What we can learn from funny looking birds

Over the holidays, we took our family on a cruise to the Galapagos Islands. It was one of the greatest trips that I have had.

On one of the islands, we were waiting to be ferried back to the ship, and I observed a bird flying a few hundred feet above the water and then just fold its wings and dive into the water.

It did this over and over, so I asked the naturalist what the bird was doing. She explained that this was a young blue-footed boobie (I am not making this up, the name comes from bobo or clown bird because they are funny looking.)

She went on to say that this was a young bird because its feet were light blue whereas the mature birds had a deeper blue color.

The bird was practicing catching fish. The technique is to spot the fish from the air, dive into the water, and then catch the fish on the way up.

The reason for all of the practice is to learn where to dive relative to the fish so that on the way back up, the bird can catch the fish. It also helps the young birds learn to judge the depth of the water so that they do not dive 20 feet deep into 10 feet of water and break a wing or other part.

The lesson that nature is showing us is that to learn a skill, it takes practice and repetition.

In general aviation, I feel that the most difficult skills to learn are finding the right airport, landings and the weather.

Now that almost all of us have some kind of GPS and phones with weather apps, finding the right airport and staying out of bad weather has become easier. But landings and even takeoffs are still a difficult skill to learn, especially in a crosswind.

Recently, a young acquaintance of mine asked about learning to fly. I told him all about it and suggested he take a demonstration flight at a local FBO. He went up with a flight instructor in a Cessna 152. He really enjoyed the flight and the view, but had a few questions.

He said that the instructor pumped the primer five or six times before cranking. I explained that was to pump raw fuel into the carburetor to get it started because airplanes do not have a choke. He then asked, “what are a carburetor and a choke?” I explained what they were and their functions, but I think I lost him halfway through the explanation.

Next he asked about the mixture strength and why it needed to be adjusted. He asked what would happen if the mixture strength was not set properly. I explained that it could harm the engine or cause it to quit.

“What about the carburetor heat and why doesn’t my car have any of these items?” he asked next. I tried to explain it all, but I’m fairly sure I lost him.

He was so concerned about operating the plane that he felt he could not concentrate on learning to fly. And being that concerned about operating the plane would make learning the skills needed to actually fly hard — and dangerous.

It appears that we as a generation have failed to pass on a working knowledge and a love for the internal combustion engine to the younger generation. They know how to program a computer and can do more with a cell phone than the entire computer department where I went to college.

But when it comes to an engine, they know how to turn it on and that is about it.

The young guy I was talking to said the engine controls were way beyond him. He then told me he was going to look for a computer program or phone app that would teach him how to fly.

I am still trying to come up with an answer to that question that is printable in General Aviation News.


  1. Anonymous says

    Can’t blame the young guy for not knowing what carburetor is. I knew that stuff when I was a kid but technological progress made that knowledge unnecessary. Cars nowadays start pretty much every time. Engines are reliable and sophisticated enough to look and behave like simple gadgets. I also do not have to know what kind of shocks my car has, what exactly air conditioning does and what kind of rubber is in my tires. I do not know a lot of stuff about my car but this ignorance is not going to kill me if I do not do something extreme.
    Why does it have to be so different with airplanes? Why do I have to know about carb, priming and mixture? Answer is simple. Airplanes are stuck in 1930s. They look ancient, they behave ancient and the technical details are fun only to a mechanics, mechanical geeks or historians. For a regular dude who just wants to fly this engine history lesson is as fun as slaughtering cow when one just wants to have a steak.

    • Bart says

      Strongly disagree, see Air France and Korea Airlines for proof. Airplanes will NEVER work like cars, period and people who think they can will die, see Cirrus aircraft accident record. Airplanes sold to people who buy into the marketing hype for a glass panel, integrated autopilot, fadec engine controls and ballistic parachute. Nothing wrong with any of those technological additions to the flying machine, but they don’t fly the airplane and pilots who think they’ve gotten into something that’s safe because of the technology are dead. This won’t apply to carburetors and other “ancient” technology in a linear way but lack of knowledge about the way the airplane works is more dangerous than lack of knowledge about the mechanicals of a car. There will be situations where this lack of knowledge can kill and a lot of situations where it may only make the difference between getting the engine to run that day or not. Sure some younger people are going to have to learn some things we didn’t but that doesn’t mean they don’t need to know them. You can’t reduce flying to a check list. By the by what you don’t know about the tires and shocks on your car can kill you too.

