The Pilot's Lounge #40:
Of Pilots, Drivers, and the WTC

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Even though one might be trained to fly an aircraft, it doesn't mean one is a

The Pilots LoungeThe events of the eleventh of September affected all of us deeply. The Pilot's Lounge at the virtual airport became jammed that day and has remained so with pilots who have come together and try to sort out the myriad emotions that each felt. The attacks, the subsequent groundings and then the national suspicion of pilots shocked each of us. It helped to get together and talk. The older pilots provided a degree of stability and direction to the younger generation as the younger group struggled with a loss of innocence similar to that their parents or grandparents had had in the First or Second World War. I listened to the older pilots. Hearing of their experiences with the rampant paranoia at the beginning of our country's involvement in each of those wars was strangely reassuring. When they recalled that the government had pulled the props off of general aviation airplanes to ground them following the Pearl Harbor attack, it helped me understand that the current panic and subsequent overreaction leading to the grounding of little airplanes is nothing new in history and that maybe cooler, calmer heads will eventually prevail.

I listened to the anguish and anger of pilots of the Moslem faith who were doubly injured by the attack. Not only were they victims of an attack on their own country and its citizens, the attack was carried out by people who claimed to be Moslems. That the attackers were at best cultists or, more probably, just using religion as a pretense for an agenda of pure evil did not assuage the pain of my friends. They were sickened that the peaceful teachings of their ancient, honorable religion could be so defiled. Fortunately, grains of humor did survive, as one commented, "those terrorists are undoubtedly very surprised to find themselves in hell." Another said that our actions against terror might get more world sympathy and support if not given macho-sounding names, but rather one that is more insulting to the target, maybe, he said, something along the lines of "Operation Trash Bin."


Yet, as the days went by, it seemed everyone in the Lounge was struggling with the question of how pilots, yes, pilots, could have done such a despicable act. We all knew of the kamikazes of Japan in World War II and we had heard of desperate combat pilots of all nations who had run out of ammunition and rammed an enemy airplane. But we could not get our arms around the concept of cultists taking over airliners full of innocents and then using the aircraft as missiles to crash into buildings also full of innocent human beings.

Language hardly seemed capable of description of the heinousness, depravity and utter indifference to the value of life shown by the act. That pilots could do such a thing was staggering. That people who had sampled and savored the world aloft, who had experienced the perfection of the sky, had looked down on the majesty of nature and the handiwork of humans, could be so unmoved by their experiences, so absolutely lacking in integrity, and so far from having a soul, was unthinkable. The sinister behavior of those who used airplanes to conduct a mission of malevolence overwhelmed us, as people who equated airplanes with a deeply felt joy and who regularly donated our time and our airplanes to help other human beings because of the abilities we had as pilots.

As we listened to each other and read and learned and discussed things, we began to understand that these were not "pilots" who had done such a thing. We heard about the cultist "pilot" who had only desired instruction on operating the aircraft while in flight; he had no interest in takeoffs or landings. We learned that the terrorist who flew into the Pentagon had planned the arrival so poorly that he had had to make a wide circle because he was initially too high. He couldn't plan a simple descent on a clear day when he could see his target for miles. The second airplane to hit the World Trade Center was operated by someone who couldn't even establish a crab angle to track straight toward his massive objective. He had had to make a steep turn at the last moment to hit something so huge and easy to spot as one of the twin towers, even after the other was giving off a plume of smoke that told him the wind direction and velocity.

Those were not pilots. They do not deserve the dignity associated with the title. While we in the Lounge struggled to describe such creatures, we found ourselves turning to a word that had a long tradition as the very worst epithet in aviation. The word was used for years to describe the most horribly incompetent, awful hamfists and throttle jockeys; a word so foul that it dripped with contempt because it meant the person's aeronautical mind was so woefully inadequate that it operated only in two dimensions. We dusted it off and used it, because it was, and is, the right word for such life forms. Driver. The cultists were nothing more than airplane drivers.

