9 min read

I fly a Carbon Cub in the 4.5 million acre wilderness of Idaho known as the Frank Church, or River of No Return. It’s the largest contiguous wilderness in the lower 48 and it affords a tremendous opportunity for solitude. Our airstrips (over 800) are used by river guides, “flying the mails,” and even flying bishops; some places are only reachable by five-day float, three days on a horse, or two hours in a plane. Many of the famous backcountry airstrips like Smiley Creek see a lot of traffic from pilots crossing our country seeking to experience hot springs, fly-in breakfasts, or a taste of Alaska without the weather.

I am also a student monk and spend extended times at The Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, founded by Suziki Roshi. It’s the strictest Zen monastery outside of Japan and is located at the end of a rugged dirt road deep in the coastal mountains of California. Many people are surprised these peaks reach almost 6,000 feet. There’s only a handful of roads between Carmel and Los Angeles so this wilderness, known as the Ventana Wilderness, reminds me a lot of Idaho. We have bear and perhaps over 3000 mountain lions.

Wild horses

Chasing wild horses in Nevada—a great reason to fly.

This fall, as the heavy flying of summer in Idaho abated, I took out a two year lease on a Bonanza A36 to ease the commute between California and Idaho. Though I’ve flown the Cub to Baja Mexico and across much of our country, work demands that I not spend so much time chasing wild horses in Nevada.

The Bonanza was a big step up for me and as Mike Borden at High Performance Aircraft (who leased me the plane, $4000/mo.) said, “it can get away from you real fast.” We spent a few days flying around California and I learned a lot, but one of the most important things he taught me was a personal checklist, which concludes with the simple question: are you fit to fly?

Before we get to this question, a word on checklists. While aviation owes many things to medicine and emergency rescue, the medical community owes pilots one very important industry practice, and that’s checklists. Surgeons use them, labs use them, and they are common practice in the emergency room. Checklists emerged from a fascinating theory called Door Theory, which goes like this: if you give someone ten objects to carry across a room and ask them what they carried (having taken them away), they can recall nine with perfect memory. If, however, you ask them to carry ten objects across a room, but then have them walk through a doorway, they will be lucky to recall three on the other side. The reason for this is simple and ties to our evolutionary biology: emerging from a cave, or a forest, we were wired from the start to assess threat. This comes at a cost in modern day life equal to wiping our operating system clean when new circumstances emerge. Engine out or heart surgery, we now have checklists.

The personal checklist that concludes with a simple question (are you fit to fly?) I believe is the most important. Bad decisions are usually the result of runaway lesser decisions. In other words, we become reactive rather than proactive. But the profound nature of this question is yet deeper still. We might ask ourselves, am I clear of mind, are my emotions or needs involved in getting to my destination? My uncle, who was the lead designer on the 737, never flew for work: “the temptation to make it home on a Friday night was simply too great, should I be tempted to overlook fatigue or personal limits or weather.” These are good questions but only scratch the surface.

I propose there’s a deeper, more philosophical aspect to this question as well, and we would do well to ask: must I fly?

As pilots we will always say yes. We fly because we can. We fly because it’s a way of life and many of us can’t imagine another way. Movies like the Disciples of Flight illustrate this beautifully.

This question deepens when we look at it proactively versus reactively. The proactive mind says yes when we are at our center, well grounded, assessing risk and assessing pleasure. These are our Saturday mornings flying the pattern, or along the coast counting whales. What the Zen call the “reactive mind,” however, is activated when we are overwhelmed by outside circumstances (“bombardments” is what my teacher calls them). You could say that our self agency gets hijacked. In Idaho, this is when we forget that it’s best to arrive by noon in the mountains, not depart by noon. Or Friday nights anywhere, trying to get home at all.


Pilots like to fly, but what if you stay still?

The pandemic provided a new perspective on the must I fly question. When our country returned to the road and the skies in unprecedented volumes this summer, business travelers took back up their commutes and families were reunited. This is good; we have always been a country that likes to be at work and our families are often spread across great distances. But as a monk, I also ask us pilots to sit with the profoundly transformative question: what happens if I stay still?

And before we get to this question, a bit about the Bonanza. It’s appropriately named. There seems to be no end of its capability. With the help of back-country extraordinaire Steven Garman, I have flown it off the 2500 ft. grass airstrip at my grandparents’ gold mine and used it recently to fly a California condor back to Idaho for breeding. The barn doors accommodate tandem bicycles, my kids, and my kids’ dogs. It’s been a great tool to commute to work to Texas and next week to Washington, DC. I don’t get invited to airshows or many fly-ins anymore, but for now I’m enjoying the challenge of a complex plane with 300 horsepower and retractable gear. I’m often able to beat the minimums of the jetliners that service our tiny mountain airport only to cancel and bus people in.

It turns out, however, that Mike’s question at High Performance Aircraft is all the more important in the Bonanza. Not only does it get away from you really quickly, but gone are the days when I could casually hop in and then think about my destination once airborne. To put it simply, I’m not going to find a cow pasture or sandbar to ditch into should something go wrong.

