To Be Or To Rather Be?


While adorable in the cradle, three aviation phrases have decayed into Hallmark substitutes for thought. First: “Any landing you can walk away from….” You know the rest and that it’s nonsense. Merely surviving an arrival that leaves the FBO’s 172 a crumpled monument to incompetence does not make for a good landing.

Another trope: Non-skydivers—and I’m in that timid clutch—who ask why jumpers choose to exit a “perfectly good airplane” in flight are asking the wrong people. Jumpers jump because they like to jump, I suppose, otherwise it’s just a long ride up, only to ride back down. Scant reward, especially while sitting on the floor, dressed like a Ninja. Nothing against Ninjas. Some of my best friends are … actually, none are Ninjas. That said, if the tail rips off my Citabria after a not-ready-for-Oshkosh snap roll, then I’d consider skydiving. Assuming I could borrow a parachute on short notice.

Antepenultimate on my list of aeroclichés is, “I’d Rather Be Flying.” Not to be confused with David Bowie’s, “I’d Rather Be High,” which includes a lyrical embrace of the rather be flying theme that’s possibly unsuitable under 91.17. Still, a catchy tune.

This phrase about a woebegone pilot who’s rathering to be aloft, may have its inception in Frank Kingston Smith’s 1962 book of the same name. I can’t say, but Smith establishes a start date and obligates us to maintain the phrase on life support without questioning its meaning. For perspective let’s consider Larry David if David took up flying—Heaven forfend. Talk about the worst possible student. Imagine the instructor/student exchange on climb-out in a Skyhawk:  

“Larry, add right rudder!”


“I’ve told you, to overcome left-turning-tendencies….”

“They should just make the propeller turn the other way.”

“Some do, David….”


“…but not this one, so add….”

“Ted Danson probably has one of those. I want the Ted Danson propeller.”

“Just fly this one and add right rudder … please, Larry!”

(Releasing the controls) “Let me ask you something. Do you like instructing? Because I gotta say, you seem … ahhhh little tense.”

Imaginary celebrity students notwithstanding, I love flight instructing, although, loss of my medical certificate trimmed that pleasure three years ago. Apparently, the FAA thinks instructors need strong hearts to repeat, “Rudder,” thirty times per hour. And not always right rudder. In tailwheel instruction, “Rudder” means, “Foot,” whichever is appropriate when S-turning between runway lights. But back to scraping the patina from “I’d Rather Be Flying.”

Who in aviation wouldn’t rather be flying? Other than the FAA, which as GA’s nemesis would be happier if no one flew. Whenever I spot a license plate frame stating the driver’s alternate-being fantasies, I shout at the windshield, “Go fly, if that’s what you’d rather be doing!” Then, wiping the spittle from the glass, I mutter, “Instead of sitting in line for Arby’s drive-up and depressing me because I followed you, thinking you were headed to an airport, where inside a hangar that’s worth more than my house, you’d have a Ryan PT-22 that you’d let me fly, but instead, you sold that airplane, gave up flying since you were never really into it the way we who don’t fit into polite society are, and you forgot the desirous plate frame your ex-husband had presented after your first solo and prior to leaving you for ‘Heather,’ the Silver Sneakers yoga instructor, and that plate frame tells everyone sucking in your exhaust fumes that you’re dissatisfied with life and would rather be doing something completely unrelated to whatever you’re now doing … with curly fries!”

Inspirational quotes are life’s wallpaper. When I was an air traffic controller, the FAA spent too much on motivational posters that inspired no one. Example: “The road to flight,” helicopter visionary, Leonardo daVinci, once said, “is clogged with good intentions.” He only said it once, because even though true, it wouldn’t fit around 16th century license plates, which were smaller than today’s. Still, so impressed were Italian aviators they named Italy’s largest airport after him: Leonardo da Vinci Fiumicino Airport (ICAO: LIRF). Or Rome Airport to Uber drivers who speak neither English nor Italian.

