I sometimes describe my aviation quotation collection as ‘man’s great thoughts on flying, airplanes, and being a pilot’. Well, this would be the being a pilot part. My more personal thoughts on flying are online at The Inner Art of Airmanship, but here is what lots of other pilots think about actual piloting:

What is chiefly needed is skill rather than machinery.

Wilbur Wright, second paragraph of the first letter the brothers wrote to Octave Chanute, 13 May 1900.

For Some Years

Ships are to little purpose without skillful Sea Men.

Richard Hakluyt, Voyages, 1589.

Actual practice in individual flight presents the best prospects for developing our capacity until it leads to perfected free flight.

Otto Lilienthal, 1895, for the first (German) edition of the Pocket-Book of Aeronautics. Published in English (translator W. Mansergh Varley) in the 1907 handbook:

Pocket-Book of Aeronautics

One can get a proper insight into the practice of flying only by actual flying experiments … The manner in which we have to meet the irregularities of the wind, when soaring in the air, can only be learnt by being in the air itself … The only way which leads us to a quick development in human flight is a systematic and energetic practice in actual flying experiments.

Otto Lilienthal, Flying As A Sport, Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, April 1896.

Flying as a Sport

Now, there are two ways of learning to ride a fractious horse: one is to get on him and learn by actual practice how each motion and trick may be best met; the other is to sit on a fence and watch the beast a while and then retire to the house and at leisure figure out the best way of overcoming his jumps and kicks. The latter system is the safer, but the former, on the whole, turns out the larger proportion of good riders. It is very much the same thing in learning to ride a flying machine.

Wilbur Wright, from an address to the Western Society of Engineers, Chicago, 18 September 1901.

I know him well and he is just the kind of man to accomplish such an undertaking. He is apparently without fear and what he sets out to do he generally accomplishes. This recklessness makes him anything but a good aviator, however, for he lacks entirely the element of caution.

Wilbur Wright, cited as 'American Aeronat', on receiving the news that Louis Blériot had crossed the English Channel, the first to do so in an aeroplane. Quoted in Lays Aside Crutches to Fly Across Channel, Automobile Topics Illustrated, 31 July 1909.

Louis Bleriot

It is possible to fly without motors, but not without knowledge and skill. This I conceive to be fortunate, for man, by reason of his greater intellect, can more reasonably hope to equal birds in knowledge than to equal nature in the perfection of her machinery.

Wilbur Wright, letter to Octave Chanute, 13 May 1900.

Hereafter, if you should observe on occasion to give your officers and friends a little more praise than is their Due, and confess more fault than you can justly be charged with, you will only become the sooner for it a Great Captain.

Benjamin Franklin, advice to John Paul Jones, in letter 5 July 1780.

A small craft in the ocean is, or should be, a benevolent dictatorship. The skipper's brain is the vessel's brain and he must give up his soul to her, regardless of his own feelings or inclinations.

Tristan Jones, Yarns, 1983.


Often as a boy I had thought of the pleasure of being one’s own master in one’s own boat; but the reality far exceeded the imagination of it, and it was not a transient pleasure.

John MacGregor, The Voyage Alone in the Yawl Rob Roy, 1867.

The Voyage Alone in the Yawl Rob Roy

If a person does not know to which port he is steering, no wind is favorable to him.

Seneca, original Latin, “ignoranti quem portum petat, nullus suus ventus est”. Epistolae, LXXI., 3.

A man who is not afraid of the sea will soon be drowned, for he will be going out on a day when he shouldn’t.

John Millington Synge, The Aran islands, 1907.

Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.

African (Swahili) proverb.

In a calm sea every man is a pilot.

John Ray, English Proverbs, 1670.

The sea has never been friendly to man. At most it has been the accomplice of human restlessness.

Joseph Conrad, The Mirror of the Sea, 1906.

To be able to choose the line of greatest advantage instead of yielding in the direction of the least resistance. Does a ship sail to its destination no better than a log drifts nowhither? The philosopher is Nature's pilot. And there you have our difference: to be in hell is to drift: to be in heaven is to steer.

Don Juan, answering the Devil’s question “What is the use of knowing?”, in George Bernard Shaw’s 1903 play Man and Superman.

Anyone can do the job when things are going right. In this business we play for keeps.

Ernest K. Gann, Fate is the Hunter, 1961.

Any idiot can get an airplane off the ground, but an aviator earns his keep by bringing it back anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances that man and God can dream up.

Walter Cunningham, The All-American Boys, 1977.

I was always brought up to expect the aeroplane might break any minute.

Eric Moody, British Airways 747 captain, reflecting on his famous 1982 event, losing all four engines, at night, over mountains. Interview in a 2022 Flight Safety Australia article.

Eric Moody and Crew

There are airmen and there are pilots: the first being part bird whose view from aloft is normal and comfortable, a creature whose brain and muscles frequently originate movements which suggest flight; and then there are pilots who regardless of their airborne time remain earth-loving bipeds forever. When these latter unfortunates, because of one urge or another, actually make an ascension, they neither anticipate nor relish the event and they drive their machines with the same graceless labor they inflict upon the family vehicle.

Ernest K. Gann, Old Number One, Ernest K. Gann’s Flying Circus, 1974.

In three days you should learn the manipulation of your machine. On the fourth you should be able to make some long hops into the air. In a week — well, there is no reason why, if the route is fairly unobstructed, you should not fly to the station in the morning to catch your train to town.

Sales-talk at the Aero Show, Olympia, 1910. Quoted in the 1958 book Flying Witness: Harry Harper and the Golden Age of Aviation.

In soloing — as in other activities — it is far easier to start something than it is to finish it.

Amelia Earhart, 20 Hours: 40 minutes, 1928.

In an imperfect world perfection is not instantly available. Railroad safety, for instance, cannot be secured by mechanical devices alone. It is primarily a resultant of care and discipline.

