Talk Like A Pirate Pilot


Aviation is the Caribbean of the 1700s, and you are fish bait. Savvy?

Our local flying club was having its yearly “Talk Like a Pilot Day” cookout at their hangar, and I was invited to give the keynote address.

I was among a few dozen people who had spent their day talking like a pilot around clueless non-flyers. They had been saying “Roger” when they meant “OK.” They had spent the day at their jobs calling the break room the “galley” and the bathroom the “lav,” and had been irritating the hell out of their non-flying friends and relatives by using the phonetic alphabet when they spoke.

For example, if they were discussing a news story they saw on CNN, they would refer to the network as “Charlie-November-November.” The number nine was expressed as “niner,” and if they were about to make a turn in their car, they announced that they were “deviating ninety degrees left.” A few of the more contentious among them said a hearty “AMF” as they exited their offices.

Having had my fill of burnt hotdogs and cold grocery store deli potato salad, I rose to speak.

Arg! I said.

A person at a table near me took the bait, spoke up, and said, “It’s talk like a pilot day, not talk like a pirate day!

There is very little difference between pilots and pirates, matey, I said. Both are outside of what most people consider normal. The public sees us as swashbuckling adventurers bent on destruction and mayhem as we sail our carbon-producing chem-tail-spewing airplanes above their heads. Scratch a pilot, find a pirate.

Aviation was built on adventure and has only descended into a state of predictability, reliability, and, yes, boredom in the past five or six decades. Early passengers gazed out the windows at the clouds and wondered if they were going to arrive at their destination alive. Now, they pull their window shades shut so they can see their iPhones better and wonder if they will arrive on time.

Although the fun and adventure of airline flying has gone, thrills, chills, scoundrels and pirates can still be found in general aviation.

I have been living in the world of flying longer than many of you, and I can say without a doubt that along with nice and normal people like you and me, general aviation is populated with pirates, scallywags, time-padders, tax cheats, deadbeats, snake oil salespeople and rapacious opportunity seekers. 

If you think of our flying lives as part of an eighteenth-century sea-faring tale, things that confused you about aviation begin to make sense: 

·      That flight instructor who flew dozens of hours with you before they thought you were “ready” to solo? The one who skipped lessons whenever a twin-engine time-building opportunity arose? A freebooter.

·      The aviation “alphabet” organizations that try to fool you into renewing your yearly membership every two weeks? Scurvy dogs.

·      The vending machine in the pilot lounge that took your doubloons and didn’t give you a soda or those peanut butter crackers? A two-timing garbage scow.

·      That mechanic who took your money, slept in your hangar, ate your food, trashed your bathroom and skipped town before re-rigging your flaps? A privateer and a marauder.

Have you noticed that this airport is surrounded by barbed wire and surveillance cameras? These are the security precautions that any buccaneer would welcome to protect their booty (or airplanes) when they sail into their personal Tortugas.

Think of our local general aviation airports as Pirate bases. We need a place of refuge during the winter or storm season when the winds and wet shiver our timbers. We need to be able to repair, refit and resupply our aircraft in a friendly harbor. Ideally, our pirate hangars also store other booty like golf carts, motorcycles and refrigerators filled with grog. 

To continue this swashbuckling metaphor, we can think of the FAA as the British Navy of the 1700s. Strong and honest government enforcers, yes, but slow-moving, occasionally foppish, and sometimes they are gigantic, galactic buzzkills.

They defend aviation for king and country while we rapscallions, with our basic meds, our homebuilt ships, and our funny-colored hats, frolic and relish flying with our eyes on adventure and our souls longing to just once fly into a quest for glory. A ramp check from the FAA feels like they are boarding our flagship, and an enforcement action from them can feel like we are getting 30 lashes.

I know that none of us are prone to doing any actual pillaging and destruction under the flag of the Jolly Roger. We are honest pilots who want a clear day, a good airplane, light tailwinds and a cool destination. We understand the need for the FAA to keep the real scoundrels in line, and we have been known to do a good deed or two with our airplanes.

I wish we had more of the adventurous nature of the pirate life in our flying lives. Maybe we could do a little less worrying about how much lead is in our fuel and how much cholesterol is in our food and think more about flying to that beach hideout or teaching our flying students to do outrageous maneuvers like spins and slips all the way to landings.

