I have deep empathy for flight instructors. They are minor heroes in their own right, having to sit passively while their ashen-faced students barely defy death attempting to place the wheels of their rented airplanes on solid ground, many times a day. In trying to motivate their disheartened students, instructors sometimes reach into their bag of aviation clichés and mutter perhaps the most common one of them all: “Any landing that you walk away from,” they say with an ingenuous grin, “is a good one.”
Sure it is. But while we are at it, let’s translate that ditty into plain English: “That landing was so bad it’s a miracle we’re still alive.”
If you’re learning to fly an airplane, landing them is a pretty important skill, because the alternative can be pretty ugly. For a variety of reasons, it is also the most difficult part of learning to fly, not the least of which has to do with the fact that building a machine capable of defeating gravity is such a divergent thing from building a machine that relies on it. It’s really hard to do both things well, as those who attempt to build flying cars can tell you. The difficulty landing has even worked its way into some crevices of common parlance, so when we say we “landed” a job we are acknowledging that doing so required some extraordinary effort.
Without knowing how to bring an aircraft back down to earth safely one cannot really claim to have accomplished much as a pilot, because the rest of the flying endeavor isn’t really that difficult. Because they are engineered that way, airplanes tend to love to fly, if you’ll forgive the anthropomorphic indulgence, and all pilots have to do—for the most part, is gingerly nudge them along.
But landing is another thing altogether. The earth is a lot less forgiving than the air in which our airplanes fly, and getting quivering tons of metal to gracefully and harmlessly greet the surface requires exceptional skill. And while skill alone will get you most of the way there, the unforeseeable and constantly shifting forces of nature that impinge on flight sometimes can defeat even the most skilled pilot. It is with that recognition that those who fly often and land well offer up words of consolation and reassurance to those who don’t that any landing you walk away from is a good one.
For those of us whose self-criticism seem to reside deep in our bones, it’s downright tempting to hear those words as a feeble attempt to tell us that not only are we lousy pilots, but we wouldn’t be trusted to hold a newborn infant for five minutes. Like the poet Stephen Kessler once said about poets who read their poetry while intoxicated, “Sure, alcoholism is a disease. So what?,” I am not really impressed by words of consolation when I have done a bad job. I walked away from a bad landing. So what?
It is true that when dealing with near-death experiences such as landing airplanes, the stakes are high enough that we really don’t need much to motivate ourselves to do better. The idea of praising our efforts and trying to soften our failures is simply to make sure that we get back on the horse and learn to do better.
It is also an attempt to combat the deleterious effects of abundant self-criticism. Those unfortunate folks who go through life with hubris and who manage to do a lousy job landing their airplanes don’t need reassuring clichés; they need to be humiliated, shamed, or effectively tortured. I don’t want those folks flying airplanes, walking the face of the earth, or, for that matter, representing my country in the White House.
I have had good instructors and less good instructors over the years. After every bad landing the good instructors typically say something to the effect of: “Let’s go around and try that again.” They like their students to end with a feeling of success. As a certified pilot, I continue to fly often with instructors, because one of the other oft-heard aviation cliché’s is the pilot’s license (although it isn’t really a license, but that’s another story) is a “license to learn.” But when I fly solo, or fly with non-pilot passengers, and manage to screw up a landing, I confess that if I don’t mutter it out loud, I do tell myself that, having walked away from the landing, it was a good one. It is a lie, I know, but it allows me to get back in the cockpit another day.