Logbook Entries: Fact, Fiction Or Fantasy?


Once again in an egregious snub, the Nobel prize for literature did not go to an aviation novel, such as Rick Durden’s “The Old Man And The Seaplane,” about an aging CFI’s lone struggle against an enormous walleye on a lake up in Michigan. Not aviation’s first rejection from the Swedish rodeo. Instead, Nobelers went with Peter Handke, who’s not even a pilot.

Apparently, Peterexplored the periphery and the specificity of human experience, blah, blah, blah…” Big whoop, but can Pete explore the periphery of landing a Carbon Cub on an Idaho sandbar in a crosswind? Or the specificity of the human experience while teaching steep spirals to a commercial student who’s trending green and wondering why she has to do this maneuver and will never attempt it again after the check ride? I think not. Cherish your laurels, Herr Handke, knowing serious fiction isn’t found in dusty tomes that Lit majors pretend to read but, instead, inside a pilot’s logbook.

Logbooks represent a sacred bond between aviators and insurance companies, but as a flight instructor I’ve seen a lot of weird stuff, including creative math, on those pages and put some there myself. Of note was the non-instrument rated pilot who handed me his logbook in preparation for a flight review. It read like a dream diary. The 97 hours he’d racked up in ten years reflected the experience of too many pilots who love aviation but for various reasons don’t fly enough. Flipping a page, I paused at remarks for a solo flight in a Cessna 150: “Flew into the clouds today! Scary!” Lesson learned? Perhaps, but despite the exclamation points, such an entry could come back to haunt during a postmortem. Being dead does not excuse you from FAA scrutiny.

I’m not a lawyer but have watched enough Matlock reruns during COVID to imagine defending this client in the NTSB Star Chamber: “Your Honor, my client wasn’t attesting to the literal truth of continuing VFR into IMC when he endorsed this entry but, instead, expressed his desire to one day explore not merely the periphery but the specificity of allegorical cloudness.” 

While it’s swell to record personal observations such as “greased it on today,” or “read Berge’s latest aerial bodice ripper and inspired me to quit flying,” it might be prudent to avoid logging admissions of possible guilt. Save such actionable braggadocio for the Pilots Pub where absolute truth is excess baggage.

My client and I spent additional ground time, reviewing FAR 91.155 Basic VFR Minimums, a regulation Mark Twain dubbed “chloroform in print” but with relevance. All of this introduces a tortured segue to the stale news about retired FAA employee, Martha Lunken, busted for allegedly flying her alleged Cessna 180, beneath an alleged bridge too far from reason. Plus, something about ADS-B, which I really don’t understand but am glad it isn’t in my airplane that lacks an electrical system.

We’ve all had time to dissect this incident that underscores the ethical principle learned in the 4th grade that, if caught, actions have consequences. I suspect the Ohio Bridge Authority will banish Martha to the Isle of Misfit Pilots in the Dry Tortugas in vain hope of discouraging copycats. That said, I question the logic and, indeed, whether Part 91 prohibits bridge scooping. Here’s my amicus defense argument bolstered with an unlikely, hypothetical scenario.

If operating VFR inside Class G airspace—the Good space—the Cessna 180 would’ve been required (daytime) to “remain clear of clouds.” Within Class E airspace, less than 10,000 feet MSL, VFRs shall remain 500 feet below clouds. I’ll speculate without the benefit of facts but with the confidence inherent in ignorance, that no clouds were under the offended bridge. Perhaps, though, a low overcast hovered above, leaving the pilot no choice but to duck beneath the ceiling, with the only prudent strategy being to skim the river, where someone had placed a bridge, through no fault of the pilot. If viewed as an emergency situation, and I’m not saying it was, then 91.3 grants the PIC authority to deviate from any Part 91 rule, including 91.13 Careless or Reckless (your choice) Operations While Surrendering To Temptation. Yeah, if real clouds were an issue, then an IFR clearance would’ve made for a safe and mundane exit. We’ll ignore reality to continue teasing out my hypothesis.

With cloud issues resolved, obstacle clearance gets sticky if one misinterprets, as the FAA might have, 91.119 Minimum Safe Altitudes. It says, “except when necessary for takeoff or landing,” airplanes shan’t fly lower than 1000 feet above—key word—the highest obstacle within 2000 horizontal feet, especially if it contains security or doorbell cameras. I submit that the unjustly accused respected 91.119 by operating beneath the obstacle bridge and, therefore, no violation ensued. Martha must fly free, as the bumper sticker on my Prius reads.

Lacking obstacles, 91.119 contains another stinger, protecting any “open-air assembly of persons.” Think concerts or naked beach volleyball. Flight across assembled or disassembled persons requires at least 1000 feet clearance above the “highest person” in the crowd, which is hard to determine ever since Woodstock so add a few vertical feet when circling Burning Man Festival.