  2. Brett S says

    Guys, if we keep talking about young people like lazy fools who are afraid of everything outside of their iPhone, aviation is in trouble. Of *course* most kids can understand carburetor technology well enough to fly safely. But, guess what? We just might have to explain it differently to them than it was explained to us, because they have no context for it. And, frankly, we might need to give up the idea that mechanical systems are so awesome in and of themselves that it should motivate learning. They might learn it as a necessary evil because they are motivated instead by the joy of flight, similar to my learning about weather to stay alive even though I found it wildly boring.

    • Bart says

      Good idea Brett, so how would you explain a carburetor in ” a different context”? I’m curious and genuinely interested in how it could be done. Would you use the same incentive that persuaded you to learn about “wildly boring” weather?

      • Brett S says

        I don’t have much experience teaching young adults about carburetors, but there has to be a way :-) Here’s what my instincts tell me.

        First we have to create an incentive so they want to learn about it. To that end, I think we first get to know them and why they want to learn to fly. If they think it’s just cool, then the first flights focus on seeing points of interest from the air, or if so equipped and trained, maybe some aerobatic demonstration. If they think it will make great fodder for Facebook and YouTube, we may scoff, but why not show them how to mount a GoPro or two (and obviously keep an eye out during training they aren’t showboating)? If they want to join the Air Force or an airline, focus on the precision and professionalism of flying. Systems are for later; early on we need to instill excitement and stick-and-rudder skills.

        How do we teach carburetors in a different context? First, keep in mind young people may have seen very few “guts” of mechanical systems. So, let’s show them some. Obviously if we can pull a carburetor off something that would be best. If they understand modern fuel-injection systems then it’s probably relatively easy to explain how a carburetor is an earlier technology that does the same job. For some we’ll have to start with the *very* basics, such as “remember in chemistry when you learned that fire needs oxygen, fuel, and heat?” Keep the lesson accessible and need-to-know. We can say “mix together the right amount of fuel and air” instead of “obtain the necessary stoichiometric ratio”. And, while we may find the finer points of Venturi float manufacturing incredibly fascinating, the kid really just needs to know how to keep the engine running.

        • Bart says

          I get it but I think that’s what Ben was trying to do when the young man’s eyes glazed over. Like most of the last generation he has no context and in fact doesn’t even know what the word carburetor means. So our question is, how important is that to him in learning to fly? The instructor probably did the right thing, as you suggest, by not going into any detail about it on the introductory flight, but the kid was interested, impressed, or concerned enough about all the activity needed to get the engine running that he asked Ben about it. The bottom line is, if a prospective pilot isn’t interested enough to learn all that’s necessary to aviate successfully, other than how to manipulate the flight controls, he/she probably isn’t really a candidate anyway. The problem we have is so many young people today live in a world of buttons and switches where processes are boiled down to a set of steps you follow and a prescriptive outcome is expected. That’s the way the only other vehicle most of them have any connection with, a car, works so that’s what they expect. Aviation isn’t like that and never will be, especially at the bottom where most of us live in GA.

  3. Bart says

    Ok, so how important is it that a pilot have some basic understanding of the way and why’s of the engine and other systems he’s expected to operate? I see questions on BeechTalk all the time from people flying Bonanza’s and Baron’s worth $100k and more that indicate they have no more than a rudimentary understanding of them. Sure we COULD build an airplane today that requires one to know no more about the systems than they know about a car, but we can’t because of the regulatory environment we live in. So shouldn’t a prospective pilot be expected to know something about the old technology he’s trying to learn to fly, or is that too much to ask? As long as everything works as you expect it to and as it always has in the past there won’t be a problem but accidents happen every day because pilot’s didn’t understand some of these basics.

    I hate to say that young people today are lazy because clearly many aren’t, but, they don’t seem willing to try to learn things they don’t perceive any NEED TO KNOW! How do you get them involved in aviation at the bottom where it’s affordable if they can’t grasp the concept of a carburetor and choke?

