By lex, on May 25th, 2009
The things we love define us, at least as much, if not more so, than those things we hate. People love each other, they love their children, dogs, cats, food, music, a good book by the fire on a cool winter’s evening.
Pilots – real pilots – love flying.
That kind of love is a difficult thing to express, God knows that I have tried. There is a sense of liberation to it, a tautly controlled freedom that exists within rational constraints of time, fuel, altitude, airspeed. Weather. A sense of master of complex concepts, machinery, rules and regulations. There is a bundledness of flying, a beginning, middle and end to pre-flight preparation, execution, the plane tied down at the destination. Everything complete except for the payment.
Some people see a hawk circling in the sky and see nothing but a bird, they turn their eyes down to the ground to which they are affixed and rooted. Some see the hawk and feel envy. Pilots see the hawk and feel kinship mixed with admiration.
A military aviator grows accustomed in time to understand that death is always flying wing. The aircraft are complex, the missions demanding, and that’s before people start shooting at you, or the manifold dependencies of launching and recovering from aircraft carriers at sea are factored in. In every optimist there is the belief that it “can’t happen to me,” but eventually sufficient optimists in the ranks die to cure us of that notion. Fate is random, you do what you can to stay inside your box, but each of us knows that in any complex system combinations arise that are neither foreseeable nor evitable, although the vast majority of aviation mishaps are neither. So you try your best to keep the odds on your side, and keep going because you must. Because you love it.
And those things we love we tend to share with the people we love, knowing as we do that words cannot express the realness of a thing, that they are tokens, ciphers, signifiers. The gap between what we feel and what we can express is enormous even for the rare few gifted in the use of language. Sometimes a thing must be demonstrated. Sometimes we fabricate reasons to do so, conventions of utilitarian convenience or necessity.
I took my sister and brother-in-law flying yesterday afternoon in a rented Cessna 172. Flew down to San Diego Bay, then up the coast nearly to Carlsbad, seeing from the air what they had seen from the ground the previous day. My sister asked me if the Hobbit often flies with me, and I answered that she had not. That while the kids were still at home, we were reluctant to expose them to a risk of being orphaned, no matter how slender. She laughed and said, “Like our daughter would be if we crashed today?”
Yeah. Like that.
It was a lovely flight.
Horrible things happen every day on the nation’s highways. Entire families snuffed out in a moment’s inattention or some other vagary of fate. And yet we drive, because we have places to go and we try not to dwell on it because you can’t go through life frightened. It’s a little different when you fly with family.
The odds are that no one else is qualified to help you much. No one else prepared to intervene in a moment of questionable judgment. A non-flying family member places a breathtakingly innocent amount of trust in the family pilot, thinking perhaps that anyone with thousands of hours of flight time, combat experience, hundreds of landings and catapult launches is somehow immunized from fate or error. Which the pilot knows, or should, is the furthest thing from the truth. The burden he bears is enormous, and it cannot be shared.
Every time we break ground we tempt fate, and fate can be very, very patient.