By lex, on March 5th, 2007
Totally geeky BSG * spoiler below the fold, combined with some potentially trenchant observations on human nature as it applies to the ineluctable frailties of those flying high performance tactical aircraft. Maybe.
Don’t read on if you’re the type to get the vapors when an otherwise responsible adult draws Life Lessons from a science fiction serial. Or don’t want to know what happened on Sunday’s episode because you haven’t gotten around to it yet.
So, I just caught up with this weekend’s TiVo of Battlestar Galactica, and am a bit off-put to discover that Kara Thrace buys it in dramatic fashion at the end of a nervous breakdown. The script writers have a job ahead of them explaining how she pulls through, because this viewer? He’s ready to accept the fact that maybe Starbuck is a cylon. Without knowing it. But he won’t buy her being a mort.
We’re just not ready for that.
But you know, the episode brought up some uncomfortable memories – especially the bit where the CAG has to decide whether or not to ground an exceptional aviator who’s clearly operating outside the normal limits. The “failing aviator” syndrome is one that all of us have been trained to recognize – it’s the guy who’s average, or maybe not even average but doesn’t want to believe it. His identity is tied up with being the best, but his ego is writing checks his talent can’t cash. In an effort to prove to others – and himself – that he’s actually as good as he thinks he is, he routinely exposes himself to ever more hazardous regimes of flight until eventually his talent runs out. He augers in to the manifest surprise of his leadership, but to the knowing exchange of glances among his peers, who all of them saw it coming but none of whom, out of some misplaced sense of loyalty, felt it appropriate to say something before the worst happened. This failure to act leaves the rest of us to explain to some grieving wife, girlfriend or mother why this “had to happen,” all the while knowing that it didn’t.
This is why the Navy instituted quarterly “human factors councils” – a deeply counter-cultural convocation of adult leadership, junior officer representation and flight surgeon facilitation designed to talk about each aviator in a squadron and the things going on in his private life – things that “people are talking about” but about which nothing has been officially “said.”
The thing is, Kara Thrace doesn’t fit the profile of the standard “failing aviator.” She actually is the number one Viper jock in the fleet, especially since Kat took the long walk to the clearing at the end of the path. Her problem is not that she’s not able to live up to the image of invulnerability in the air, it’s that she’s fundamentally damaged goods and trying to compensate for it. Comes a time when she tries to take herself off the schedule, where she realizes that she’s a vulnerability. The Airwing Commander refuses to relieve her of flying duties – he cares about her personally, and knows that being the sh!t hot Viper jock is the only thing holding her together.
In real life it doesn’t work that way. In real life, the person who’s falling apart on the inside holds on to the only kind of order that still exists in the chaos that they’ve made for themselves.
I knew a guy once – good friend of mine – who was one of the best pilots I’d ever known, a real natural. He was, unfortunately, somewhat incautious in his personal attachments, with a marked tendency towards loving rather more well than he did wisely. The specifics are tedious, but suffice it to say that his personal life was… complicated. Eventually a particularly dramatic crisis presented itself and he spiraled into a dark place into which those who knew him well and cared for him had a hard time reaching. Kept flying though, and for the most part, he kept flying brilliantly. He was absolutely fearless.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t fearless because he was extraordinarily brave, or especially well-prepared. He was fearless because he no longer really cared what happened to him, he no longer cared whether he lived or died. Or at least, he thought he didn’t.
It is a frightening thing for those who still hold tightly to the time remaining to them in a dangerous business to be led by a man whose soul has been hollowed out, who has that fey and crazy light dancing in the back of his eyes. But one day my friend was flying on a 1v0 – out there all by himself goofing around, trying to push out against the envelope of personal experience, trying to find a place in the performance curve that no one else had been because no one else had dared to. He pushed up against the envelope’s edge and then pushed right on through, losing control of the aircraft in a dramatic fashion.
Now, the Hornet is a forgiving mistress and will tolerate mistakes rather well. But she’ll snarl at those who deliberately provoke her, put postage paid to them and spit on their graves. Our man had his hands full saving the jet from crashing into the sea, even as he refused to consider ejecting and saving his own life – it meant more to him not to be known for having junked a jet than it meant to him to live.
He saved the jet at the last, but realized even as he was doing so that there was something true about him that he had not believed could be: He was frightened. He didn’t want to lose the aircraft, but neither did he want to die. This was a surprising, but welcome revelation.
Last I heard he was still doing well. But the lesson stuck with me: We’re not all the people we appear to be.
* Ed. Battle Star Gallactica