“Aviate. Navigate. Communicate.”
Every pilot hears those words in that order during their initial training. They hear them again and again throughout their flying career. This is, after all, the order of operations for any situation you might find yourself in while airborne.
Then one day, out of the blue, we find ourselves sharing this exact lesson with newer, less experienced pilots. Somehow, each of us becomes the old hand. A respected elder. The experienced flyer who has wisdom to share. So we do our best to fulfill that role.
Fortunately for the easily tongue tied, the less than verbose, or the not particularly witty speaker, the industry has collected an enormous number of aviation-centric expressions to pass along at the drop of a hat. With that in mind, let’s review a few to see if they might come in handy around the ramp or coffee pot.
“Always remember, you fly the airplane with your head, not your hands.”
There are variations on this one, as there are with so many of the practical lessons we learn. But it’s a good way to remember an important truism.
Powered, human flight is more about intellect than brawn — which is exactly why there are follow-ups to this saying that back up the message: “Never take the airplane somewhere your brain didn’t go five minutes earlier.”
Of course, the art and science of aviating comes with a unique set of contradictions, which may be why so many news reporters and movie scripts get it wrong.
“To go up, pull the stick back. To go down, pull harder.” That seems wrong somehow, but every fixed wing pilot knows it’s 100% true. The irony of the idea that creating lift is good, creating more lift is better, but trying to create too much lift is bad — well, that takes a bit of digging to understand the nuance of what lift is and how we get it. Maybe more importantly, how we lose it. Most important of all, how we get it back.
“There are three key rules to making the perfect landing. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are.” Truer words were never spoken.
Like most CFIs, I can explain how to land an airplane. I can demonstrate how to land the airplane. I can even walk my students through the science of the various phases of the landing process. But I can’t guarantee the next landing I make won’t involve an embarrassing bounce or a last-minute ballooning just before touchdown, or a wing lifting up unexpectedly due to a rotor of wind spilling over the tree line that parallels the runway. It’s always something.
Now 30 years in, I’m still trying to perfect my technique. Frankly, I’d be a little worried about anyone who thought they had the landing process nailed down to the point they didn’t have to work at it every single time.
Some expressions have a dark subtext to them, but that doesn’t make the lesson any less important.
“The probability of survival is equal to the angle of arrival” is a good example. Not only does it rhyme, it’s demonstrably true.
It’s the reason a gear up landing at the end of a normal, stabilized approach is more or less a non-event, even if the local news channel insists on treating it like a life-or-death struggle. On the other hand, a stall/spin from low altitude at low airspeed is generally fatal.
A 3° glideslope allows the airplane to act as a sled on snow. It just slides down the runway until friction slows the hulk to a stop. The stall/spin results in an abrupt conclusion of the flight. That sudden stoppage isn’t just bad for the engine. It’s life threatening to the pilot and passengers. Which is why this particular expression is a great reminder to avoid any attempt to stretch a glide or to lose focus on your airspeed in an emergency.
And it’s that situation that leads us to the next folksy pilot saying: “Fly it until the last piece is done moving.”
No matter what, keep flying the airplane. If the electrical system fails, fly the airplane. If a fire breaks out, fly the airplane. If an engine quits, a window blows out, a spring pops out of your seat to poke you in the butt, and your passenger loses his/her lunch in your lap…fly the airplane. To do anything less can only lead to a worse outcome than the one you’re already dealing with.
And as we round out this edition of Random Thoughts with Jamie, I’ll share my personal favorite flying expression with you. This is the one I have held near and dear to my heart throughout the majority of my career. It’s a front-of-mind thought before every flight I make and a checklist item for me every time I plan a flight for the following day. “The only time the airplane has too much fuel is when it’s on fire.”
If you doubt the validity of that one, I can tell you your perspective will change quickly and with great vigor should you ever experience the sinking feeling that comes with a propeller winding down at altitude, the engine getting quiet, and the gas gauge needle suddenly banging down to the bottom peg. Once is enough, believe me. Never again. Not for me, anyway.
What’s your favorite? What have you heard over the course of your career that sticks with you? Share it. Let’s have some fun with this and learn something from each other along the way.