The Pilot’s Pilot: An Airman and his Airmanship

He’d go to the airport hours before any flight. Alone and with no distractions, his attention could then be focussed solely and entirely on the thorough and meticulous pre-flight of his aircraft. Like an artist ahead of a stage performance, time alone with his thoughts was time spent slipping into harmony with his script, with his role, and with the brush – his aircraft – that he’d use to soon paint the sky.

His aircraft would be readied, its loading carefully completed: weight and balance knowingly and properly done. Every pre-flight check would be completed to a routine which he ritualized like a sermon in his mind. Nothing would be left to chance nor to ambiguity. He would make sure that everything was as it was supposed to be. And he did this each and every time he would need his aircraft to perform as his loyal and reliable servant.

Days before a flight, forecasts would be checked. And checked again. Then verified yet another time. On the morning of a flight, he’d do his final survey of the weather, get a briefing from an expert, even though his experience was such that he was, effectively, an expert in his own right. He’d get the professional’s opinion, then merge it dispassionately with his own. He’d make the decision, only then, to go or to play-it-safe and wait for a better time.

He understood the necessity to keep his aircraft in airworthy condition. He learned where to look for every nut and bolt on his airframe, and any others fastened underneath its wind-cheating skin. Anything mechanical he’d studied and learned. He could draw the aircraft in his mind, knew how things connected, and well knew how they all interacted. He knew that if a problem arose here, then it might have started there. His understanding of his aircraft was holistic, leveraged on his knowledge of the specific inner workings of each and every piece of his aircraft’s hardware. If ever required to deal with a technical issue while aloft, he could deduce the matter with pinpoint probability and take measures to ensure a safe resolution.

His aircraft’s performance capabilities were engraved in his mind, its operating procedures rivetted into his lexicon. So familiar was he with his checklists that he could recite them with never a cheating glance. When setting up for take-offs and for landings, he’d call out the steps, whether alone or carrying passengers, in identical sequence with never a moment’s hesitation. He’d confidently roll-call each checklist item then immediately perform the designated action, emphatically answering his every own command. He never looked for a knob or a switch: he knew where they were with his eyes tightly closed.

His touch at the controls was feather-like. No energy was ever wasted in a maneuver. No aircraft of his was ever asked to overstress its limits, and no urgency was every required in his actions. Throw at him an emergency and he would handle it with calm, coolness and confidence that made it look as if he relished the rise to the challenge.

Professionalism reigned supreme in his mind and in his actions. After years of precarious professional flying, his recreational flying he treated with nary a change in approach. So long as you are a pilot, his approach was to think in the mindset that you are a professional, and to act in every way accordingly.

Author “Sandy” Macdonald, in his seminal aeronautical textbook “From the Ground Up,” describes the meaning of airmanship by asserting all the qualities that a pilot should possess to meet the many layers of his definition. When he wrote his words, he could have been thinking about the pilot described above whose name became synonymous with flying. Airmanship was the foundation of this pilot’s being; he was the embodiment of all that is meant by the term.

A flight for him was a fellowship with the sky. And the sky was a friend he was never going to let down. Preparedness was, thus, his calling card, a signature of his style, a pact with the trade that was his youthful ambition and ultimate life-long calling. He rejoiced each and every time he could fly his aircraft and strove for perfection with his every moment high above.

Pilot. Aviator. William “Bill” Peppler lived to be 96. He was measured, calculating, prudent, professional and safe. All traits that every pilot should remember and know that define what airmanship is always meant to be.