Quality or Quantity: How Do You Assess Your Flying Life?

By Scott Spangler on April 24th, 2017

Image result for snjAs a word merchant, I’ve learned a lot by reading obituaries because the good ones succinctly review a life by sharing its telling accomplishments, whether the subject’s notoriety is universal or unknown. The really good ones interview the subject before their passing and share what’s important to the individual. This got me thinking, how would I assess my flying life?

Thinking of all the pilots I have known and met over the past 40 years, most of them, it seems, summarize their individual flying life by quantity. Who hasn’t heard the hangar flying boast of those who claim to have flown so many thousands of hours and/or so many different makes and models of aircraft? These are good metrics of aviation experience, I guess, but they don’t tell me a lot about the pilot’s personality, what defines this flying life.

Honestly, I don’t know how many hours I’ve logged as a pilot or how many different makes and models I’ve flown, and I really don’t care. Because I learned early that tomorrow is never guaranteed; as I do every day, I wake up, I assess my flying life on quality.

Each flight naturally falls into different categories. Most of them I’d call prosaic pleasures, a simple flight of happiness unremarkable beyond the too often underappreciated miracle and magic of flight.

A number of them stand out because of some entrancing interplay of light, landscape, and atmosphere or a communal revelation when I’m not solo. Some are family legend, such as the flight when my youngest son, then 8, taking his turn (a nonstop series of steep left and right banks, with me providing the necessary rudder) at the yoke, recalled the breakfast of my teenaged stepson, who was waiting his turn in the back seat with my oldest boy.

A handful of flights live in dominant but disparate realms. First there are the accomplishments, first solo, first tailwheel solo, and first solo instrument flight in actual instrument meteorological conditions. More important are the lessons learned on flights best titled, “That was Stupid! Let’s not do that again.”

First among them was the flight launched as a prosaic pleasure with an out-the-window weather briefing. About the time I reached pattern altitude at Kansas City Downtown Airport, the burgeoning convective activity bounced my Cessna 172 and rapidly approaching big boned clouds filled its windshield. I immediately requested clearance to land. I got the airplane safely secured before the storms arrived, but I was wet when I got in the car. And I’ve never since flown without first getting an exhaustive weather briefing.


My most cherished flight I call Last Meals, because if I never again flew after them, I would go a happy aviator. First among them was taking my turn at the controls of a Sportsman 2+2 that was part of the Glasair Gang’s group flight to Alaska, which ticked two items on my life list of things to do. Among its many pleasures was the accomplishment of landing on an 800-foot-long gravel bar in a river in British Columbia. I took the time to relish it by walking off the distance before remounting the Sportsman to continue to our overnight at a nearby backcountry lodge about 90 flying minutes from civilization.

Right behind this flight was an ineffably joyous aerobatic exploration of some Florida airspace in an SNJ that was also bittersweet. Sampling its three-dimensional capabilities and idiosyncrasies, and executing three textbook landings that surprised my instructor in the back seat as much as they did me, provided the joy. With me for every second of this flight was my father, a naval aviator who earned his wings of gold in the same make and model. And it became the source of my only aviation regret, because during his lifetime I never made what now would have been simple accommodations in my life to take him flying.

There comes a point in every aviator’s life when the possibility of the next excursion into the ocean of air is unlikely. It is an emotional transition that is never easy, but how one copes depends, in part, on perspective. With quantitative metrics, there is always one more hour to log, one more make and model to fly, and the reality is that this measurement is endless. But when assessing a flying life by quality, each excursion skyward is a unique combination of factors impossible to recreate or duplicate. And with it comes the satisfaction, the emotionally fulfilling reward of having had that experience. –Scott Spangler, Editor

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One Response to “Quality or Quantity: How Do You Assess Your Flying Life?”

  1. Leslie Says:

    Absolutely entrancing! Thank you so much. Your perspective is encouraging for those of us coming to flying rather later in life when hours won’t mount up but the amazing experience of learning to fly brings the qualitative into clear perspective.

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