Ivy Lee, address before the Traffic Club of Pittsburgh, 8 December 1913, first published in Human Nature and Railroads, 1915.

Man is not as good as a black box for certain specific things. however he is more flexible and reliable. He is easily maintained and can be manufactured by relatively unskilled labour.

Wing Commander H. P. Ruffell Smith, RAF, 1949.

In the air transport business more than any other, the human element is everything. That big plane in front of the hangar is only as good as the man who flies it, and he is only as good as the people on the ground who work with him.

William A. 'Pat' Patterson, President United Airlines, quoted in the 1944 book High Horizons.

It's all right if your automobile goes wrong while you are driving it. You can get out in the road and tinker with it. But if your airplane breaks down, you can't sit on a convenient cloud and tinker with that!

Katherine Stinson, American Magazine, 1917.

This man deserves a medal as big as a frying pan. He has done a fantastic job.

Unnamed airport worker regards Captain Peter Burkill, British Airways B-777 pilot, following safe crash-landing at Heathrow Airport, press reports 17 January 2008

That’s what we’re trained to do.

Chesley B. 'Sully' Sullenberger III, Captain of US Airways flight 1549. The A320 ditched in the Hudson River with no loss of life after suffering a low-altitude duel engine failure.

The New York Times reported on 16 January 2009 that he, “had just performed a remarkable feat of flying. Some were calling it a miracle. But there he stood, calmly, inside the glass waiting room at the New York Waterway terminal on Pier 79, speaking to police officials. His fine gray hair was unruffled, and his navy blue pilot’s uniform had barely a wrinkle.” 15 January 2009.

You’ll be bothered from time to time by storms, fog, snow. When you are, think of those who went through it before you, and say to yourself, ‘What they could do, I can do.’

Antoine de Saint Exupéry, Wind, mood Sand, and Stars, 1939.

The way I see it, you can either work for a living or you can fly airplanes. Me, I’d rather fly.

Len Morgan, airline captain and long-time Flying magazine columnist. He said this line many times.

He moves not through distance, but through the ranges of satisfaction that come from hauling himself up into the air with complete and utter control; from knowing himself and knowing his airplane so well that he can come somewhere close to touching, in his own special and solitary way, that thing that is called perfection.

Richard Bach, A Gift of Wings, 1974.

A pilot lives in a world of perfection, or not at all.

Richard S. Drury, My Secret War, 1979.

Accuracy means something to me. It’s vital to my sense of values. I’ve learned not to trust people who are inaccurate. Every aviator knows that if mechanics are inaccurate, aircraft crash. If pilots are inaccurate, they get lost — sometimes killed. In my profession life itself depends on accuracy.

Charles A. Lindbergh, The Spirit of St. Louis, 1953.

Every flying machine has its own unique characteristics, some good, some not so good. Pilots naturally fly the craft in such a manner as to take advantage of its good characteristics and avoid the areas where it is not so good.

Neil Armstrong, quoted in Popular Mechanics magazine, June 2009.

Flying has taught me more about who I really am than anything I’ve ever done. I take very calculated risks. I’ve done too many stunts on too many movies and television shows to be a daredevil. I learned a long time ago that if you want to do something you enjoy, you want to do it again.

Kurt Russell, actor and pilot, story in Airport Journals magazine, May 2010.

Russell has owned a Rockwell Commander, Cessna Crusader, Cessna 414, Cessna Conquest, a Piaggio Avanti 180, and says his favorite is the Starduster biplane

Kurt Russell

A good pilot may be disappointed by his airplane, but it will never surprise him.

Len Morgan, Rules To Fly By, Flying magazine, March 1983.

The sharpest captains are the easiest to work with.

Len Morgan, Rules To Fly By, Flying magazine, March 1983.

Rule books are paper — they will not cushion a sudden meeting of stone and metal.

Ernest K. Gann, Fate is the Hunter, 1961.

The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them.

Antoine de Saint Exupéry, Wind, Sand, and Stars, 1939.

A pilot’s business is with the wind, and with the stars, with night, with sand, with the sea. He strives to outwit the forces of nature. He stares with expectancy for the coming of the dawn the way a gardener awaits the coming of spring. He looks forward to port as a promised land, and truth for him is what lives in the stars.

Antoine de Saint Exupéry, Wind, Sand, and Stars, 1939.

One of the things that we do, in the basic design, is the pilot always has the ultimate authority of control. There’s no computer on the airplane that he can not override. Or turn off if the ultimate comes … If something in the box should inappropriately think it’s stalling when it isn’t the pilot can say this is wrong, and he can override it. That’s a fundamental difference in philosophy that we have verses some of the competition.

John Cashman, Chief Test Pilot Boeing 777. Interview in 1996 PBS TV show 21st Century Jet: Building the Boeing 777, Episode 1.

Flying Gloves

No matter how important a man at sea may consider himself, unless he is fundamentally worthy the sea will some day find him out. If a wrong move is made at sea, in a critical moment, death may be the penalty for the most simple failure—not only death to one but to many. Incompetence may prevail upon the shore but at sea it sooner or later is ruthlessly uncovered and utter disaster often follows in its wake.

Felix Riesenberg, preface to his huge book Standard Seamanship for the Merchant Service, 1922.

Always expect failures — in systems and humans. Don’t let either kill you.

Jim Wetherbee, test pilot and astronaut. Only person to command five Space Shuttle missions. In his 2016 book Controlling Risk: Thirty Techniques for Operating Excellence.

Jim Wetherbee quote

Don’t go out [flying] even for all the officers of the government unless you would go equally if they were absent. Do not let yourself be forced into doing anything before you are ready. Be very cautious and proceed slowly.

Wilbur Wright, letter to Orville about flying in front of crowds. After some technical discussion about the rudder, he added, “I can only say be extraordinarily cautious”. 25 August 1908.

