A young Wagstaff at the controls of a DC-6.
We all love stories of how people are seduced by aviation, but it's just as interesting to know what keeps them out. I understand time and money issues, but a lot of people say they just had the wrong beginning—bad press, family members expressing fear or sometimes a scary ride turned them off from ever considering getting their pilot's license. Can we bring them in instead of keeping them out?
A lot of us who grew up in aviation had positive and encouraging early experiences. When I was six years old, I held my mother's hand as we stepped on to a gangplank, looking up at a big DC-6 that would to take us from San Francisco to Hawaii. I was excited but a little scared. When I told my mother I had butterflies in my stomach, she scolded me. I was being silly, she said. After all, it was only an airplane, and my father was at the controls! My fear instantly melted away. Such is the power of a mother's encouraging words at a young age.
When I was nine, we moved to Japan. Trans-ocean flights in those big four-engine recips were endless like The High and the Mighty, but I loved being up in the air, making visits to the cockpit, and watching the sun rise over the ocean. It was magic. And, as a plus, I never got airsick. My mother had already told me that "turbulence was fun" (though I doubt that she really felt that way).
Infatuated by aviation's romance and potential for escape, I begged my parents for any opportunity to ditch school and fly with my father on his trips around Japan. I loved being around those airplanes as much as I wanted to be with the people who flew and operated them.
I remember the first time my father got out of the left seat and put me in it. Pointing to the altimeter, airspeed and attitude indicators, he told me how to keep the airplane straight and level, and told me a good pilot was a smooth pilot. Then he put on his Captain's hat and went to the back, as they did in those days, to greet the passengers. Of course, there was always a kind copilot who enjoyed watching this 10-year-old girl fly and answering her questions about the switches and gauges.
They were my first flying lessons. My father and his friends were professional, low-key gentlemen, and while they might have displayed a few tail feathers to the stewardesses on occasion, it was never visible to my young eyes. I never equated flying with fear, exclusiveness, brashness or ego, but apparently some people do.
We've heard all the stories. Case in point, I have a girlfriend who was given a ride in high school by a "friend" who insisted on showing her how well he could stall (and stall and stall) the Cessna he was flying. Years later, she can still hear the stall warning horn that scared her so much she never wants to get in any airplane again! Ironically, the pilot called it a "joy" ride.
Wagstaff more recently, training a student in an Extra.
My friend Tim, while working on his commercial rating, was anxious to take aerobatic lessons to gain more skill and confidence. A local "friend" offered to take him up in his Pitts. Instead of introducing him to the basics, the guy showed off how well he could tumble (and tumble and tumble again)…hence Tim's ensuing vomitus after each flight. (I'll let you in on a little secret—tumbling a Pitts is easy. Doing a perfect hammerhead or slow roll takes a lot of skill). Luckily, Tim later found a good akro instructor. He didn't quit, but a lot of us would have.
This isn't just disturbing, it's unacceptable! Flog those pilots for not taking care of their acolytes! We can't always control others' fear or bad press, but we can influence with professional behavior both in and out of the cockpit.
Why do some pilots show off for the person in their right seat? Could it be that sneaky little devil called "ego?" From private to ATP, all pilots can be pros, and while lots of things define "professional," ego is never part of the picture. I know there isn't a cockpit large enough for both me and my ego. Egos are big and obnoxious. They want to drive the program, and don't care enough about the outcome to give the pilot a chance to make good decisions. Ego-driven behavior tends to be exclusive rather than inclusive and is, in my opinion, at least one of the deterrents to attracting new pilots.
Look at it this way—the beauty of being a pilot is that there's a lesson in every flight, which is humbling in itself and a sort of built-in ego check. It's perfect to be in the air, but somehow the flight is never perfect, so we keep trying. Sometimes, the lesson is to sit silently flying solo on a long cross-country, sometimes it's taking someone for a ride. When we try to be a smooth pilot for others, our own skills improve. Rather a win-win situation, wouldn't you say?
When I have a passenger in my airplane, I hope it's a very special experience for them. I want them to feel safe and included. Showing off? I reserve that privilege for when I'm flying solo at an air show. My early lessons with my father and his friends made the cockpit feel like the safest place in the universe. They infused me with confidence, ease and the desire to get my license. Maybe I can pass that on to someone else.
Your nonflying friends already are impressed with the fact you're a pilot, and that you can take off and land. This gives you influence, and when you act like a professional, there are a million little ways you can turn people on to aviation.
As air boss Wayne Boggs reminds us at every air show briefing he gives, "You don't need to do anything more exciting than you already do. The crowd doesn't know the difference. They are just amazed that the things fly!"
The exemplary motives of the EAA's Young Eagle program should serve as a gold standard. By giving a kid their first positive and motivational aviation experience—with smooth takeoffs and landings for their valuable cargo—they encourage and include. Let's strive to introduce our students and passengers to flying in the same considerate manner. We need new pilots. Let's bring them in instead of keeping them out.