Proficient Pilot: Reflections, 1963-2013

Celebrating 50 years as a 'Pilot' writer

June 1, 2013

Barry SchiffMy first magazine article, “Why Not Really Learn to Navigate,” appeared in these pages exactly 50 years ago (June 1963). It was about my having discovered and purchased a war-surplus sextant and practicing celestial navigation in the cockpits of general aviation airplanes. I was enchanted with the elegance of using celestial bodies to establish a fix because I knew that these compatriots of the night sky would accompany me wherever in the world I would wander.

But what goes around really does come around. As I now celebrate my fiftieth anniversary writing for AOPA Pilot on my seventy-fifth birthday, I discover that I once again write about using celestial bodies for navigation, although man-made satellites provide far more precision than a young man in 1963 could have ever imagined.

The editor of AOPA Pilot at that time was Max Karant, first at the helm of this magazine. This means that I have written for all of Pilot’s editors—and there have been many—up to and including the current editor in chief, Tom Haines. What has never ceased to amaze me is that these men of the pen published what I wrote, because in the beginning what I wrote was not so great. I didn’t know the difference between a dangling preposition and a split infinitive.

Some are surprised to learn that I have not had a formal education in writing or literature (beyond Mrs. McDonald’s English composition class in high school). As a good friend, mentor, and Pulitzer Prize nominee Bob Said used to tell me, “The best way to learn to write is to read a lot and write a lot.” I continue to do both.

My early writing success, I think, was due mostly to a knack for explaining complex subjects in a simple, understandable manner. I would also like to think that some of my thoughts and original concepts in subsequent years have made meaningful contributions to aviation safety. That would not have been possible without this forum, and for that I am and shall be forever grateful.

The author was 25 years old when he wrote about celestial navigation in his first story for 'AOPA Pilot.'

During my formative writing years I wrote articles by hand on lined notebook paper. I would then take this scrawling to a secretarial service for typing and ship the final draft via air mail, special delivery. The process has changed a bit since then.

During my half-century tenure with Pilot, I missed only one deadline (although my propensity toward procrastination has caused me to come close many times). This is when I was on assignment covering the Hanover Air Show in West Germany in the early 1970s. I made the mistake of going through Checkpoint Charlie with my film of the airshow during a visit to East Berlin. The East German polizei apparently considered me a spy of sorts and confiscated the film during my return to the West.

Most of my columns have attempted to pass along sage advice regarding flying safety, so you might be wondering what aspect of that I am trying to convey this month. Well, my friends, you need to know that this column is not so much for you as it is for me. I think that 50 years of writing for this magazine entitles me to some digression and reflection.

No matter how thorough or painstaking his research, no writer is totally free of error, especially one who has been immortalizing his thoughts in print for 50 years. Mistakes, though, never go unnoticed or uncorrected. I’ve always said that if a writer needs the answer to a question, he can easily obtain it by publishing an incorrect answer. Given the incredible expertise of Pilot’s readership, it is axiomatic that the truth will quickly bubble to the surface (sometimes via irate and indignant mail). I only wish that there were some way to tap that resource before committing to paper and ink.

Much of what I have written over the years has been possible only because of my having been a writer for Pilot. I am certain that the Air Force otherwise would not have given me dual instruction at 75,000 feet in a Lockheed U–2, nor would NASA have assigned its chief astronaut, Charlie Precourt, to give me hours of dual instruction in the space shuttle simulator at the Johnson Space Center. Would I have been checked out in EAA’s replica of the Spirit of St. Louis had I not been a writer for Pilot? Not likely. Would Jordan’s King Hussein and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin have permitted me to organize Operation Peace Flight and lead a formation of 31 general aviation airplanes from Jerusalem to Amman without my having strong press credentials? Perhaps not.

My affiliation with Pilot has led me to remarkable experiences about which I otherwise could have only dreamed. For this I am extremely grateful. With these adventures, though, has come a responsibility, one that I have taken very seriously, and that is to make every effort to share them in a way that makes you a part of those experiences to the extent that my descriptions can make this possible.

Because of these and other remarkable opportunities afforded me, Pilot has been my journal. Most of my career has been documented in 600 issues of this magazine. Some of these experiences have been quite personal, such as when I wrote about when my son, Brian, joined me as a member of my TWA flight crew for the first time (an L-1011 flight from New York to Brussels). More poignant, perhaps, was writing about my retirement flight. Brian was my first officer then, too, and it was on Father’s Day 1998.

The best part of these past 50 years, though, has not been the airplanes sampled or the adventures savored. Rather, it has been the people met. Some have been quite famous. The most memorable, however, were not as well known but were extraordinarily talented with stick and rudder. Some checked me out in unusual or truly complex aircraft, and it is important for me to thank them again for their patience, expertise, and graciousness.

For how long will I continue to write? That is an excellent question. I likely will carry this passionate torch for as long as I can still crawl into a cockpit and for as long as you, dear reader, consider worthwhile my contributions and views. It’s hard to break a 50-year habit.

Barry Schiff has logged 28,000 hours in 332 different types of aircraft during 61 years of flying.