Lessons from the Cockpit

by Milton Wood

It all began when I was about ten years old: I fell in love with airplanes. At first I flew model airplanes, then private planes, then military planes. After an active flying career I continued my love of flying as a training research psychologist who helped set new flying-training standards for our military and early travels into space. During all this time I experienced what actor/singer Marc Anthony promised: “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” 

Looking back on this journey, I realize that I have learned five important lessons herding aircraft around the sky and working closely with those who do. Each are as applicable to travel on land as they are to those who have “… danced the sky on laughter-silvered wings,” as John Gillespie Magee, Jr. so beautifully stated.


This is nothing more than taking the time to decide where you want to go and what it is going to take to get there. In the air this involves determining winds aloft, designated flying routes, fuel requirements, etc. When we apply the notion of a flight plan to personal travel it is true that many of these variables change. Nevertheless, the same kind of pre-planning pays off, particularly when traveling outside the USA. This is where the experience of competent trip planners and tour guides come in handy.

2. The importance of using a checklist.

No matter how much flight experience a pilot may have, he or she always uses a checklist. This is something you may have noticed on your last commercial flight as you watched the pilots working through their checklists before closing the cockpit door. Even though you may be thinking that the use of a checklist for personal travel is going too far, remember the many times you have interrupted a trip by turning around to pick something up or to buy something you forgot! This can be both time consuming and expensive!

3. 4-D (four-dimensional) thinking.

This has to do with anticipating unexpected, or even emergency situations that can occur anywhere between point A and point B

We’re all familiar with one-dimensional thinking. This happens when a problem saturates every corner of our mind and we can’t come up with a solution. All of a sudden there’s that feeling of panic immediately followed by the cold fear of certain failure! 

Two-dimensional thinking is also quite familiar.  This raises its nasty head when we formulate a single solution that might work, but it doesn’t, followed immediately by that sickening knot-in-the-stomach that portends certain failure.

Fortunately, after a few bad experiences, three-dimensional thinking comes to the rescue! We slap our forehead as we realize the need to have more than one solution in mind. This bit of preplanning not only gives us a sense of control but significantly increases the likelihood of a favorable ending. This is what pilots have in mind when they say, “Any landing is a good landing!”

So what’s the fourth dimension? Four-dimensional thinking occurs when we become sensitive to the fact that a solution is often time-dependent. Put another way, a four-dimensional thinker not only has a number of options in hand but also knows “when the time is right.” This level of problem solving is very important as we make our way through all of the problems life presents. 

4. Be aware of mental labels.

By labeling I mean those beliefs and attitudes that determine how we respond to the world around us. Not only can they be wrong, they can also be dangerous. When it comes to beliefs about ourselves it all boils down to the fact that if believe that there is something that we can’t do… most likely we’re right. However, when we change a “can’t do” to a “can do,” or an “I don’t like it” into a “let’s try it,” a new world of possibilities unfold. This kind of positive thinking is typical of most pilots I know..

5. Feel the fear and do it anyway.

This last bit of awareness the world of aviation has taught me is a bit of advice made popular by the author Susan Jeffers when she advises us to, “Feel the fear and do it anyway!”

Working with Air Force pilots and astronauts through the years I find that these men and women routinely feel the fear of calculated risk… but they do it anyway. They accomplish this through good training, positive attitudes and a generous helping of self-confidence. We can follow their lead any time some undercurrent of fear prevents us from doing something we’re fully capable of doing. Some unknown author made the observation that, “A turtle travels only when it sticks its neck out,”

The moral of the story.

What's the moral of the story? It’s simply that the world of flight teaches lessons that can be a prescription for a career, a hobby, a bucket list or even taking your next trip. What makes this airborne experience valuable is the fact that when you operate an aircraft you have to be right the first time. This highlights some of the “must do” activities that not only contribute to success in the air but on Earth’s surface as well.      


Milton Wood,PhD, is a speaker, trainer and author of “Teach Public Speaking to Anyone: A Building Block Approach.” He is also the author of several Kindle eBook titles covering various aspects of public speaking. His website is www.Impromptu-Training.com

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