Mission possible: flying starfish

Why do I fly? What is it about being in the air that compels me to spend spare time, and even more scarce resources, to pursue aviation? Actually, it’s pretty simple: it’s about sharing my insatiable passion with others. I’ve been blessed with decades of great flying memories, but the ones that stand out most are those when I introduced someone to flying for the first time.

Kid at controls of airplane

The author’s son, Jack, taking the controls–and making a memory.

When I first earned my license, like many others, I loved boring holes in the sky. But as time wore on, I discovered that I really enjoyed “mission” flying. Angel Flights, Civil Air Patrol, the occasional trip incident to my profession–all of those added meaningful purpose to my flying. So, carrying that realization to the next step, I thought becoming a flight instructor would provide me the ultimate ticket to mission flying, right? Sort of.

Don’t get me wrong. I love to teach others to fly. In fact, it’s one of the most rewarding things I do. But, what I found as the years have rolled on is that I really enjoy the first lesson most of all. No doubt watching a first solo, or cutting a (sweaty) shirt tail, is an amazing privilege which so very few others ever experience. But, it’s that first smile, the first change of expression from trepidation to elation that fills my heart every time. That singular moment is why I fly.

One morning when the clouds were a little lower and the visibility was a little more restricted than forecast, I started thinking about all the problems general aviation is battling. High fuel prices. Dwindling pilot numbers. Airport closures. Threats of user fees. I could go on. These are real issues, and lots of smart and dedicated people are thankfully working to address them. What could I do? I didn’t want to focus on the negative, but I did want to make a difference. Then, it hit me like the proverbial two-by-four.

Fly the type of missions I hold so dear by introducing others to aviation through their first flights. Maybe, just maybe, a few of those folks will want to learn to fly. Regardless, all of them will be exposed to aviation in a positive way.

Kid flying airplane

That smile is a great reason to fly.

There are excellent programs already in operation designed to do just this. EAA’s Young Eagles and Eagle Flights quickly come to mind, and I encourage each of us to consider donating our time and talents to benefit programs like those.

Each of us can, though, make a difference individually, and quietly, without being part of a formal program. Ask a coworker, neighbor, or friend to go flying. Talk to the parents and children looking through the fences at the airport on a weekend, and let them sit in the plane and move the controls. Perhaps a few will want to go around the patch. Take ‘em. Yes, as a corporate attorney, I can recite 100 different reasons you might want to proceed with caution and “limit your liability.” But, what I’m suggesting is … take a chance.

I’m reminded of a story from Loren Eiseley entitled The Star Thrower. The story focuses on a man walking on a beach where countless starfish have washed ashore after a storm. The man sees a young boy picking up starfish and tossing them, one-by-one, back into the ocean. The man approaches the boy and questions the boy about the folly of his actions considering the sheer number of stranded starfish. How can one boy possibly hope to make a difference? The boy, undeterred and focused on his mission, reaches down, picks up another starfish, throws it back into the ocean and simply replies “I made a difference to that one.”

I know this isn’t a new concept; I recognize others advocate the same thing. For me, though, tying my mission flying to the excitement of a person’s first flight, brings it all together. And, at the end of the day, if you take a chance, perhaps the starfish you fly will be the next Cessna, Piper, Boeing, Yeager, Hoover, or Collins.

5 Comments

  1. Mark Fay says:

    Wow! Great story about the starfish! Very true!

  2. AfricanEagle says:

    Very true, that first smile is fantastic. I am not an instructor but have had the pleasure of taking many people for their first flight. One of them
    is now a Captain for Emirates

  3. Liad B. says:

    I didn’t come from an “aviation family ” but I will make sure to start a new tree/branch and have my kids pick up flying, if not for the pure joy of it, I truly believe it’s a great character builder and teaches a 16 year old to think differently about life, be more responsible, invest more in their studying and when they get their ticket, be proud at something that so few achieve… True freedom.

  4. Brandon F. says:

    Joseph,

    This story immediately brought me back to when a Skylane pilot took me up for my first ever plane ride back in ’95. He let me take the controls for about 5 minutes, and I remember clearly thinking how much easier it was than I had expected, that feeling that told me that “I can do this”. My parents can vouch that I didn’t stop smiling for several days (as a matter of fact, I never did).

    I do wish I could thank that pilot who took me up.

  5. Mike says:

    I’m in! Great article.