Airplane Drivers

Drivers move mechanical devices that never leave the surface of the earth. At the most basic, drivers do not and often, cannot, think in the third dimension. Buses have drivers. Cars have drivers. Drivers operate things that are not only stuck firmly to the ground; they don't require any particular effort or training to move them about.

Historically, our language has given special names to those who operated vehicles and who had made the effort to acquire a greater level of skill, judgment and understanding in doing so. There were those who "drove" wagons drawn by horses or oxen, but the experts, the professionals, the ones who were hired to make sure the load got through, were called teamsters. Locomotives had engineers. Cable cars had grip men and women. Even old-time elevators did not have drivers, they had operators. Originally, pilots were the specialists who knew harbors or particularly tricky bodies of water. The Merriam Webster over on the shelf takes the word back to 1649 and refers to a pilot as a leader over a difficult course. Pilots conned the steamboats on our rivers in the 19th century. Pilots were well respected for their knowledge, their skill and their judgment. They were some of the earliest humans to have to think in the third dimension as they commanded a vessel because they not only moved across a body of water, that body itself moved up and down as the river level changed or the tides flowed, thus changing itself dramatically. The nuances of each vertical change and its impact on currents, snags and obstructions had to be well understood by the pilot lest the ship suffer calamity. As aviation terminology evolved from the nautical, those who ventured into the seas of air above the ground were also given that most respected name, pilot.

In time, it became apparent that certain persons simply could not or would not fly with any degree of élan. They moved their airplanes from one place to another without any style, grace or flair. They took no pride in what they did. They cratered runways with their landings, they could not seem to do more than the minimum necessary to pass checkrides and were perfectly happy with 70%, the lowest score needed on a written examination. They had traveled into the sky, but were unmoved by it. They had flown, but, for reasons forever unknown, had not actually experienced flight. Because they "drove" their airplanes, it just wasn't right to call them pilots. They were drivers, somehow lacking pride, skill, grace and judgment, and not giving a damn.

In the last 20 years, authors who knew little of aviation sought synonyms for "pilot" because they didn't want to use the same word time after time. They innocently used "driver" without knowing its true aeronautical meaning. The pilot community was and is small, so its objections and attempts at correction went unheard. Other authors of popular novels continued the practice, until eventually, sheer frequency of misuse once again caused the meaning of a word to evolve. It also meant that many people entering aviation and who had read the popular novels but never stopped to think about the unique and vast difference between two and three-dimensional travel, sometimes innocently called themselves drivers. Those who had been flying for many years watched in quiet amusement, as folks said that they "drove" Cessna 172s, or Barons or F-16s. Too often the irony was that those who called themselves drivers actually were.

What Makes A Pilot?

Here in the Lounge, we sometimes get questions from students asking when or how they will know whether they are truly pilots. Naturally, the question has triggered a lot of discussion over the years. It's pretty well accepted that the FAA's definition is inadequate. The practical test guides have standards for the issuance of the various pilot certificates. As some of the Lounge regulars frequently point out, Congress charged the FAA with the task of establishing only "minimum" standards. Without being elitist in the slightest, the disdain the regulars here in the Lounge have for any person who is satisfied with just meeting the FAA's minimum standards is truly monumental.

So how does one distinguish a pilot from a driver? To put it in words of pilots I respect, a pilot is one who is captivated by flight in all forms. He or she goes aloft whenever possible and thinks of flight nearly constantly between ascensions. The pilot sees the beauty of the sky, is always fascinated by it and, in the end, is changed by it. A pilot has seen the perfection that is the sky and seeks to reach it for him or herself. A pilot drinks in and sits in awe of the magnificence of the world when viewed from the sky. A pilot has seen grandeur of the skyline of the city as the sun first strikes it in the morning, has looked in reverence at the wonder of a circular rainbow around the shadow of her or his aircraft on a cloud, has laughed aloud at the pure joy of breaking out on top of an overcast on a wintry day, has done all those things, and hundreds more, small and large, and will never, ever be the same for them. A pilot is set apart from the rest of humanity who has never seen and thus never can quite understand the magic of what occurs in the sky. A pilot shares the spiritual experience of flight with all other pilots, and is physically and emotionally incapable of doing anything that would bring dishonor on the world aloft, the people who go there to commune, or the instrumentalities they use to rise off of the ground.