Flying without the adventurous nature of a pirate is like an airline simulator session, a fake voyage in a dark box that goes nowhere.

Kevin Garrison
Kevin Garrison is a former airline captain who continues to spread his wisdom of the ages as an airport bum. He shares his thoughts twice a month.


  1. Aviation has huge nautical underpinnings…not much of a stretch to see how one could run up the ol’ Jolly Roger on our airplanes.

    Our planes have “Spars”, “Ribs”, “Stringers” and “Bulkheads”, just like the vessels commanded by Captain Henry Morgan. Cap’n Jack Sparrow would undoubted snuff them when stalking his prey at night, but otherwise he’d have a red light on his larboard side, a green one on the starboard, and a white one on the stern, just like nearly every plane aloft. But by the time Jean Lafitte lurked in the Louisiana swaps, he was referring to “Port” and “Starboard” and “Fore” and “Aft”, just like the pilots of today.

    Captain Blackbeard, if’n he was feelin’ amenable, would follow the same rules of the road at sea as Part 91 dictates today…yielding right-of-way to the vessel on the right, rules for overtaking, etc.

    Today’s A&Ps are concerned with the aircraft rigging, just like Long Ben Avery’s bosun would be adjusting the ship’s rigging.

    And what, pray tell, is the most popular kind of homebuilt?

    An Arrrrr Veeee.

    I rest my case….

  2. They teach the youths about the Pirate Morgan
    And they said he was a very great man….

  3. Years ago on a two day corporate trip to Trenton, NJ the other pilot and myself took our golf clubs with us to have some extra fun and exercise. The next morning the other pilot begged off feeling bad so I went to the course myself. At the first tee box the starter matched me up with a threesome of guys about my age who were missing their fourth. We exchanged pleasantries and one of them asked what I did for a living to have a couple of days free mid week. I said that I was a pilot. He said, “Oh ok” and wandered off. For the first three holes no matter where our balls went they walked as a group and I walked alone. I could also hear them laughing at times. On the greens they didn’t say much and were kind of stand offish. On the fourth tee I had honors and one of them said “you’re up matey” with a deep pirate tone and the others laughed. I asked what’s that about? The one said “well, you think you’re a pirate so you should understand. By the way, where’s your ship docked?” and they had a laugh. It became clear what was going on. They thought they were playing with a nut case. When I said PILOT not PIRATE and my ship was at the airport we all had a laugh. Through the rest of the round we had a good time and I answered all the usual non pilot questions several times over.

    • When I was in bars during layovers, sometimes fellow beer drinkers would ask me who I worked for. I told them the truth, saying, “Delta.” Then I’d say, “We make a hell of a washerless faucet.”

  4. As both a Naval Officer and a Pilot, I can verify that spins and slips carry tremendous value, and has saved many a day, that splicng the main brace “after” the flight carries with it a certain “lift”, don’t know anything about using the snuff before stalking the drug crusaders at sea, but certainly that the larboard and starboard lights help. Yes, we are pirates at heart, and will continue to be so, if only at heart.

  5. Continuing the theme

    – I witnessed an argument at a flying school counter involving the splitting of the rental cost among the 3 pilots who flew together. It would not been out of place on the deck of a pirate ship when it came time to divvy up the loot, and involved the brandishing of a flight planning ruler in a fair imitation of a cutlass.

    – I also saw a airplane taxi out and then return to the ramp where the instructor was summarily ejected in a very “walk the plank” way.

  6. “I’m just a modern day pirate, with nowhere to pillage
    No room left for me in this global village
    Ain’t got no tall ship, but in my homebuilt I’ll fight ya
    Just keep watching the skies for Ronald Wanttaja”

    (yes, it does rhyme….)

    • Of course, it does. Well done! It’s the old classic AA-BB rhyme scheme. I could probably tell if it was an iambic pentameter, but I slept through that class at FSU.

        • Yup. 1973 through 1977. I was there for the 0-11 football season and flew Bobby Bowden a few times. I came away with a very valuable American Studies degree! I even met the Union Rat before his untimely demise…

          • 73 grad here. Went to UPT in Valdosta so I was down there for most of that miserable season.

