Pilots' Proverbs
Parental Wisdom Brought Down to Earth

Essay-Memoir by
Robert Wilfred Franson


August 2012

Good words from the parental pilots

My parents, Wilfred R. Franson and Vera Howe Franson, were licensed private pilots before they met. Each belonged to a small club of friends, my father in Oregon and my mother in Wisconsin, who had ganged together to buy a small plane — for even with a Piper Cub, it's an expensive hobby for most individuals to manage alone. The club members took turns flying their plane and shared its expenses.

My father and mother held some decided opinions about flying. Some of these I believe were common among pilots, standardized or even proverbial. Although my parents had ceased to be active pilots while teaching aviation during wartime, even after I was born airplanes and flying naturally continued to be household topics. A handful of these sayings, pithy wisdom, came up often enough in conversation while I was growing up and afterwards that they were engraved in my sensibilities.

I reproduce here a few of those proverbial opinions, with some very simplified discussion.

Pack Your Own Parachute

A pilots' proverb of Emergency Preparedness.

This saying was a Vera Franson favorite. Despite being a modest schoolteacher, she managed some activities (horseback riding, airplane piloting, even paddling in a native dugout canoe on a piranha-infested river) which belonged rather to an adventuress. She was a dyed-in-the-wool exemplar of carefulness, and liked to have done all the simple preparations like ensuring everyone had a warm coat in wet weather.

Bill Franson had a mechanic's instinct for tools and machinery, and appreciation for proper mechanical functioning. With such a couple as my parents, our house never was caught in a power outage, for instance, without multiple flashlights and backup batteries.

Bill and Vera thought it crazy to jump out of an airplane when you don't have to. They considered parachuting a response to disaster, not something to do for entertainment thrills.

Except for hermits and anchorites, we all are more or less dependent on complex machinery built and maintained by others, on clean food and water at least partly fetched and packaged by others, and so on. We undertake a low-probability risk every time we ride in an automobile or eat a meal.

A parachute, however, is designed to be used when you will almost certainly die without it, regardless of probabilities on any given flight. Deploying your parachute is a response to mortal emergency: your airplane is falling out of the sky, you expect it to crash hard, and you don't want to be in it when it slams into the ground, crumpling like paper and exploding into flame. You are betting your life on this individual aerial backup system, that if your airplane goes down your parachute will save you. A parachute-pack cannot be tested ahead of time, because after opening up it needs re-packing. You want the confidence of knowing that should you need to pull that rip cord as you begin to plummet downward, your parachute will snap open and billow above, wafting you down to ground reasonably gently.

Take the care that seems appropriate.

Do Your Own Pre-Flight Check

Postcard photo - U.S. Army Air Corps Preflight Inspection, Chanute Field, Illinois (small)

A pilots' proverb of Routine Self-Reliance.

Before entering, verify that your aircraft is air-worthy in all respects. Walk around the machine, looking at surfaces, external wires, the propellor, tires. When you are satisfied and start its engine, perform the engine checks. As you are taxiing and then gathering speed on the runway, check that ailerons respond cleanly to the joystick, and so on.

You perform at least a casual check for an automobile when you glance at its tires before getting in, and at the instrument panel as you start the engine. You may not be consciously aware of the dials and lights, but one may hope that if any indicator looks out of line, you'll notice it. And take appropriate action, often as simple as filling up with gasoline before setting out on the open highway.

A bicycle puts its rider in more intimate contact with the riding environment, so he is more vigilant than an auto driver in checking his tire pressure, cables, tightness of the seat, and so on before putting foot to pedal.

The more thoroughly we've checked our machine before lifting off or rolling down the road, the more likely our trip will be trouble-free.

Keep Your Head and Eyes Moving

A pilots' proverb of Perspective Safety.

This saying was a Bill Franson favorite, and the one he found the most practical in daily use: that is, for driving an automobile.

While flying, it's critical to be aware of your environment in all three dimensions. Keeping your head and eyes moving means that your perspective is continually being refreshed. While that big sky may seem as empty as can be, all too often another airplane or even a mountainside appears surprisingly to shoulder its way into the airspace of the unobservant pilot, with likely fatal results.

My Dad applied keep your head and eyes moving to my driver's training, and it's stood me in good stead.

The perspective of time and motion is of course a principle of great value and wide application. It is the principle of history, without which we would have no culture, and no human future.

My father at least once honored this rule in the breach, as they say. He always could nap when he wanted to, whether as a passenger on a dull flight, or while taking a roadside break during a long drive. Once in Army Air Corps flight training out of Klamath Falls, Oregon, it was a cold day with snow on the ground, but up above the clouds the sun warmed the cockpit to a drowsy comfort, and my father fell asleep while flying solo. The little plane flew straight, and after a short restful nap my father woke up and resumed control of the plane. No harm, no foul.

Don't try that at home, kids.

Like a Hundred-Hour Pilot

A pilots' proverb of Journeyman Overconfidence.

My parents would sometimes apply this rather scornfully to someone who'd had enough training to consider himself a hot pilot, cocksure; possessing enough time in the air to know he's no longer a raw beginner, but not enough wisdom to appreciate he really hasn't mastered the skill. The saying can be applied to other fields, and of course there are lots of equivalents.

As the Battle of Britain wore on in 1940, some of the young Spitfire and Hurricane fighter pilots went into battle with only a double-handful of hours in those types of planes. They were not cocksure; but like the Spartans at Thermopylae, "did what they told us to do".

It's a Good Landing If You Can Walk Away from It

A pilots' proverb of Resilience.

This was a favorite of both Bill and Vera Franson. It's also the saying that I've quoted most often over the years.

Basically, even if your airplane is smashed, be glad that you're on your feet on the ground and alive to tell the tale. There are variants in all areas of life, such as don't worry about the small stuff or don't sweat the nickel-dime. Even your airplane is small stuff compared to you.

Of course surviving a bad landing with relief if not aplomb also grows into the Nietzschean aphorism: What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.

My parents occasionally discussed some more or less fortunate examples from their own flying days, as well as events in the news in later years. I remember them telling of one wartime accident, when a small plane taking off failed to clear a wire beyond the edge of the airfield. It hooked its landing gear on the wire, spun in a fast half-loop and crashed upside down, killing the pilot.

My parents were never themselves in an air crash. In horseback riding, though, my mother related how she once had been thrown from a galloping stallion, but received nothing worse than bruises. My father liked to tell how his 1932 Ford convertible had skidded off a wet highway skirting the Columbia Gorge, gone over the edge toward the river far below and been stopped by a tree.



© 2012 Robert Wilfred Franson

U.S. Army Air Corps
Preflight Inspection
Chanute Field
Rantoul, Illinois
[early World War II]

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