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American education has been obsessed with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) for at least a decade, and the aviation industry has eagerly jumped on the bandwagon. The FAA is leading the charge to fit our square peg into this round hole, declaring aviation to be the ultimate STEM career path. I’m in favor of anything that attracts a new generation of pilots, but this framing is a radical oversimplification—and it sets up some pilots for failure. 

Flying an airplane, especially a general aviation airplane with one pilot, is not simply an engineering job. As airline pilot and Cub owner Joe Costanza said on a recent podcast, “flying is the artful application of a scientific process.” Yes, you need to understand weather, engines, and aerodynamics. But a good pilot also needs to learn softer skills like decision making, teamwork, and self-awareness. A truly great pilot should have some understanding of history, an appreciation for beauty, and even a creative streak. Engineer, meteorologist, psychologist, coach, artist—it’s all in a day’s work for a pilot.

Cub on grass runway

Is flying a taildragger a STEM activity?

Aviation is certainly not unique in requiring a broad range of skills and experiences. As David Epstein recounts in his book Range, many of the best musicians, athletes, and inventors succeeded precisely because they did not specialize in one narrow discipline. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, two of the greatest tennis players of all time, played a wide variety of sports as kids; both credit that variety with helping them succeed. 

We certainly don’t do that much anymore. Youth sports have come to resemble The Hunger Games, a fight to the death where kids are told to pick a sport and specialize early or risk being irrelevant by age 10. Second graders end up working with private coaches and kids who should be going to slumber parties instead travel 500 miles for yet another “showcase” tournament. This sounds completely insane—and it is. Injuries among young athletes are skyrocketing almost as fast as burnout and anxiety, all while parents’ bank account balances plummet.

I worry that we might make the same mistake with “STEM kids” in general and pilots in particular. When the airlines are advertising six-figure signing bonuses, it’s understandable that prospective pilots might chase the simplest path to the right seat of an RJ, one that focuses on learning the essentials of airline flying in the least amount of time. This usually means focusing on the what without considering the why, and there’s definitely no time to explore subtle nuances or different perspectives. This fast track will almost certainly result in a job, but it may not result in a well-rounded pilot who is ready for the dynamic environment they will be working in. And if, instead of an RJ, the pilot should end up flying a King Air or (heaven forbid) a Cherokee, they may find themselves totally unprepared.

Epstein recounts a study of remote villagers that should serve as a warning to one dimensional pilots: “They were perfectly capable of learning from experience, but failed at learning without experience. And that is what a rapidly changing, wicked world demands—conceptual reasoning skills that can connect new ideas and work across contexts.”

The word “wicked” is used by psychologists to describe a type of environment that is erratic and lacking in clear feedback mechanisms that link actions to results (in contrast to a “kind” environment). Pilots definitely get feedback, but often that feedback is delayed or confusing. Was your route through convective weather successful because of your great technique or because you got lucky? Did you make the right decision canceling today’s flight? Sometimes it’s hard to know, because flying is not chess. Sure, pilots and chess players both have very explicit rules, but the board pilots play on is ever-changing: capricious weather, complex mechanical systems, and unpredictable humans can ruin the best plans.

In a wicked environment, it’s not enough to simply follow a checklist and hope it works out. As Gary Klein describes in Sources of Power, his classic book on decision making under pressure, true experts think, sometimes creatively, about the big picture before they take action. They are also skilled at pattern matching: “their experience let them see a situation, even a non-routine one, as an example of a prototype, so they knew the typical course of action right away.” There’s no way to recognize a pattern if you haven’t first accumulated prototypes, and that means putting yourself in new situations. As a pilot, riding around the pattern 1000 times in a Cessna 172 does not qualify; it’s nothing but the same prototype over and over again.

To be clear, this article is not intended as some rant about “kids today” or a demand that every pilot should be required to solo a glider and a taildragger before they touch a Cessna 172. That might be fun, but it’s completely impractical. Likewise, many of the classic time-building jobs of the 1970s and 1980s are long gone: flying checks at night in a worn out Cessna 210 or delivering auto parts in a Baron are simply not options anymore.

