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Oh, the flying life

Being a pilot makes you a better person

By Roger A. Giuliani

When I was a child, every now and then my mom would bring home a balsawood airplane from the grocery store. They had a red propeller, rubber band, about four parts, and cost about $1.

Illustration by Marcin Wolski
Illustration by Marcin Wolski

After winding the rubber band tight by spinning the propeller and releasing it into the wind, that little airplane would amaze me that it could fly, albeit for a few seconds. I would fly that airplane for hours until it eventually cracked or became too heavy with the tape I used to fix it. Some 45 years later, as I was sitting in my law office like any other day, a young man walked in to do some estate planning. He had a flight school shirt on. When I asked him what his shirt was about, he told me he was a flight instructor at a flight school and that he teaches people to fly. I assumed he meant professional pilots, but he said, “regular people like you, I teach them to be pilots.”

The next weekend he took me up on an introductory flight, and well, you know the story from there, I was hooked. I soon got my private pilot certificate and have nearly 250 hours logged and am a co-owner of a Cessna 182Q. But becoming a pilot didn’t just teach me about flying. It transformed me into a better person.

First, I became humble. Being an estate planning attorney for nearly 30 years, I was in the same routine every day, and, like anything you spend a lot of time at, good at my trade. But not at flying. Flying required me to understand a whole new language—airspeed, density altitude, notam, altimeter settings. And, oh, by the way, to digest, understand, and implement this while maintaining heading, altitude, and airspeed until it just comes naturally. Sounds easy, right? But as a new pilot, regardless of whether you are a lawyer, a surgeon, or owner of a 500-employee company, we are all beginner students in aviation. For me, that meant becoming humble, real fast, and stepping back from my day-to-day professional world to become a new student. That meant training myself mentally to demote myself from the world in which I was a general and becoming a private. I learned that anytime and every time I flew, it would be a learning experience.

I learned the importance of checklists. Before flight training, had I never seen so many checklists, nor realized how important they are. I found myself adding checklists to my law firm case files, making sure we went through all the procedural and substantive matters on a list pasted onto the front of the files. I began making checklists even at home in the morning. I realized that these lists in my life took the stress out of remembering every task.

Flying takes time—preflight, fueling, holding short behind six other aircraft, landing, and eating your $100 hamburger (more like $200 burger these days with fuel costs), return flight, putting the airplane back in the hangar. To find that time, you must juggle your time obligations in your life, work, family, exercise. That means being laser-focused on your time management. You need to learn to compartmentalize and be extremely efficient so that when you are flying, you have earned that time.

I am honored when a nonpilot passenger trusts their life in my hands to go flying. I never take that for granted.The anticipation of my first solo flight was more stressful than the flight itself. Chair flying the traffic pattern over and over again, so that it was the only way I knew how to do it, cemented that routine into my brain. There are few times in life when we are expected to achieve excellence; most of us wake up, go to work, go to school, make dinner, go through our daily routine, with no pressure or stress. Flying your first solo is one of those times when you are required to achieve excellence. And that pressure is a privilege. Only when you fly your first solo do you realize you have the ability and self-confidence to handle that pressure, not only with flying, but in life.

If you forget a file at work or miss a dinner date with your wife, you can make it up. Miss the weather report, fly into IFR conditions as a VFR pilot, fail to properly clear your turns in the pattern—this can cost you your life. And not just your life, it’s the effect your life has on your loved ones, your employees, and the people on the ground. As my flight instructor once told me, “The people on the ground didn’t sign up for this.” Anytime I decide to make the “go” decision and roll off the runway as the pilot in command, I am in control and I am solely responsible not only for my life, but for the aircraft, the passengers, the people on the ground, and the aviation community. I am honored when a nonpilot passenger trusts their life in my hands to go flying. I never take that for granted.

I am proudly American and feel blessed to live in a country that allows me the opportunity to become a pilot. There are plenty of men and women in our country who flew balsawood airplanes as a kid like me but who will never get the privilege of becoming a pilot. Flying is a privilege, not a right, and as a pilot I respect, appreciate, and accept that. We are blessed, regardless of who you are, to be able to yell “clear” before starting that engine in our aircraft.

The skill set required to fly extends to our everyday life. We learn to learn. We become students, we learn to be humble, to be responsible, to handle pressure, to manage our time, and to realize we are so darn lucky to live a country that allows us the freedom and privilege to be pilots. Becoming a pilot makes us better people.

Roger A. Giuliani is an attorney in Las Vegas, Nevada, who actively flies his Cessna 182.

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