An ode to flying – and why it’s different from piloting

Flying has been an attraction, some may say an addiction, throughout most of my life. I was hooked in eighth grade when I chartered a seaplane (in my father’s name) to fly from Lake Union to Friday Harbor, Washington, where my father was waiting for me. The young pilot asked me if I wanted to fly it, and I said yes and I flew the plane most of the trip – that quick! The flying hook was set. By 19, I was pumping floats and fueling the seaplanes on Lake Union while studying at the University of Washington. Work in exchange for flying lessons. My job at Dick’s Drive In selling burgers managed to feed me while I studied English Literature and Philosophy and girls when not flying.

I got my license after 40.1 hours in a then-old Aeronca Chief on floats. No electrical system, prop starter, no nav/com radio. A hundred mile cross country took an hour and a half. The floats leaked so badly that the plane was in danger of sinking not long after landing. For takeoff, I had to circle Lake Union a couple of times just to get enough altitude to get over the Seattle hills.

Captain Cook, the chief pilot when not in Alaska, told me not to worry about radios and such but always to know where I was by dead reckoning and observation, and always know where to put the plane down if the engine failed. I never forgot and even when all electronic navigation failed, or no signal was available, I only got lost one time in 45 years; and I landed a plane in the desert after an engine out. There was no damage to passengers or plane.

Sunset from cockpit
Piloting is great. But simply being in the air is the special part.

A series of airplanes came into my life: the previous one was a Piper Arrow, the present plane is a 1947 Bonanza with 260 hp and a very bright red paint job matched with a white leather interior. There is RNAV, a yoke-mounted Garmin GPS, and an iPad with ForeFlight. No autopilot. Round gauges.

The particular flavor of my addiction mandates lots of flying and we have flown the 1947 Bonanza 30,000 miles in the last two years from Tacoma, Washington, including trips throughout the Caribbean, across Venezuela, Colombia, Belize, Guatemala, Mexico and much of the United States. At present, most every weekend, we make flights to Orcas Island, Washington – when the cost of my habit including maintenance, hangar, insurance, gasoline does not force me into my office. It may be worse to have a drug problem, but it can’t be more expensive.

I have to say that a rather unique part of the flying habit, at least from my view, is its death potential. For years I read, “I learned about flying from that…” Between that column and the NTSB reports of crashes, it was totally clear that death was out there waiting for the foolish or unlucky.

This history and the timeline has given me a lot of time to muse over flying. Working for a living and having kids and all that stuff kept me mostly busy and, in spite of the pull of my habit, flying was still the extra. Partially as a result, I am not satiated – unlike most of my military and commercial airline buddies who have had enough. They seem to buy sailboats.

So what is flying? Clearly it is riding inside a machine in the sky. The machine can be very simple or extremely complex – but each one is a ride into the sky. The nuts and bolts of the machines can be blueprinted, outlined, contained in manuals, and defined down to the molecular level. Without forgetting the accomplishments of all planes, the higher performing machines and the systems and technologies are awesome. I know people whose love for flying is tied to the technology… and mine is to a certain extent, but the technology ultimately has to lead to the air and back to the ground by navigating to a thought-out place even if not preselected. All the science – whether high science or simple – is tied to that principle. From takeoff to landing, the pilot is flying in the sky by controlling a machine which will return to earth.

In my meditations on flying, I have concluded that the act of piloting is a wonderful part of the flying experience, but for me at least it is not the key experience. The key experience is simply to really be in the sky (in a small aluminum can with windows) while simultaneously with heightened awareness be above the expanse of earth and sea. Together: the act of piloting and being in the sky, tied to a smidgen (or two) of fear, are the key elements of the experience which somehow also translate to an emotional response of internal satisfaction and fulfillment – in spite of the cost, time and risk.

11 Comments

  • Nice article! Brought back some nice memories.

    I watched the planes take off and land on Lake Union from my nearby office for several years. I didn’t take a flight in a small plane until 10 years later. Now I’m hooked and working on my PPL.

  • Timothy, you hit on what is the crucial difference between flying and other avocations (sailing, bass fishing, golf, etc. ad infinitum): there is a more-than-minimal risk of dying in a light aircraft accident, and a perceived absence of that risk in other activities. I think that the refusal of many women to accept their husband’s flying– or to accept it grudgingly– relates to that emotionally-felt deadliness. But humans are very strange animals: I’ve met avid motorcyclists who would not fly because “It’s too dangerous.” Go figure. Different topic: contrast the differences between your wide-ranging travel in a 1947 Bonanza with what you might do in a 1947 Plymouth! The Plymouth wins in only one category I can think of… but that’s another story.

  • Nice article and clearly an interesting life. But I have to say, if you have not flown cross country in a glider you’re missing something very special about flying!

  • Nice article. Thanks for sharing your experiences and perspective, Timothy. Keep ‘me coming. Am enjoying reading “Pirates, Scoundrels, and Saints”, as well as your articles in ABS Magazine.

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