Off we go, into the wild blue yonder... (from the US Air Force anthem)


It’s easy to get an airplane off the ground once you get used to steering with your feet and working the gas with your hand. The hard part is getting the plane back onto the ground. Most student pilots do their first solo after 15-20 hours of flying, but I knew a guy who never soloed,  and I didn’t want to do it either, but my reasoning went as follows: (1) I can probably get this plane back onto the ground without killing myself and without too much damage to the plane. (2) If I refuse to solo, I will be a coward, and I will be disrespecting my instructor’s judgment of my readiness. (3) I have no choice but to solo. (As I prepared to taxi onto the runway alone for the first time, Peggy came running over and asked for my car keys because she had left hers at home, and wanted to be prepared in case mine ended up in a tree somewhere.)

Twice, during my brief flying career, the engine quit, and I had to make on-field emergency landings. Another time, I smelled smoke from an electrical short, and had to make another on-field emergency landing. On a third occasion, I accidentally put myself into a spin while I was doing something that my instructor had warned me against doing alone—practicing approach stalls. Back then, at least, most VFR pilots (the lowest level of pilot; Visual Flight Rules as opposed to Instrument Flight Rules) weren’t taught spin recovery, so when the plane’s nose instantly went from pointing 20° upward to 85° downward and the ground started spinning up at me, I got busy trying to remember what I had read on the subject. If I had been a poor student, I might have died, and I never got over that fact, although I kept flying. Indeed, the first thing I did after I got myself out of that spin was to regain altitude and do another approach stall. After I recovered from it, I flew back to the airport, made a bad landing, and found that I was having a little trouble walking.

I now feel stupid for having done that last stall, but most young men live by rigid rules regarding courage, and can torture themselves for years if they break one of them. This means that it sometimes seems easier to a man to get out of a bad situation by risking death than by playing it safe and having to live with doubts about his courage—and therefore his manhood. (This naturally raises questions about what constitutes courage. After all, if one man charges into machine gun fire because he fears censure more than death, while another feigns a mental collapse because he fears death more than censure; who is really braver?)

After I logged about 200 hours, I sold my one-sixth interest in a Cessna 150 because I was preparing to move. By then, I had learned three things about flying that kept me from going back to it. One, if you live in the American South and you fly a small plane VFR, you can never count on making it back home in a timely manner if you travel very far because the area is so prone to overcast, scattered thundershowers, and 250 mile long thunderstorm fronts (These fronts are too high to fly over, and no one in his right mind would fly a small plane within thirty miles of one because of the likelihood of being hurled 35,000 feet into the air, having his wings snapped off, and then being slammed into the ground). Two, it costs a hell of lot to fly even if you share expenses, not so much because of the original investment in a share of some old and tiny airplane, as because of maintenance costs. The sad truth is that airplane labor and parts cost more than the same do for cars, plus the government requires frequent inspections and lots of periodic maintenance (like a motor rebuild every 2000 flight hours). Third, you’re a danger to yourself and others if you only fly occasionally, and this means that, to be a safe pilot, a person has to spend a lot of time in the air when he had rather be doing something else.

Looking back, I’m glad I flew a little, and I’m glad I survived because as dangerous as it looks, I found it to be even more dangerous for someone of my limited experience who was flying a raggedy-ass old plane. Of course, it could be that my various close calls scared me more than was reasonable, but maybe that was for the better. You wouldn’t think that adding an up and down dimension to the usual left, right, and forward, would make much difference, but it wasn’t just the up and down that was disconcerting, it was that I was moving through an unstable element. In case you haven’t been in an 1,100 hundred pound plane with a 34-foot wingspan, I should mention that small planes bounce all over the place, and the moment the pilot gets them adjusted in response to one air movement, another wind, updraft, or downdraft hits, and they have to be adjusted all over again to forces that can neither be seen nor anticipated.

Me being an atheist and all, you might be wondering if I was ever scared enough to pray. The answer is that I was plenty scared, but if you truly don’t believe, you don’t believe, so you’re unlikely to pray no matter how scared you get. I won’t say that no atheist ever prayed in a dire situation, but I’ve never known of any. Of course, it was also true that I never had something go wrong in an airplane that left me with enough leisure to pray. It’s a wonderfully focusing moment when you suspect that the only things between you and death are luck and experience, and you can’t control the former, and you have little of the latter.

22 comments:

kj said...

What a great read, snow. One of my favorites xo

My ex husband stopped flying after he soloed. I think the landing scared the bejesus out of him .

