Ancient Wisdom

Aviation is full of wise sayings. Some of them are useful.

Darragh Owens explores the aviation proverbs we like to quote to each other


Mercury: early aviator, great communicator

Besides promoting other changes in our skills, attitudes and knowledge, learning to fly requires substantial additions to our everyday vocabulary. During the process of becoming an aviator we expand the range of our natural language, to absorb glossaries of unfamiliar terms: including various ground studies, in arcane jargon of radio and cockpit procedure, and to be able to communicate meaningfully with others in the aeronautical world.

Alongside this technical terminology, however, the new student pilot will soon enough start to hear various wise-sounding phrases and sayings from instructors or fellow-learners: pithy aphorisms which purport to embody the essence of aviation wisdom, distilled from decades of human encounters with the rigours of the air. Many a novice pilot will soon find themselves repeating these gems in a knowing tone of voice, anxious perhaps to display their burgeoning grasp of the essentials of flying – but also genuinely wanting to deepen their sense of its ‘inner game’, in the interest of greater efficiency, safety, and not least the pure pleasure of getting airborne.

Over the years you will come to hear scores of these axioms of airmanship, some of which have more validity than others. Recently I took to reflecting on which, if any, of them have impacted on my flying, and which can be usefully related to students in order to make them better pilots. There is a vast number of them to choose from, those that follow are just a sample.

I’d rather be down here wishing I was up there, than be up there wishing I was down here

This is valid enough, but is something of an abstraction to the beginner pilot, and muttering it as a piece of helpful advice won’t leave much initial impression. Its true gut-impact generally hits home during that first nasty weather encounter. The forecast benign conditions haven’t held sway, and just twenty minutes into an early solo-cross country beads of sweat are prickling your brow. It’s time to turn back. Bloody hell, it doesn’t look very attractive in the homeward direction, either. Knuckles whiten. You end up scud-running back, finally catching a glimpse of the field when you’re nearly on top of it, and touching down just before ATC declares conditions IFR-only. Now you know what that saying means.

Flying is hours of boredom, punctuated by moments of stark terror

This is a dangerous idea. If flying is ‘boring’ for you, then you shouldn’t be doing it. That applies to virtually any human activity. Good pilots find plenty to be absorbed with during every phase of flight. This little adage also sets up the notion that non-normal events should be occasions of terror. If that’s the case then you probably won’t deal with them correctly. Rather than terror, the correct response must be one of deliberate, focused, corrective action. Yes, your stomach might be tied in knots. But get over that while you deal with the problem. There’s plenty of time for agonising (and analysing) when you’re safely back at base, thumping the coffee machine.


The three most useless things in aviation:

Fuel on the ground,

Runway behind you,

Sky above you


This is another quip which is full of good advice – except when it isn’t. Leaving some fuel on the ground might not be such a bad idea, if filling the tanks will put your craft over the maximum permitted gross weight. Sky above you isn’t of much advantage if you’re coming in too high on final approach. Runway behind you – OK, fair enough, use a safe runway length for take-off. But if that means you’ve insisted on taxying all the way to the threshold of a 12,000 foot runway at a busy airport in your C152, rather than accept the intersection take-off with 7,000 feet and a ten knot headwind available, then you’re going to annoy more than a few people. So apply common sense.


The three most important things in maintaining aircraft control:



and airspeed


Another piece of supposed wisdom which means well – it’s trying to impress upon you the importance of flying at a safe margin above stall speed. The problem is that stall speed can vary with any number of factors including weight, angle of bank, configuration, power setting…. If instructors really must use this phrase to impress the idea on students, my suggestion is to amend it as follows: The three most important things in maintaining aircraft control:

angle of attack,

angle of attack,

and angle of attack.


Flying is relatively safe: you’re more likely to be killed on the drive to the airport

You will hear this one from time to time, and it’s something you might be glad to quote to your loved ones when they need reassurance about your aerial obsessions. It’s probably true if you’re going to fly as a passenger in a scheduled flight on a Western-based airline. But sadly, various analyses show it certainly isn’t true for general aviation. Solution: fly thoughtfully. Don’t be one of the people adding to the statistic. You can also comfort yourself with the fact that smoking, being overweight, and falling off ladders in weekend DIY activities, all present a far greater risk. As does staying in bed all day.


Try to keep the number of your landings equal to the number of your take-offs

This sounds meaningful but I’ve never quite understood it. They’re always going to be equal, (duh!) unless you eject, bail out, or hand over control to the person beside you. But as a piece of magisterial advice it certainly doesn’t do anything for me.


Take-offs are optional. Landings are mandatory

That’s a bit more like it. It’s a useful way to focus on the idea that while still on the ground, we have complete discretion as to whether we commit to the air or not. Regrettably, on too many occasions, in doubtful weather conditions pilots have felt either pressured to get airborne reluctantly, or else have blithely ignored the signs or advice telling them it’s a bad idea. Once aloft, however, we have no choice over whether or not to land – it has to be done. Repeat this phrase to yourself if you are ever in doubt, while still on the ground. It really might save you a heap of trouble.


A good landing is one you can walk away from. A great landing is one where you can use the aeroplane again

We’ve all heard this supposedly amusing and insightful quote. As a piece of gallows humour, it passes muster. As flying wisdom? Not so much. In reality a good landing is one you can walk away from and can also use the aeroplane (safely) again. Don’t aim to do ‘great’ landings – they are often the ones where we come a cropper.


Aviate, Navigate, Communicate

If any of these maxims are to be of genuine assistance in thinking clearly about flying, then this is the star of the show. It is uttered so frequently that it perhaps loses some of its impact through over-familiarity. But in truth it contains the essence of aviation sagacity. While plenty of the others can be regarded as amusing asides, this one is sufficiently important to be at the top of the list in many professional checklists, and memory items, for non-normal events. It tells you in no uncertain terms: 1. Keep purposefully flying the aircraft.

  1. Select a safe flightpath.
  2. Talk about the problem.

All in that order. I can count on the fingers of more than one hand, occasions where this proverb for pilots has helped me to focus on urgent tasks in the correct sequence. Understand it and internalise it, above all others.

In conclusion, I don’t intend to ridicule or dismiss the accumulated insights into piloting excellence which many of these phrases embody. I’m just making the suggestion that we as pilots will do well to reflect on their meaning rather than glibly repeating them. To paraphrase an ancient sage’s good counsel, “The unexamined (pilot’s) life is not worth living”.

Copyright Darragh Owens

Author: Adrian Mahovics

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