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5 Things Every Pilot Should Know
Daron J Cristy, Contributing Writer & Photographer

So, what are the five things that every pilot should know? This is obviously a very objective question.

Delving deep into a shallow well of my personal knowledge of just 3 years and 400 hours flight time, it soon became evident that there are many more qualified pilots to answer this question.

However, first, personally I would say that every pilot should practice a lot of landings (especially in varying wind conditions), get a taildragger endorsement, experience spins (multiple), learn to keep radio communications succinct, and finally be nice to the Air Traffic Controllers, they are human too!

But as for the others who have a much deeper well of knowledge. Here are their versions of the five things every pilot should know.

Jim Bourke

Jim Bourke is currently the President of the International Aerobatics Club (IAC), as well as running his company Knife Edge Software, and working on the Hall Bulldog Project (Barnstormers #671).

Jim has been flying for 34 years, starting at 16.

Jim explains that he flew his first solo at Eppley Airport (OMA) in Omaha, Nebraska. My instructor was a very fun and capable pilot. He did a great job of preparing me for the day, so I did not feel very nervous. I struggled a bit to feel confident flying from time to time but on that particular day I knew everything about how the flight would go. I remember there was a little bit of concern for me about what I would do if the engine quit? Since then, I have watched a lot of people go through this particular trial and it always brings back memories. Nothing has really changed; we still worry about the same things we used to. I took off, did a few touch and goes, and landed. Then my instructor cut the tail off my shirt and my parents took me to dinner. My dad was really proud of me. Aviation has been a part of my life in some form ever since that day.

It may come as no surprise that Jim's most memorable experiences have been serving on the US Aerobatic Team. Jim recalls that his most favorite over the last few years was flying in formation over France with the team on our way to Chateauroux for the World Aerobatic Championships. We had been training together for a couple of weeks in Northern France and we got out a chart, mapped out a route through all the complicated airspace, and set off together. Maybe I romanticized wartime aviation too much, but all I could think of as we plied our way across all that beautiful countryside was what it must have been like to fly in a dawn patrol flight with a group of Spads, or as a pilot of a Mustang looking for a convoy. The weather was perfect, the clouds were beautiful, and I had friends on my wings. There was not a lot of conversation because we did not need any, but I felt really connected to my team at that moment. I reflect on many memories like this that I have built up over my aerobatic career.

Jim's five things a pilot should know:

  1. You are never a victim. This is sort of a life mantra for me and something that I try to convey to everyone I meet, whether they are a friend, a casual acquaintance, an employee, a teammate, or just a fellow pilot. We have absolute responsibility and authority over every flight we make. I have been at this long enough to know some good pilots who have passed. There is no magic secret to staying alive at this sport, it simply takes discipline. We all lose discipline from time to time. When that happens, we hope we are lucky, but no one is lucky forever. We have to stay sharp and keep each other sharp by reminding ourselves that if we are not exercising control over our equipment, our training, and our skills, we have no one else to blame.

  2. We all get scared. As a mentor for budding aerobatic pilots, I try to open up a healthy dialog about fear. New pilots feel scared a lot and they do not know what to do about it. They might even feel ashamed to feel afraid, or they might imagine that no one else feels afraid. The truth is that everyone does (or should) feel afraid once in a while about the idea of strapping themselves into a flying machine and setting off on a new adventure. At the opposite of the fear spectrum we have total complacency, which is no safer place to live. I think people can adjust to fear, almost enjoy it when they get a healthy chance to talk about it. I remember a few times when I was just starting in aerobatics, when I arrived at the airport, I just did not feel like flying at all. I kept wondering why I was doing this crazy thing and whether I might die that very day if I went for a flight! I have found that it helps a lot to have a routine; once I get into my routine my emotions are subdued. I also pay attention to my feelings because I think a lot of time my subconscious mind can sense things that I cannot put my finger on, so if I feel like something is amiss, I trust that. If I cannot find anything wrong with my plane or myself then it is time to just stand up to my feelings a little bit. We cannot learn things without challenging ourselves.