I think of JFK junior and wonder what his final thoughts were. And John Denver.

I'm glad you survived your courage test and I caught my breath when you said you tried that stunt again

Love
kj

Snowbrush said...

Your husband appears to have hung in there just long enough to pass his own minimal test of courage. When I started flying, I had no idea that I could be hurt in an airplane because I considered airplanes too beautiful to be hurt in. It was one of many delusions I have entertained throughout life.

Helen said...

What a great story .... I can imagine you up there flying high in the sky!

rhymeswithplague said...

"I considered airplanes too beautiful to be hurt in."

You will probably want to come to Georgia and punch me in the nose, but nobody could be that [pick an adjective], not even in Mississippi.

naive
dense
stupid

Snowbrush said...

Thanks, Helen.

"You will probably want to come to Georgia and punch me in the nose, but nobody could be that [pick an adjective], not even in Mississippi."

A funny thing about delusions is that they can be so compelling even when a person knows they're not true. I could list several that I've had, and I wonder if God is one that you've had because you simply can't, really and truly, to the depths of your being, believe all that you say you believe, just as my rational brain never really and truly believed that I couldn't die in an airplane; yet the feeling persisted right up until the day of that spin.

Elephant's Child said...

I don't even like to get into planes, and the thought of flying one is incomprehensible.
I am glad you did, and met your own challenge. I am even gladder that you survived to delight and challenge me. (And, of course, my selfish reason true as it is, isn't the only reason I am pleased you survived.)

Linda said...

I don't think women have to prove themselves even though they will face anything to save a child or maybe someone else. I don't feel compelled to be brave or have courage and have proof of it for myself or anyone else. I think my son, even as a small child had this kind of mentality or maybe was just like all children, unaware.

My friend was 73 and still flying, had a hangar, a museum in his basement where he was restoring a 1939 stagger wind, had a runway, and scared me to death 35 years ago. It was my first, last and only time in a small airplane.

One day last year, he was making a legal left in his car, entering the turn lane and making his turn. A woman on drugs was going the wrong way, speeding, and t-boned him. He died instantly as her car crushed his door, and it took two hours to remove his body.

At his funeral I told one of his children that I was prepared for him to die flying, but I had a difficult time with the senseless and futility of the woman murdering him. If he had smacked the ground, it would have been okay.

Your wife was thinking when she got the car keys...lol. Did she ever go up with you?

angela said...

After watching top gun in the 80's my hubby wanted to fly, so one year I bought him a few flying lessons. After doing those he decided he would rather keep his feet on the ground, and besides they were very expensive. But he experienced it and I was happy to have helped him live a dream. Thanks for the post xxx

Stephen Hayes said...

My dad was a private pilot and , like you, he had many interesting experiences to share, none of which made me want to climb into a small plane piloted by him or anyone else.

Charles Gramlich said...

fascinating. Didn't know this about you.

rhymeswithplague said...

By the way, it's "Off we go" and not "Here we go"....

ellen abbott said...

I took a dozen or so flying lessons. it was great fun but I never did more than that. My brother flies and I have been up in his plane several times. I think it's fun and I don't mind being bounced around but I've never been in a situation that I would call dangerous, besides of course just being up in the air in a little metal box. As to praying...I wouldn't consider an atheist saying 'dear god get me out of this' to be a prayer. It's a social exclamation. I swear in the name of god and Jesus all the time but I am definitely not a believer in that concept of god or in the divinity of Jesus.

CreekHiker / HollysFolly said...

Snow, you are an endlessly fascinating man!

Robin said...

Snow, as Charles said: *Fascinating*! I love that you once flew!! My Father, many years older than my Mum, was a Bomber Pilot in WWII. He flew in Africa and Italy...I have his photo albums with his crew...all decked out in Bomber Jackets - like a John Wayne Film. How he began flying....I don't know. There was such a huge age difference between us... I never asked the questions I should have. I do know that he never recovered from dropping bombs on people... and after the war, when he met my Mum at Wright Patterson AFB, he stopped flying. But, my Mum became a Flight Attendant on Pam Am..and flew around the world several times. My favourite story of hers is one day, the Pilot asked her if she wanted to fly the plane - and of course, she did! He told her: *Steer to the left of that cloud*! A-ha-ha! I have never flown a plane...but have ridden in many, big and small...I love it...it is thrilling!

Love that photo of you! And...love the photo of Brewsky in your previous post... you captured his expression of *WTF* beautifully!

