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"There I Was…"

"We were only climbing at about 100 feet per minute. The stall horn was blaring. I was sweating bullets! We finally just barely cleared the trees…"

We pilots love to tell "war stories" about experiences that scared the bejeezus out of us, and we love to hear these stories told. Accident reports and "never again" stories are standard fare in aviation publications and perennial favorite "hangar flying" topics. I have no doubt that some of the appeal is a natural desire to spin a riveting yarn and "one-up" the other guy, but I think there's also a sincere motivation to learn from our experiences and those of others. Lord knows I've told stories like these myself (some of them in this blog) and overall, I think it's a healthy practice.

We should be careful, though, to be aware of who's listening.

"What have you gotten us into?!" said Kevin, a non-pilot, in a harsh whisper to his wife Pamela, a CFII and professional pilot and the newest member of our club. As I described in last week's post, we recently held an appreciation dinner for our friend Bob, who had sold his share in the club after more than 40 years of membership. After much food and wine were consumed, several present and former members took turns in telling one of the club's epic "there I was" stories about the time our A36 Bonanza blew a jug on departure from Catalina Island off the coast of Southern California. The purpose of recounting the tale was to illustrate the club's values, including airmanship, teamwork, mechanical know-how, and ingenuity. The pilots in attendance nodded and shouted approval at appropriate points, as is only proper when such stories are told.

Kevin, however, was becoming increasingly appalled at such apparent nonchalance regarding a life-threatening event. While most of us were thinking, "Wow, that's some cool-headed piloting. Nice work!" Kevin's thoughts were running more along the lines of, "Are you people nuts?!"

What isn't obvious to non-pilots hearing these stories is the learning that's going on in the heads of pilots as we listen. In the backs of our minds, we're reviewing our own experiences, comparing them with the story, evaluating our own actions, and planning how we'll handle similar situations if they happen to us. We're reviewing our own personal limits and decision making criteria. We're assessing our current proficiency and judgment. It's a really valuable exercise.

Non-pilots, though, probably come away with a very different impression. We probably come across to them as reckless thrill seekers going out of our way to risk life and limb in the crazed pursuit of the perfect adrenaline rush. Why would they even consider entrusting their lives to such dangerous wackos by getting in an airplane with us? With many in the general public regarding pilots as selfish rich people who indulge in their expensive hobby without considering the noise they're causing or the fuel they're burning, I want to be very mindful of how I talk about flying, especially among non-pilots. I want to convey the impression that pilots are responsible, considerate, and professional—which in fact we generally are. This is especially important when speaking with people who are curious about flying or might want to become pilots themselves. I'd feel awful if I thought I'd scared someone away from the joys of flight with careless talk.

I think I can maintain this level of awareness and care without losing out on the benefits and fun of hangar flying. Besides, I can always save the really hair-raising stories for those $100 hamburger runs with my flying buddies.

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