Tell your story

Perhaps it has occurred to you. as it has to me, aviation attracts high achievers like a moth to a flame. Ours is not the domain of the weak or timid. Similarly it’s not an exclusive outpost for rich, old, white guys who split their time between the golf course, the yacht club, the airport, and pillaging the economy for their own personal gain. That’s the common perception of us. Wrong as it may be, that image persists.

Perhaps it’s time for us to correct that mischaracterization. Not to massage it, or spin it, or dress it up to make it look good. No, I mean it’s time for us to lift up our heads, throw out our chests, and make it clear exactly what sort of people aviation attracts.

Scott Crossfield (Photo courtesy NASA)

Scott Crossfield (Photo courtesy NASA)

In my career I’ve been fortunate enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with Chuck Yeager, one of the pioneers of high performance who ushered in the space age. I shook Scott Crossfield’s hand and was surprised at how firm the grip of an older man could be. But then this is a man who had an experimental flying rocket known as the X-15 blow up around him and he still walked away with his dignity and his nerves intact. Yeager and Crossfield competed with each other and the elements, both touching the edge of space and pressing the known limits of the speed envelope, repeatedly.

If you’ve flown on a commercial airliner in your lifetime, you’ve benefitted from their work.

Years ago, while wandering through a hangar I rounded a corner to find myself standing toe-to-toe with Frank Borman, the commander of Apollo 8. To put the accomplishments of that crew and their support team in perspective, it’s necessary to divest yourself of much of what we know today.

When their Saturn V lifted off the ground, they were headed for a rendezvous with a foreign body we call the moon. Never before had a spacecraft shot off into space with the intention of slingshotting around the back side of a satellite in order to get home again. If they missed the moon, they might still be headed out into space today.

But the engineers with the slide rules got it right and the astronauts navigated their way through space exactly as they were supposed to. In the process they became the first three men in the history of humanity to witness an earth rise. They also opened the door to achievements that were well beyond our technology and understanding only a decade earlier — achievements that are now considered so pedestrian and unremarkable most school age children aren’t even aware they occurred. Yet to my generation, these people were heros. We knew their names. We aspired to be like them.

Of course, not all great aviators are famous. Some are individually unknown, although collectively they are legendary. You may not recognize names like Leo Gray or George Hardy, or Hiram Mann, or Roscoe Brown, but those names all bring a specific smiling face to my mind. Each one is a true hero in my book. Smart, brave, capable, battle hardened.

They’re leaders who transcend the military rank bestowed on them. Each of those names belongs to a Tuskegee Airman. To this day they support each other and enjoy a deep satisfaction for the accomplishments they and their peers earned against stiff odds. Even now, 70 years after committing themselves to offering up their lives for a nation that treated them, their families and friends so poorly, they continue to share their stories and to excel not just in the air, but in life.

These men helped to preserve freedom in the world, then they came home and represented a level of performance that simply could not be minimized or mocked any longer. If you are alive, they helped make your life better. End of story.

TuskegeeAirmen2They’re saints in the American pantheon of outstanding personal achievement, and soldiers in the battle for equality and opportunity. Each one of them deserves our undying respect and admiration for being better than we are. Because they are. Seriously, they are.

With all that to work with, and so much more, I can only wonder why the current participants of this industry allow ourselves to be misrepresented and maligned so frequently. It’s time for us to correct the record.

We have giants among us, and the legends they created should be the footing we stand on when we share their story. We should be honest with the public at large. We should tell these stories that haven’t been told well enough, or often enough, or widely enough.

I am involved in aviation because great men and women came before me and led the way. Our airports exist, at least in part, to honor the memory and the achievements of people who accepted shockingly high levels of risk in order to blaze trails that make our lives better, safer, more fulfilling than they could otherwise be.

In part, these runways exist to allow a new generation to participate, to catch just a glimpse of what was and maybe to provide a hint of what could be in the future. And they are the launching points for dreams not yet realized, harbored in the minds of children not yet old enough to see over the instrument panel.

