These flights literally save lives. When we read these stories, it’s easy to see why general aviation matters, because that’s where most pilots get their start, where they learn the skills eventually used to do grander things. But for some with quieter pursuits, the pilot rating itself is the grand thing—not because of where it will lead, but because the student pilot is using it to save their own life by healing an emotional wound or tackling a personal hurdle.
As an FAA designated pilot examiner, I have the honor of witnessing people on the day they reach their goals. They may think of me as just the person ensuring the standards are met, but their pursuits have meant so much more to me. On checkride day, I always ask applicants about their reasons for pursuing a pilot rating. I am often inspired and humbled by their answers.
I once did a checkride for an emergency room doctor. I thought perhaps he wanted to fly his family back and forth to the beach or do some traveling. His real motivation, however, was something more profound. The doctor told me he had a son who joined the military to be a pilot. That young man and his instructor were killed when their airplane crashed during a routine training flight. My applicant wanted to learn to fly to feel closer to his son, to honor his sacrifice. When I handed him his temporary certificate after our flight, he told me he was heading to the cemetery to put it on his son’s grave. I wanted to tell him that his son would be proud, that I was in awe of the fact that a man would be brave enough to climb into an airplane after what happened, that lots of fathers would scorn airplanes forever and no one would blame them. But I didn’t say those things, mostly so I would not become an emotional basket case in front of a man who had just earned his pilot certificate. I said the only thing I could choke out, inadequate though it was: “Thank you for letting me be a part of this.”
Another memorable checkride was for a man who had lost all of his pilot ratings when the FAA revoked them for a violation. At the time, he had been working in pipeline patrol, but had since moved on to another career because aviation was no longer an option. When I asked him about his motivation (he obviously was thriving in his new career, enough to afford retraining for his certificates), he said, “I want to earn back what I lost.” He didn’t plan on flying for hire again; he just wanted to do right by himself, to turn around a situation that had no doubt been a source of shame and heartache. As I handed him his commercial certificate, he shook his head and said, “You don’t know what this means to me.” In this case, I actually found my voice. I told him I was proud to be a part of his recertification, that many people would have stayed away and tried to forget they ever made a mistake that cost them so dearly, that it takes a person with character to get back in the airplane and rewrite his own ending.
Another checkride I was proud to be a part of was for a man born without fully formed fingers on one of his hands. When I climbed into the airplane, I expected a certain level of competency, considering his instructor had given an endorsement. What I didn’t expect was for the applicant to handle the controls with the smoothness of a pilot twice his experience level. After the ride, I told him how impressed I was and how much I sincerely hoped he would pursue flying further, to see how far he could take it. I cannot imagine the courage it took to sign up for that first flight lesson that would put his “weakness” right out there in the forefront. I hope one day to possess even an ounce of his moxie.
Maybe my applicants will read this piece and know how much their acts of bravery have inspired me to be the best version of myself. Perhaps they will even decide to tell their stories. I wouldn’t blame them if they didn’t, because so much of their journey to aviation has been rooted in pain. I hope you will be inspired, as I am, by the pilots around you. Maybe you support general aviation by being an AOPA member or by volunteering with a Young Eagles program or just by renting an aircraft from your local flight school on sunny days. Regardless, know that your support makes you a part of something significant in people’s lives, a part of their healing and their triumphs.