Whoever wants to learn to fly must first learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance: — one cannot fly into flying!

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Thus spoke Zarathustra: A book for everyone and nobody, 1883-1885.

Sometimes things are bigger than you, and the best you can hope for is to keep your wings level and have patience and a little luck.

Warren L 'Wally' Simpson, a pilot with more than 75 round-trips ‘over the hump‘ in WWII.

It is hard enough for anyone to map out a course of action and stick to it, particularly in the face of the desires of one’s friends; but it is doubly hard for an aviator to stay on the ground waiting for just the right moment to go into the air.

Glenn Curtiss, in The Curtiss Aviation Book by Glenn H. Curtis and Augustus Post, 1912.

The life of the modern jet pilots tends to be most unexpectedly lonely … Foreign countries are places to reach accurately and to leave on time. Distance is a raw material to work with.

John Pearson, Sunday Times newspaper, 4 Feb 1962.

Hours and hours passed, with nothing to do but keep the compass on its course and the plane on a level keel. This sounds easy enough, but its very simplicity becomes a danger when your head keeps nodding with weariness and utter boredom and your eyes everlastingly try to shut out the confusing rows of figures in front of you, which will insist on getting jumbled together. Tired of trying to sort them out, you relax for a second, then your head drops and you sit up with a jerk, Where are you? What are you doing here? Oh yes, of course, you are somewhere in the middle of the North Atlantic, with hungry waves below you like vultures impatiently waiting for the end.

Amy Johnson, Sky Roads of the World, 1939.

To be alone in the air at night is to be very much alone indeed … cut off from everything and everyone … nothing is ‘familiar’ any longer … I think that unfamiliarity is the most difficult thing to face; one feels rather like Alice in Wonderland after she has nibbled the toadstool that made her grow smaller — and like Alice, one hopes that the process will stop while there is still something left!

Pauline Gower. Quoted in the 2022 book Pauline Gower, Pioneering Leader of the Spitfire Women.

A pilot who says he has never been frightened in an airplane is, I’m afraid, lying.

Louise Thaden. First sentence of the foreward to her book High, Wide, and Frightened, 1938.

"Are you ever afraid when you fly?"
“That's a good question. Yeah. I’m always a little afraid when I fly. That's what makes me so damn good. I’ve seen pilots who weren't afraid of anything, who would forget about checking their instruments, who flew by instinct as though they were immortal. I’ve pissed on the graves of those poor bastards too. The pilot who isn’t a little bit afraid always screws up and when you screw up bad in a jet, you get a corporal playing taps at the expense of the government.”

Lieutenant Colonel Bull Meecham, USMC, in Pat Conroy’s book, The Great Santini. I’ve also got Pat’s eulogy to his dad, Colonel Don Conroy, online here for all those that have read the book and want to know more.

I was always afraid of dying. Always. It was my fear that made me learn everything I could about my airplane and my emergency equipment, and kept me flying respectful of my machine and always alert in the cockpit.

General Chuck Yeager, Yeager, An Autobiography, 1985.

I’ve learned that it is what I do not know that I fear, and I strive, outwardly from pride, inwardly from the knowledge that the unknown is what will finally kill me, to know all there is to be known about my airplane. I will never die.

Richard Bach, Stranger to the Ground, 1963.

There are no accidents and no fatal flaws in the machines; there are only pilots with the wrong stuff.

Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff, 1979.

The Right stuff

You’ve got to expect things are going to go wrong. And we always need to prepare ourselves for handling the unexpected

Neil Armstrong, in 2005 documentary Magnificent Desolation: Walking On The Moon.

Wheeling is just like flying … To learn to wheel one must learn to balance. To learn to fly one must learn to balance.

James Howard Means, on the relationship between cycling and flying, The Aeronautical Annual, 1896.

Any sort of ship you have to learn to pilot; it takes a long time, a new full set of reflexes, a different and artificial way of thinking. Even riding a bicycle demands an acquired skill, very different from walking, whereas a spaceship oh, brother! I won’t live that long. Spaceships are for acrobats who are also mathematicians.

Juan Rico, in Robert A. Heinlein’s 1959 book Starship Troopers.

One particular circumstance distinguishes the sea commander from his equals in most other spheres. He stands the same chance of death, mutilation or capture as the least experienced sailor in his fleet. What affects others will affect him personally. This fact ‘concentrates the mind wonderfully’, as Dr Johnson remarked of a man who was to be hanged in a fortnight.

Oliver Warner, prologue to Command At Sea: Great Fighting Admirals from Hawke to Nimitz, 1976.

When anyone asks me how I can best describe my experiences of nearly forty years at sea, I merely say uneventful. I have never been in an accident of any sort worth speaking about … I never saw a wreck and have never been wrecked, nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort.

Captain Edward J. Smith, R.M.S. Titanic, an experienced 62 year old captain, this was to be his last voyage prior to retirement, 1912. Quoted in Disaster At Last Defalls Capt. Smith, The New York Times newspaper, 16 April 1912.

It is a good thing to learn caution by the misfortunes of others.

Attibuted to Publilius Syrus. For example, in the 1860 book Truths Illustrated by Great Authors.

The best safety device is the pilot, who, deep down, regardless of the aircraft, retains a sense of fallibility and vulnerability. No system can ever substitute for that.

Arnold Reiner, retired airline captain and a former director of flight safety at Pan Am. End of Pilots on Autopilot op-ed, in The New York Times newspaper, 16 December 2009.

Real confidence in the air is bred only by mistakes made and recovered from at a safe altitude, in a safe ship, and seated on a good parachute.

Rodney H. Jackson, A Lesson in Stunting, Aeronautics magazine, February 1930.

Mistakes are inevitable in aviation, especially when one is still learning new things. The trick is to not make the mistake that will kill you.

Stephen Coonts, The Cannibal Queen: An Aerial Odyssey Across America, 1993.

