Sucking Up a Seat Cushion

This is gross, but pilots have a saying: “sucking up a seat cushion.” It means that things have gotten tense in the cockpit because of some emergency, enemy action or the lack of some aviation essential (runway, altitude, airspeed or fuel). You can imagine a pilot tensing up – all over – under such circumstances, and, well, just keep using your imagination.

Flying for the Navy we had to wear helmets. If a situation got bad and we couldn’t think our way out of it, for some reason the helmet would feel warmer. This was called a “helmet fire.” If the challenge was more physical, like a tough tanker rendezvous, a bad approach to the carrier at night, or just dropping your pen, this was called “killing snakes.” Just imagine having a bunch of snakes in a small cockpit. You get the idea.

The point to reminiscing about these epigrams is that if a pilot goes through enough of them, he eventually becomes seasoned. Or, to use another epigram, “There are old pilots, and bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots.” On my last Persian Gulf deployment, I read a message from our squadron Commanding Officer to the Air Wing Commander describing the training we were seeing in a fairly tense operational environment (Iran’s long coastline to the northeast, Iraq under our thumb to the northwest, and not much maneuvering room for the boat): among other things, he wrote that the environment was providing the squadron with “pilot seasoning.” I’d never known it was a thing. But I still remember that line after 17 years.

Thinking his way through helmet fires, battling snakes and picking seat cushions out of his behind are the important little things in the career of a pilot that give him confidence, wisdom and career buy-in. The latter is very important. Once a pilot has been through enough of these struggles, he has every reason to think that his successes will continue and that flying is a good fit; a long flying career becomes something to be valued. He gets older … more trustworthy. These are the pilots you want taking you on vacation.

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