They say that pilots start out with an empty experience bucket and a bucket full of luck. The trick is to fill the experience bucket before your luck bucket is emptied.
Though one can make deposits into the experience account without making a withdrawal from the luck account, it would be foolish to think luck withdrawals will never be required.
Landing for the first time on a grass strip, kissing the tires on the Green Dot at Oshkosh for AirVenture, and your first solo are all flights that most definitely should go right into the experience bucket. Those are the flights pilots love to talk about!
The other flights that go into the experience bucket are precisely those flights that pilots don’t want to talk about. The flights where you land and think: I am so happy to be back on the ground.
As pilots, we hold ourselves to a certain level of precision. Penalty for failure is high and anything less than perfection can lead to harsh consequences, such as a bent airplane or worse.
Every pilot, however, has a story where luck played a part in a consequence-free outcome, perhaps a sense of narrow escape and relief, and an emphatic withdrawal from the luck bucket.
Pilots are an interesting breed. Because of this unattainable, yet required, level of absolute perfection, admitting mistakes is difficult. For every pilot who discusses his or her never again moment, there is another pilot insisting “that could never happen to me.”
The reality is it can and does “happen to me.” Regardless of level of experience, years of flying, number of aircraft in one’s logbook, careful flight planning, and attention to detail, sometimes bad stuff happens to good pilots. Perfection is impossible. We may be pilots, but we are also humans.
When it does — and it will — happen to you, there will be disbelief: How did I get myself into this? How could that have happened? And then a strong desire to never speak about it again, and concern that you have irrevocably damaged your pilot reputation.
Maybe it will be a small thing, easily concealed and written off as a learning experience to be tucked in the back of your mind. Should it be a more serious incident or accident of a more public nature, it’s hard not to want to crawl into a hole and go into hiding.
Every pilot has a story. When you do muster the courage to talk about your incident, accident, lapse in better judgment, or whatever caused the luck bucket withdrawal, the collective aviation community will invariably drop its tough exterior and rise up to envelop their fellow pilot with overwhelming support, revealing the vulnerability that is inherent in what we do.
Pilots whom you have held in the highest regard will not dismiss you as an unworthy pilot, but rather will embrace you as a pilot with a slightly more full experience bucket. Pilots will share that they too have been where you are.
To any pilot out there who has an untold story: I have been where you are. I was prepared, I was diligent, I researched the airport, I spoke to the airport manager about runway conditions, I reviewed the weather, and everything was going exactly right until it went horribly wrong. While my mistake did not result in injury, it did result in a bent airplane and a tremendous amount of embarrassment and shame.
I never wanted to tell the story, but when I did, my love for our aviation family and my level of admiration for my fellow pilots grew to epic proportions. I was told stories of prop strikes, ground loops, gear-up landings, and mid-air collisions. There was a story about putting a taildragger into a riverbank, one about landing a plane on amphibs in the water with the gear down and flipping it upside down, and one about taking out a taxi light as the pilot mistook the taxiway for the runway in low visibility and heavy snow.
The more I told my story, the more stories I heard. Eventually I realized that one more withdrawal from my luck bucket did not make me a bad pilot, just one with more experience.