How do you know if you are a pilot? Take time to just look around you at others and think about who you are. You have seen pilots. You've watched pilots come down final, close the throttle and flare the airplane, holding it off the runway until flying speed has all but dissipated, only then letting the main gear begin to roll; and you've watched drivers come down final, never closing the throttle, but pitch up to some attitude that they've been told to hold, which they do, mechanically, with power, eating up runway, until the wheels hit the ground while still well above stall speed, at which time they finally close the throttle as the smell of burning rubber mixes with that of overheated brakes.

A driver merely causes a mechanical assemblage of parts to move from one place to another. If it's an airplane, it is shoved through the air, without a shred of elegance, until a landing takes place. The driver has no feelings for and cares nothing about the airplane. It is only a machine used to accomplish some goal be it going someplace or ramming a building full of innocents. It has no meaning beyond being a rather complicated tool. The driver looks down at the ground to find a checkpoint, never seeing any art in the work of humans. The driver looks at the horizon to check that the wings are level without ever seeing the splendor of the natural world. The driver doesn't notice that there is a double rainbow off to the left. Nor does the driver care.

Sadly, one sees drivers in all walks of aviation. Have you ever watched an airplane cringe as its pilot approached? The airplane knows what is coming; a driver is going to herd it through the air, squeeze the yoke seemingly in hopes of getting juice from the plastic, thrash the controls around as if in a bad John Wayne movie and eventually just barely avoid landing on the nosewheel. After the flight, drivers walk away from the airplane without so much as a backward glance or a thought about the miracle that a collection of parts that weigh more than the air could possibly rise of the ground and fly. One occasionally even sees drivers employed by airlines. They are the ones who care only about their seniority number or the quality of the crew meals or whether they can make the down payment on the bigger boat this month, but never about ride they give passengers nor making those passengers feel at ease when something a little out of the ordinary happens.

Are you are truly a pilot? There are time-honored ways of knowing. Rest assured, the yardstick is not one that measures flying time, because flying time does not tell anything about the soul of a person. There are 30-hour pilots and 10,000-hour drivers.

Have You? Do You? Can You?

Have you ever gotten up before dawn and gone to the airport, not to go someplace, but just so that you could be aloft to watch the sunrise? If so, there is some poetry in your soul, and a definite potential that you truly are a pilot. Do you sometimes close the throttle completely on downwind and land on a spot you selected ahead of time? Even in a twin? Can you do a forward slip all the way into the flare before you kick the airplane straight and touch down? Can you feel what the airplane is telling you all of the time, so that if you stall, it is because you meant to do so? Do you fly downwind until the runway is 45 degrees behind your shoulder before you turn base, as you did when you were a brand new student pilot, or do you turn base while still in the same county as the airport, knowing you can make the runway if the engine quits and showing respect for the pilot on downwind behind you? Do you care for someone else's airplane as if it were yours when flying it, never, ever uttering, "It's just a rental"? When you start the engine, do you know what is behind so you do not blow trash all over someone else's paint job? Do you make certain your rpm never exceeds 1,000 on start because you know your engine and want it to last as long as possible, even if it is not your airplane? And to slow down while taxiing do you close the throttle completely, first, or just ride the brakes? Do you know and take advantage of the fact that when flying an airplane with a constant speed propeller that the slower you turn the prop the more efficient and quiet it is? Do you know how to lean the mixture to get the most from a gallon of gasoline and do you do it every single time that you are flying level, no matter what the altitude? And do you do your best to fly quietly so as not to disturb those you are flying over and who don't happen to have the good fortune to be in the sky right then? If yes, there is hope for you.

