As you might imagine of a guy who writes for an aviation publication with the reputation enjoyed by General Aviation News, I’ve been flying for quite a while. You might also get the impression I pretty much know what I’m doing.
That’s not necessarily true.
Sure, I can get an airplane into the air and back down again. To this point I’ve been able to do that without bending any metal, tearing any fabric, or cracking any plastic. So far, so good.
I’m perfectly comfortable accelerating down a paved runway in a tricycle gear airplane, pulling back on the stick or yoke at the appropriate speed, and pointing the nose toward the heavens.
Even after all these years it’s still an exhilarating experience. But then, it’s also well within my comfort zone.After years of working as a flight instructor, streaking over the runway at far too high an airspeed, or wallowing in on short final with far too little, or careening down the runway with one wing down low and the other banked up high, I’ve gotten used to tricycle gear airplanes taking off and landing on paved runways.
Take that same airplane and shoehorn it into a grass strip that’s barely as wide as the airplane’s wingspan, and you’ve got an entirely different story.
I recall one short narrow grass strip that gave me the heebie-jeebies. I asked a more proficient pilot how she got in and out without scraping the branches jutting out from the periphery. “Just aim for the centerline and you’ll be fine,” she said.
She was right, too. The runway was wide enough. There was plenty of clearance to allow the airplane to fly in and out of that narrow strip. So I redoubled my efforts to stay on the centerline throughout the approach, and on departure as well.
I learned something from that fly girl I wouldn’t have learned on my own: Focus on the basics. The big trouble starts when you color outside the lines.
If there’s been a secret to my flying career, that’s been it. I humble myself from time to time. Knowingly. Intentionally. I go out and make a point of flying somewhere that I haven’t been before, or in an aircraft I’m not familiar with, or in conditions that are foreign to me. I’ve learned a lot from those experiences. More than I could ever fit into this space, certainly.
The key, of course, is to do new things safely. So I fly with a flight instructor or an experienced pilot who has lots of time doing what I’m trying to become familiar with.
My first foray into aeronautical humility was when I added a multi-engine rating to my private pilot ticket. That was interesting.
So was my first exposure to seaplanes. I flew a Piper J-3 Cub on floats at that venerable mainstay of seaplane education, Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base.
The aircraft is about as straightforward and basic as it can be. But then there’s that little detail of the floats. The aircraft has almost no resistance to forward movement, or movement in the direction the wind is blowing. As soon as the prop begins to turn, the seaplane begins to move.
Unlike land planes, it drifts, it wallows, it can dig in and flip over if you don’t keep a firm hand on the stick, and it can be a bear to turn downwind if a healthy breeze picks up.
Yet even with all that, five hours after starting my seaplane adventure, I was flying them with a fair amount of confidence. All I had to do was openly admit that I didn’t know squat about flying seaplanes, and the guidance started flowing into my ears from a flight instructor who knew more than I ever will about those amazing machines.
Humbling myself was well worth the potential for embarrassment. I got a new rating, a broader perspective on flying, and the ability to do things I’d never done before.
Taildraggers presented a similar challenge, but with the added potential excitement of spinning around to face backward while still moving at a pretty good clip in the opposite direction. If you think you have reasonably good rudder control skills, but have never flown a taildragger, let me be the first to suggest you might be mistaken.
Never have I had a low and slow flight turn into a butt-clenching workload the way I have with a taildragger touching down with a brisk crosswind. I’m better at this than I used to be, but I’m not nearly where I wish I was when it comes to taildragger flying.
I’m working on it. I bought a taildragger just so I could improve my technique. It’s a work in progress, but it’s one heck of a great adventure every time I line up on the centerline and reduce the throttle for landing. I love it.
It doesn’t matter what sort of challenges you put yourself up for. As long as you do it safely, with good instruction, in well maintained aircraft, and with an open mind, you’re going to come away from the experience a better pilot than you were when you went in.
Just this morning I saddled up in an airplane type I have very little time in. Behind me sat a highly experienced pilot with oodles of time in type. We flew. I worked a lot harder than he did, but we both had the time of our lives.
There’s nothing wrong with humbling yourself now and then. In the cockpit or out of it, we all have something to learn.
It’s the willingness to take that opportunity to learn seriously, to sincerely try to master a new skill – that’s what makes us the kind of pilot others already think we are – even if we know better.