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Facts About The True Nature Of Flying That You Won’t Find In The Study Guides

Enjoy part one of Hard Truths About Flying from commercial pilot Elliott Cox

Facts About The True Nature Of Flying, That You Won't Find In The Study Guides

There are plenty of great articles and videos on how to fly for a living, but I don’t know of too many that give you a look into what to expect once you get there. I’ve compiled a short list here, with some help from Romeo Hotel of the “Opposing Bases” podcast.

Don’t Be Afraid To Ask Questions

“It’s better to be silent and thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” 

That quote has been attributed to everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Mark Twain to Franz Kafka. No matter its origin, it’s terrible advice for anyone in the aviation field. I think it should be rearranged for those of us who love aviation, as well as the continuous learning that it requires. 

“It’s better to speak up and thought a fool than to be the first to the scene of the crash.”

That may seem fairly harsh when taken at face value, and maybe it is, but I stand by it. There have been too many senseless fatalities when a simple question or challenge could have prevented the loss of life.


The implementation of CRM (crew resource management) has greatly reduced the number of accidents and incidents caused by someone in the front of an airplane being afraid to speak up. We’ve come a long way from “gear up, flaps up, shut up.”

Your Skills Are Eroding 

It’s a well-known fact that the more you’re paid to fly an airplane, the easier that airplane is to fly. When you’re hauling freight in the middle of the night in a Piper Seneca that may or may not have half its systems operative, you’re working for your money. If there’s an autopilot installed, and if it works, it’s likely not good enough to allow you to kick back and sip coffee from your thermos while you’re along for the ride.

The opposite occurs when you’re crossing the North Atlantic in a 2-year-old Gulfstream G650. You’re still working for your money, but it’s a different kind of work. It’s not as much hands-on, stick-and-rudder flying as it is monitoring, anticipating and coordinating important tasks to ensure you’re where you need to be when you need to be there.

The autopilot systems on modern airplanes do a really great job of flying the airplane, so it’s very tempting to let the autopilot do all the work. A good autopilot is a great tool to reduce workload, as long as you know what to expect and how to use the automation. The problem with flawless automation is that it robs the pilot of the tactile experience of actually flying the airplane. Just like any other physical skill, your “stick and rudder” skills will erode if you don’t use them.


I like to hand-fly through at least 10,000 feet on departure, and I should do the same on the arrival, but I often don’t. My excuse is exactly what I wrote above—the autopilot does a great job of flying perfect localizer intercepts and three-degree paths down the glideslope, and I hate to interrupt such a wonderful performance. It’s like watching a figure skater perform 90% of their routine flawlessly, then having to trade places with them for the last 10%. Visions of a baby giraffe learning to walk on ice come to mind.

I recently went through recurrent training where nearly everything is hand-flown. I could tell that I was a little rusty on approaches, so I’ve set a goal for myself to hand-fly below 5,000 feet on the descent, as long as the weather is good. 

If the weather is crummy, I think letting the autopilot fly the approach makes sense. If, for some reason, the autopilot is inoperative, all those hand-flown approaches in VMC will surely pay off.

I think I sometimes forget that flying is fun, and now that I’m getting paid to do it, the company should get its money’s worth!

Hard Truths About Flying

All Those Examiners Were Right

Whether it was my mechanic certificates, Inspection Authorization or pilot ratings, I was always handed a piece of advice along with my crisp, new temporary certificate: “This is a license to learn.” 


The good thing about being a professional pilot is that no two days are the same, and there’s always something new to learn. The bad thing about being a professional pilot is that no two days are the same, and there’s always something new to learn. Thankfully, aviation tends to attract naturally curious people who love to share information and learn new things, so monotony doesn’t need to be added to this list.

Even if you fly the same airplane along the same route every day, you’ll never have exactly the same day twice.

Everything Will Break At Home

I can be home for a month on vacation, wearing a tool belt, knee pads and a hard hat, and not so much as a dust molecule will fall astray. The air conditioning will keep the house within a tenth of a degree, the grass will remain at its golf course dewy height, and the two guitars hanging in my living room will stay tuned in perfect fourth notes that sing like the London Symphony Orchestra any time the dog burps.


As soon as I roll a suitcase wheel over the threshold of the front door, however, something changes. There’s some force that takes over. I picture it as something like the gremlin ripping the airplane wing to shreds in the “Twilight Zone” movie but more menacing and far less empathetic.

I was packing my big suitcase the day before leaving for a month-long initial type-rating school. It was July in the southeastern U.S., so the temperature was hovering somewhere near 200 degrees. Thank goodness the humidity was only 98%, or it could have been really uncomfortable. I noticed that even inside the house felt hot all of a sudden, and a quick check of the thermostat confirmed that the air conditioning wasn’t working.

After some looking around and mild to moderate swearing, I unclogged the condensate line and got the water drained out of the pan that sits under the air handler. 

Thankfully, I was able to fix that one before I left. It doesn’t always work out that way. 

I was flying out to the West Coast for a few days recently. I went out to the garage and noticed a puddle of water under the freezer, and the alarm was beeping. I opened the door to see everything sweating. When I closed the door, I didn’t hear the familiar whistle of air that a good door seal makes. Because it was already late in the evening, and I had to be at the airport for an early departure the next day, I did what any mechanic who flies airplanes would do—I put a couple of nylon ratchet straps around the freezer to hold the door tight until I could get back home to take a look at it. 


This phenomenon knows no bounds. Kids will break limbs, a spouse’s newly installed tires will blow out, and opossums will chew their way into the garage and eat all the cat food. And that’s just Tuesday.

The list of things that can, and will, go awry is exhaustive, creative and utterly unpredictable. I’d tell you to get ready for it, but you can’t. You can only embrace the fact that you’re a very low-risk candidate for being bored, and that’s the reason you got into flying, right?

I’ll be back with a few more flying (and life) lessons that weren’t in the commercial pilot ACS.  

Read part two of Hard Truths About Flying here.


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