G1000 panel

Understanding both glass cockpits and round dials can improve your instrument flying skills.

So what does range look like for a pilot in 2023? It’s a bias towards new experiences and a curiosity about the entire aviation industry. Remember, you’re building your mental library of prototypes, so it won’t always be easy. Here are eight types of range to pursue.

Airplanes. This one is obvious, but for good reason. Every airplane is a teacher if you pay attention, even if you’re in the right seat and can’t log the flight. Notice how the systems are designed, how the airplane feels through the controls, and how the checklist flows. Does the airplane have a personality? How do you get to know it?

Avionics. Glass cockpit vs. steam gauges is probably the first thing that comes to mind, and having experience with both types is definitely helpful. But there’s more to avionics experience than that. You can also compare integrated glass cockpits (like a G1000) to more federated ones (like one with dual Aspens and dual GTNs), or contrast rate-based autopilots to attitude-based ones. Even changing a few settings on your GPS can be educational.

Pilots. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut with a single instructor, especially early in your flying career, but this will almost guarantee you develop blind spots. That’s why stage checks and independent flight reviews are so valuable. Even if you can’t find a different CFI from time to time, just go flying with other pilots. Some of my most meaningful flight lessons have been with non-instructors, as I observed how more experienced pilots approached weather or IFR procedures. Resist the temptation to judge the other pilot and simply observe like a scientist. Write down questions you can ask after the flight, or topics to research.

Weather. For pilots who learned to fly in popular flight school states like Arizona or Florida, weather might mean nothing more than checking density altitude. For pilots in Cleveland, weather means thunderstorms in summer and ice in winter. Experiencing both extremes should be high on the list of any aspiring professional pilot. Understanding weather theory is underrated among pilots, but it must be complemented by real world experience. I’ve come to believe there is always something to learn about weather… always.

Geography. While it’s often overlooked, where we fly has a big impact on what we learn. By mixing up the destination for your next $100 hamburger flight or taking that long cross-country that’s on the edge of your comfort zone, you expose yourself to new terrain, weather, airspace, chart symbols, and even controller accents (bonus points for international trips). If nothing else, this variety prevents complacency and is usually a lot of fun.

Airports. Beyond simple geography, different types of airports can deliver different lessons. If you fly out of a non-towered airport, plan a flight to Big City International and get comfortable with the complicated airspace, taxiway layout, and communication procedures. It goes the other way too. Are you proficient at picking up an IFR clearance over the phone, via an RCO, and in the air? Do you know how to use self-serve fuel pumps? Have you ever borrowed a crew car before?

Time of day. Most GA pilots fly almost exclusively during the day, but night flying is a great mental workout. It exposes your weaknesses with instrument scan and cockpit familiarization, and forces you to fly more disciplined procedures. Sunrise, when weather can change quickly, is another great time to gain experience.

Time of year. While not as important as total time logged, there is something to be said for calendar time as a pilot, since flying through multiple years allows you to experience different seasons.

Mountains from Cessna

There’s a lot to learn by venturing beyond your local area—sometimes far beyond.

There are dozens more examples of valuable aviation experience, so especially early on there’s no point in being picky. If an experienced pilot invites you to ride along while he flies a Malibu to O’Hare at night, or if a taildragger pilot offers an hour of free instruction on a grass runway, embrace the opportunity—even if you don’t completely understand what’s going on. Not every flight will lead directly to a new skill and not all of them will be fun, but you may be surprised at how each one builds on the previous. Patterns will start to emerge and once confusing concepts might start to make sense once you understand the broader context. You may even find yourself sounding like an old timer: “this reminds me of one time when…”

I’ve had the great fortune to log over 4000 hours in my flying career, but the variety of hours matters much more to me than the quantity. Riding along with an experienced corporate pilot early on taught me how to approach every flight like a professional, no matter what I was flying. Flying a Cessna 172 from California to Ohio taught me what mountain wave felt like, something no textbook or Midwest flight school could ever do. Earning a glider rating taught me how to read clouds and visualize glides, even though I’m nowhere near current in gliders. Practicing autorotations in a helicopter finally made the concept of energy management click. Flying with kids made me consider passenger comfort in a way I never had before.