Love to all three,

♥ Robin ♥

kj said...

Ex husband, snow, Ex :-)

I find this delusion of yours hard to believe. But it must be no different than my driving drunk or picking up some strange guy in s bar--things I did then that I would not ever never do now
xo

All Consuming said...

I instantly saw you as Richard from 'Illusions- The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah'. You look perfect for the role, and how impressed am I at your balls to fly such a small aircraft?! Enormously. What a brilliant post, there's so much we don't know about each other's lives, and what a treat it is when we are shown the gems.If you were actually Donald Shimoda mind you....well you're a perfect reluctant messiah methinks hahahaha. Love the picture, I'm stealing a copy for my photo album. x

A Plain Observer said...

A very interesting read!
Courage is something I don't have much when it comes to playing with my safety. Having been reminded of my mortality when I didn't want to be, I play it safe now

lotta joy said...

When Joe and I nearly got knocked into an early grave in Atlanta last week, I swore to never, ever, be caught in that highway asylum again. As afraid as I am of flying, at least I won't be under an overpass, waiting for a helicopter to pick up my body parts.

I'll be taking 200 people with me and leaving nothing to find except a melted gold tooth.

Mim said...

My hubby has been a pilot for over 30 years, IFR certified for at least 20. We fly all over the place, the only think I don't like about it is the lack of a bathroom. but there are times when I pray "never again...."!!!

possum said...

Although I have flown all over this earth, my ex built his own little plane and took me up in it ONCE. He cut the power in it and turned it into a glider - briefly - the longest minute in my life. He probably still has scars where my fingers dug into his leg in my moment of terror. he had your belief, too. I did not. But he taught me I could not trust him. Note the word ex.
Interesting post.

Snowbrush said...

"Your wife was thinking when she got the car keys...lol. Did she ever fly with you?"

I took it that she was just being practical in a cautious way that took no thought about how asking for the keys might sound. Yes, she flew with me a lot. She was in the plane both times the engine quit, and I think she was there when I smelled electrical smoke. The whole point of me learning to fly was so that we could travel places faster because, at the time, we both loved to travel. Aside from our wanting to travel, I wouldn't have done it.

"it's "Off we go" and not "Here we go"...."

Thank you. I verified that you were right--which I didn't doubt--and immediately made the change.

"nobody could be that [pick an adjective], not even in Mississippi."

You don't know the half of it, so I wrote another post (which I just posted) due to your inspiration.

"I find this delusion of yours hard to believe."

You write this yet you know but one out of 15 or 20 (I just posted all the others that I could think of), AND I have no thought that I am at all unusual in terms of either number of or severity of delusions, AND you are a shrink???

"I swear in the name of god and Jesus all the time but I am definitely not a believer in that concept of god or in the divinity of Jesus."

Would you swear if you did believe? Woe be unto me if I became a believer, because I've sworn so much for so many decades that it would be a hard habit to break, but as unbecoming as it is to anyone--especially in excess--I consider it worse when done by believers who are using words that they claim to reverence in the context of profanity. It is for that reason that I don't curse around people who I know to be religious--except on this blog, of course.

"I do know that he never recovered from dropping bombs on people..."

If you're interested, I have two book recommendations of first-hand accounts by bomber crewmen who regretted what they had done.

"nothing to find except a melted gold tooth."

Do you ever wonder what happens to all those gold teeth of people who are cremated? My guess is that they're a boon to the cremation industry.

"After watching top gun in the 80's my hubby wanted to fly"

Wow. I wouldn't have had such a thought (it looked a bit too high-speed and thrilling for my taste), and I hadn't even thought about others doing so.

"ONCE. He cut the power in it and turned it into a glider - briefly - the longest minute in my life."

I'm assuming that you thought the motor had really died because a major part of pilot training is turning the motor completely off and then learning what to do.

"the only think I don't like about it is the lack of a bathroom."

Peggy once peed in a man's urinal while squatting on a seat in bumpy weather.

"I instantly saw you as Richard from 'Illusions- The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah'."

Oh, it's been too long for me to remember it, but I read it when it first came out.

"I don't even like to get into planes,"

I don't like flying in big planes because I feel claustrophobic, not because I fear for my safety.

Joe Todd said...

In my younger days I would fly the "girls" over to Put In Bay on Lake Erie to see the "sights" LOL.. Haven't flown for over 20 years but will never forget some of the flying "experiences"