I am so lucky. Every flight, I am accompanied by nine extraordinary pilots, looking over my shoulder and whispering in my ear. They have made my flying safer, more enjoyable and less expensive.
They’ll go with you, too. All you have to do is ask. If you are worried about weight and balance, don’t. They only show up when you need them and leave as quickly as they come.
Because they aren’t physically with me. I have never met any of them in person. Heck, several of them died before my first solo.
I know them, though, as well as they will let me, through the lessons they teach in their writing.
They are my mentors and kindred spirits. All are passionately committed to making me the best pilot I can be. Each, in their own way, reminds me how special are the moments aloft.
While they have shared more techniques than listed here, these are the lessons I heed most.
Leighton Collins – Avoiding Low Speed Loss of Control
I met the founder of Air Facts when I picked up Wolfgang Langewiesche’s Stick and Rudder (see below). Mr. Collins wrote the first chapter: how to avoid the most common danger of the air.
The introduction came at an important time for me. Having just acquired my private license, two stall/spin crashes happened within 100 miles of my suburban Chicago home. One was by a many-thousand hour pilot when an engine failed on his twin; the other a father turning base to final killing himself and his teenage daughter.
These tragedies shook my confidence and diminished my enthusiasm.
Leighton’s experienced, authoritative words spoke loudly to me and validated my uninstructed intuition that these errors are imminently avoidable through basic technique. He shared my sorrow that so many fail a simple test to manage angle of attack close to the ground. He provides detailed instructions on how to do it right.
The mistakes he describes can only be committed once. I carefully listen to his warnings every time I am in maneuvering flight.
Richard Collins – Risk Management and the Big Picture
Son of Leighton and Editor Emeritus of the current Air Facts, Mr. Collins was introduced to me when he was the editor of Flying magazine. I eagerly devoured his “On Top” column right after the monthly installment of “I Learned About Flying From That.”
As near as I can tell, he was the first person to study accident reports and systematically list the ways to kill yourself in a general aviation airplane and the relative likelihood of each. Then, using his own experience and research, he showed me how to identify the dangers on my trips and helped me create a wide margin of safety to guard against them.
His voice is forceful, clear, and sprinkled with a dry wit. Recently he warned me of a 60-knot wind shear on final during a night landing near Birmingham. As I turned base, I swear to you I heard him tell me with conviction to be ready to get “hot on the throttle.” No wonder: I have read the book in which he uses this admonishment at least 10 times.
He is with me from flight planning through tie down, and occupies the right seat far, far more than anyone else on this list.
Bob and Rob Buck – Flying Weather
Another father and son team, they coauthored Weather Flying, the best book I have come across that gives me practical information on how to make sense of the constantly changing atmosphere. There is not a month when I don’t reread a chapter, often after the weather has surprised me even more than usual.
Most of the time the weather is good, but when I cross a cold front, or am reviewing the big weather picture, they ride shotgun. And since I am always concerned about the conditions, it sure is reassuring to have them with me.
Ernie Gann – Humility
The thesis of Mr. Gann’s memoir, Fate is the Hunter, is that flying carries an unpredictable risk and that even when you do everything right, the Grim Reaper might still call your number. His heroes used an exaggerated modesty when discussing their skills as a kind of superstitious armor against these capricious dangers.
While I am not flying untested designs in war, or DC-3s in all kinds of conditions, I have still adopted this custom. Though inwardly confident of my abilities, I am quick to point out that even if I fly another 20 years at 200 hours annually, I will still be a low-time pilot. This outward humility is both a guard against complacency and potion to ward off the hunter.
When Gann speaks to me in the cockpit it is a joshing reminder that I will always be a green rookie who barely knows what he is doing. We share feigned amazement that I somehow manage to deliver the goods with precision accompanied by little drama and no fanfare. I can almost hear him chuckling as I smile in satisfaction after a low approach or bitter crosswind.
Gordon Baxter – Why
The contract to purchase an airplane was on my desk next to a stack of material to prepare for instrument training. Underneath it all was a spreadsheet detailing the fixed and variable costs.
I felt overwhelmed. The tasks and expenses to realize this lifelong desire to fly seemed enormous and insurmountable, wasteful and unjustifiable.
I wondered: Was it worth it? Was I making a serious mistake? Could I really move myself around the country safely?
Who was I kidding?
I decided tentatively to back out of the deal.
