By lex, on April 9th, 2009
One of the wonderful things about flying, even in a small plane, is the freedom it enables. Within certain constraints – there are always constraints – a pilot operating under visual flight rules may travel as and where he wishes. But thinking back on the flight back home earlier this week, I am reminded of something we all used to know, that was always taught to us in our pre-libertine days: With freedom comes responsibility.
We left San Francisco in a hurry not because we had to, but because I didn’t want us to get stuck in deteriorating weather conditions for an indeterminate time. When I aborted a landing attempt at Bakersfield Municipal airport, it was because the crosswinds and gusts were such that in the landing phase – when I ought to have been making ever more precise and refined control inputs – I found myself instead abruptly exploring the limits of the yoke and rudder pedal control axes, and knew that I had the freedom to land elsewhere.
When I filed my VFR plan out of Bakersfield, the AOPA internet flight planner initially routed me out west, to Paso Robles, before taking me south down the coast to Los Angeles and finally San Diego – a route that not only would have taken me back into the weather, but which would have added better than an hour to my en route time. Which is when I, not realizing that the flight planner had taken terrain elevations in the Sierras into its routing process, deleted all those coastal fixes in favor of flying directly south, towards Ventura. It was only when I had gotten airborne that I realized how the mountains lay across my path in any route that did not take us nearly to the coast.
Approaching those rugged peaks, I was “free” to navigate around them as best as I could, while climbing as high as I might. I was also free to explore some third way, or even go back to Bakersfield and plan more thoroughly. Something about this freedom made me rather nervous.
When you get into a commercial aircraft and head back to your seat, you give up your freedom, and whatever control you might have, or think you have, of your destiny, your fate, to the pilot in command. This man, you have reason to believe, is well trained at his job and will use good judgment in the execution of it, so you give up this freedom more or less willingly. The fates of all the people in the plane are conceded and tethered to the free will of the crew in the cockpit. The fact that people have lost their lives when a pilot in command flies into bad weather – thunderstorms or icing, for example – is something that you prefer not to think about. You tell yourself that it will probably be all right, and that in any case you bear no responsibility for the captain’s actions – he is a stranger to you, chosen at random. And analytically, airline flying is safer and certainly more convenient than driving over the same distance, no matter what John Madden thinks.
Now, it’s generally not a good idea to cross high mountains at lowish altitudes in single-engine piston planes. Turbulence and downdrafts can be dramatic, and the light single is often operating at the edge of its performance margins. Should something necessary cease to operate, one’s ability to glide to a suitable off-airport landing spot is greatly reduced. But yet, we had to get to home.
Or did we?
My daughter slept peacefully while I wrestled with my options, and the knowledge of those options and their corresponding consequences, real and potential, made for a tense thirty minutes or so as I pressed on with what was quite possibly a poor plan. I was free to continue a mountain passage and commit us both to its unknowable environmental impacts, or free to choose some other plan, however hazily formed. Even a poor plan being generally superior to an unformed alternative, I pressed on and of course we landed safely.
Sartre wrote that the fundamental characteristic of man is freedom, and that with that freedom comes what he labeled “nausea.” A man may lay a plank across the floor and traverse it with ease, but when he lays that same plank across a chasm, he trembles with fear. The plank itself has not changed, it is the meaning he imposes on it – freely – that changes the plank’s context, its reality even. We tremble, Sartre writes, not because we are afraid that we might fall. We fear that we might jump.
I have been flying, and living, for many years now, with more flight hours (and years) behind me than before me.
Still, I learn.