  7. Kevin, I’m a retired corporate pilot who first spent a decade at the intersection of one of the world’s great humanitarian needs and my life passion – flying airplanes in back country. During those good early days for me I read and followed an author by the name of Peter Garrison who designed and built a John Thorpe inspired airplane he called Melmoth. Those days following Melmoth’s development were good days during which I have no memories of one-upsmanship, rancor or politics in aviation. Maybe I was just blind, or deaf, simply naive, or just missed the rancorous stories, or maybe those times were just simpler.

    Whatever it was, understanding I can never put humpty dumpty back together again but wishing the world was that way again.again, this is not the first of your columns which have me wondering what is the ax you have to grind and why, and when will you know that you have fully sharpened it. Will we ever be able to read and enjoy a column of yours which simply celebrates the joys of flying and and of being people who fly or have flown – kind of like Peter Garrison of old used to write?

    My hangar door at EWK is open midday most weekdays with coffee in the pot invariably drawing amateurs and pros alike to enjoy what we have in common. Stop in one of these days.

    • Hey John, Thanks for the note. I met Peter and the Melmoth when I was a teenage lineboy in Lakeland, Florida. Cool plane and an interesting guy.

      I don’t own an ax, although I own various chainsaws here on my horse farm. I have been flying professionally for fifty years and have been around aviation longer than that. I would not be doing it if I did not love it. Unlike you, I can love it, warts and all. Sometimes, I love it because of the warts. My character, the CEO of the cockpit, is a little more cynical than you like, and he may even be a little more cynical than I am. That is just the way it is with fictional characters.

      I sympathize with your need for a gentler column to read. There are many writers out there who will give you what you want—some of them tell jokes! Since my column is more or less a satire, I cannot give you what you need—not all of the time, anyway.

      Some people, especially those who have not spent their professional lives flying, want to believe that aviation is all fairy dust and baby farts. If you have read my sixty or seventy CEO columns here, you might find that I occasionally write a piece in which the CEO waxes nostalgic.

      The CEO has caught heat like yours a few times during the years because many people see flying as a quest or a hazy-warm love story. My column, especially in the past, has had the audacity to mention that it can occasionally be a grind and a pain in the butt. If you have had to fly sick to make the rent or flown fourteen or fifteen Christmasses, the love is still there, but it fades a little when you are tired or furloughed.

      Loving flying is like love in a long and successful marriage. You would like to believe that it is all kisses, knowing looks, and warm evenings, but it is also taking out the trash and holding hands when in pain, and undergoing cancer treatments. It hurts occasionally, but true love always does.

      best, kg

      • Thanks for the lecture on aviation not all being fairy dust and baby farts and about having to fly when sick and flying being like a long and successful marriage. And yes I would like to believe flying is/was all kisses, knowing looks and warm evenings but I know better than that. I’m the last pilot in the world who needs that lecture and could easily put on a clinic about how aviation is not all those fuzzy things.

        I think what I am try to impart to you Kevin is to do what you invited one of your recent characters by the name of Frank to do; chill out and enjoy another cup of coffee with those of us who bear the scars and callouses of the layoffs and the scary encounters at the very ends of the earth but who also have gravitated to the better memories of our fraught careers rather than stewed in the worst of those memories.

  8. Then there is the “Take what you can, give nothing back” crowd. Occasionally one sees them getting a good keelhauling.

  9. Kevin Garrison’s column was a light-hearted play upon words. It was funny, and it lampooned the aviation brigands that prey upon the unwary. I particularly liked the last two paragraphs–“more adventure and less worrying.”–and unadventurous flying– “like an airline simulator session, a fake voyage in a dark box that goes nowhere.”

    I agree, Captain Garrison–as the old song goes….”A Pirate’s Life for ME!”

  10. Hey Kevin what about the cockpit? I believe cockpit began as a nautical term and will never be a flight deck matey, at least for me.
    Coming from a general aviation background and being a licensed active pilot for 62 years I identify with your column as stories from the real world of aviation, not satire at all. Some of the time when I finish reading Avweb I ask myself ” did I really waste 10 minutes of my life reading that?” I guess one would have to be there not to see your column as satire.