On flying; there are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old bold pilots

 There are all kinds of flying-sports flying, aerobatics, soaring, ballooning, even hang gliding-but to most of us cross-country flying in a powered aircraft is what flying is all about. Basically, flying from where we are to where we want to be is really not much different than driving a car. We climb in, fasten the seatbelt, fire up the engine, take off, head in the right direction, land, shut down the engine, unbuckle the seatbelt get out, lock the door and walk away. Simple.

Manufacturers of airplanes like to claim in their colourful advertising that anyone can learn to fly. They also like to say that it’s comfortable, convenient, safe and economical. To some degree all this is true, but then to some degree it is not. True, everyone with a reasonable degree of intelligence can learn to operate an airplane, to take off at the right speed, to fly more or less straight and level, and eventually to put it back on the ground without breaking or bending anything. But to use the airplane the way it is meant to be used (and the way it has to be used if its rather considerable investment is to be justified), that’s another story altogether.

 It involves:

  • being able read a variety of charts
  •  to navigate by means of pilotage or radio aids, or both
  •  to understand weather and to correctly interpret weather reports and forecasts.

It requires that the pilot be able to interpret:

  • the information provided by his engine
  •  air data and navigation instruments, and to
  • translate this information into the correct action at the right time.

It may:

  • necessitate learning to fly by instruments alone and
  •  to operate efficiently within the air-traffic-control system

And last, but certainly not least, he must be emotionally able to deal with minor, and occasionally emergencies without giving in to panic.

Flying, in general, and cross-country flying in particular, are different from any other more or less normal human pursuit. It has been described with a fair degree of validity as hours of boredom punctuated by moments of stark terror. Whatever it is that we might be doing on the ground if the occasion demands it we can always stop doing it in order to pause and think out what to do next. Not so in the air. If an unforeseen situation develops, we can’t pull over to figure out what to do. We’ve got to keep on flying. And, while modern light aircraft are easier to fly and more forgiving than their predecessors some thirty or so years ago, they are also faster and, in many ways, more complicated, requiring that the pilot think ahead to always stay ahead of the airplane itself, the weather, and any situation that might develop.

Those of us who do fly profess to love it, though this, too, is not always the whole truth. For many it is love-hate relationship, a challenge like no other. And to a large degree it is the challenge part that keeps drawing us to the airport and into the air. In our modern structured lives few of us ever had an opportunity to pit ourselves alone against an adversary. Most everything we do, we do in concert with others. We tend to take credit when we succeed but just as likely are prone to want to share the blame when we do not.

Not so in the cockpit of a light aircraft. Here we are alone. Granted, we are in control of a machine which has been designed by knowledgeable engineers to perform satisfactorily under virtually all foreseeable circumstances. It has been certificated by an agency of the government to be airworthy, and it has always been maintained by licensed mechanics who put their reputations and livelihoods on the line whenever they sign their names to certify that what maintenance work has been done is in accordance with carefully prepared rules and regulations. In other words, as long as we do our part and do it right, the airplane can be expected to do its. No wonder, therefore, that the vast majority of accidents and incidents are the results of pilot error. True, unforeseen mechanical malfunctions do happen. Radios quit working when we need them most, and engines have been known to cease functioning unexpectedly for reasons other than fuel exhaustion; but such instances are so rare these days as to warrant little concern.

With this in mind, the frequently voiced claim that flying is safer than, say, driving must be tempered with one major precondition. The pilot must be as good as his airplane. And not everyone is psychologically equipped to be a good pilot. The inveterate gambler and the excessively macho are likely to press their luck, to take unwarranted chances: while the overly timid may tend to relinquish control of the airplane to the machine. The saying that there are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old bold pilots is not too far from right. Flying, in general, and cross-country flying, in particular, demand constant attention to a long list of details, a clear head and a calm disposition. But to those who have mastered the art (and flying is, in fact, an art as much as a skill), it is a delight which can be compared to little else in life.

Flying is like a powerful drug. It effectively removes us from the daily drudgery of life on the ground. It is habit forming. Once hooked, pilots will do almost anything to continue to fly. They have been known to sacrifice families and careers, to invent all manner of rationalisation in order to justify their avocation. And still, when asked what it is that causes this fascination, infatuation, yes love, they often become tongue-tied, unable to put whatever it is into words. Poems have been written about holding hands with the angels, about dancing with the clouds, about the utter freedom associated with being airborne. Most of this is sheer nonsense. You don’t cavort with angels or eagles or what have you, and you don’t dance with clouds. And about that freedom . . . true, you are released from the constraints of earth, of highways, speed limits and traffic lights: but at the same time, you are imprisoned in an often tiny cockpit, unable to move about, get up or stretch, and surrounded by never-ending noise.

Still, the view from this tiny cockpit, the myriad of impressions presented in a never-ending, always changing panorama, is at least part of that great fascination. The earth below is a checkerboard of fertile fields, replaced by arid deserts, steep cliffs and snow-capped mountains, the distant horizon, tiny puffballs of clouds below, or immense build-ups of ever changing shapes with brilliant sun-caused highlights and deep black shadows, rivers, lakes, towns, cities, industries, railroads and highways. And the ability to climb to great heights at will or swoop down low, the mastery over a hostile environment, all this and more make up that elusive elation called flight.

Courtesy of Tab Books, PA 17214 USA

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