From the Flight Deck: Dead Pilots Society

From the Flight Deck: Dead Pilots Society


I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. 
– Robert Frost

Balancing risk and romanticism along the road less traveled

Robin Williams’ fans will recognize the title’s play on words from the award winning 1989 film about literature, the humanities and poets. Dead Poets Society is about going against the status quo, freedom and thinking for yourself – it’s about passion. As pilots choosing our own path, sometimes we have to tell ATC, our passengers and ourselves that we can’t do something because it is unsafe or too risky. The personality of a pilot is one of freedom and thinking for themselves. In control, in command and getting the job done while simultaneously balancing risk and the romanticism of flight. And oftentimes, as Frost said, “taking the road; the one less traveled.” We must make the best choices regardless of expectations, promises, requests or demands of others as we travel that road.

O Captain! My Captain!

Dead Poets Society is likely the most-beloved picture ever made about teaching the humanities. Relative to his colleagues, Mr. Keating is an exciting educator and a breath of fresh air. The rote memorization taught by other professors makes his class seem quite vibrant. A few critics thought it emotionally manipulative and intellectually shallow. According to some experts of the humanities, passion alone as suggested in the movie, detached of real analysis, is empty and even counterproductive. When we simply “feel” a poem, carried away by the sound of words, rather than actually reading it, they claim, we’re likely to interpret it quite differently. Perhaps missing out on a much greater epiphany. Unfortunately for the romantics among us, flying an airplane is very similar. If only we could fly with the freedom of the birds, without worry of mechanical failure or violation of societal rules – not to mention those of physics. To soar completely detached of in-depth analysis or caution. We would all love the freedom to fly like this. But alas, we could hit something, get lost, run out of fuel, bend the airplane, make ATC mad at us or ten million other gotchas if we daydream for too long while aloft. Experiencing only the “feel” of flight and being “carried away” by the sensations is a romantic notion but we may miss out on the epiphany of precision. Besides, most of us enjoy the analysis as much as the artistry; savoring our passion for flight as permitted by checklists and crosschecks. Perhaps to us pilots, analytical precision is also romantic. It certainly has helped us to minimize tragedies.

In aviation, there have been many changes in procedures, training, airframes, avionics and powerplants due to lessons learned from accidents. Fellow T&T writer David Miller wrote several months ago of the loss of a fellow CJ pilot and his wife, and of his Dad’s business partner in a Bonanza. He described the shock, confusion and life-changing effect such a tragedy has on friends and family. My friend Dick Karl recently wrote about the passing of an air traffic controller acquaintance and the “small world” phenomenon. Suggesting, as did Professor Keating, that we all “carpe diem”, seize the day. And Martha King wrote of fatigue in her husband/copilot that would have resulted in a risky night flight in thunderstorms if good judgment had not prevailed, convincing them to stop for the night. These stories caused me to pause and contemplate losses in our society of aviators. And nothing brings that threat more into focus than proximity.

F-16 crashYou gotta die, honey

Over the years, I’ve lost friends, co-workers and acquaintances in GA, the Air Force and at the airlines. A couple were engine failures in twins, one was at Oshkosh, a few of them were military fighter accidents: midairs and CFIT, one pilot ripped the wings off a C-150 that I had recently delivered to a flight school and an airline pilot tore the tail off an airliner. Still another Part 121 crew flew into a mountain and then, of course, there was 9-11. A couple of the events I witnessed as they happened, a few because I was nearby and the rest were through families or the grapevine. None of the pilots left the airport knowing it was their last flight and none of them were stupid, well, except maybe the C-150 pilot. When she was asked how you get your picture on her wall of fame at the Happy Bottom Riding Club (The Right Stuff), Poncho Barnes said: “You gotta die, honey.” Those test pilots on her wall weren’t stupid either. Dead Poets is about writers and poets that passed away peacefully; sugar plums dancing in their grey-haired heads. Dead Pilots generates a different and visceral image. It causes us to search for a difference between them and us, in hope of protecting ourselves from a similar tragedy. We subconsciously hope they did something stupid that we certainly would never do ourselves. The scary part is, quite often, there is very little difference between them and us. In our desire to follow the road less traveled, vigilance over romance must be the motif of our pilot’s society.

Not In Kansas Anymore

Dead Poets’ Professor Keating wants to claim to have taken the exceptional road, if not the spiritual high road; but he knows, on some level, that it’s a hollow boast. Another classic boast comes from a man demanding the seemingly impossible from a sweet Kansas girl: a broom. There is a sign quoting The Wizard of Oz above the office in my hangar: “No one gets in to see the Wizard. Not no one – not no how.” Those unfamiliar with the character of the wizard may think the line an admonishment. A warning to not encroach on the all-knowing, fighter-pilot-airline-pilot-writer behind the curtain, inside his castle doing whatever 20,000 hour pilot/magicians do. But, near the end of the classic movie, as the wizard is drifting away in his balloon that had escaped its mooring, he shouts to Dorothy that he doesn’t actually know how to fly the thing. Perhaps the reason he ended up in The Emerald City in the first place. After his earlier “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” reveal, it’s yet another admission that he is simply a “humbug”. As a vagabond fortuneteller in Dorothy’s waking life, he is but a pretender. He is no clairvoyant, no wizard and he is no pilot. The notice on his door that reads “no one gets in to see the wizard” is nothing more than his camouflaged line of defense.

And so it is with the sign above my office. The words are an admission, my reveal that I am but a humbug. I can only pretend to be The Wizard. And try to not get bitten by fate as I practice my craft. Always watching for the boogey man so as to avoid getting caught with my britches down, having done something stupid. Those that have been in airplanes for a while know that no matter how much you study, practice and continue to learn, the volume of knowledge available and variety of skills obtainable is a nearly unsurmountable mountain. There is always new information, a new system or procedure, always someone smarter, faster, more coordinated, more of a “natural” pilot or more proficient than you. And there is always luck, destiny, fate and the opportunity for our competence to intersect with another’s incompetence. Eventually, bad things will happen and we must overcome them before the ground arises to smite us. Like analysis over passion in literature, we suppress some of the romanticism of flight in order to remain vigilant.

IMG_4942Winged Humbug

That’s how I fly and write, or hope to: with my heart on my sleeve, perhaps, but vigilant with my brain fully engaged. Sacrificing a little of the romanticism to achieve more precision. Endeavoring to actually become who I pretend to be. I’m not smart enough or quick enough to be cavalier, but airplanes and I are friends. And if a glitch develops in that friendship, I know it’s my fault, not the machine’s. I’m fortunate to do what I love for a living, and I know it. You, me and Frank Sinatra: doing it our way. Enjoying the view while we practice to be precise. We just have to remember that the path we fly, while beautifully romantic, is also very real and we are not the powerful Oz or an unbounded professor of literature. Unable to soar unrestricted, we are but a winged humbug trying to avoid the flyswatter.

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