This means that I now fly with more intention. And this should hold true for any pilot. The unexpected joys, however, are found on the days I determine I’m best to remain on the ground. I read. I call an old friend or take a walk. Maybe I let someone else fly. I discover music or, as Suzuki Roshi said, I notice the joy of the barely perceptible airflow over my fingers as I walk. Pico Iyer wrote a book about this, The Art of Stillness:

“In an age of speed, I began to think, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow. In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.”

Days at Tassajara, the Zen monastery in California, are highly structured and our practice adheres to strict routine. Outside the student dormitory on the brass gong used to wake us up, there’s a saying etched in wood: “Wake up! Life is transient, swifting passing. Be aware of the great matter. Don’t waste time!”

Not exactly what you would expect at a tranquil center known for long periods of meditation.

But Zen practice understands that stillness is the byproduct of routine. Which for pilots is the checklist. We only get to know ourselves, our situations, by being with them directly. Leonard Cohen, both an artist and a Zen student, came to understand late in life while living at a monastery in the mountains above Los Angeles that “going nowhere isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.”


A message for pilots?

Here we can return to the simple joy of the Cub. Flying at 500 feet off the shore or ruttering S-turns over the river is one of the most meditative things I’ve ever done. Thoreau, who as Pico Iyer reminds us was “one of the greatest explorers of this time,” wrote in his journal, “It matters not where or how far you travel—the farther commonly the worse—but how much alive you are.” Flying the Cub with the doors and windows open is the most alive I’ve ever felt.

This brings us full circle to our question of must I fly? Disciples of Flight answers this unequivocally, as we must. For pilots understand life only with some perspective, that of being above it on some level. Observing how things are connected, why things are located where they are, or how a thing came to be. “One of the strange laws of the contemplative life,” the Catholic mystic Thomas Merton wrote, “is that in it you do not sit down and solve problems: you bear with them until they somehow solve themselves. Or until life solves them for you.”

Pilots cannot afford to let life solve things for us. We must ask the questions of am I fit to fly or must I fly with resolute austerity. To fly, or to not fly—to be proactive or reactive—is to understand that life trades on the thinnest of margins. This is what it is to be alive. To live a contemplative life. To be both still and to fly.

Today is a Saturday morning and I’m choosing to fly. There’s a pancake breakfast at Johnson Creek, a beautiful grass airstrip on the edge of Idaho’s wilderness. Monday, I will head to Washington, DC. And here I will remember the simple wisdom of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz:

“If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”

Peterson Conway
Latest posts by Peterson Conway (see all)
26 replies
    • Stephen Pradarelli
      Stephen Pradarelli says:

      As a meditation practitioner, sangha leader in Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition, Susuki Roshi fan, and newly minted private pilot, I was delighted to read your article. Synthesizing these interests has been a bit of a koan for me. The cost of flying, the impact on the environment, etc., do at times seem at odds with my practice. I still am not sure where I’ll land with it, but I’m happy to know there’s at least one other pilot out there thinking about all of these things. Gasho!

      • Peterson Conway
        Peterson Conway says:

        Stephen thanks for taking the time to write. It’s tough putting yourself out there at times –but made worthwhile when others like you make the effort to connect. Someone asked Jerry Seinfeld how he would define life, what’s its meaning. As you may know he has a lifelong meditation practice. He replied: “movement”. Best I can tell, he said, life is defined as movement. This is an interesting quote to me.

  1. Don Clark
    Don Clark says:

    Maybe in the future you could meditate in the air without chasing the horses! It might make you feel alive but it’s not fun for them, and in fact can cause injury.

      • Farmer
        Farmer says:

        Horses can run, but in this case are running because they are fearing for their life, being chased by a giant predator. Actions that would not be necessary if certain individuals spent a bit more time with the contemplative side of things.

    • Cheryl ray
      Cheryl ray says:

      Oh so quick to judge! I honestly have to chuckle. I hardly think that a student of Zen would be harassing horses in a dangerous manner. As a Montana rancher and pilot, my guess is that it was the most interesting and stimulating thing that happened to those horses for at least a week, maybe longer. Let’s not necessarily project our imagined feelings onto those wild and curious and intelligent beasts.

  2. ScoutDriver
    ScoutDriver says:

    As a fellow Idaho based backcountry pilot, I’m afraid you have opened yourself up for a conversation with the Feds. I know for a fact (not 1st hand) BLM will not tolerate photos of wild horses and will threaten action just from the evidence shown in this article. I concur that flying low over our terrain is good for the soul however I see this as an open invitation for other pilots to follow your example and harass wild mustangs. Leave the horses to their zen. Please don’t bring anymore attention to the beauty and splendor of flying in Idaho.

