Do you want to know why some people,when the conversation turns to flying,enter into an almost rapturous state;their eyes a’gleam like an Old Testament prophet and begin saying such things as “Reached out my hand and touched the face of God? Why will they spend fifty dollars to fly a hundred miles or more to eat a hamburger that is served in a little café alongside a strip of asphalt called a runway that is no different than the hamburger they could buy just down the street? Why will they drive a ten-year-old car so they can afford to own an even older airplane? And what impels them to go to an airport and spend time just sitting in the cockpit or idly dusting the surfaces of their plane? What is the source of the evangelistic fervor All those things are irrational. But these same people are seen mowing their lawn, attending PTA meetings and even singing in the choir at church. Some are highly educated professionals who take pride in their logical, thoughtful approach to life. So what is it about flying that causes them to behave like a teenage girl getting ready for her first big date whenever asked about flying? Perhaps it’s like the slogan sometimes seen on the spare tire cover of Jeeps. “It’s a Jeep thing. If I have to explain it, you won’t understand it.” But since I am one of those people who becomes an unsafe driver anytime the road takes me past a small plane landing at a small airport, let me try to explain.
First off, please understand this. I’m not writing of the flying one does when they walk down a jetway into an aluminum tube, strap their derriere into one of hundreds of upholstered seats and wait for a Flight Attendant to serve pre-packaged food. That isn’t “flying.” That’s simply traveling by air. Commercial airline pilots, while they may “fly” when they are off-duty, in fact many of them own a small airplane just so they can “fly,” but when in uniform hauling passengers from “A” to “B” the biggest difference between them and an armchair drone pilot is that when the airline pilot loses control there is high probability that he will die. They are superb technicians who monitor hundreds of “systems” in hurtling through the sky, but that is not the kind of flying that engenders the glassy-eyed look of a lover. I once rode in a helicopter with a man who, when I questioned him about his feelings toward his aircraft said, “Oh, it’s just a tool.” I said no more to that man and could not wait to be on the ground and out of his “tool.” He was not flying. He was driving an aerial truck. And I felt sorry for him. I have never met a “Crop Duster,” but they, too, are not flying as they drop down to crop-top level, spray their chemicals, rise steeply, pirouette and drop back down to do it again. I know it takes a skill I do not have to do what they do, but it is not flying, it is driving an aerial tractor. Nowhere will you find a poem such as “High Flight” written by a Crop Duster.
So what IS flying that it can reduce an otherwise reasonable gentleman into a lusting, “Whatever it takes" approach to flying? Flying is being hundreds or thousands of feet above the ground controlling an airplane small enough to fit into a double garage. It’s being alone with nothing but 10,000 feet of clear air between you and the ground and looking across your shoulder in awesome wonder at your wings - marveling at how such tiny appendages can keep you in the sky. It’s tipping your wings, looking down at the earth so far below and feeling just how tiny and insignificant you are in God’s world.
Flying is sitting behind the instrument panel of a small, single-engine aircraft on a beautiful moonlit night with the land of ground-bound mortals spread out below you, their towns defined by clusters of light surrounded by great patches of darkness. And it includes accepting that should your engine fail you must land in one of those dark patches without knowing whether its darkness hides trees, ditches, boulders, barbed-wire fences, or a well-maintained pasture. Flying is the joy that comes when your airplane touches down so lightly on the runway that you scarcely know they are rolling along the asphalt. And it is the feeling of freedom, self-reliance, and fear that comes with knowing should an emergency arise no one on God’s earth can truly help you. We who love it, love flying because it is an island of self-reliance in a world that glories in interdependence, teamwork, and compromise. While flying his airplane a pilot of a small plane is truly beyond human help. He may be given advice or information but ultimately only he can control the airplane.
But it is also those times when lightning flashes much too close to your wingtips and the wind shows you that it can toss your little airplane around easily as deals with a small boat in a heavy sea. The flying I speak of is those times when icy fingers of fear come clawing out of your stomach and do their best to take over all your thought processes and you know your survival depends upon your acknowledging it and then locking it in a room somewhere in the back of your mind while you take care of the business at hand – which is bringing you and your airplane safely to your destination.
There is another dimension of this passion that few pilots will admit to. It is the feeling that prompts him, after flying his plane, to - when he thinks no one is looking - to lightly kiss his plane’s spinner and “thank her” for a great flight. Love an inanimate object? Yes. And even more foolish is this man’s belief that somehow his plane loves him because “she” has done things her Owner’s Manual says she is incapable of doing when under the hand of the man who loves her. Foolishness? Of course, but Cole Porter, a famous composer of yesteryear wrote of this foolishness in his song “What is This Thing Called Love?” His words were:
“What is this thing called love?
This funny thing called love?
Just who can solve its mystery?
Why should it make a fool of me?”
So if you have the fortune, good or bad depending upon your viewpoint, to be married to, in a friendly relationship with, or related to, a man who flies, if you want to keep him rational, keep him away from small airplanes and from conversation involving small airplanes. Do that and, barring other unpleasant quirks, he will be a sensitive companion whose friendship you will enjoy. But should you want to send him into a rapture, take him to a small airport where little airplanes buzz around. Or better yet, ask him to take you flying. But when you do that, be prepared for him to become a little giddy and begin speaking dreamily of clouds, adventures, obscure places where small planes gather, and making references to his airplane as if “she” were his mistress.