But they will become one of us, and amaze us, and lead us to great new discoveries — because that is the true legacy of aviation.

Go tell the story. Tell your story. It needs to be heard.


  1. says

    The issue is the perception that all pilots are wealthy – male, and white. Both are wrong and require our constant attention to correct the lack of understanding on the public’s part.

    General Aviation serves the country delivering packages and as a transportation tool, as well as recreational uses. Because of the perception of wealth the importance of our airports and aircraft are lost on the public. The politicians don’t make things any better either, using aviation as a 1% ‘us and them’ example.

    We can all help by countering these perceptions with the truth as well as standing up for our passion for flying.

    • Chris says

      Well said. Anytime I read a GA story (usually about an accident) I peruse the reader comments. It never surprises me how many comments are from people that think GA pilots are all reckless trust fund babies. Unfortunately our media and politicians (most of whom are solid 1 percenters) get a lot of mileage out of putting people into those “us and them” camps based on race or class (real or perceived). It’s a toxic attitude and will cause us a lot of societal discord in the coming years I’m afraid.

      That said, we can’t change the world but we can take care of our own house by countering misperceptions when we find them (respectfully of course). Engaging our local media and inviting them to experience GA firsthand is another good practice. Flight schools can help in this by making sure that everyone who walks in is greeted warmly and professionally. We’ve all run across the flight school or FBO who ignored potential customers because they weren’t a member of the “club”. Think that those people walked away with a positive view of GA? I can’t help but wonder how many of those people who bother to post anti-GA comments on the internet were themselves once treated poorly by a representative of the communty.

  2. says

    Thank you, Jamie. We all know how true your story is fact in the flying/non-flying communities. Few however, have sated it so eloquently as you have here. Perhaps our younger flyers and those who are destined to be so do not understand your thoughts fully. After all, they were not sitting in front of a black and white TV, moving the rabbit ears so they could see the first men to step foot on the moon, and were not even around in the “modern day” to witness live footage of a space shuttle liftoff turned into a disaster. They will wind up seeing history moving milestones such as these in their own day, and long after we are gone. Thank you for sharing your words. It is always nice to hear about the successes, failures, and triumphs that put us all where we are today. And yes, we do need to hear this more often. Hopefully, others will tell their stories.

  3. Tom says

    “…rich old white guys…” Nothing inherently wrong with rich old white guys enjoying their hard earned position in life switching from the golf course to the airport. The “perception” that there is something wrong with success is a fault of the perceiver and not with the perceived. Something like jealousy don’t you think? Who cares if somebody has a more expensive airplane or bigger house than mine? So called “income inequality” is just someone’s idea of ignoring the truth that some are blessed because they follow principles of prosperity rather than communism.

    • Eric Tallberg says

      VERY well said, though not “rich” myself, I did enjoy aircraft ownership (now want to upgrade and need “help” with other like-minded folks to realize that dream). Most of my friends know I’m not rich. This article speaks of my mind set.
      Tom, I agree in principle with what you say. The issue isn’t the reality of the successful enjoying their riches. It’s the reality that our society today has already been brainwashed into believing what they hear from the “media.” The media doesn’t explain that the “Rich white guys” also spend thousands of dollars to bring the “poor minority kids” up for free flights; provide free rides to the military; provide rides to pets; head to poor nations to help with the needs of those even MORE impoverished than the “complainers” in our own country. That is what we should promote more.
      Keep flying none-the-less!

  4. Stephen A. Kallis, Jr. says

    What brought me into aviation was as a1940s radio adventure serial, /Captain Midnight/. The hero of the program was an aviator. It was my favorite program, and decades later, I decided to write a book about the chsrcter, and thought 5’d better lesrn about flying. I discovered I enjoyed flying, and within a year of earning my ticket, I bought an aircraft, which I flew for years. The inspiration was a fictional character, but that’s how it started.
    The book’s still in print, too.

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