When you’re in a high performance airplane, you really have to — despite what might be happening in your personal life or things with your job, or things on the ground — you really have to focus on what you’re doing right now.

Scott Kelly, Commander of the International Space Station, former Navy test pilot, and brother of shot Tuscon Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ husband Mark Kelly. She was shot while he was in space. The New York Times, 4 February 2011.

The pilot is still the pilot, whether he is at a remote console or on the flight deck. With the potential for thousands of these unmanned aircraft in use years from now, the standards for pilot training need to be set high to ensure that those on the ground and other users of the airspace are not put in jeopardy.”

Mark Rosenker, NTSB Chairman, verbal comments following the release of the NTSB’s first report on a UAV accident, 16 October 2007.

He is most free from danger, who, even when safe, is on his guard.

Publilius Syrus.

What is it in fact, this learning to fly? To be precise, it is ‘to learn NOT to fly wrong.’ To learn to become a pilot is to learn — not to let oneself fly too slowly. Not to let oneself turn without accelerating. Not to cross the controls. Not to do this, and not to do that … To pilot is negation.

Henri Mignoet, L’Aviation de L’Amateur; Le Sport de l’Air, 1934.

They don't build airplanes that take superhumans to fly them. If they did, they wouldn't sell very many of them.

Chuck Yeager, talking to Jackie Cochran, quoted in the 1987 book Jackie Cochran: An autobiography.

Chuck and Jackie

If you aren’t sweating too much before a flight, you surely haven’t asked enough questions. If you are not sweating just a little during the flight, you may not be attentive enough. And, if you are not sweating out the answers with all the experts you can think of after the flight, you may never find that very beautiful pearl in all that pig litter.

Attributed to Corwin H. Meyer, Grumman test pilot, WWII.

There’s no such thing as a natural-born pilot.

Chuck Yeager, On the High Road With America’s Favorite Flyboy, Air Force magazine, September 1985.

I have flown in just about everything, with all kinds of pilots in all parts of the world — British, French, Pakistani, Iranian, Japanese, Chinese — and there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between any of them except for one unchanging, certain fact: the best, most skillful pilot has the most experience.

Chuck Yeager, Yeager: An Autobiography, 1985.

Chuck Yeager

Most pilots learn, when they pin on their wings and go out and get in a fighter, especially, that one thing you don’t do, you don’t believe anything anybody tells you about an airplane

Chuck Yeager. Quoted at

Now listen, buddy, there are a few corny ideas you got to get out of your head if you’re going to fly an airplane. Most things are just the reverse from what people think. The higher you are the safer you are. The Earth down there, that, that’s your enemy because once you hit that, boy, you splatter.

Pete Sandidge (Spencer Tracy) in the 1943 movie A Guy Named Joe. Adaptation by Frederick Hazlitt Brennan from an original story by Chandler Sprague and David Boehm.

Get rid at the outset of the idea that the airplane is only an air-going sort of automobile. It isn’t. It may sound like one and smell like one, and it may have been interior decorated to look like one; but the difference is — it goes on wings.

Wolfgang Langewiesche, first words of his classic text Stick and Rudder: An Explanation of the Art of Flying, 1944.

Sometimes I watch myself fly. For in the history of human flight it is not yet so very late; and a man may still wonder once in a while and ask: how is it that I, poor earth-habitituated animal, can fly?

Any young boy can nowadays explain human flight — mechanistically: “ … and to climb you shove the throttle all the way forward and pull back just a little on the stick … “ One might as well explain music by saying that the further over to the right you hit the piano the higher it will sound. The makings of a flight are not in the levers, wheels, and pedals but in the nervous system of the pilot: physical sensations, bits of textbook, deep-rooted instincts, burnt-child memories of trouble aloft, hangar talk.

Wolfgang Langewiesche, A Flyer’s World, 1950.

The length of debate about a flight maneuver is always inversely proportional to the complexity of maneuver. Thus, if the flight maneuver is simple enough, debate approaches infinity.

Robert Livingston, Flying The Aeronca, 1981.

A pilot must have a memory; but there are two higher qualities which he must also have. He must have good and quick judgment and decision, and a cool, calm courage that no peril can shake. Give a man the merest trifle of pluck to start with, and by the time he has become a pilot he cannot be unmanned by any danger a steamboat can get into; but one cannot quite say the same for judgment. Judgment is a matter of brains, and a man must start with a good stock of that article or he will never succeed as a pilot.

Mark Twain, writting about Mississippi river boat pilots, Old Times on the Mississippi, The Atlantic Monthly, published January to July, 1875.

Keep the aeroplane in such an attitude that the air pressure is always directly in the pilot’s face. The aeroplane is then always engaging the air as designed to do so, and both lifting and controlling surfaces are acting efficiently.

Horatio Barber, Royal Flying Corps, The Aeroplane Speaks, 1916.

The Aeroplane Speaks

Nine-tenths confidence and one-tenth common sense equals [a] successful aviator.

John B. Moisant, How to Fly: The Flyer’s Manual, 1917.

It doesn’t take any more prowess to be a super-flyer than it does to be a super something else.

Amelia Earhart, The Fun of It, 1932.

I think there is something exhilarating in flying amongst clouds, and always get a feeling of wanting to pit my aeroplane against them, charge at them, climb over them to show them you have them beat, circle round them, and generally play with them; but clouds can on occasion hold their own against the aviator, and many a pilot has found himself emerging from a cloud not on a level keel.

Cloud-flying requires practice, even if you have every modern instrument, and unless you keep calm and collected you will get into trouble after you have been inside a really thick one for a few minutes. In the very early days of aviation, 1912 to be correct, I emerged from a cloud upside down, much to my discomfort, as I didn’t know how to get right way up again. I found out somehow, or I wouldn't be writing this.

Charles Rumney Samson, A Flight from Cairo to Cape Town and Back, 1931.