  3. Aviation is worth the expense. This is something I say a lot because pilots are always complaining about how much airplanes cost. Sure, they are right, but it is also worth it! I sort of got this point from my dad because I called him to complain about how much an airplane repair had set me back and he said simply "You will never regret the money you spend on airplanes". There was a bit of sadness to it because for him aviation is in the past, something he will not get to enjoy again as a pilot. But at that moment he really wrapped up all that feeling and delivered it in a powerful message; stop complaining, go fly some more, feel lucky to be able to.

  4. Aerobatics is a great way to become a confident and highly proficient pilot. As long as your equipment is in good order, you are well trained, and you are flying at a safe altitude for your skill level, aerobatics is a safe way for you to have fun while learning critical life-saving skills. The hard truth is that in many emergency scenarios our natural instincts can get us into trouble. With aerobatic training you can learn new instincts that will make you a more confident pilot. I have seen many times where people take aerobatic training, and it opens up a whole new world of flying. They become more ready to fly longer cross countries, to try new aircraft, and to pick up new disciplines like bush flying. Maybe you will even get interested in aerobatic competition.

  5. In piloting, what seems impossible one week can seem easy the next. I try to tell this particular advice to people who are feeling stressed when they are learning to fly, because it often seems like what we are trying to learn is never going to come to us. But I promise I have seen many times where people think they cannot possibly master a skill (especially the basics like flaring the aircraft for landing), but that skill becomes so well understood a short time later that it is entirely out of that person's mind. At that point, the budding pilot is then busy thinking about the next impossible task in front of them. The truth is that this process never ends. What is hard for us now always seems a little harder than it is and the lessons that are behind us seem easy in retrospect.

Caleb Taylor

Caleb's first flight was in 1977, at Gibbs Flight School at Montgomery Field Airport (MYF) in San Diego, and he was instantly hooked. June 26 of the same year marked his first solo, he recalls that it was a hazy day, Air Traffic Control (ATC) telling him to extend his downwind enough for him to lose sight of the airport. Fortunately growing up in San Diego he was able to find his way back through ground reference.

Through his 44 years with over 16,000 hours flight time, Caleb has flown a wide variety of aircraft from the basic single engine, through twins, all the way up to the Cessna 750.

Caleb is also the proud owner of a meticulously maintained Grumman Tiger.

Caleb's most memorable experience was being stuck in the sand in a Cessna 425 on a remote "dirt" airstrip near the tip of Baja with Kurt Russell. We had no food, water, or communication.

However, his most memorable emergency was in 1979, while returning to Montgomery Field Airport (MYF) after a local training flight, he had an engine failure in a Grumman AA1C T-Cat. He made a forced landing on Fiesta Island with no damage to the plane. It was determined the carburetor had failed. After the aircraft mechanic replaced the carburetor, and with California Highway Patrol escort, the airplane was towed by rope down SeaWorld Drive with a Volkswagen bug onto the Interstate 5. The CHP shut down a section of the northbound 5 and the plane was flown off the freeway and back to Montgomery Field Airport (MYF).

Caleb's five things a pilot should know:

  1. Always have fear. Every flight you take, there should be some element of fear of the unknown and unforeseen circumstance that may arise on every mission. The minute you lose that respect for fear, your days in the air will be numbered.

  2. Do not buck technology. There is so much incredible affordable tech available to pilots now (finally), there is no reason not to take full advantage of it all. From GPS WAAS to onboard weather services and Wi-Fi ... the more information and tech at your fingertips, the safer you will be.

