaa! I felt like I was reading a review of my life as a kid. Every bit of what you said is EXACTLY true in my life. I solo’d 4 planes on my 16th birthday, took my girlfriend flying in high school, flew in college and at the time thought sports and girls were way more important. Now at 46 with 2 kids of my own, flying is a bigger part of my life than it was then. I am at the airport at least 2-3 days a week after work or on weekends. It is a life unto itself. I LOVE IT more now than I ever have. Just remember to not let your life slip away and let your plane sit in the hangar. We never know as we get older what medical issue could end our flying tomorrow. Fly now!

  17. Nick Sargent
    Nick Sargent says:

    Enjoyed the article John, but to add to David E above, yes indeed try to minimize the time to do this. Seriously, it is 40 hours total (ok plus plus!), and if you only do a lesson once per week or less, yes it may take MORE than 2 years. So my advice is to make the commitment before you begin, and plan for lessons as frequently as possible; 2, 3 each week! It absolutely does not need to take more than a few short months.
    One more thing – don’t be hesitant to try on more than one instructor. If you don’t click with one guy or gal, try another. It really helps when the personalities mesh. Fly On!

  18. Jocelyn
    Jocelyn says:

    This is an awesome story about your life as a pilot. Its full of insight and very encouraging to me, someone who wants to become a private pilot. Thanks!

  19. Carlos Silva
    Carlos Silva says:

    Dear John
    As I read your letter I couldn’t stop my own emotion as you shared an intimate account of what it means to be a part of this amazing calling in life; and before I reached the last line, I found myself wiping away the tears that so naturally streamed down my face.
    I am a 61 year old pilot, and have been around planes for over 40 years.
    I have a nine year old great nephew, a smart young boy at that, who ever since he could express himself, has shown an astonishing curiosity for flying, being ever inspired by my own career. I’ve shared so many photos and movies of airplanes and he never tires of this, nor does his interest wane at all. On the 27th of this month, I’ve arranged to take him for his first flight – a 40 minute stint in a Cessna 172, to establish whether his passion to be a pilot is real. We’ll be going together on this flying adventure. This was the dream I always had as a boy, and now I find myself reliving the same excitement through the eyes of this little boy, who so wants to follow that same dream – of becoming a pilot.
    Your letter is heartfelt, conveying the very depth of what it means to fly – for a living and to fulfill a passion that is resident within the very fibre of every pilot. I will make sure to share this priceless piece with young Ricardo (Rix), so that he might read it too.
    Thank you for putting a pen to paper, for all those who will surely follow in our wings.

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