When a flight is proceeding incredibly well, something was forgotten.

Robert Livingston, Flying The Aeronca, 1981.

The pilot who teaches himself has a fool for a student.

Robert Livingston, Flying The Aeronca, 1981.

The happily married man with a large family is the test pilot for me.

Nevil Shute, Slide Rule: The Autobiography of an Engineer, 1954.

Flexible is much too rigid, in flying you have to be fluid.

Attributed to Verne Jobst, who was the most senior pilot at United Airlines, president of the International Aerobatics Club of America, and director of all flight operations at EAA Oshkosh. Listed by Len Morgan in Quips and Quotes, Flying magazine, September 1996.

If you can’t afford to do something right, then be darn sure you can afford to do it wrong.

Attributed to Charlie Nelson.

Just remember, if you crash because of weather, your funeral will be held on a sunny day.

Attributed to Layton A. Bennett.

Learning the secret of flight from a bird was a good deal like learning the secret of magic from a magician. After you once know the trick and what to look for you see things that you did not notice when you did not know exactly what to look for.

Orville Wright, letter to Horace Lytle, 27 December 1941.

Orville letter

It is not easy to be the best. You must have the courage to bear pain, disappointment, and heartbreak. Our dedication must help lift the other up when one of us is down. You must learn how to face danger and understand fear, yet not be afraid. You must establish your goal, and no matter what deters you along the way, in your every waking moment you must say to yourself, ‘I can do it.’

Betty Skelton, the ‘first lady of aerobatics’ and the ‘fastest woman on Earth’. Quoted in 1993 book Ladybirds II: The Continuing Story of American Women in Aviation.

Betty Skelton

Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.

Publius Syrus, First Century BC.

It is not possible that any man can be a good and sufficient Pilot or skilful Seaman, but by painful and diligent practice.

John Davies, The Seamans Secrets, 1594.

Skill develops from controlled, corrected repetitions of an act for which one has some knack. Skill is a product of experience and criticism and intelligence. Analysis cannot much transcend those truisms. Between the amateur and the professional, between the duffer and the expert, between the novice and the veteran there is a difference not only in degree but in kind. The skillful man is, within the function of his skill, a different integration, a different nervous and muscular and psychological organization. He has specialized responses of great intricacy. His associative faculties have patterns of screening, acceptance and rejection, analysis and sifting, evaluation and selective adjustment much too complex for conscious direction. Yet as the patterns of appraisal and adjustment exert their automatic and perhaps metabolic energy, they are accompanied by a conscious process fully as complex. A tennis player or a watchmaker or an airplane pilot is an automatism but he is also criticism and wisdom.

Bernard DeVoto, in his Pulitzer Prize winning book about the Rocky Mountain fur trade, Across the Wide Missouri, 1947.

Across the Wide Missouri

I am glad to see that you are riding the airlines. I hope you either take up parachute jumping or stay out of single motored planes at night.

Charles Lindbergh, to Wiley Post, 17 May 1931. Quoted in the 1993 book Will Rogers: A Biography.

Never fly the 'A' model of anything.

Attributed to Ed Thompson.

Never fly anything that doesn’t have the paint worn off the rudder pedals.

Attributed to Harry Bill.

One ship drives east and another drives west
With the selfsame winds that blow.
'Tis the set of the sails
And not the gales
Which tells us the way to go.

Like the winds of the sea are the ways of fate
As we voyage along through life.
'Tis the set of a soul that decides its goal,
And not the calm or the strife.

Ella Wheeler Wilcox, The Winds of Fate. The Collected Poems of Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Vol 1, 1917.

What kind of man would live where there is no danger? I don’t believe in taking foolish chances. But nothing can be accomplished by not taking a chance at all.

Charles A. Lindbergh, at a news conference after his trans-Atlantic flight, May 1927. Quoted in 2002 book Lindbergh: Flight’s Enigmatic Hero.

Keep thy airspeed up, less the earth come from below and smit thee.

William Kershner, test pilot, flight instructor, and author. One of his favourite phrases, repeated many times.

To fly that plane is exactly like the task of balancing an ice cream cone on the tip of one’s finger.

Jimmy Doolitlle, talking about the Granville Gee Bee Sportster. Russell Boardman Victim of Fate, Indianapolis Star newspaper, 6 July 1933.

Gee Bee

Don’t ever let an airplane take you someplace where your brain hasn't arrived at least a couple of minutes earlier.


They will pressure you into doing things that may be unsafe, use your good judgment, and remember, ‘I would rather be laughed at, than cried for.’

George MacDonald.

When a prang seems inevitable, endeavour to strike the softest, cheapest object in the vicinity, as slowly and gently as possible.

Advice given to RAF pilots during WWII

Instrument flying is when your mind gets a grip on the fact that there is vision beyond sight.

US Navy Approach magazine c. WWII

Flying is done largely with the imagination.

Wolfgang Langewiesche, Stick and Rudder: An Explanation of the Art of Flying, 1944.

The thing is, helicopters are different from planes. An airplane by it’s nature wants to fly, and if not interfered with too strongly by unusual events or by a deliberately incompetent pilot, it will fly.

A helicopter does not want to fly. It is maintained in the air by a variety of forces and controls working in opposition to each other, and if there is any disturbance in this delicate balance the helicopter stops flying; immediately and disastrously. There is no such thing as a gliding helicopter.

This is why being a helicopter pilot is so different from being an airplane pilot, and why in generality, airplane pilots are open, clear-eyed, buoyant extroverts and helicopter pilots are brooding introspective anticipators of trouble. They know if something bad has not happened it is about to.

Harry Reasoner, ABC TV Evening News, 16 February 1971.

If you don’t think you’re the best pilot in the business, MAYBE you’re in the wrong business. If you think you could never make a mistake, you are REALLY in the wrong business.

Randall Lee 'Randy' Sohn, airline captain, warbird pilot and examiner.

