With Plenty of Petroleum and Properly Positioned in Perfectly Peaceful Air, Pilots Pine to Promote the Purposeful Pleasures of Piloting
The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning. – Mark Twain
I have become sensitive to the use of “wrong” words. “We’d like to welcome you aboard.” But then they don’t. “Your fuel is going to be $750.” Ok, but when? “We’re done with the tire change.” Not finished?
Modern dialog is often inaccurate if not ineloquent. As a prelude to this, during my first article with our new Editor-in-Command, I re-read a couple of the classics for writers: “On Writing Well” and “The Elements of Style.” These and my stack of aviation periodicals got me thinking about how important it is for us to use effective words when talking about flying. This summer we will be traveling on vacation and business, to fly-ins, airshows, owner-conventions and Oshkosh. You may meet folks seeking advice about becoming a pilot and they will want to hear it from the horse’s mouth: A pilot. And better from us than GA’s detractors buzzing around the horse’s other end. When talking to newbies, passengers, politicians and the press, it’s important that we use premium words to describe and promote flying.
Are You a Pilot?
We’ve all heard it: Are you the pilot? Enthusiasts will watch you taxi up to the ramp and may look to you for stories, opinions, advice and your feelings about flying. They presume you to be electronically savvy, articulate, at least semi-approachable and above all, truthful. Whether you enjoy being a spokesman for GA or you would rather not, they will ask about your “airplane feelings” including your airplane fears. With kids, the first questions will often be: Is it hard to fly an airplane? How do you work all those buttons? Do I need to know a lot of math? Then the adults: How did you get into it? When did you first start flying? Where do you fly? How much does it cost?
Put on your Mr. Rogers sweater, engage some Mr. Spock logic, emulate Henry Kissinger’s tact then accurately, but simply, explain aviation using plenty of passionately picked adjectives and adverbs.
Can You Say, There I Was? (I knew you could)
When we are with other pilots, it’s customary to discuss close calls, brilliant saves, stupid mistakes and to use hand gestures as we lay it on thick: “There I was, fuel leaking from the left main, inverted on the glide slope (palm-up gesture), the right prop feathered and an inch of ice on the wings (index finger and thumb showing two inches). My coffee spilled as I rolled upright while hand-cranking the gear (cranking motion), but I still made the second turn-off and last call at the Happy Bottom Riding Club.” Great Caesar’s ghost and jeepers Mr. Kent! Pull up your pant legs boys and girls, it’s getting deep in here. I know we like to embellish so as to keep the attention of the other storytellers in the room, but super-pilot bravado is like Kryptonite to newbies and will cause gasps and gastrointestinal grunting if used around fearful mortals, fanatic politicians or the frenzied editor of The Daily Planet.
What’s the Scariest Thing?
It’s easy to endorse aviation when we have runway ahead of us, altitude below us, fuel in the tanks and expenses in check. In fact, when all is well, our passion for flight often causes the exuberance reactor to lose containment as our aviation adjectives, adverbs and accolades pepper anyone within earshot. But it’s a tight rope when we talk to potential students, passengers or the media if they ask, “What’s the scariest thing that ever happened to you?” And no Gordo, that’s not your cue to tell them who is the best pilot you ever saw (with respectful acknowledgement to the passing of author and journalist Tom Wolfe).
Most of us are spring-loaded to “The Right Stuff” mode and answer with a modicum of exaggeration like the Happy Bottom pilot above. But we’d like to win friends and influence people here, not cause a stampede to the emergency slides or the desire to snuggle up and watch “The Lion King.” After we’ve covered the fun stuff about flying, questions about risks and operational challenges, training and expenses will come up. When we talk to these folks, tell them what you love about flying first. They will hear it in your voice and see it in your eyes. Then maybe gently give them the “how we sometimes have to save the world” part. Try to use any
A Talk with Jesus
Speaking of superlatives, before you say that flying can be like a religious experience, there’s a difference between the “sunrise, blue sky, smooth air, great view of Monument valley, the Rockies or New York skyline” feeling that we might claim is “like a religious experience,” and the “engine failure to a 400/1 approach in which we actually talk to Jesus at the marker” type of religious experience. So, unless your storytelling is riding on the shirttail of common metaphors, perhaps we ought to tone down the use of that and “best pilot you ever saw” superlatives while around newcomers and the Perry White’s of the world.
How do we delicately answer the sometimes-tough questions from non-pilots? Well, it’s not always a beautiful day in our neighborhood – we’re not a pointy-eared science officer or the U.S. Secretary of State. But here’s my take on promoting the pleasures, freedoms and efficiencies of GA.
Writers are counseled to write about what they like and not to be afraid of how it sounds, and to not call the editor “Chief.” Some of the audience will like what they read, some will not. But through the use of words, syntax and individual style, passion for the subject should be clear. The same is true when you talk to non-pilots about flying. Our passion for flight will show in our faces and inevitable use of hand gestures. We apply all of our skills and all of our energy into every flight. We don’t just feel passionate about flying, we put passion into it. When you have passion for something, you love it even when you hate it. During my time in a dozen GA singles, three military jets, four different airliners and one Duke, I’ve tried to put passion into flying them all. Sometimes a small crowd may gather as you weave your passionate tales about flying – especially if “Danger Zone” is playing in the background. Trust that your knowledge, experience and passion for flying will carry the conversation.
In the eyes of aviation newbies, you can do no wrong because you are a pilot. You should take comfort in your level of aviation knowledge. Pilots are a fastidious group of high achievers bent on the study and promotion of facts, precision, safety, the truth and pulling our bacon out of the fire if that’s where we find ourselves. And we’re passionate about being in the air. It’s best that newbies and any greenhorn media types hear and see that right from the start. We are trained to take whatever measures are necessary and prudent in order to ensure the safe completion of a flight. We are in command with the authority to do whatever it takes. This means we also have the responsibility to know exactly whatever it takes is; no more, no less. To face this responsibility, pilots must study, train, learn from others and practice constantly. Then, if all goes according to plan, we can indulge our visceral senses by looking out the window at sights, sounds and smells that no other ground-bound mortal will ever see or feel – and occasionally, we save the bacon.
The highest art form of all is a human being in control of himself and his airplane in flight, urging the spirit of a machine to match his own. – Richard Bach
A Horse is a Horse
In the Beginning…. Call me Ishmael…. It was the best of times…. In 1926 I was enrolled as a student airline pilot…. As we pass between layers of cloud…
These words were used to begin some of the most recounted and influential literature in history (well, the last two by Antoine De Saint Exupery and Ernie Gann if you’re a pilot). As we preach and promote flying, we should choose our words as resolutely as we are able. “Proper” grammar is a moving target and our words don’t have to be perfectly poignant, only purposefully passionate. We need only make sure that they come from the heart and with fewer alliterative phrases than this article. And as much as is possible from us exaggeration prone, story-telling pilots, not from the butt end of a horse.