Later that week on a commercial flight, I met Gordon deep in my briefcase in the form of a forgotten Christmas present from my daughter. It was a collection of his essays: Bax Seat – Log of a Pasture Pilot. I opened it at random to a story about flying a Stearman biplane called “The Wide Job.” I then read it from cover to cover, enthralled and entertained. I put it down convinced that I could and should fly – and also that I must.
I bought the plane the following Monday.
If you know Bax, I don’t need to say anymore. If you don’t, make his acquaintance through his two anthologies. He is such a pleasant companion.
My other copilots show me how to fly.
Mr. Baxter shows me why.
Wolfgang Langewiesche and John Denker – Angle of Attack and Flight Path Visualization
I met Mr. Langewiesche when I first tried to read Stick and Rudder. I didn’t understand a word he said and I didn’t get past the third chapter. Maybe it was the accent.
Later I tried again. I forced myself through but still didn’t get it: there was nothing that seemed helpful to me, and boy howdy was it hard to read.
Then John Denker joined the conversation through his eBook, See How it Flies. Dr. Denker approaches piloting in the same manner as Wolfgang: how pilots can better fly their ships. He clearly describes – in terms I could understand – what angle of attack really is and how this knowledge changes every control you move – like the “flippers” Wolfgang described. In a chapter about descents, I remembered that Langewiesche had actually diagrammed more clearly why you can never stretch a glide beyond the plane’s ability. I eagerly grabbed Stick and Rudder and found, to my surprise, I understood what he had been trying to tell me all along.
Excitedly, I created a kind of debate between these two genius pilots by comparing and contrasting the way they were each teaching the same lessons. I took their ideas flying with me and experimented with power-off glides, steep turns, near stalls and spin entry, comparing and contrasting Wolfgang with John.
At the end of the three-way conversation and a few hours of practice, a fog had lifted. I suddenly had a clear understanding of the practical aspects of the principles of flight. I realized the incredible value of this knowledge and found I had developed a deep affection for each of them and appreciated their unique approaches.
My apologies Mr. Langewiesche. I see now.
It was me, not you.
How appropriate that a few years later my first article on Air Facts was to the left of Wolfgang’s. He stays to the right of me a lot in the air. And I thank Dr. Denker every time a bug splat lines up with my landing point.
Mike Busch – Reliability Centered Maintenance
Did you know that a brand new engine is far more likely to fail than a carefully monitored one a thousand hours over TBO? That compression tests and run up mag checks are almost useless in determining the airworthiness of your power plant? That there is really only one component on your ship that should be maintained not on condition but on hours alone?
Welcome to the brilliant, contrarian mind of the copilot who most frequently acts as Flight Engineer, Mike Busch. You probably already know him: he speaks annually at Oshkosh and writes for many aviation magazines and web sites.
I hired his firm, Savvy Aircraft Maintenance Management, to direct the pre-buy on my 182. He saved the previous owner and me over $17,000 in unneeded work, most of it in the gear power pack of my retractable. However, there were 12 other items on the list from the shop – both large and small – that he encouraged me to ignore. And I did. Five years later none of those potential problems ever became real.
Without him, I would have overhauled my engine by now and spent thousands upon thousands more in annual maintenance. I estimate that I still have $60,000 in my pocket thanks to him. And I am 100% convinced that my airplane is safer and more reliable as a result.
I don’t move the throttle or turn the key without following his detailed instructions.
Take Them Flying
Like all other complex human endeavors, we each stand on the shoulders of those who have come before. I tip my hat to Orville and Wilbur, Clyde Cessna and Mr. Piper, Lindbergh, Doolittle, Armstrong, Yeager.
While it would be ungrateful to not acknowledge my primary and instrument flight instructors and my home base mechanics, that’s for another article (or two!).
Without a doubt it is these nine pilots who have taught me the most. They are my trusted companions in the sky.
Without them, I would not be a pilot at all.
With them, it is true that I am just an average pilot.
But I am also an excellent, though humble, risk manager with a solid understanding of weather, practical aerodynamics and aircraft maintenance who never fails to appreciate the special privilege, the indescribable joy, and the way flying has changed me for the better.
I like to think they would be proud of me, if they knew what their hours in my airplane has produced.
You can be lucky, too. To take them all flying will cost you less than 10 gallons of gas. Meet one today!
You will find that the safest, most enjoyable cockpit is one that is full.