I recently purchased some interesting ergonomic sandals designed to help with the gravity pull that aging seems to be bringing to my body, all the way down to my feet.
“Interesting” in that the built-in arch helps with foot pain but for some reason causes interference with the gas pedal as I drive, especially long distances (if you’ve read me long enough, you know I’m a terrible driver so there “could” be another reason). I also recently heard from AOPA members chagrined over the photo accompanying a story of mine that showed the pilot in flip flops on the rudder pedals. What’s all the flap about footwear?
It only took one email to AOPA’s staff pilots asking what they prefer to wear on their feet in the air to elicit a shoebox full of opinions (sorry). A secondary question about flip flops provided another slap (sorry again) of reality (see “Shoes and Shirts Required,” sidebar). I could write this up in a clever narrative, but I think it’ll be more fun if you read the discourse that followed my email. Turns out that, as in life, everyone has an opinion.
So, Richard McSpadden, senior vice president of the AOPA Air Safety Institute, throws out this missive: “Best tailwheel flying shoes, hands down are HeyDudes! Flat soles with just the right grip; light weight; and you’re stylin’!”
But, no, Alicia Herron, now a content producer for AOPA media and a former protegee of McSpadden’s in ASI replies with this declaration: “That is incorrect, the best tailwheel flying shoes are red Converse high tops and I will die on that hill. Flat soles, light weight, stylin, and they have the bonus of being secured higher up on the ankle, so the heel never catches when you’re dancing on the rudders or transitioning to heel brakes.”
Not to be outdone, in chimes AOPA Foundation Ambassador Katie Pribyl: “I’m afraid that you are both wrong. Square-toe, low-heel Double H cowboy boots. You’re ready for anything—dirt, rattlesnakes, steaming pile of elk or cow crap on that backcountry strip of BLM land. And if things go wrong, you can walk out of anything in them. They fit perfectly on the pedals. Easy to slide up and down for a little brake action. HeyDudes a close-ish second.”
Uh, oh, here comes the president, Mark Baker: “They can’t be good for heel brakes. Just saying.”
There’s some insider banter going on here: “One very wise AOPA staffer once told me brakes in a taildragger are only for run-up!” replies Pribyl.
“Smart staffer,” opines Baker (no employment changes occurred as a result of this exchange).
Some respondents weighed in with type or style of the perfect flying shoes: “Wrestling shoes: thin, flat soles for rider acuity, a heel that doesn’t bind, light weight, and high tops!” —Dave Hirschman, editor at large
“It depends: I have a wide foot, so when flying the Cub I had to find the narrowest boat shoes I could in order to work the pedals. Barefoot probably would have been better. For something like a warbird, I would think you’d want boots. Normal, everyday Spam-canning it…whatever you don’t mind getting dirty since you’ll spill fuel or oil on them or drag them on the ramp when pushing or pulling. Frederick in the winter? Spiked golf shoes!” —Ian J. Twombly, senior content producer
“I’d recommend appropriate footwear for outdoor preflight inspections (and possible cold-weather survival) and then changing into your flying shoes in the cockpit since most winter boots/shoes are too clunky for operating the rudders/brakes.” —Paul Deres, ASI senior director
And then there are the brand loyalists, unafraid to call out the name of the footwear they believe in: “Converse All-Stars or Puma Speedcat (like a racing shoe). Both make it very easy to feel the pedals. Puma Speedcat: Are you landing a Cub or winning the Indy 500? Who’s to say?” —Nick Beatty, director of digital experience“Square-toe, low-heel Double H cowboy boots. You’re ready for anything—dirt, rattlesnakes, steaming pile of elk or cow crap on that backcountry strip.”
“When flying floats, it is Keens. They will save your toes and the water runs through.” —Mark Baker, president
“In the spring/summer I prefer to fly in sneakers, usually basic Vans. In the fall/winter I prefer Steve Madden combat boots. For both it’s because they’re comfortable, lightweight, and pretty fitted to my feet so they’re less likely to get caught on something in the cockpit. I like the boots for flying vintage airplanes with heel brakes because the boots have a bit of a heel which help me reach the brakes better.” —Michelle Walker, video editor
“I just wear what I’ve got. Presently, it’s Allbirds Wool Runner Mizzles (water-repellent). They’re wool, washable, sustainable, and pretty rugged for all the walking I do at events. And they’re wide enough for my EEE- to EEEE-width foot, provided I size up.” —Erick Webb, social media marketer
“I’m a big fan of Allbirds with no socks. They provide great feedback from the rudder pedals while being light and breathable.” —Jamie Beckett, Aero Club liaison
“Allbirds are great. Plus, they’re machine washable.”—Adam Rarey, safety content producer
“I’m going with Merrell: soft, high-top, artificial suede, Goretex, in stylish black. Comfy flying, walking, and waterproof enough for a week at OSH!” —David Tulis, senior photographer
“I also like Merrells for flying, although I don’t wear the same style as Dave T. But Merrells are sturdy and well-made and they come in a range of styles for men and women.” —Jill W. Tallman, technical editor
“Merrell Moab Ventilators is my everyday shoe; works well on the trail, in the airplane, and anywhere I want to ramble.” —John Collins, aviation safety manager
“I like to wear my Vibram five fingers V-active shoes. Particularly in a taildragger.” —Dave Roy, vice president, Pilot Information Center and flight ops
“One hundred percent agree on the Vibrams. A lot of them have tread that comes up over the heel and the toes, plus light and obviously sensitive. Great for anything but especially taildraggers.” —Emma Quedzuweit, assistant editor
“I like OluKai sneakers—flat soles, packable, comfortable, machine washable, and they last forever.” —Sarah Deener, editor
“I like the Sanuk Sidewalk Surfer. Thicker soles, super comfy flying in my Taylorcraft. Pack easy and washable.” —Jeff Rockwell, senior advertising account executive
“I mostly wear Skechers slip-ons. Generally, ones that cover the whole top of my foot. As opposed to just the toe as many women’s styles offer. Otherwise, I go for my apparently rather unstylish New Balance running shoes. They fit my flat, narrow feet the best. And both of these brands have brick and mortar stores close to me so I can try on different styles before purchasing to see if I like the feel and flexibility.” —Sarah Staudt, safety program developer
“Scarpa makes a line of shoes that work well in the airplane.”—Mike Filucci, chief flight instructor