I love Italy and vowed to return there to fly after I’d experienced a vision while on a pilgrimage to the hill city, Viterbo, about 100 km from LIRF. Despite that draw, I hate being a tourist ogling the same things visitors have ogled for 3000 years from the same angle, mostly looking up. “Wow, is that the Parthenon or Pantheon? Can we go to Arby’s now?” We pilots are meant to look down on others. And no, that didn’t come out wrong. Civilization—ancient or modern—is better when viewed from on high.

After climbing 39 steps to the battlement of yet another medieval fortress/gift shop, we paused as Fredo, our guide, waved at the splendor of a Tuscan sunset over the nearby Best Western Hotel. Viterbo was a favorite of vacationing popes who could look down on the masses skipping Mass. But I looked up when I heard the bark of a Continental 65-HP engine bouncing off the stone walls, disguising its location. My fellow touristi were oblivious as they listened to Fredo prattle about Inquisitions and Visigoths, while I searched skyward until the apparition materialized: an Aeronca Champ nonchalantly floating above the vineyards as only Italian aviators can … Bellesima!

I was elated at the sight but quickly descended into the darkness of envy and sighed, “I’d rather be flying….”

No other phrase could express my desire to one day return to Italy, and with Dean Martin’s Ritorna Me wafting between my ears, pay thousands of whatever silly currency is in vogue to fly a Champ and gaze at unwashed tourists who will never know why I fly or might, one day, consider intentionally jumping from an airplane, perfectly good or otherwise. Just not today.

A final confession: In 1975 I co-produced a video about flying in Hawaii, targeting Midwestern tourists stuck in Waikiki hotels during rainy season. Don’t search YouTube, the tapes were euthanized decades ago. Naming the program demanded scholarly reflection, so to capture the glory of island flight we gently plagiarized my license plate frame and called it (blush), I’d Rather Be Flying. Corny, but I still fly because there’s little I’d rather do.

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  1. And with that, Paul, I think I’ll choose to be today rather than rather be. Thanks again for the priceless hilarity.

  2. I think the problem is that the phrase “I’d rather be flying” is too one dimensional. There needs to be gradations of the “rather” from

    – There is literally nothing I would rather be doing than flying, to

    – I would much rather be flying than doing X, to

    – Flying would be OK but frankly sitting in the lawn chair with a cold beer is pretty good, to

    – Fly in that crap ? Been there done that, no thanks !

    I guess what I really need is one of those James Bond license plates that rotates with the flick of a mood switch in the dash of my car.

    Somebody needs to get on that….

    • Reminds me of the driver who escaped tools on the new bridge across the Fraser near Haney BC by having a shutter that he raised over his rear licence plate.

      Overlooking that some day a police officer might be driving right behind him. Nabbed!

      (Inevitable to be caught as several other drivers had reported seeing the scam, none had yet memorized or written down the license plate number (might have had to follow him as the officer did).)

  3. Antepenultimate?
    Been a while since I’ve encountered that one.
    Ultimate, penultimate, antepenultimate.
    Thanks, Paul.

  4. Funny and thoughtful as usual, Paul, but all along while reading the piece I was thinking I’d rather be third from last in line at Arby’s. Not sure why…

  5. Two who have never met each other are standing at the graveside. As the aeroengine can be heard overhead – they both look up. Immediately setting them aside from the rest of the mourners with their bowed heads. Afterwards they both approach each other and without preamble ask “What do you fly?” Other mourners thinking they displayed disrespect in looking up are offered that they were merely thinking of the departed rising to heaven……

    Guilty as charged. I was one of the pilots who would rather have been flying….

  6. Thanks, Paul. Another one in which you’ve hit upon some Great Truths. I know this was supposed to be about flying, but you’ve also nailed the plight of those meeting, greeting, and swimming (reluctantly) in the Of-A-Certain-Age Dating Pool, which has no lifeguards and convenes at both airports and Arby’s drive-thru lanes, along with other more- and less-supportive venues.

