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Lieutenant Benjamin Foulois’ log of flying the U.S. Army’s first airplane is in the Library of Congress. (Eric Long)

The Book of Hours

A peek into the logbooks of history’s notable pilots.

On December 23, 1986, after more than nine days of dodging storms, battling fatigue, troubleshooting mechanical problems, and worrying whether he and copilot Jeana Yeager would have enough fuel to make it home, pilot Dick Rutan gently guided the twin-engine Voyager onto the runway at Edwards Air Force Base in California. They had just completed the first nonstop flight around the globe without refueling, and thousands of well-wishers were on hand to cheer their accomplishment. After shutting down the engines and securing the aircraft, Rutan had one more thing to do before he could take his first shower in more than a week. Handed a slender, rectangular book, Rutan opened it and began filling in the blocks across the double-page spread.

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Date: “Dec. 14–23.”

Aircraft Make and Model: “Voyager.”

Total Duration of Flight: “216.3.”

And so on. In a small space reserved for “Remarks,” Rutan wrote: “World Flight.” He then added a little flourish: a smiley face.

Flight logs have been around as long as aviation itself. The Wright brothers kept detailed notebooks, recording dispassionately the results of their experiments in building the first airplane. After his landmark flight on December 17, 1903, Orville wrote: “The machine lifted from the truck just as it was entering on the fourth rail. Mr. Daniels took a picture just as it left the tracks.”

Nine years later, pilots of Britain’s Royal Flying Corps (the precursor to the Royal Air Force) were using logbooks routinely. Unlike the free-form pages the Wrights used, the new books’ pages were divided into rows and columns, their format borrowed from ship’s logs, which had been in use for more than a century. In a logbook from 1913, a pilot penned on one page the date of a flight, airplane used, passenger’s name, time aloft, and course flown. On the opposite page, he recorded height achieved, distance, weather, and remarks. The entries show the limitations of the technology. The airplanes were slow, unreliable, and capable of carrying only light loads (thus the singular “passenger”) and flying only short lengths (thus “course” and “distance,” versus “route” and “destination”). In 1913, there were no stamps or endorsements indicating that such logs were mandated by higher-ups. The purpose of the logs was to document the capability of the aircraft as much as that of the pilot. At this point in aviation history, all pilots were essentially test pilots.

Logbooks also became an important component of civil aviation. In the United States, barnstormers, airline pilots, and airmail carriers all kept logs, in many cases simply to make sure they were properly paid. The Air Commerce Act of 1926, which set forth the first regulations governing the certification of aircraft and licensing of pilots, also made flight logs a requirement. In addition to setting down the rules and basic format of a pilot’s log, the act required logbooks to be regularly certified. The law also mandated logs recording the maintenance of individual aircraft. Before this, maintaining aircraft generally fell to the pilots who flew them. But as the technology became more complex and maintenance became more specialized, logs were deemed necessary to document an individual aircraft’s mechanical history and airworthiness.

The Civil Aeronautics Administration in 1940 relaxed the rules governing pilots’ logs. The new rules mandated that pilots keep only a “record of the flight time used to substantiate recent experience or qualifications for certification or ratings.” No verification was necessary; when it came to logging most of their flight hours, pilots were on an honor system. Airlines considering a new hire first looked at a pilot’s total hours, generally requiring a minimum of around 1,500, so the rules became an invitation to lie. The practice of padding a logbook with “P-51 time” (so-called for a popular pen, the Parker 51) became a well-known, if seldom admitted, practice. Though the consequences of getting caught are serious (falsifying a pilot’s log is a federal offense), “it probably happens more than you realize,” says Barry Schiff, a retired TWA pilot and aviation writer. In most cases, he says, the culprits are never caught unless an incident prompts a closer look. Investigators can sometimes check the accuracy of a log by cross-referencing it with records kept by insurance companies, airport operators, and air traffic control.

Many professional pilots cease recording their hours as soon as they get their pilot’s rating. “There’s no reason,” says retired Air Force colonel Leonard L. Griggs, who quit keeping a pilot’s log soon after getting his wings in the early 1960s. A pilot in Vietnam who went on to a career at the Federal Aviation Administration and a job as head of Lambert-St. Louis International Airport in Missouri, Griggs says he let his bosses track his cockpit hours. Keeping a logbook, he says, was a useless chore. Besides, “nobody corroborates them. It’s like reporting your golf score.”

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