I’m not suggesting the FAA create a new rule to mandate variety in pilot training, but anyone who wants to get the most out of a career in aviation should have a restless curiosity and a long bucket list. Flight schools and flight instructors can help, by encouraging pilots to pursue a range of flying experiences and creating the opportunity for that whenever possible. Organized fly-outs with multiple pilots, mandatory international cross-countries, and regular stage checks are a great place to start. Experienced pilots can help too, by inviting new pilots to fly with them on interesting trips or in unique airplanes.

Logging 1500 hours can land you a job, but it won’t automatically make you a great pilot. Like most things in flying and life, it’s about the journey, not the destination.

John Zimmerman
27 replies
  1. Russell Farris
    Russell Farris says:

    You are right on the beam John (as they said back in the 1930s). Bob Buck, aviation writer and TWA captain once wrote that there was value in any aviation experience – the more varied the background, the easier it was to train a TWA new hire. I was one of the lucky ones who started flying in the early 1970s, pumping gas, ferrying airplanes to new owners, flight instructing, gliders, air taxi and then DC-3s – at first spraying mosquitoes at low level, later as Captain on Florida commuter routes. Flew DC-8 freighters out of Miami and around the world, finally landing a job at Piedmont and retiring from American a few years ago on the Airbus 321. It was worth it…

    One more comment – the STEM emphasis reminds me of the 1960s when the national goal was to turn out more engineers/scientists to beat the Soviets to the moon. My grades in High School were mediocre…my guidance counselor said I had to learn Trigonometry and Geometry. to be a pilot. My grades in Math never got better; I was more of an English major type. Years later he showed up in the cockpit to shake my hand and say hello when he recognized my name on the welcome aboard the PA announcement!

  2. Wally Moran
    Wally Moran says:

    Well said, as a former airline instructor I agree that pilots with a varied background usually turned out to be the best.

  3. RichR
    RichR says:

    Agree completely with variety as a teacher, hence the concern when the Cessna puppy mill CFI is passing along their “experience”.

    Another area is exploring limits of performance envelop and acft attitudes, while pax ops is all about staying away from the edges, much like crosswind landings, you may find yourself involuntarily at the edge and that is not the time for a first experience. Much has been said about negative training due to upset trainers being aerobatic, but my observation is that the most important outcome is exposure to a windscreen full of sky or ground…if you can acclimate to that, there is a better chance the processor between the ears won’t lock up and will be able to execute recovery procedures. Everyone in snowbelt driver’s ed was told to “steer into the skid”, but until they found an empty parking lot to try it out, it was useless advice, comfort in the dynamic situation was just as important as building the skill.

  4. Bob Hamilton
    Bob Hamilton says:

    As an engineer who loves to fly, I should point out that the most successful engineers are those with a broad knowledge and who have developed their non-STEM skills such as public speaking, management, building relationships with staff, clients, employees, regulators, and the public.
    Those limited to STEM with underdeveloped personal skills are confined to be limited to tech positions only and rarely progress beyond that level.
    So, just like aviation, many STEM professions, such as Engineering, require constant growth, broad knowledge, and major emphasis on non-STEM skills to be ultimately successful.
    As an aside, I started as a tech guy, but soon learned the need for non-STEM skill development. Over my career, I moved from tech to leadership and ended as Chairman of a Civil Engineering firm. Having the STEM training and skills was essential, and adding the non-STEM moved me forward to Rainmaker and Leader. These lessons apply across most industries I am familiar with.

    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      I agree – STEM is not an all or nothing pursuit. I love the science and math parts of flying, but they are so much more valuable when paired with other skills.

  5. Victor Vogel, MD, CFI, CFI-I
    Victor Vogel, MD, CFI, CFI-I says:

    John, that’s one way to look at STEM and aviation. The other perspective is to consider how aviation informs STEM education. So many students feel that science and math are abstract and largely unknowable. Aviation examples make science and math accessible through practical application. A weight and balance exercise can make basic algebra come alive. A discussion of density altitude makes studying elements of the environment and atmosphere understandable. An exercise in flight planning makes time-speed-distance calculations come alive. Throw in some fuel burn calculations, and math becomes relevant. The AOPA high school STEM curriculum makes all this happen. It doesn’t make pilots who require, as you correctly suggest, myriad exposures and experiences. Aviation and STEM are necessary companions, however, and each can inform the other. Aviation can’t teach calculus or non-Euclidean geometry, and physics can’t teach a pilot to make crosswind landings. The marriage of the two, however, will make both better students and more sentient pilots.

