18 June 2008

The Freedom of Flight

One of the beautiful things about flying is the freedom gained in the air. It won't take you long to search out a week's worth of aviation quotes to read, and nearly all of them will mention in some way the freedom of the skies. The obvious ways are no roads, less traffic, and, for the most part, point-to-point travel to your destination. The quotes you will find, however, will not mention these pedestrian concerns.

The obvious physical freedoms speak to something deeper, more elusive. This is the stuff of quotes. This deeper freedom cannot be found in the window seat on an airliner. This freedom can sit in only a few select seats at the front of the aircraft. One can fly somewhere, but true freedom means piloting your aircraft. Have you ever ridden somewhere in a car, and then later not been able to figure out how to get home? You don't know because you didn't drive.

Likewise, you have not really flown until you have felt the rudder pedals under your feet, until the control yoke has laid lightly in your hand. Until you have felt the slipstream fight against your control inputs, you haven't been flying.

This freedom of flight is found only when pilot and airplane come together. A pilot must become the airplane, using his intellect and judgement and physical skills to bring about the desired results. An airplane must become the pilot: the physical embodiment of the pilot's will. Many words have been put to paper in attempts to explain this curious phenomenon, but most fall short, as do mine. There is nothing to do but experience it for yourself.

One of the most vivid glimpses I have witnessed in my own experience is when I was in flight school. My first instructor was pretty mean, and usually taught through negative reinforcement. He would mock me and laugh at me until I got it right. One day, we were in Grand Haven, and we were getting ready to fly back to Jenison. We were running a bit late due to some maintenance on the aircraft, and he was getting impatient. I reached for the checklist, and began running through it in preparation for departure. He said that I was taking too long, and proceeded to go through the checklist, without the aid of the actual list. He knew the airplane that well, that he was able to complete all the necessary checks in as much time as it has taken you to read this blog post.

He was the airplane. In a way that I could only hope to dream about, he was the airplane. He knew exactly where every switch, every button, every dial was. He could look at a glance, and tell exactly where the needles were on the instruments. He could also, in that glance, tell if they were in the correct place for takeoff. Oil pressure, exhaust temperature, altimeter, engine RPMs, heading indicator, magnetic compass, radios on the right frequency, fuel feeding from both tanks, lights, transponder on and broadcasting the correct code. All in a single glance. When airborne, he could bring the plane into any maneuver as smooth as changing lanes in a car. He willed it, and the airplane did it. Effortless.

This freedom is a direct result of the discipline that is required to fly. Of course, to get licensed, one needs to complete the required training and practice. But after the license, a pilot must constantly discipline himself against laziness, complacency, fatigue, and a whole army of other human and other factors that conspire to bring the flight to ruin. There are many old adages in aviation, but one sticks out as my personal favorite: "Never let the airplane take you somewhere your mind hasn't been already."

In order to experience freedom in the air, the pilot must always be thinking ahead, yet always focused on the moment. There is no room for the argument you had with your boss, or the disagreement with your wife, or bills, or fixing the car, or doctor bills, or any of that. When you are flying, you are flying. Nothing else.

The only way to experience the freedom of flight is to give yourself over completely to the airplane and the experience of the moment. To lose yourself, and become the airplane. To lose the airplane, and truly live.


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