  4. Greg W says

    Many small engines used in lawn and garden equipment do still have chokes, although sometimes automatic. Piloting is a challenge, if the challenge is not desired and only the transportation, fly in the back of an airliner. Learning basic systems should not be a problem, they need to be run safely not at “maximum efficiency, that is good but not required for safe and successful operation.
    Lee, the reason for learning the archaic methods is so that we can still use those systems while the newer are developed. I agree that many things could be modernized in aircraft, the certification needs to be completed, but, we should not park our aircraft while waiting. It must be realized that “archaic” and “obsolete” are not the same. Reliability is paramount in an aircraft and the “state of the art” in many cases is archaic, it is also extremely reliable. The Porsche PFM 3200, the Continental Tiara engines, were modern but not close in reliability to the engines they were to replace. The Cessna Corvallis lost sections of modern bonded, composite, wing skin do to construction/assembly flaws (since corrected), it has been many decades since aluminum,plywood or fabric skin has been lost that was not caused by damage. These are reliable,safe,mature, developed technologies, archaic yes, obsolete no.
    The joy and achievement must be in the “doing” not simply the result, conquering the challenge must be the goal for those in the front.

  5. Ray says

    I have a motorcycle and small engine repair shop and I have to chuckle sometimes at how little people know about engines or mechanics in general. Compleatly lost on the difference between two cycle and four cycle, how to gap and change plugs, and even oil changes. All this was common knowledge to me when I was ten years old. I guess with all the automation today it is a sign of the times. But lack of understanding and visualazation of systems can be dangerous in aviation.

  6. John Telfeyan says

    Great article but Lee is right. How much loner will we be dealing with the same engine choices and issues? Yes I know what a carburetor is and why you have to adjust the mixture and I’m glad that we don’t have to deal with them in our cars but what will it take to move away from these things in our airplanes. Certainly newer fuel injected engines are a bit closer to today’s technology and a a step in the right direction but even that is 20+ years old. When I started flying in 1990, engine technology of the 1950s didn’t seem all that long ago. At least it was post war. Now when you refer to the 1950s it’s a whole different view. I can’t help but think that we’re not that far away from 2050 (not that I will still be around) and hopefully talking about these thing will be like talking about steam engines. Unfortunately I believe one of the biggest factors is the market size of GA and that will never be big enough make a difference.
    By the way Ben, my wife and I did the Galopagos cruise also and like you it was our best vacation ever. Highly recommended.

  7. Brett S says

    I essentially agree with Lee’s point. Carburetors, etc have been obsolete for at least 30 years, which is likely longer than the young man you were talking to has been alive. I can’t say for sure, but my guess it that you lost him because you were passionate about the mechanical nature of those technologies, and went overboard in the explanation. When a student is starting all they need to know about a carburetor is that it feeds fuel and air to the engine, and all they need to know about the mixture is that you can leave it alone up to 3000 feet (MSL in a Cessna 152) and we’ll talk about it later. Let the enthusiasm about soaring through the sky build first, and after that we can bury them in details about old school internal combustion so that they can troubleshoot problems. Meanwhile, they’ll pick up that G1000 in about 10 seconds.

  8. Matt M says

    There are always subjects in anything new you are going to learn. If this young wo/man is serious about learning to fly, then they will be serious about learning even the most archaic methods. I was in a similar position when I was a student with not knowing as much as I should have with the engines in most piston aircraft we see today. But I saw this and did something about it myself. My friend was an A&P so I sat in with him on several annuals and MOHs. Now, I would consider myself very aware of my engine and the signs she shows me she’s not happy.

  9. Lee Ensminger says

    Ben, this was an interesting article. Many of our young people do not know how internal combustion engines work, including things like chokes, primers, carburetors and so forth because they did not grow up in the era where this was the best technology available for piston engines. And outside of aviation, where we’re still employing the technology of the 1930’s-1950’s, they have no need. I have the feeling your view is that their knowledge is somehow deficient. I disagree. I feel that there’s no reason to bother with archaic methods when we have systems that have been proven over time to reliably control mixture and timing, fuel injectors that can atomize and deliver exactly the right amount of fuel for any power setting without fouling plugs or burning valves. But we continue to employ archaic methods and be regulated by obsolete standards that fewer and fewer people understand or will bother learning, coupled with a Draconian governing agency that we’re taught to be afraid of. And then we wonder why young people don’t want to learn to fly.

  10. James says

    I think the question to ask is why hasn’t engine management become a much simpler task in aviation over the last hundred years? It’s not like they haven’t had enough time or don’t charge enough for their engines to support a little rnd.

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