The glow of the sunset in the windscreen, the twinkle of city lights in the darkness, the freedom to travel at a moment’s notice, unfettered by airline schedules; the companionship of the pilot fraternity – this is the flying life.
Well, yes, I suppose. How about nights in third-rate motels in towns neither you nor I have ever heard of and would have no reason ever to visit? How about that moment when my flying companion asks, “Are we going to be alright?” and I answer, in my most confident voice, “Of course, trust me,” as the lightning explodes in the clouds and I wonder, with dread so deep in the pit of my stomach that I hope it is never revealed, what in the world I was thinking to even launch into this weather? How about the telephone call from my insurance broker who tells me that, even though I’ve never so much as scratched the paint on an airplane in four thousand hours of flying, my insurance premium for this year would buy me a much nicer car than I’m now driving? How about the fourteen-hour car trip I made because my airplane was still in the shop? How about the airworthiness directive that requires a hideously expensive fix to my airplane because fifteen years ago some idiot flew into a thunderstorm and managed to pull the wings off a perfectly sound airplane? (Which we know I would never do . . . see item number two.) How about the nagging suspicion that I just bought forty thousand dollars worth of new engines that burn a petroleum product thought by everyone to be on the endangered species list? How about the advertisements I see every month in the glossy flying magazines for truly miraculous new avionics that I will never be able to afford (see previous item)? Are we beginning to bring the flying life into sharper focus?
It is a rare privilege to earn a living teaching eager acolytes to fly. Among my many hours as a flight instructor, we find so many heartwarming moments. For instance, the words of the pilot as he wrote me a check for twenty-five dollars, “You know, I pay my golf instructor ninety dollars an hour.” With some embarrassment, I confess to have thought, just for a moment, “Well, that makes sense. He cured your slice. All I did was keep you alive through five of the sorriest landings I’ve ever witnessed.”
There was the night when unforecast weather steadily reduced the ceilings and visibility to minimums and I was number seven on vectors for the ILS in driving rain with a pilot at the controls who had never before flown an instrument approach. I recall the fleeting suspicion that by allowing him to continue the attempt I would be indulging suicidal impulses he did not share. I knew he was afraid. If you have ever heard the sound of driving rain impacting the fuselage of a small airplane you understand.
And yes, there have been accidents. We don’t like to call them crashes. Off-field landings is the preferred term. Fortunately I have never been aboard and none have seriously harmed the friends who have been, but it would be disingenuous to pretend that the risk is not ever-present.
So, is this the flying life I imagined as a small boy, soaring through the sky in my imagination? Not exactly. Here’s the thing: we love not because of — but in spite of. We may fall in love, whether with our mate or our passion, because of their twinkling eyes or its childish appeal, but we continue to love in spite of the frustrations, the anguish, the expense, the occasional fear, the periodic futility. We continue to love because we cannot do otherwise. Occasionally it leads us into folly. We back up and try again. Sometimes we don’t even understand why.
Now and again we are permitted a glimpse. That night on the ILS, my student, his body rigid with apprehension, asked, “Will be all right?” That question again. Again, the same answer, “Trust me. You can do this. I’ll talk you through it.” I did and he could. A small airplane on a dark night in bad weather is a very intimate place. Together we went somewhere he never thought he could go and together we proved to him that he could do something he never thought he could do.
That is the moment. The moment when my companion looks at me and asks, “Will we be all right?” The moment when I can answer, “We’ll be fine. Trust me.” And she does.
I think also of a moment many years hence. My dearest friend, my friend who was my first passenger as a pilot, the first to trust me to take him aloft, has been gone now for many years. He left behind a son, who, when he was just a tyke, used to look up into the sky whenever an airplane passed overhead and yell, “Geoooorge” Now and then I imagine, some years from now, when I could well be just a memory, he and his son looking up into the sky as an airplane sails above and the throb of its engines drifts down toward earth and saying, much more quietly, “Geooorge.”
And yes, there have been sunsets. And rainbows.