6 aviation cliches that are true – and 3 that are not

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Aviation is filled with “experts.” These self-appointed sages never miss a chance to share their tips for safer flying, usually from the lofty perch of a rocking chair at the FBO. If you’re a new pilot these experts can be intimidating, with their catchy phrases and serious advice. Eventually, you may decide to simply tune it all out: “just a bunch of old timers telling lies.” 

That reaction is understandable and some of the advice you’ll get is undoubtedly bad, so there’s nothing wrong with being skeptical. But not every cliche can be discarded. Most of them exist because there’s at least a kernel of truth inside.

Aviation cliche sign

With that in mind, I offer six famous aviation aphorisms that really are true:

  1. Always have an out. Sometimes expressed as, “never run out of airspeed, altitude and ideas at the same time,” this is my nominee for the most popular tip for new pilots. But just because it’s overused and obvious doesn’t make it any less useful. From weather to performance, you should use this phrase to nag yourself throughout every flight and ensure you haven’t been boxed into a corner. Here’s a tip my first instructor taught me: on a cross-country flight, set a timer to go off every 10 minutes. When the timer beeps, ask yourself what your out is. Do you have an emergency picked out landing field if the engine were to quit? Where is the good weather if things become marginal? Do you have your VORs tuned in case your GPS fails? It’s a little paranoid, but it’s good training and it will instill solid habits. You should always have a Plan B and probably a Plan C as well.
  2. Aviate, navigate, communicate. The second most popular advice is also famous for a reason. Flying is complex, and especially in busy airspace or during an emergency it’s easy to get distracted. These three words are in a very specific order, to remind you that flying the airplane is more important than anything else. When you feel confused or overwhelmed, fly the airplane first, then figure out where you are and where you’re going. Only when you’re comfortable about those first two should you worry about Air Traffic Control and talking on the radio. They can wait.
  3. Rudder matters more than ailerons. You’ve probably heard some of those experts complaining about how “kids today” just don’t use enough rudder. I think this is a little bit overblown, but it’s true that we can all do better with our precision flying skills. The rudder is no exception. For example, are you religious about keeping that ball centered on climb out? It can add 100 ft/min to your rate of climb and on some hot day years in the future, that 100 ft/min might be critical. The rudder is essential for making good crosswind landings and avoiding spins during slow flight, so you need to get those feet off the floor and keep them active. As you transition into faster airplanes and maybe even taildraggers or twins, you’ll learn that the rudder is an even more critical control. There’s nothing wrong with pushing hard on those pedals!
  4. Reduce power slowly. I won’t restart the holy war about “shock cooling” here–some pilots believe in it, others don’t–but there’s no reason to chop the power on a piston engine unless you’re practicing an engine failure. Unlike car engines, airplane engines are air cooled so they’re more sensitive to rapid temperature changes. When you reduce power from 2400 RPM to 1100 RPM, that’s not doing those pistons and cylinder walls any favors. Four cylinder engines like the Cessna 172’s Lycoming IO-360 are pretty resilient, but large six cylinder or turbocharged engines do not handle such abuse nearly as well. Get in the habit of planning your descent so you can slowly and smoothly reduce power over time, instead of one big pull. At the very least, your passengers will appreciate it. In fact, when I first checked out in a Cessna 210, my flight instructor told me that I couldn’t reduce power more than two inches of manifold pressure every two minutes. Was that overly conservative? Maybe. But it did help me develop a smooth touch on the throttle.
  5. Always land with one hour of fuel in the tanks. Everyone has their favorite rule of thumb about fuel planning, and some pilots will even argue that “the regs say 30 minutes is enough.” If you’ve ever landed with 30 minutes in the tanks, you know how frighteningly low that looks on the fuel gauges. Make one hour your minimum, no matter how far you’re flying and no matter what kind of airplane you’re in. Then, if you do encounter unexpectedly bad weather or some other surprise, you’ll still have a nice cushion to execute that Plan B (see cliche #1). This rule should be absolute–when the gauges say one hour is left in the tank, your wheels are on the ground. Period.
  6. Always get a big picture weather briefing. Getting a good weather briefing is easier than ever these days, with iPad apps and high resolution radar images. But many pilots get caught up in the latest weather products and forget to understand the synopsis. Who needs that? Just look at the radar loop and the METARs, right? Hardly. This approach misses the forest for the trees. A truly great weather briefing starts with a solid understanding of the big picture: where the highs and lows are, where the fronts are and what the upper level winds are doing. Once you know this, the actual observations and forecasts will make more sense and you’ll be much better at interpreting Mother Nature’s road signs in the air. Reading on your iPad that the visibility is going down one thing; understanding why it’s going down is another. It takes some practice, but it’s the best weather tip I ever learned.

Now before you assume that all aviation cliches are true, I feel compelled to debunk a few. In my opinion, these tips are flat out wrong:

  1. You can never have too much fuel, unless you’re on fire. Baloney. If you’re trying to get a ratty old 172 in the air on a hot summer day with three passengers, you absolutely can have too much fuel. In fact, as you progress into larger airplanes, you’ll rarely top off the fuel tanks. Certainly, you should not violate rule #4 above, but there is a price for carrying too much fuel. More is not always better.
  2. You should hand fly all instrument approaches. Some CFIs teach this to instrument students, implying that “real pilots fly the airplane.” The theory is that autopilots can’t be trusted when the weather is low, and you need the practice anyway. While there’s nothing wrong with practicing hand flying (and we should never become autopilot-dependent), when the weather is really low it’s wise to let the autopilot fly the airplane. That allows you to shed workload, monitor the situation and respond to any abnormalities. You’re not a bad pilot for using the tools you have on board; in fact, that’s great cockpit resource management (CRM).
  3. You never can be too safe. This is my least favorite saying in all of aviation. Don’t get me wrong: I am passionate about flying safely, as we all should be. But if this cliche were true, we’d all fly around with six jet engines, an extra pair of wings and nine pilots on board. There’s obviously a point at which the safety benefits of new regulations or technology no longer pay off. The challenge–and fun–of personal aviation is that we control how safe we are. We decide when to fly and when not to, we decide how proficient we are and we make the final decisions in the left seat. We can fly as safely as we want to.

I’ve just scratched the surface here on famous aviation advice. Do you have any catchphrases or aphorisms you like? Add a comment below.

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Coming from an aviation family, John grew up in the back of small airplanes and learned to fly as a teenager. Ever since, he has been hooked on anything with wings and regularly flies a Citabria, a Pilatus PC-12 and a Robinson R44 helicopter. He is an ATP and also holds ratings for multiengine, seaplanes, gliders, and helicopters. In addition to being Editor-in-Chief of Air Facts, John is a Vice President at Sporty’s Pilot Shop, responsible for new product development and marketing.

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