Sometimes you learn things that you didn’t expect while looking through airplane windows. I noticed this when I first started to fly and it has become the most beneficial part of the experience.
It doesn’t happen on every flight. But it happened again recently.
Coming home from historic Wings Field (KLOM), outside Philadelphia, toward suburban Chicago I was battling high head winds and moderate rain in the October sky.
The first part of the journey was busy. In the clouds at 2000 feet, a change to the airways in the Northeast had the controllers confused and they did a good job passing the uncertainty on to me. Five different routings were punched into the GPS before I passed the Pottstown (PTW) VOR. Harrisburg approach apologized after giving me the penultimate change. The final directions were served with a heavy sigh and an even more expressive apology.
Before I started to fly, I would have been petulant and abusive if someone asked me to do the same thing five different ways. Flying has made me more tolerant of the challenges others face, more willing to be a part of the team, more accepting of the constraints others place on me.
I am not the only one who has noticed how cooperation comes more easily when I no longer respond to difficulties with condescension or impatience.
In my future that day were widespread rain, ice and turbulence. Calls to Flight Service and study of the print outs I brought compared to the on board weather consumed the next hour.
There were no thunderstorms and the lower levels were ice-free so the work was manageable and not frightening. At 500 hours experience, I am severely afraid of both these enemies.
When I was becoming a pilot, I was often described as “fearless.” I would ride the wicked roller coasters, bungee jump from great heights, take enormous risks at work. I thought fear a weakness.
I was astonished when this did not transfer to my flying. I never suspected I would be anything but coldly analytical and resolute against the flying dangers. I foolishly believed I would never have problems in an airplane and would never be afraid.
I have made peace with the fear that shows up for me on some flights. I recognize it as the handmaiden to safety. Far from a weakness, my fear is a talisman that keeps me safe, points out the things to watch for, motivates me to pay attention.
Outside the cockpit, I have been more accommodating to my associates and have more respect for the business and personal risks they choose to avoid.
As I approached Ohio and the storms at their zenith, I had made peace with my choices and settled down to enjoy the ride. Everything I had learned about flying had put me in the position to bump through this sky safely and with confidence.
It was not until I passed Toledo and was handed off to Fort Wayne approach that the clouds gave way and I saw it.
1979 must have been a great year in vehicle creation because two machines born then turned my head. My 182 was built in 1979; and so was my baby blue BMW 320i, a car I truly loved. Both were bought with little thought to economic reason. It would be as hard to pick a favorite child as to choose which meant more when I first held their keys.
Even at 4000 feet I could spot it. A rare twin of that German coupe was motoring down the Indiana Toll Road. Against that monster breeze, I was barely gaining on it. It was doing at least 85 mph.
I asked for and got a right deviation so I could cross over the highway and watch it closer for just a little longer.
Less than a mile away, as the wings swept past the wheels, I felt a sense of accomplishment, pride and nostalgia. Looking through that window pane I realized the journey between these two vehicles was my story of success.
Recently I reread a book by Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success.
An “outlier” is a scientific term for something outside the norm. A freezing day in August would be an “outlier;” a .450 batting average would be a Major League “outlier.”
In the book Gladwell spoke of what makes a person a success, what makes them an “outlier.” He believes success requires three ingredients: talent; opportunity; and, the discipline to practice.
There’s a chapter in it about flying, and the often quoted statistic from the book is that to be a success in anything you need to practice it 10,000 times.
All of us pilots are outliers. Statistically, we are way out there compared to the population.
The aviation industry needs to pull more Americans into our little group, because we need more pilots. There are many ideas on how to do this. Recently I read a thesis that rang true to me: emphasize that to be a pilot you must be exceptional, you must be an “outlier,” and advertise the activity that way.
To be a pilot you must be: talented enough to afford it; courageous enough to seize the opportunity; and, disciplined enough to get through the difficulties of flight training.
Many people express a strong desire to fly. There must be plenty of them whose talents have attracted the money that is required; most if not all have demonstrated the discipline.
So why are they not seizing the opportunity? How can we motivate them to get past whatever is stopping them?
As night fell and I thankfully closed in on home, there was one more cloud bank to penetrate. Turning up the interior lights I entered the gloaming.
At night in an airplane in cloud when you look outside, all you can see is a reflection of the cockpit.
I looked out and saw me.
Flying holds up a mirror to you and makes you understand that no matter who you think you are, who you are in the cockpit is who you really are. Do you like that person? Shouldn’t they change just a little?
Flying has many contradictions that force you to think in different ways, to challenge your assumptions. Because of this becoming a pilot can be the ultimate self-improvement tool for successful people. By following your dream to fly, you become better at everything else you do.
The message needs to be that learning to fly feeds the passion of exceptional people, opening vistas both outside and inside of them.
When you are looking through an airplane window you learn things you didn’t expect. You learn about you.