A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

November 2008.

Student Pilots and Grumpy Old Men

If you’ve ever been a flight instructor, you can equate your students to those of an elementary school teacher.  Usually.  These young pilots are eager to learn, open to your advice and knowledge, they’re optimistic, accommodating, and almost always buy your coffee.  The instructor is respected as the source of all aviation knowledge by these enthusiastic future airline pilots.

Real airline pilots, on the other hand, don’t worry about being respected by others  They respect themselves.  The joke about comparing airline captains with God (God doesn’t think he’s a pilot) is told over and over.  The one about the bulge on top of a 747 being there so the pilot can sit on his wallet may not be too far from the truth.  The bottom line on these guys is that they’re ‘grumpy old men’.

So why are students and airline pilots so different?  I have my theory.  It’s all because the young, inexperienced flyers have nothing to compare their life situation with. So everything they learn is unquestioned, and treated as normal, as the truth.  It lies with attitude, and not the kind which defines how high the nose of the airplane is.  The seasoned captains meanwhile, have been there-done that, and now things are changing, life isn’t what it used to be.  The good old days are gone.  Life is harder now, with smaller pensions and fewer company benefits.  The airlines are layingoff ground staff by the thousands.  Can pilots be far behind?

I know about all this stuff, because I’m no spring chicken anymore.  I can recall quite clearly some of my first flights when learning to be a private pilot.  I remember the instructors and their names.  The first airplane I ever flew (it’s long gone now, crashed by a student).  I even remember the way that plane smelled inside. That was all back in the early ‘70’s.

Many years later, the time seemed right to move up to a commercial license.  By then, the instructors weren’t on pedestals anymore.  They were just other pilots, some younger that me.  One instructor kicked me out of his class.  Although I kept my mouth shut and paid close attention, I think he was intimidated by my advanced age and experience.  It was too bad, because I could have learned a lot from him.  Instead, I moved on to find another flying school, where a confident, professional instructor tuned me up pretty fast.  Then, feeling back in the saddle, and being an aircraft owner, it was time to hire a freelance class 1 instructor and get into a correspondence course.  It really doesn’t seem to make much difference to employers how you obtain a license. If it’s a commercial license, you’re hired.  You’re on your way to becoming a grumpy old man. 

If you’re a woman, you don’t become grumpy.  For some reason, female pilots seem to be either very pleasant, or very assertive, but never grumpy.  Although I personally am not acquainted with many, I do hear them regularly on the radio.  Women are always polite with controllers, and controllers always seem to have a little more respect for the women than they do for me.   I don’t have a problem with that, probably because I’m not grumpy yet.

On the subject of controllers, I recall an incident several years back when I was flying over central Vancouver Island, north of Nanaimo.  I was talking to Victoria Terminal while VFR over top of a thin layer that topped at about 2,000 feet.   Attempting to descend into Qualicum Beachairport, I spiraled down through a small hole to have a look underneath.  That spiral caught the attention of the controller, who immediately called to check my status.  Aware of the cloud cover, it probably appeared to him on his radar screen that I was already in a spiral dive,perhaps out of control and that a crash was imminent.  After reassuring him I was all right, I thought that was mighty observant and considerate of him, looking out for a small aircraft like that.  

That incident stands out in my mind because of the many stories told about how grumpy air traffic controllers can be.  This fellow was definitely not grumpy, and one of the first I’d heard who went out of his way to help in a situation that appeared serious.  That was many years ago, and since then I know of many, many instances of that standard in carrying out their jobs.

The whole point of this is that as we learn and become more experienced in a job, in life in general, we become complacent, bored, and finally grumpy.  The human mind needs fresh, new ideas and experiences to keep it working properly and to keep from becoming stagnant.  Doing anything too long is not human nature.  I can’t think of any job that would be worse than an assembly line for instance, one where the worker repetitively attaches a nut to a bolt all day and does it for 40 years.  Does that still happen?  And perhaps my point explains the term “going postal”, where someone is way beyond boredom and dissatisfaction. 

There’s much to be said for the on-going training and flight reviews a pilot must do to keep his job.  The constant flow of new and better equipment and avionics is a good thing too, forcing us to keep the brain in gear and keep up with it all.  The way our lives unfold however, isn’t decided by training, airplanes, new ideas or situations.  It all comes from the attitude we adopt.  And make no mistake,we do have control over our own attitudes.  We can choose to be grumpy, or not.  The mind is like a computer in that it will respond directly to the inputs it receives.  Put in positive thoughts, and the brain will put out a positive attitude.  At the end of the day, there is no way we should have a grumpy old man in the left seat.  If there is, it’s his own fault.     

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