While in flight are you aware of others around you, whether in an airplane or on the ground, and do you fly your airplane to show respect for them?

Do you look forward to landing on grass runways any time you can? Can you hold your altitude within 50 feet as a routine and do you do it because it is the right thing to do, knowing deep inside that someday it really is going to matter? Can you hold your airspeed within 5 knots on landing approach even if the airspeed indicator is covered up? Do you know your airplane well enough to put the nose in the right place on climb out to get Vy and can you do it with a broken airspeed indicator?

Have you ever driven more than an hour just to take a ride in an open-cockpit airplane? Have you ever taken dual in a type of aircraft that you know you cannot afford to fly very often just because you wanted to fly it, be it a balloon or helicopter or on skis or floats or just a different type of airplane? Have you ever gotten a rating that you will probably never use again just because it meant you would learn more about flying or that you had always dreamed of flying that kind of airplane? Do you disdain the wearing of jumpsuits and large, ornamental wings and patches and pins that make you a walking billboard, but rather, are you comfortable in yourself and know that your skills and judgment are enough advertisement of you as a pilot? Do you plot and scheme so that when you take people who trust you into the sky that the flight will be as smooth and serene as possible with maximum scenic value so that you can turn them into ambassadors for the thing you love?

The worst of the wagon drivers of old mercilessly whipped their horses and oxen because they did not bother to learn how to get the best from their animals. Do you flog your airplane through the sky or do you know all of the speeds for your airplane and when to use each one? Do you only touch the controls with your fingertips, guiding your airplane with subtle pressures to get it to go where you desire? Do you always know where it is you want the airplane to go, and are you willing to urge it in that direction any time it gets so much as a degree off the course you have selected?

Have you ever flown a Cub on a soft summer evening and landed on a grass runway and smelled the clover as the rolling tires released its scent? After seeing a particularly lovely sunset, have you ever climbed three or four thousand feet so that you could enjoy it again? Do you know the sensuous pleasure of flight on a moonlight night, and do you sometimes turn down the instrument lights as far as you can so that you can drink in the beauty of the nighttime world? Do you still sometimes fly kites on windy days? Can you do a straight-ahead loop or an aileron roll without falling out of either one? Can you do a three-turn spin and recover on the heading you chose beforehand? Can you make a crosswind takeoff and landing in a tailwheel airplane and never have the outcomes of each seriously in doubt?

Can you read the signs of foul weather approaching, and thus have your airplane securely on the ground when it strikes? Can you look at a passenger who desperately wants to get home and say "no" because the weather is below your personal minima? Are you aware of the weather, even when there is no prospect of flight in the immediate future? Do you look at the sky several times each day, even in the midst of the tall buildings of a city? Do you know enough to avoid venturing into deteriorating weather when trying to fly visually so that you will never join the legion of drivers who have received their final verdict: obituaries that read "attempted to continue VFR into IMC conditions"? Do you respect the magnitude of storms and regard them as manifestations of nature's fury, to be viewed, and enjoyed, either from the ground or, if aloft, from afar?

Do you ever sit for a while in the airplane or helicopter or glider once the flight is done to think about your flight and how very lucky you are to be able to fly? Do you ever just sit and listen to the airplane talk to you just a little longer, while there is still the sensation and tactile memory of flight in your hands and body, for those last moments before the aircraft again becomes a mechanical device? And afterward, do you ever find yourself walking slowly as you leave the aircraft because you don't want to sever that bond you just had with the sky? And do you ever stop, turn around, look at the airplane and quietly say "thank you"?


If you have done and can do, or seek to do, these things, and if you seek excellence and further learning and insight every time you fly, there is a good probability that you are a pilot and not a driver.

As we in the Lounge talked more about pilots and drivers and the events of the eleventh of September, we came to realize that pilots are incapable of the foul deeds carried out in New York and Virginia. Pilots did not kill those innocent people. Drivers did.

See you next month.