You see this guy, this guy’s in love with…flying.
– Herb Alpert, 1968
For some that are compensated monetarily for flying airplanes over and over (and over and over), it’s easy to forget that being around airplanes once elicited very joyful emotions. Many have forgotten the epiphany when our curiosity, courage and checkbook overcame anxiety and angst and produced an emotional waterfall of achievement, pride, even love, about flying. But I haven’t forgotten. The month of February belongs to the mischievous son of Aphrodite, the winged god of love, a fellow archer and aviator: Cupid. Although blind, he has wings – apparently having received a waiver from the Feds. Instead of a red, heart-shaped box of chocolates, please allow this archer to send an emotional arrow your way to refresh memories of when our love of flying was new.
We were on the crew van headed to a hotel in DFW and a guy and his wife were talking to us about how their trip to Cabo was postponed a day due to a late connection at my carrier. The airline paid for their hotel room but they would miss one day of their vacation and the next morning’s tee-time. The 60-ish man had 54 hours toward his private and was looking forward to an instrument rating and using his Cirrus to get to Cabo from Tulsa. The look in his eyes when he talked about his flying future said it all. Do you remember the moments in your own life when curiosity and courage overcame anxiety and angst? The times in which your persistence was rewarded with appreciation, ability, understanding and wisdom?
Like learning to ride a bike (Dad taught me), that first day of school each year (Parchment, Mich. – the smell of new books and pencil-sharpener shavings), the first head-first dive (at the YMCA), a first kiss (Darcy Daley, fourth grade), riding a high-speed roller coaster (The Blue Streak at Cedar Point) starting college (WMU) or signing for a loan (1976 Honda Civic)? And don’t forget our macho-curiosity: lighting firecrackers (Black Cat), smoking a cigarette (Camel) and the first overindulgence (Southern Comfort). How about driving a car (1969 Mustang), soloing an airplane (1969 Mooney Cadet), your first snap-roll (C-150 Aerobat), first jets (T-37, T-38, F-16) and that first type rating (B-737)? Airplanes have always been there for me and keeping my fingers in the GA pie nourished a love of flying and kept the passion for flight alive.
You Make Me Feel Brand New
– The Stylistics, 1973
Have you noticed lately the way you feel as you push the throttles up, rotate the nose and retract the gear? No, probably not. Because it’s a busy and critical time in our flight and we have little room for romanticism. The only time that we can completely let go of our type A, left-brain PIC persona in order to savor our type B, right-brain romantic is when we’re along for the ride without the responsibility of being in command. That’s just the way we’re wired. The Cirrus guy and my airline passengers remind me of how awestruck and amazed folks are at the mysterious and magical marvel of the noise, speed, sensations and technology as the ground speeds by then falls away. The same applies to approach and landing. Turbulence can cause the plane to rock-and-roll down final, half-mile forward visibility is zero out the side windows and yet the brilliant, cunning and skillful pilot greases it on as if in control of Mother Nature herself. When seeing the reaction and emotions that people have about pilots, it brings back memories. You know, before we became a brilliant, cunning and skillful pilot controlling Mother Nature. It helps me remember that being a pilot is not an everyday, run-of-the-mill vocation.
I don’t really have any marketable skills other than being a pilot. Perhaps it’s all I know how to do because it’s all I’ve ever wanted to know how to do. My first flight was during the same week that I started kindergarten and I never looked back. Many vocations don’t define who you are. Folks go to work, do their thing, go home and then do other, more important or fun stuff. Many of the pilots at my carrier feel this way. While I may have a plethora of “guy skills” and enjoy family, friends, hunting, golf and building things, flying is who I am. At the airline, my airport, at the post office, the bank, the auto repair shop, lawn mower shop, in church, heck, everywhere I go; I’m “that airline pilot Duke guy.” Flying defines who I am. Maybe it defines you as well.
Some might consider this a sad state of affairs, devoted to and coveting such a mechanical endeavor. But I’m certain that flying facilitates an uncommon appreciation for physics, even astrophysics, geography and meteorology. And there are opportunities to not only think and observe the world existentially (a nod to Kierkegaard, Sartre and Nietzsche), but to routinely exercise all five senses (including taste if you count the crew meal) often with life-or-death consequences (especially if you eat the crew meal) if we misinterpret or mishandle the airplane. The challenges and rewards are mentally, physically, even metaphysically, substantial. Perhaps it’s these challenges coupled with our high intellect, natural good-looks and poorly disguised modesty that allows us to contemplate the meaning of life from altitude. After all, we have all had that “reached out my hand and touched the face of God” moment a few times. Those with nihilistic delusions needn’t fret, your own reached-out-my-hand epiphany will come.
Losing Our Superpowers
Imagine how you would feel if we could remove the FAA, check rides, flight physicals and large expenses from the flying equation. What all pilots are faced with is a complex decision matrix of function, utility, capability and cost. Add in our ability to jump through physical, mental, financial and regulatory hoops and our personal requirements of an airplane in order to fly. Despite the challenges that we can’t change, pilots from all walks of life negotiate these hurdles and successfully dance the skies on laughter-silvered wings. I’ve talked to a few of my airline captain friends that have retired. Apparently, it’s a traumatic transition as you become a powerless mortal and lose your influence over the development of mankind. Once flying has saturated your life and defined who you are, often the transition to a non-PIC life results in a dangerously lugubrious shadow being cast over all other activities.
But some have a resurrecting outlet for their passion for flight via GA. And a surprising number of retired airline pilots elect to continue with Part 135 and fractional type flying. Some even resort to, gasp, simulator instructing in order to keep their fingers in the pie and hand on the throttles. This past December, I completed my last R-18 (maneuvers validation) recurrent training, and in the same month, my last Part 121 line-check. I will have one more R-9 (Line Oriented Flight Training) recurrent training session and three more class one physicals before I retire from my carrier. I don’t anticipate losing the Duke for a handful of years, but as my skills deteriorate due to age, I’m sure that day will come as well. On that day, who is the airline pilot/Duke guy if he is retired from the airline and has no Duke? I’m starting to allow these count-down-realities to creep into my head and heart as the day that I will be stripped of my superpowers approaches.
Most of All, I Love How You Love Me
– Bobby Vinton, 1968
As a mental-method to help understand inanimate, mechanical aircraft systems and why they act and respond the way they do, readers of this column understand the use and value of anthropomorphism. So, you shouldn’t be shocked to hear me say that I’m glad that airplanes like me. I’ve had a few close encounters but they were not of the Third Kind and there was no malice in the airplane’s heart. Perhaps this is because the planes that I’ve flown, most of all, love how I love them. Buried by check-ride-itis, finances and the anxieties of life, the joyful emotions from that first bike, our first kiss and the thrill of flight are still in there – we just have to let them out. This Valentine’s Day, in order to let them out and acknowledge our feelings towards aviation, make sure that you get the airplane you love something nice. Something that it really wants. And while you’re at it, get something for your significant other – the one that understands your airplane affliction and tolerates the look on your face when you and the airplane are together. Happy Valentine’s Day, my friends.