Who’s the best pilot you ever saw? … You’re lookin’ at him.

Gordon Cooper, played by Dennis Quaid, in the 1983 movie The Right Stuff.


There are two kinds of airplanes — those you fly and those that fly you … You must have a distinct understanding at the very start as to who is the boss.

Ernest K. Gann, Fate is the Hunter, 1961.

And let’s get one thing straight. There’s a big difference between a pilot and an aviator. One is a technician; the other is an artist in love with flight.

E. B. Jeppesen, quoted in An Afternoon with ‘Jepp’ and the OX5, Air Line Pilot magazine, March 1997.

Don’t believe other people, prove it for yourself.
Stick to what you have proved believable.
Don’t be overawed by other more senior people.
Don’t ignore the feelings in your bones.

David P. Davies, former Chief Test Pilot of the British Air Registration Board (now the CAA). Quoted in the preface to the second edition of Design of the Aeroplane, 2001.

Flying for the airlines is not supposed to be an adventure. From takeoff to landing, the autopilots handle the controls. This is routine. In a Boeing as much as an Airbus. And they make better work of it than any pilot can. you’re not supposed to be the blue-eyed hero here. Your job is to make decisions, to stay awake, and to know which buttons to push and when. Your job is to manage the systems.

Bernard Ziegler, former Airbus Senior Vice President for Engineering, interview in William Langewiesche’s Fly by Wire: The Geese, the Glide, the Miracle on the Hudson, 2009.

I don’t want monitors here. I want pilots … Our whole philosophy is that the pilot is in charge of the airplane. We’re very anti automation here at this airline.

Greg Crum, System Chief Pilot Southwest Airlines, 1996.

There can’t be a checklist for everything. Procedural compliance is a necessary but not sufficient condition for safety.

Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger, interview with Roger Rapoport and Shem Malmquist, April 2021.

I pay those guys to fly, so let them fly. I’ll be damned if I’ll pay them to just sit there.

Reportedly Eddie Rickenbackerer CEO Eastern Airlines. Eastern aircraft were some of the last to be equipped with autopilots, his pilots saying if it wasn’t in Captain Eddie’s SPAD he won’t buy it. Quoted in 1999 book Human Factors in Multi-Crew Flight Operations by Orlady & Orlady.

Your immediate superior is the first pilot. His wants are your orders - he is king - you are his faithful and alert servant. You are on probation always; your working hours are from now on and your pay is small. Your advancement is uncertain and there are thousands of other first pilot aspirants striving to get your job at even less money and more work. You are not employed because of your flying ability and by your employment you are not assured ever of having a run of your own as first pilot.

Jerry Marshall, Operations Manager, American Airlines, letter to all co-pilots, October 25, 1930. Crew Resource Management has moved forward a bit since then!


Electronics were rascals, and they lay awake nights trying to find some way to screw you during the day. You could not reason with them. They had a brain and intestines, but no heart.

Ernest K. Gann, The Black Watch, 1989.

The quality of the box matters little. Success depends upon the man who sits in it.

Baron Manfred von Richthofen, The Red Baron, in his 1917 book The Red Fighter Pilot (Der Rote Kampfflieger).

The successful pilot must have a quick eye and steady nerves.

Willis J. Abbot, Aircraft and Submarines, 1918.

My first shock came when I touched the rudder. The thing tried to bite its own tail. The next surprise I got was when I landed; she stalled at a hundred and ten miles an hour.

Jimmy Haizlip, commenting on his only flight in the Gee Bee.

The only time there was too much fuel aboard any aircraft was if it was on fire.

Ernest K. Gann, Ernest K. Gann's Flying Circus, 1974. Often attributed to pioneer Australian aviator Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith in the present tense, but I’ve seen no original sourcing. Guessing it’s older than 1974, but this is the earlist in print that Google finds.

Always keep an ‘out’ in your hip pocket.

Beverly 'Bevo' Howard, airshow pilot. Quoted in 2018 book The Crowd Pleasers: A History of Airshow Misfortunes from 1910 to the Present.

Bevo Howard

You don't think of yourself when you’re flying any more than you do in driving a car. You don’t ask yourself in a traffic emergency, “Is my hat on straight?” You just think, “Can I get through that hole?” It’s only the backseat drivers who have their minds on themselves … You become a part of the machine.

Amelia Earhart. Quoted in Flying Doesn’t Thrill Amelia—It’s Scenery, Milwaukee Journal newspaper, 29 October 1932.

There’s a lot of Hollywood bullshit about flying. I mean, look at the movies about test pilots or fighter pilots who face imminent death. The controls are jammed or something really important has fallen off the plane, and these guys are talking like magpies; their lives are flashing past their eyes, and they’re flailing around in the cockpit. It just doesn’t happen. You don’t have time to talk. you’re too damn busy trying to get out of the problem you’re in to talk or ricochet around the cockpit. Or think about what happened the night after your senior prom.

Brigadier General Robin Olds, USAF.

General Robin Olds

The Cub is the safest airplane in the world; it can just barely kill you.

attributed to Max Stanley, Northrop test pilot.

I enjoyed my service flying very much. That is where I learned the discipline of flying In order to have the freedom of flight you must have the discipline. Discipline prevents crashes.

Captain John Cook, British Airways Concorde Training Captain.

If you are bored flying, your standards are too low.

Lauran Paine Jr., article in Sport Aviation magazine, June 2014.

I don’t think I possess any skill that anyone else doesn't have. I’ve just had perhaps more of an opportunity, more of an exposure, and been fortunate to survive a lot of situations that many other weren't so lucky to make it. It’s not how close can you get to the ground, but how precise can you fly the airplane. If you feel so careless with your life that you want to be the world's lowest flying aviator you might do it for a while. But there are a great many former friends of mine who are no longer with us simply because they cut their margins to close.

