Failure IS an option

Aircraft are designed to stay in the air even after a critical failure. The people who fly them need to be similarly prepared.

As a young man in the Air Training Corps I had a rare opportunity to mix with the most successful example of my personal ambition; military pilots. These were men (the ones I knew were all men, but there were female military pilots around at that time) for whom nothing seemed difficult.

They would recount experiences of combat or encounters with the weather. They related their time flying in exotic parts of the world, or in exotic aircraft, and of course – knowing my ambitions – they offered their advice to me.

But there was one experience that they never discussed; one topic about which no advice was offered. Failure.

Flying training is designed to prepare you for failures like this; personal failures are almost always left to you.

A lot of what’s written about aviation perpetuates the myth that those involved in flying are, or should be, somehow above failure. Phrases like ‘no margin for error’ pepper the popular press when talking about aviation. This only serves to build the perception that aircrew are infallible, and if you’ve ever so much as failed your cycling proficiency test, you wouldn’t have a chance in the life-or-death no-margin-for-error beyond-most-people’s-capability world of professional aviation. It’s rubbish, and I think it’s putting people off trying out flying.

I’ve failed plenty of times. I failed fast-jet flying training with the Royal Air Force and became an Air Traffic Controller before the Royal Navy gave me a second chance. During flying training with the Navy I failed my end of course test – my ‘wings trip’ on Multi-Engine helicopters. I vividly remember walking out to the helicopter in the certain knowledge that I was not up to the task. I passed the test but only after more training and it was not until years later that I learned about self-efficacy; a topic for another day.

I don’t want you to think that I am being cavalier. Those failures were painful, stressful and resulted in a good deal of soul-searching and a drop in my confidence. But each time I failed, the following success was all the more rewarding for having learned how to succeed at something which I previously could not do.

Equally, perhaps even more importantly than the nature of our success or failure, is the way that we learn lessons from it. Occasional failure has the potential to teach us much more than continuous success, but in just the same way that it is undesirable to let achievement foster arrogance, so a mistake must not be permitted to develop into under-confidence, uncertainty and malaise.

Me, walking out to my first ‘wings’ trip. At this precise moment I ‘knew’ I would fail, and fail I did.

That is a fine line to tread, and in the early hours of flying it’s a difficult thing to achieve. Early flying successes, whether as the result of luck, careful supervision or actual skill, may become dangerous trend-setters if interpreted as a natural competence. ‘I got away with it before; therefore I am good enough to do it again.’

Likewise too many early-hours pilots may be tempted not to fly again if they experience something which takes them beyond their comfort zone and causes them to fear the aeroplane.

So what has any of this got to do with you? You might already be a professional pilot, you might be training to that end. You might hold a PPL or fly gyroplanes or paragliders. Or you might just be thinking about it. You might be a young man or woman who is washing aircraft or making tea at a flying school; or an air cadet at an Air Experience Flight who has yet to fly anything at all. Whoever you are, go out and do something at which YOU MIGHT NOT SUCCEED. You might be surprised, but whatever happens you’ll learn something about yourself.

US President John F Kennedy said about landing a man on the moon: “We choose to [do these things] not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” So might anybody who wishes to take up flying describe their desire to be challenged and to succeed in doing something that most people, even in today’s internet era where almost anything can be learned at the click of a mouse, do not experience; to control a flying machine themselves. I don’t want anybody to be put off that fantastic goal by the thought that they might not achieve it without a single failure.

In order to inspire others we have to be confident, speak out in support and demonstrate our own successes as motivation. But equally, I think we have an obligation to talk about the things we have found difficult; the struggles we have had becoming competent, because I don’t want anybody who aspires to do my job to look at me and think I’m here because I’ve never failed.

Jon first flew in a glider aged seven, and after that he never wanted to do anything else. He has flown both helicopters and aeroplanes professionally, and in his spare time is a contributor to various aviation publications. He started Get Into Flying as a way to tell people what he's been saying for years. "If I can do it, you can too."

From the blogs

More from author