Fly casual

Guest Editorial By THOMAS P. TURNER

“Fly casual.”

If you’re a pilot and a fan of the “Star Wars” movies (hey, I was a teenager when the first one came out), this may be one of your favorite lines of the entire series. Han Solo tells his Wookie copilot Chewbacca to “fly casual” to avoid attracting the attention of the bad guys.

GuestEditorial1Pilots honor the high-timers who seem to “fly casual.” Thousands of hours in the logbook conjure images of a pilot for whom flying comes naturally — it seems that smoothness, precision and calm in the direst of situations is something these pilots are born with.

Look deeper, however, and you’ll find these smooth sticks got that way not by approaching flying as a casual activity, but by working hard to make it look easy.

We laud these pilots for their experience, and wonder how we could ever learn as much. They’ve seen it all, more than we could ever see. How could we ever possibly be as good as they?

Part of the problem is the way we train and evaluate pilots. The Practical Test Standards framework of tasks and completion standards tells us that, once we master the indicated tasks long enough to pass a test, we now hold the privileges of a certificate or rating and our training is done. Sure, your examiner will probably quip the cliché about a “license to learn” as he or she hands over your temporary license, but the implication is the system has taught us what we need to know, and now it’s all about learning from our own experience.

Tragically, this is far from true. Pilots are obviously not gaining the knowledge and capability they need before they need it. You need only read the FAA preliminary and NTSB final accident reports to see that we repeat the same mistakes, over and over again.

We are not doing this pilot thing right if we want to safely fly to become high-timers ourselves. We are not avoiding accidents by mastering the tasks in the Practical Test Standards, then flying around to see what happens next. You’d think that we, collectively, would learn better.

Experience is learning from what happens to you. Training is learning from the experiences of others. The right instructor, the right article, or the right software package can teach us what others have learned along the way, without having to wait for the slim chance you’ll see it all yourself, or hoping you’ll learn what you need to know on your own before something unexpected and catastrophic happens to you in the air. “Hope” is never a good risk management strategy.

Those who survive to become the high-time pilots we admire do so by training, by soaking up everything there is to learn about aviation from as many sources as possible. They replace mere piloting with a word we don’t hear much anymore: Airmanship.

There’s nothing casual about the way they approach flying. For them every day is a learning experience, whether in the air, in the hangar or FBO, reading or at the computer. Their casual outward appearance comes from the confidence of mastering airmanship.

You can start down the road to airmanship by checking into ways to train from the experiences of others. Fly with a variety of instructors who will pass on what they have learned. Get some dual in areas of aviation unfamiliar to you — get a tailwheel checkout, fly a glider, or log a little instrument dual.

Read everything you can and check out learning opportunities at and, and outlets like King Schools and Sporty’s Pilot Shop.

Talk to other pilots and, although it clashes with the pilot stereotype, listen more than you speak. You’ve already begun work toward airmanship if you’ve made it this far into this column, and are considering how you’re going to learn next.

When the time is right, mentor less experienced pilots, or even become an instructor — not just for the money or because you want to build time, but because you truly want other pilots to know the things you’ve learned. Even then, remember that you can’t possibly have learned it all.

You may be a student pilot, a sport or recreational pilot, or fly under a private certificate. You might fly commercially, or hold commercial or ATP certificates yet fly only for personal travel or fun. Perhaps you fly gliders, or ultralights, or rotary wing or balloons. No matter what you fly or how you fly it, you can’t afford to approach flying casually. You, your family and friends — and the aviation industry — all potentially suffer.

Continually seek out ways to learn from the experiences of others, to “fly casual” by mastering airmanship.

Thomas P. Turner holds a Masters degree in Aviation Safety and is a two-time Master CFI. He was the 2008 FAA Central Region CFI of the Year and manages education and technical programs for a 10,000-pilot organization with flight operations worldwide. For more information: or

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