R. A. 'Bob' Hoover

Chi Vola Vale,
Chi Non Vola non Vale,
Chi Vale e Non Vola — un Vile

Seen on a office wall at the Italian Airforce Ministery. Translation:

He who flies is worthy,
He who doesn’t fly is unworthy,
He who is worthy and doesn’t fly is a coward.

A pilot who doesn’t have any fear probably isn’t flying his plane to its maximum.

Jon McBride, astronaut.

If you’re faced with a forced landing, fly the thing as far into the crash as possible.

R. A. 'Bob' Hoover.

It occurred to me that if I did not handle the crash correctly, there would be no survivors.

Richard Leakey, after engine failure in a single engine Cessna, Nairobi, Africa, 1993.

If an airplane is still in one piece, don’t cheat on it. Ride the bastard down.

Ernest K. Gann, advice from the ‘old pelican’, The Black Watch,' 1989.

A great pilot can sail even when his canvas is rent; if his ship be dismantled, he can yet put in trim what remains of her hull and hold her to her course.

Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius, circa 65.

Got any ideas?
Actually not.

Captain Chesley B 'Sully' Sullenberger III asking for input from F/O Jeff Skiles, flying an unpowered A320 over New York after suffering a bird strike that disabled both engines at low altitude. They glided perfectly into the Hudson river with no loss of life. From NTSB transcript, US Airways flight 1549, 15 January 2009.

Airshow flying is tough, it’s even tougher if you do something stupid. don’t do nuthin dumb!

Ralph Royce

Remember, you fly an airplane with you head, not your hands and feet.

Bevo Howard

Use the check lists in the cockpit of your airplane. No matter how familiar you become with your plane, there is always a chance that you’ll forget something. Do not rely on your memory. Always use checklists.

B-17 Operating Manual, US Army Air Force, 1944. A crash of a prototype B-17 led to the development of airplane checklists.

B17 POH checklist

This thing we call luck is merely professionalism and attention to detail, it’s your awareness of everything that is going on around you, it’s how well you know and understand your airplane and your own limitations. Luck is the sum total of your of abilities as an aviator. If you think your luck is running low, you’d better get busy and make some more. Work harder, Pay more attention. Study your NATOPS more. Do better preflights.

Stephen Coonts, The Intruders, 1994. NATOPS is the Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization program, the detailed operating manuals used by the US Navy.


The greater the difficulty the more glory in surmounting it. Skillful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempests.


The winds and the waves are always on the side of the ablest navigators.

Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1776-1787.

For all professional pilots there exists a kind of guild, without charter and without by-laws. it demands no requirements for inclusion save an understanding of the wind, the compass, the rudder, and fair fellowship.

Beryl Markham, West With the Night, 1942.

Map reading was not required. There were no maps. I got from place to place with the help of three things. One was the seat of my pants. If it left that of the plane, when the visibility was at a minimum, I was in trouble and could even be upside down. Another was the ability to recognize every town, river, railroad, farm, and, yes, outhouse along the route. The third? I had a few drops of homing pigeon in my veins.

Ken McGregor, Early U.S. Air Mail pilot. Quoted in the 1962 book Saga of U.S. Air Mail Service 1918-1927.

A drug seductive to even the fiercest Luddite, GPS makes skill, knowledge and intuition obsolete. It makes us at once infants and Gods. Observer and observed, we watch from on high as our icon, a digital metaphor of self-awareness, creeps across the map. With GPS, there is no longer such a thing as "lost." Navigation, a great and noble art whose traditions stretch back into prehistory, has been replaced by a computer game. Its tools, the products of so much experience, ingenuity and self-sacrifice, will soon become curiosities; its methods and skills, so recently separating life and death, will eventually be forgotten.

Peter Garrison, The Importance of Being Lost: We Lost Something When We Lost “Lost", Flying magazine, July 2014.

Any landing you can walk away from is a good one!

Orgin unknown! Dates at least back to WWII, as seen in the RAF classified training publication Tee Emm, starring the haplass Pilot Officer Prune. Text by Anthony Armstrong, 1943, colouring by a pilot’s girlfriend. The pilot who carried this page with him for good luck had no bad landings, surviving the war in Bomber Command. From the 1991 book The Life and Times of Pilot Officer Prune: The Official Story of Tee Emm.

Any landing you can walk away from

If you can fill out the yellow sheet with Jack Black in your hand instead of an I.V. in your arm, it was a good landing.

Charlie Kisslejack, Commander, US Navy, 1983.

A fierce and monkish art; a castigation of the flesh. You must cut out your imagination and not fly an airplane but regulate a half-dozen instruments … At first, the conflicts between animal sense and engineering brain are irresistibly strong.

Wolfgang Langewiesche, describing flying on instruments, A Flier’s World, 1943.

You’ve never been lost until you’ve been lost at Mach 3.

Paul F. Crickmore, Lockheed SR-71: The Secret Missions Exposed, 1993.

I sometimes still go out hunting for bad weather, flying low in simple airplanes to explore the inner reaches of the clouds. Less experienced pilots occasionally join me, not to learn formal lessons about weather flying, but with a more advanced purpose in mind — to accompany me in the slow accumulation of experience through circumstances that never repeat in a place that defies mastery.

William Langeweische, Inside the Sky: A Meditation on Flight., 1998.

The love of flying demands the attention of a lover to the moods of weather.

Norman Mailer, Of a Fire on the Moon, 1970.

And he supposed it might not be the best of days. But then, he was flying the mails and was not expected to squat on the ground like a frightened canary every time there was a cloud in the sky. If a pilot showed an obvious preference for flying only in the best conditions he soon found himself looking for work. This was the way of his life and he had always ascended when others had found excuse to keep their feet on the ground.

Ernest K. Gann, Fate is the Hunter, 1961.

