When you shouldn’t call yourself a pilot

There’s a well-known joke in the aviation world, goes like this:

How do you know when there’s a pilot in the room? They’ll tell you.

Being a pilot usually gives you the opportunity to see and do things many other people never will – flying over the ice caps of Greenland, looking down on cities at night, knowing what it’s like inside a storm. Being a pilot is cool! So we’re not usually shy about telling people that we are aviators. It’s a label that we’re proud of, one that makes us feel special, and we all like to feel special.

People love to put labels on themselves and each other. Think about the first question most people ask when they meet you – “nice to meet you, so what do you do?“. In answering that question we are instantly required to provide a concise summary of what we think defines us. It’s the same with social media when we’re forced to type a short “bio” defining ourselves to strangers in 25 words or less.

My current (May 2024) bio on Instagram

But with my recent health issues I’ve being grounded for the last 3 months and have started wondering how long you can call yourself something after you’ve stopped actually doing it. I haven’t flown a plane in over 3 months. Can I really call myself a pilot when many of my qualifications have expired and I’m not actually flying planes any more? How should I introduce myself when people meet me? Should I remove “pilot” from my Instagram bio?

Many of you would have heard of the Five Stages Of Grief – the list of emotions you’ll feel when experiencing loss. These can vary a little but generally include: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I don’t believe those are exclusively associated with losing something physical like an object, a possession, or heaven forbid a loved one. I believe grief can also be felt when you lose the ability to do something that used to define a part of your life. Like if you’re an athlete but an injury means you can no longer compete. Or a singer who develops vocal issues. Loss is loss after all.

My stages of grief at losing the ability to fly have (so far) been shock, then a bit of denial, a fair amount of sadness, a lot of confusion, apathy, but now I’d say I’m in some kind of bargaining phase as I try and work out what my aviating future could look like.

I’m assuming the aim is to get to “acceptance”, but when there are so many unknowns in your path up ahead sometimes it’s hard to know what you’re actually accepting. I’m not ready to accept a future without being a pilot, that I know. But as so many aspects of my future are out of my hands right now, surely acceptance isn’t an option as there isn’t actually anything on the table to accept!

Maybe I’m still in the confusion stage…

So whilst I am not physically manoeuvring aircraft like a pilot, I have nevertheless decided to approach this phase of my life by thinking and acting like a pilot all the same. Treating this as if I was on a flight facing a storm up ahead where the path through looks uncertain. I can’t change the storm, I am not in control of it, instead I am diverting and working on the aspects that I can control in the meantime.

Controlling things like my physical health and fitness – I’ve got back into running since the operation and am getting out for a run at least every other day and some form of exercise like walking every day. I’m using my iPad at home at night to plan mock flights, study Instrument Approach plates, and chair-fly adventures at home to keep my piloting skills and knowledge current. I’ve also been flying as a passenger with friends (mostly because it’s fun and reminds me what I want to get back to) but also to try and think through what I would do in certain situations with the safety of someone else actually flying the aircraft.

All of this is so when a path through the storm does present itself I feel ready to navigate it. As a pilot.

So can you still call yourself something if you no longer do that thing? Can I still call myself a pilot even if I can’t fly? Well to be honest you can call yourself anything you want in life. You can make your Instagram bio say you’re a trapeze artist if you choose (whether you are one or not). But the real point here is – I honestly think nobody apart from you actually cares. In fact when people meet you after a very short period of time they’ve already made up their minds as to what they think you are, irrespective of what you told them you are. You have no control over what others think of you. So instead of worrying about whether to define yourself as one thing or another, it’s better to think and act like the thing you want to be and let others make their own mind up. Ultimately, like the storm you can see out the front window, it’s simply not in your control, so control the things that are.

As I divert and work out where my new path takes me I’m also making time to practise gratitude for the fact I’m able to walk a path in the first place. Not everyone comes out of a big health setback with the positive prognosis I’ve been lucky to have received. Spending my time remembering and appreciating that, and making the most of how I spend my time nowadays, rather than lamenting the loss of a label that only really mattered to my own ego, is a far better use of my mental energy.

Makes me think, I should change my original joke a little – how do you know when there’s a healthy, grateful, aviation loving, brain-tumour surviving, lucky bastard in the room? They’ll tell you.

Video version of this post

You can watch the video that this post was based on here:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.