Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Listen Up!

Bull sessions can sometimes impart valuable lessons

I once watched Curtis Pitts hang around the edge of a discussion about “aileron snatch,” a phenomenon where something is causing the ailerons to suddenly jerk just a little one way or another. It’s not generally dangerous, but it scares the socks off the pilot. There were lots of words like “balance” and “airflow” flitting around, and theories of all flavors were being bandied about. Then Curtis took a pair of duck-billed pliers, squeezed the ailerons’ trailing edges ever so slightly, and the “snatch” disappeared. Could he explain the theories behind it? Not exactly. But over nearly 90 years of living, he had seen aileron snatch enough times and tried enough different fixes that he finally found the ultimate solution in the pliers trick. Given time, the rest of us might have tried the same technique, but it was something Curtis had filed away decades earlier and knew where to find in his mental toolbox. He had tracked a past trend and remembered the solution, and there’s something we can all learn from that.

There simply is no way anyone like the late Curtis Pitts, my Grumman test- pilot friend Corky Meyer or so many others (Yeager, Hoover, Anderson and on and on) can even begin to put all they’ve learned into a single capsule that we can gulp down (take before meals, drink plenty of water) to become instantly smarter. Smarter doesn’t happen instantly—it happens slowly and sometimes doesn’t happen at all. But if there’s one ingredient that will help you become more educated than your experience would indicate, it’s a drive to listen carefully to others.

When people you respect tell their tales, often in the context of a fun, relaxed bull session, you should listen, and you should listen closely. What you’re experiencing is the age-old process of elders passing their knowledge down to those who follow. They won’t be doing it in a lecture format, wherein each fact is carefully inserted into a well-crafted sentence meant to be frantically copied into a notebook. They’ll be describing those never-ending and always interesting adventures/experiences, and the bits and pieces of knowledge will be sprinkled throughout what appears to be pure entertainment. The story might not have been designed to be educational, but it still offers an instructive lesson. This assumes, of course, that you’re listening closely enough to mentally file their experiences away in your own hard drive. If you do that, then you make their experiences your own and you can benefit from what they’ve learned.

There’s no substitute for being out there and doing it yourself. Experience teaches you things you can learn no other way. At the same time, however, there’s no bigger waste than assuming a hangar tale is just a hangar tale that’s intended only to entertain. If the speaker is someone you trust and respect, listen carefully. Words like theirs aren’t repeated often, and they carry the keys to the art of aviation. If you don’t listen, you can live as long as they live and still not learn as much. Experience is the best teacher, but words from those with experience are a close second best.

Budd Davisson is an accomplished aviation writer and photographer, CFII & CFIA, aircraft owner and builder. He has authored two books and lectured at the Smithsonian and NASA’s Langley Research Center. Check out his website at


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