My point? If you and Billy Joe MacAllister are tempted to fly something beneath the Tallahatchie Bridge in possible violation of questionable regulatory interpretations, then don’t mention it in your logbook. Post it on Facebook like everyone else because anything there is fiction and exempt from public scrutiny. If confused about the legitimacy of your intended deviation, invoke this legal precedent established in Sollozzo v. Corleone: If no one saw you do it, then it’s like it never happened … unless you put it in your logbook. Defense rests.

And to the Nobel Committee, I ask: How many more ABBA records must I purchase before Bootleg Skies, a potboiler chock-a-block with “periphery and the specificity of human experience,” gets the call? I’ll wait by the phone.

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  1. If it isn’t in your log book… did it happen?
    I know I have more than double, maybe triple the amount of time I have ‘logged’ in my log book, maybe more.
    I learned what you said here long ago and began only logging minimum or required flight time. My log book looks odd because I have hundreds of hours with flight instructor endorsements. And about the same as a solo PIC. I only logged what I could prove in court. I still only log what I can prove in court, because yes, even logging questionable time can be as bad as logging something odd happening during a flight. If I don’t have a receipt, even for flights 30 years ago, it didn’t happen.
    I seem to remember a FedEx pilot going nuts and trying to kill a crew and himself because of faked log book entries that were under question and getting him fired.

  2. Wow – Paul! You hit a bunch of gophers with this one, from ignoble Nobel Committee behavior to the technicalities of some FARs as written and managed to include naked beach volleyball. Hilarious!

  3. It’s hard to imagine, Paul, that your literary talents could get any better after this, but I know they will. Thanks….and if you haven’t gotten tired of hearing all the accolades tossed your way, here is another one:
    …..ops, my thesaurus doesn’t seem to have any words good enough. cheers.

  4. “the Good Space?” Above that resides the Excellent Space, then higher yet the Awesome Space. And, here and there is the Busy Space and the Could Have Been Space.

  5. Outstanding! Best read since Douglas Adams describing how ships hung in the sky in much the same way bricks don’t. Well done!

  6. Still chuckling after my third re-read. Amazing, literary talents. Certainly worthy of a Nobel investigation.

    No where on the planet, except from the typewriter of Paul Berge ( I can’t imagine anything of this caliber most likely lasting eternally, being written on a computer) can any human being link the Nobel Prize, the FAA, Part 91, including all the drawings of the inverted wedding cake Class A thru Z airspace…honestly there is Class Z airspace ( it’s in my log book)…Martha Lunkin, concerts, naked beach volleyball, Billie Joe McAllister, ABBA, IIMC, Carbon Cubs, Cessna 180, Woodstock and Burning Man together that actually made literary and intellectual sense to me under the title ” Log Book Entries: Fact, Fiction, or Fantasy”.

    My only problem now is I have conflict between humming renditions (which mostly sounds like geese farting) of ABBA tunes and Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe.

  7. When it’s time to checkout in a celestial J-3, I want my logbooks buried with me. It’s not that I’m so worried about the FAA discovering any of my very many bad habits, but as Paul as pointed out, a logbook filled with any degree of active notation is a window to the soul of a pilot who cherishes every memory aloft.

    Hidden within are all my most embarrassing secrets and ridiculously fun escapades, such as trying to loop a Taylorcraft with the engine off, long and lazy midnight formation cross-countries, being caught on top in a radio-less Luscombe as a teenager because I misunderstood the weather guy, my first landing in a hayfield or on a country gravel road, long lazy spins from altitude, the many times I’ve slept beneath the wings of my airplane in some forgotten Midwestern pasture, or sneaking up within a few hundred feet of Bill’s Cessna 150 in the middle of the night with the Pacer and turning on my landing lights to shine brightly through his back window and light up the cockpit. Maybe not worthy of the FAA’s attention, but certainly suspect or suspicious in some hallowed hall.

    Yep, it’s all there, logbooks can be living proof that you had too much fun in an airplane. Be wary.

    • Logbooks, the hazy memory of a shady past. One of my first flying lessons was on keeping logbooks, never put anything in it that you don’t want the FAA, insurance company or the court to see. This was the guy who told his wife that if he was ever killed in a crash she should immediately burn his logbooks.

  8. Nailed it! Right down to my 4th grade apprehension and conviction as an misssile launcher, courtesy of trajectory analysis of a lobbed spitwad across the classroom.

  9. Great piece Paul!
    And I would predict that publishing Bootleg Skies and That’s Life, I Guess in audio, is exactly what it would take to prompt that call from the Nobel Committee.