  7. NATCA (ATC) bumper sticker saying, “Air Traffic Controllers Tell Pilots Where To Go”.

  8. Thanks for another gem, Paul. As one who has recited a few of those -isms my face is blushing with sheepishness. Sometimes you mindlessly say things you’ve heard and for no apparent reason. Makes one think….

  9. Given the recent WX around here, “I would rather be down here, wishing I was up there, than up there wishing I was down here.”

    • There’s another cliché that has, as Paul says, decayed into a Hallmark substitute for thought.

  10. Alternate versions of the good landing saying: if the doors still open and if you can still use the airplane. Even if you aren’t a pilot, it’s hard not to rather be flying when you are sitting in traffic. Especially on a hot day on a motorcycle.

  11. I must agree, the first thing I do when traveling is find the closest airport with a flight school and go up for ‘instruction’. I needed them to show me from the air what I should see from the air and if I should bother to look on the ground. They can even point out where it is all located. Local instructors are the best!
    After the flight, once they noticed I had no problem flying and was even giving them some pointers, I would give them my log book to make the ‘instruction’ entry. When flight instructors look at my list of flight instructors some have said, “you must have had some trouble learning I see a few hundred names here.” Most also noticed I had many more hours and ratings than they had. I would always smile and tell them they will like their chosen career.
    The greatest secret only pilots know is the number of unlicensed tour operations around. They are fantastic and you get to fly.

  12. Nice use of Latin, not so much with the Italian – bellissima, not bellesima… 6/10, see me.
    [#Englishhumour] 🙂

  13. “”(Releasing the controls) “Let me ask you something. Do you like instructing? Because I gotta say, you seem … ahhhh little tense.”” 🙂🙂

    As much as I loved flight instructing, I think it is almost certain that a CFI will come across a “special” student that makes him/her wish to go back to flipping burgers.

  14. Back in the 70’s, there was a period of a few years when the “I’d rather be” license plate frames were popular. There were a zillion of them, many probably aspirational, like “I’d rather be… on my yacht”, but most related to hobbies, such as “I’d rather be fishing”, “I’d rather be bowling”, etc. I remember the “I’d rather be” frames being pretty much ubiquitous, it seemed like half the cars on the road had one. In the ensuing decades they have become much harder to find (I think they were initially supplanted by those yellow, highway-sign-shaped “Baby on Board” signs, which were the next ubiquitous car accessory to come along.)

    The “I’d rather be flying” frames came from that same era, except that I feel like pilots are one of the last holdouts still embracing this long-dead fad. Perhaps there’s some pride to be found in that.

    I don’t have one on my car, but I appreciate and even agree with the sentiment. If only we had unlimited finances and no other demands on our time…

  15. Oh, the irony of an automotive license plate that says “I’d rather be flying”! Maybe I should look for a plate for my airplane that says “I’d rather be driving” when I’m socked in by weather.

  16. After I took two now-vintage round canopy, static line jumps in the 1980s my response to “Why would you jump from a perfectly good airplane?” my response was, “If you saw the airplane….”

    Hopefully most current jump planes are in much better condition than the ones I saw back then.

    Great editorial, Paul.

  17. Who in the world (except you, presumably) knows your plane better than you? Not multiple choice, but if you answered C, your correct. Your mechanic. So, I had a nice exchange with my A&P a number of years ago—incidentally, his wife is/was a skydiver (WAS his wife, still a skydiver).
    Me: “Dang. Why in the world would you depart a perfectly good airplane?”
    A&P: “Son, there’s no such thing as a perfectly good airplane…”
    Attests to job security.

  18. I have one that reads “Actually, I’d Rather Be Flying the Bonanza”, a statement that, if the traffic is such you are close enough to me to read it, will almost certainly be true.
    In contrast, my travel trailer sports one that reads “My other plane is a B29 Superfortress FIFI”, which makes no sense whatsoever beyond the fact its purchase presumably contributed in a small way to the operations of the CAF.

  19. Are we supposed to know who this “Larry David” is?
    Otherwise, very nice commentary.