    • Gita Brown
      Gita Brown says:

      Victor this is a great observation. As a music and yoga educator who has come to GA in midlife, my math skills had dwindled over the years. It has been a pleasure to discover the satisfaction of calculating density altitude then watch the trends in real-time during the take off climb on a hot and humid day. As always, practical application of our intellect is fulfilling and rewarding; providing that innate satisfaction of getting to know ourselves, our world, and our capabilities more fully.

  6. Ernie Kelly
    Ernie Kelly says:

    Great perspective. Breadth and depth mean more than repetition. I had an instructor whose way of encouraging me to do fly to three airports to get in my three landings in 90 days instead of doing laps around the local pattern was to ask, “Do you want to log 1,000 hours flying, or do you want to fly the same hour a thousand times?”

  7. Gita Brown
    Gita Brown says:

    Excellent and timely article.

    I’m in my 50’s and a newbie student pilot. Although my dad flew sailplanes I had no interest in aviation; I was a band geek through and through. A long career as a classical musician has been coupled with being an educator in both music and therapeutic yoga from all levels from private instruction, community schools, and college instruction.

    I have been an educator for 30 years, my husband just retired from the public schools, my father was a college professor and my aunt is both a professor and dean. We have all noticed the overall decline of critical thinking in our students; mainly attributed to the “teaching to the test” mentality that pervades public education. The freedom of educators to teach the students crucial skills of linking concepts, developing frameworks of thought, and having a sampling of perspectives (both historical and current) to draw from has been squeezed into practical non-existence. My students are exhausted, stressed, and have such high levels of performance anxiety that many days part of the lesson time is spent simply getting them ready to learn.

    The underlying culture of achievement-based outcomes rather than prizing extrapolative thinking is a hard sell; my private students and parents who understand this distinction are constantly swimming upstream in an educational culture that prizes test scores over true holistic education.

    I never thought being a pilot was “for me” because of my multi-passionate pursuits in education, music, yoga, and writing. But I’ve been discovering that these skills are an asset in aviation. It may be taking me quite some time to learn the concepts of aviation and grasp the stick-and-rudder skills; but I’m hopeful that as I develop as an aviator that I can be an advocate for the type of range you discussed.

    Thanks for writing this and bringing this discussion forward.

  8. Shane Vande Voort
    Shane Vande Voort says:

    Great thoughts John! Addressing the issue with solutions that are available rather than wishing the past would come back. And thanks for bringing Joe’s great quote (a new favorite of mine) to us a second time

  9. TERRY Lowel SPATH
    TERRY Lowel SPATH says:

    Hi John:
    Excellent writing as usual. 46-year ATP and engineer here. I’ll add one thing regarding STEM. An engineering background instills comfort with math. Almost all the flying that I’ve done, especially professionally, starts with numbers and success involves a continual use and awareness of the relationship between the physical world and the numerical.

  10. Neil Thompson
    Neil Thompson says:

    Like other pilots, I’ve sat through hundreds of hours of recurrent and license upgrade training sessions over the years. I have observed that the people with a technical background seem to be the first to grasp a new concept while most of the class including myself had difficulty computing the reciprocal of a heading in our heads. I would argue that STEM training provides a sound foundation and is an obvious fit with aviation. STEM doesn’t make engineers better stick and rudder pilots for sure, but their analytically trained minds are great for problem solving.

    I financed my car expenses during my income-bleak college days by carpooling with fellow students, I’ve learned that the engineers/scientists in the car were just as varied in their views and experiences as the budding schoolteachers and home economists. They were generalists and not unusually pigeonholed or specialized. However, they had one advantage over the herd. They seemed to know the background chemistry and physics of everyday things involving weather, geology, electricity and mechanics and how such things worked. This is a benefit to flying decision making, don’t you think?