Let all who build beware
The load, the shock, the pressure
Material can bear.
So, when the buckled girder
Lets down the grinding span,
The blame of loss, or murder,
Is laid upon the man.
Not on the Stuff - the Man!

Rudyard Kipling, Hymn of Breaking Strain, 1935.

Oh, pilot! ’tis a fearful night,
There’s danger on the deep.

Thomas Haynes Bayly, The Pilot. Circa 1830.

I suddenly get a feeling — perhaps only a hint — of the ALONENESS of a 1930s transport pilot way up on the beak of this ancient pelican. This tiny cupola was not a “flight deck,” all indirect lighting and softly chiming “systems,” triply redundant captains murmuring their checklist incantations. This was one man stuck about as far out on the bowsprit of his ark as he could be without having his toes in the wind.

Stephan Wilkinson, Flying magazine, 50th Anniversary Issue, September 1977.

Nobody who gets too damned relaxed builds up much flying time.

Ernest K. Gann, advice from the 'old pelican', The Black Watch, 1989.

It is not only fine feathers that make fine birds.

Aesop, Fables, The Jay and the Peacock. Sixth century BC.

That’s who you wanted flying your spaceships, pilots with compartmented brains and calloused souls who bent without breaking.

Nicholas Schmidle, talking about test pilots in general and Mark 'Forger' Stucky in particular. Test Gods: Virgin Galactic and the Making of a Modern Astronaut, 2021.

There is only one rule - Rule One - TNB - Trust No Bastard - they are all trying to kill you.

Captain Rick Davies, Chief Pilot, Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia (Queensland Section), advise given to new captains.

Better to hit the far fence at ten knots than the close fence at VRef.

Captain Rick Davies, Chief Pilot, Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia (Queensland Section), advise given to new captains.

It’s when things are going just right that you’d better be suspicious. There you are, fat as can be. The whole world is yours and you’re the answer to the Wright brothers’ prayers. You say to yourself, nothing can go wrong … all my trespasses are forgiven. Best you not believe it.

Ernest K. Gann, advice from the 'old pelican,' The Black Watch, 1989.

The emergencies you train for almost never happen. It’s the one you can't train for that kills you.

Ernest K. Gann, advice from the 'old pelican', The Black Watch, 1989.

If you want to grow old as a pilot, you’ve got to know when to push it, and when to back off.

Chuck Yeager. Line was used in Rolex watch adverts in the middle 1990’s.

X country - Reading. Crashed slow-rolling near ground. Bad show.

Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader, logbook entry December 1931, descrigint his roll performed immediately after takeoff that ended in the crash that led to the loss of both legs. He later flew fighters again, and led a wing of Spitfires during the Battle of Britain.

Bader's logbook entry

I just made a balls of it, old boy. That’s all there was to it.

Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader, about his December 1931 roll performed immediately after takeoff that ended in the crash that led to the loss of both legs. He later flew fighters again, and led a wing of Spitfires during the Battle of Britain. Quoted in Wizard Prangs, The Spectator magazine, 14 November 1981.

Great pilots are made not born … A man may possess good eyesight, sensitive hands, and perfect coordination, but the end result is only fashioned by steady coaching, much practice, and experience.

J. E. 'Johnnie' Johnson, the Royal Air Force’s official top-scoring fighter pilot in WWII, who stayed in the RAF until retiring in 1966 as an air vice marshal. Full Circle: The Tactics of Air Fighting 1914-1964, 1964.

Full Circle

Harmony comes gradually to a pilot and his plane. The wing does not want so much to fly true as to tug at the hands that guide it; the ship would rather hunt the wind than lay her nose to the horizon far ahead. She has a derelict quality in her character; she toys with freedom and hints at liberation, but yields her own desires gently.

Beryl Markham, West With The Night, 1942.

Don’t be a show-off. Never be too proud to turn back. There are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots.

E. Hamilton Lee. 'Ham' Lee began his long and distinguished career as an instructor pilot during World War I. After leaving the Army Air Corps, he flew the airmail for United Air Services, later United Airlines, where he was the most senior pilot.

E. Hamilton Lee
The line is cited by many (including the Smithsonian National Postal Museum) as coming from his retirement speech in 1949, but some parts here are older. A 1946 The Saturday Evening Post article about 'Ham' Lee contained the old and bold elements. It says he “used to be a bold pilot, but changed his mind and became an old pilot instead”. A couple of years earlier No Old Bold Pilots was in a newspaper headline, and said to be a fighter pilot axiom, The New Journal, Wilmington, Delaware, 8 June 1943.

No old bold pilots
And the same unattributed word play is found a decade earlier on the walls of some flying clubs — “it is better to be an old pilot than a bold pilot” — stated as an ‘excellent reminder’ by Major C. C. Turner, RAF, in a story titled Royal Air Force Flying Record, The Gazette newspaper, Montreal, 15 January 1935.

Never fly in the same cockpit with someone braver than you.

Richard Herman Jr, Firebreak, 1991. And he should know, he was a back-seater in the USAF for over 20 years!

I could be president of Sikorsky for six months before they found me out, but the president would only have my job for six seconds before he'd kill himself.

Walter R. 'Dick' Faull, helicopter test pilot. Email communication, 1998.

It’s hard to replace the gray matter that is inherent in every human being. No computer can do it quite that well yet.

General John P. Jumper, USAF Chief of Staff, Air Line Pilot magazine, April 2007

Navigating by the compass in a sea of clouds over Spain is all very well, it is very dashing, but — you want to remember that below the sea of clouds lies eternity.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wind, Sand, and Stars, 1939.

There is no reason to fly through a thunderstorm in peacetime.

Sign over squadron ops desk at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona, 1970.

There is no reason to fly through a thunderstorm.

Sign over squadron ops desk at Udorn RTAFB, Thailand, 1970.


Didn’t find what you were looking for? I have a big page of Aviaton Safety Quotes and another on Air Combat Flying. Or try a seach of the entire database: