What Pilots Know

Any kind of work that demands specialized skills–any trade, craft, or art–can only be acquired slowly, in small increments. It typically requires ten or more years of training and practice before a sufficient degree of mastery is achieved in any worthwhile field, although there are many exceptions to this norm.  These years of learning as a student and working as a novice are usually hard, and sometimes tedious, but the hard work and patience finally pay off when the teacher or mentor declares the disciple fit to practice his/her skills.  This recognition usually comes in the form of a diploma, a degree, or a license.  The crossing of the threshold from apprenticeship to mastery is nowadays known as “graduation,” which is often formalized in a solemn ceremony marking this shift in one’s status . . . what anthropologists would call a “rite of passage.”

The process of acquiring mastery, even at a minimal level, takes so much time and effort because the apprentice must learn several kinds of things more or less simultaneously.  Each trade, craft, or art involves its own specialized language (sometimes called “jargon”), its own tools (both material and conceptual), and its own procedures and techniques.  To gain entrance in a field as a professional requires mastery in all of these domains.

As students or novices become more and more adept at what they are trying to master, a unique knowing develops inside them, which, in certain cases, may alter their patterns of experiencing, interpreting, and reasoning about the world in profound ways.  This knowing is not taught in any school, nor are there any textbooks for it; instead, it simply grows within a person due to a unique combination of passion, temperament, and experience.  This knowing is a matter of inarticulate and often ineffable feeling, or intuition, that is not found in any of the formalities of one’s chosen trade, craft, or art.  And yet, one cannot develop this kind of knowing without actually mastering the formalities, i.e., the jargon, the tools, the procedures, the techniques . . . all the hard, tedious stuff.

Every experienced and passionate farmer, carpenter, goldsmith, nurse, shoemaker, teacher . . . possesses an intuitive knowing that is closely related to his or her chosen field of expertise but which is also, at the same time, much more than the sum of their formal training.  There is a wide range of variation in this kind of knowing from one person to another, since it cannot be measured or regulated by schools, guilds, or professional associations, let alone taught in a classroom.  It cannot be implanted from the outside, as it were, but can only be allowed to grow and flourish in the heart.  Perhaps its only condition is love, i.e., love for what one does.

There is, then, a storehouse of wisdom hidden deep within anyone who has mastered a given trade, craft, or art and is also in love with what he or she does.  If properly appreciated, this wisdom can be a source of invaluable lessons that cannot be acquired from books or ordinary life experiences.

Whether, and to what extent, this inner knowing or wisdom actually translates into one’s everyday ebehavior is, of course, an open question . . . to be answered by each individual based on his or her level of awareness.


Let’s take one example, which may be called “the wisdom of the cockpit.”  What is it that pilots know that others don’t know in the same way?  What are the lessons we might learn from the wisdom that is hidden deep within a pilot’s heart?  What can flying a plane tell us about living a life?

Following is not an exhaustive list, but only a random sampling.  You may add your own insights.  It is difficult to imagine an experienced pilot, however, who is not familiar with the following gems of wisdom.

1. You must know where you are coming from and where you are headed.

2. There is no point arguing with the weather.  It is what it is.  Cursing the winds will reduce your efficiency, but will have no effect on the winds.

3. When sudden, unexpected changes happen, finding someone to blame is not going to help you.  Determining “who let the dogs out” is less important in a moment of crisis than bringing the dogs back in.

4. At any given point during the journey, both past and future may be allowed to recede into the background.

5. There is nothing as important for your well-being, and that of others around you, as paying full attention to what is happening now.

6. What the instruments actually say is of infinitely more value than what you wish, hope, or demand that they should say.

7. Computers, as well as other machines, are designed to function in fixed and predicatable ways.  You are not a machine.

8. There are dozens of constantly changing variables.  Your job is to monitor their changes, not in retrospect but as they are taking place moment by moment.

9. Be here, now.  Do not react mindlessly; respond mindfully.  Pay attention to your instruments, but do not follow them blindly.  Sometimes you may have to trust your heart more than your instruments.

10. Do not conceptually separate yourself from your situation.  Instead, become one with the ever-changing flow of reality; then make adjustments as needed.

11. Be flexible like a blade of grass.  Sometimes you are not able to reach the destination for which you had originally planned.  Read the signs carefully; they are both inside and around you.  If reality is directing you to change course, do not resist.

12. Don’t worry too much about how people judge your performance. Sometimes you have to perform a maneuver that may not look elegant to those on the ground, and yet it may be life saving.

13. Every piece of data is to be acknowledged, but no piece of data is meaningful without reference to the big picture.  Know the big picture.


  1. Ran across this and thought of those around YOUR dinnertable:

    “There was also an almost incalculable number of itinerant vendors with printed matter of every conceivable kind for sale in shoulder bags or on handcarts, in wheelbarrows and mobile bookcases.”

    from “The City of Dreaming Books” by Walter Moers.

    This is a kid’s book, but an excellent read. Everyone needs a bit of fun once in a while.

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