  3. Never stop learning. After observing hundreds of pilots perform in flight simulators and aircraft over dozens of years and thousands of hours, it became abundantly clear the best pilots were flight instructors. The Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) rating has far and above the most positive effect on pilot performance than anything I have seen. Hours do not necessarily add up to increased pilot abilities. I saw many pilots with thousands of hours that were unsafe to fly. Continual education however does have a dramatic effect on pilot skills and performance. Even if you never use it, the Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) rating will set you a notch above the fray.

  4. Be humble about your knowledge and hunger to learn from those with more experience. My favorite fortune cookie proverb is "When you speak, you repeat what you already know. When you listen, you learn". There is much to be learned by asking questions to mentors and other experienced pilots and listening for those pearls of wisdom which occasionally come out. In this sport/profession you will never stop learning. No one knows it all. The minute you think you do; it is time to stop flying.

  5. Do not be the pilot that has to be told when it is time to hang up you wings. A good, humble pilot should know by self-assessment when they have lost their touch and are becoming a hazard to themselves and others.

Robert L Marks

Bob's career with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) started in the 1980s when he began work at the Los Angeles Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC). After 10 years he moved on to Southern California TRACON (SCT) where he worked for another 17 years!

Retiring from Air Traffic Control (ATC) in 2015, Bob had affectionately become known as Radar Queen. Every radar controller has initials unique to them, Bob had ended up with RQ. One day a trainee said "RQ? What does that stand for? Radar Queen?" The name stuck, and for the next 25 years he endured the taunting of coworkers. Occasionally coworkers would frequency change aircraft to him, so that the pilot could ask, "Is this Radar Queen?"

Bob now flies frequently through the Los Angeles area and will sometimes call ahead to the next controller and have them ask in flight, "Is this Radar Queen?" Or, "LA Center called and said for me to call you Radar Queen, but I'm not going to embarrass you like that." He now gets a kick out of it.

Bob is not only a very experienced controller but also a pilot too! His first flight was in March 1978 from Gillespie Field (SEE) in a Grumman Tiger and he also soloed the same year. Now he has over 800 hours which is rapidly increasing with the available time retirement provides.

One of his most memorable flights was a two-week trip in the Summer of 2020 to the Northwest, and into Wyoming, Montana, Colorado. No other way to do it than in an airplane. In fact, Bob wrote a number of articles about his Piper Arrow II that have been published in PiperFlyer.

Finally, controllers love to talk about their jobs, and it is the greatest job on earth. When our health crisis passes, find a facility, and set up a visit. If you are under 30 and love aviation, look at a career in Air Traffic Control (ATC).

Bob's five things a pilot should know:

  1. We are not the police but like to impersonate them.

  2. Most controllers are not pilots, and if you tell them your vacuum failed, they will assume you have a dirty carpet. State in plain language what happened, "I lost most of my instruments".

  3. An emergency exists when the safe of the outcome of the flight is in question. NEVER delay declaring an emergency. I handled dozens, and there was only one follow up which the pilot knew would happen, because he was stupid. Also, when you say that E word it opens up a magic toolbox for the controller to help you. We can vector you at a much lower altitude and run you closer to other traffic than we normally could. Moral of the story, do your controller a favor and declare an emergency.

  4. One frustrating thing is when pilots do not know how to operate the technology they are flying with. If you are transitioning to a Technically Advanced Aircraft, hangar fly the hell out of it with an instructor who will hook up a ground power unit and then make you sweat route changes, squawk code changes, and other things. Asking the controller how to enter the route in your navigator or what the "Vectors to Final" button means is poor technique.

  5. Avoid keying the mike without knowing what you are going to say. "Thinking on the frequency" we called it, and trainee controllers do it all the time. Another big one is the reluctance to use, "Say Again", "Words Twice", "I don't understand." Pilots tend to be the type to always be in control, so admitting you did not understand is difficult to do but you HAVE to. Do not pretend you will get some enlightenment, ask for clarification. If you are a student pilot, say so, we will slow down. We do not get paid by the word.
Daron J Cristy, Contributing Writer & Photographer
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