    If I was a friend sitting across the coffee-break table from John Zimmerman, I would tell him that his article reads too much like he needed a topic with a deadline looming. Much ado about nothing, says I so back to the typewriter.

    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      No deadlines for me, I assure you. It’s one of the benefits of this gig!

      To be clear, I am in no way against engineering or math. As you say, “STEM training provides a sound foundation.” My concern is that too many people stop there, and miss the critical next steps in becoming a safe and confident pilot. I’m writing this specifically in response to some new pilots I’ve flown with over the last six months – anecdata perhaps, but more than one or two examples.

      • David Tyler, PhD, CFII
        David Tyler, PhD, CFII says:

        I’m a professional scientist, and I didn’t take your article as a rant against STEM education at all. I found your article brilliant for how you called out creativity and pattern recognition, both of which are very difficult to come by without the “range” of experiences you are advocating.

  11. Hunter Heath
    Hunter Heath says:

    Amen to John and commenters! This all rang true for my experience as a private pilot. However, I suggest that the same framework of broad knowledge and experience informs and advance the careers of physicians and research scientists. As a retired physician-scientist, I see parallels, with success arising not from simple technical knowledge or skill, but the ability to apply it full recognition of the world around the experiment or clinical case. The most admirable and successful physician-scientists I’ve known were polydimensional people–skilled amateur musicians, poets, essayists, skiers, artists, sailors… and, yes, pilots. I propose that a similar breadth of disciplines is highly valuable for many disciplines besides engineering and medical science. Narrow is good, for technical facility, perhaps; but in application, the generalist can win.

  12. Tom Szekely
    Tom Szekely says:

    As another pilot who also earns my living as an engineer, recall that the cognate in the Romance Languages from which the word “engineer” comes is “ingéniuer” (French), “ingenere” (Italian) “ingeniero” (Spanish), “engenhiero” (Portugese). “ingiiner” (Romaniqn) the the root from which we also get the English word “ingenious”, which is pretty much the epitome of creative – a better choice of words might have been artistic. Your [unitnended] implication is that engineers lack creativity. The joke amongst engineers is that we can neither spell nor write because those of us who went to engineering school (some of us did it on our own) took “English fo Engineers”.

    Illiterate, some of us maybe somewhat , but not creative? Perhaps, but not likley,

  13. Steve Green
    Steve Green says:

    Just for perspective, occupying the left seat of a commercial airliner requires that you become a generalist. My expertise is in the operation of the aircraft, and that includes things like weather, geography and airports. But at the end of the day literally everything flows through me. I am not a qualified air traffic controller, but I have to know quite a bit about air traffic control. I am not a qualified mechanic, bit I have to know a fair bit about maintenance. I’m certainly not a qualified flight attendant, but every day I will be engaged with some aspect of cabin service. The same can be said of ground handling and customer service. I need a good bit of skill with human performance, fatigue, verbal communication (including linguistic barriers), gender bias, cognitive dissonance, international cultures, even world affairs. Literally everything that any human being does that touches the airplane or flight plan can affect my responsibility for the safety of the flight.

  14. Steve McNeilly
    Steve McNeilly says:

    John, your article is nothing short of amazing (and I’m glad to see a response from my good friend Wally Moran, above!). Thank you for writing this. I’m going to send it to my 18-year-old in art/design college, and ask her how she can apply the principles you describe to her future art career (why couldn’t she have walked in her father’s piloting footsteps? kidding). I’m also forwarding it to the young pilots I’m mentoring to encourage their existing efforts to expand their aviation skills. The most admirable pilots I’ve flown with possess varied skills, not just in aviation, but also inter-personal. You made your points perfectly.

  15. John
    John says:

    Spot on, John. As many of our members realize, music and aviation goes hand-in-hand. Flying a mission is very similar to performing a new piece of music. Familiarize – Practice – Perform. I encourage all musician pilots and those just learning to join us – https://FlyingMusicians.org.

  16. Patty Haley
    Patty Haley says:

    Another way to put this or in addition to, IQ may get one the job, but EQ, emotional intelligence, gets one the promotions.


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