    • Peterson Conway
      Peterson Conway says:

      Hi Scout, I’d love to hear more from you on this. The mustangs have received their due in the comments here, but what do you mean about attracting attention to the beauty of back country flying in Idaho? Surely you’re a fan of Galen Hanselman. I was at his memorial last summer (no, I didn’t win the rubber chicken drop) and the prevailing discussion was the state of GA. A lot of airstrips falling into disuse. I never seem to want for tie-downs and there’s always room for another in the springs. (The sader reality being RV campers overflowing Bonneville and camping up at the airstrip at Warm Springs). I was in Stanley this morning and the runway was plowed but no planes. Seems we would do well to have a few less RVs and maybe more capable, self-sufficient pilots helping inspire young people that three-dimensional thinking need not be a side-pop out on their parent’s fifth wheel. Let me know your thoughts!

      • ScoutDriver
        ScoutDriver says:

        Mr Conway, if I didn’t pay homage to your beautifully flowing words in your article, my apologies. My comments have nothing to do with the adventure or recreation but has everything to do with freedom(s). Now I’m not a native to Idaho but I have been here 40 years and flown Idaho for 38 of those. In my time and experiences I’ve learned to allow balance of nature and balance of forces to be respected. Currently there seems to be a balance between the aviation community and the difference alphabet agencies regarding flying and landing rights. That’s good! I love observing wild horses but learned a lesson from the friend I mentioned earlier. BLM takes a very dim view of just capturing photos of them as it’s evident that the photographer was near and a “threat”. They have taken legal action against pilots. Oh and for landing on ridges and video taping it. Once we could fly from the Treasure Valley down to Rome Station and land at a dozen or more spots along the way. Suddenly the alphabet agencies took exception and closed off some of the most fun, scenic and easiest strips. “Wildlife study areas”. In your time in Idaho have you gone to any meetings with USFS or driven to Vale BLM office to meet and provide input? A lot of us have and we’ve worked for solutions and a cooperative balance of freedom. My point was and still is, don’t bring attention to certain privileges we have and don’t encourage others in state or out of state to abuse the privileges we have.

  3. Gordon Lester
    Gordon Lester says:

    Isn’t it amazing that your some of your readers have to turn your article into a “save the whales” message. Such is the age of criticism while hiding behind your iPhone.
    Well, I too have joined the slow-flight club. After a career of flying as an experimental test pilot in all kinds of flying machines, I have settled into enjoying the low and slow regime of powered parachutes. And you’re right, it really is living…

    • ScoutDriver
      ScoutDriver says:

      Mr. Lester, it’s not about “saving the whales” as you say, its common sense in regards that the BLM and USFS has recreational flying in their sights for restrictions and exclusion. If you knew the background on flying the Owyhee’s and the wildlife study areas precluding flights and the battle of the Big Creek 4, you’d have a better appreciation of not having the uninformed coming out to the West and screwing things up for the rest of us. I didn’t criticize low and slow, I provided helpful criticism of chasing wild horses and the ramifications of the action. A close friend was threatened with loss of his commercial ticket and fines for documenting a similar experience and flying for the Govt is his occupation. Tread carefully on matter that you are not privy too is all I’m saying.

  4. Bill Palmer
    Bill Palmer says:

    Hi Mr. Conway, thank you so much for the article, which showed me yet another way to view my flying activities. The well-worn phrase that our certificates are licenses to learn can be applied here, as your article points out what is, in my opinion, a much-needed viewpoint toward flying. Richard Bach approached that viewpoint in his many books, but most notably “Illusion.” Bach shows us through his writing that aviation is a magnificent, Thanks also for the “Disciples Of Flight” documentary – I have purchased it and will view it when I can. One of your statements really got my attention: “We only get to know ourselves, our situations, by being with them directly.” This to me is kind of an answer to the question, must we fly? I have had my license for a long time, but haven’t amassed many flight hours. So, I am a relatively inexperienced pilot. Each time I go up, that flight wears away the facade of perception, and replaces it with the reality of experience, akin to William Blake’s poems, “Songs Of Innocence/Songs Of Experience.” That replacement is not a bad thing, because each flight helps me mature as an aviator, helps me hone my skills, and puts me more at home in the sky. So, must we fly? Certainly, we must. The challenge for me to keep that sense of wonder, awe, joy as each flight adds to my experience.

  5. Mike Sheetz
    Mike Sheetz says:

    Enjoyed reading this, and the wisdom shared. Too often people seem to be in a hurry to get somewhere, whether that be by aircraft or other mode of transportation, At age 75, I look back on my life thankful that there were numerous times where I just enjoyed the journey. I often see drivers that are impatient, never allowing for the “what if”, and never seeming to acknowledge that even though they are willing to take a risk, they are placing others at risk as well. We pilots need to be reminded of those elements that may place others at risk snd do our best to mitigate those risks. Check lists, including being fit to fly, need to always be a part of our routine.

    • Cheryl ray
      Cheryl ray says:

      Younger pilots, take note of this post.
      Truly, life is all about the journey and which happens only in the present moment. That was the major understanding grasped in my first solo flight. I had to be fully present for every moment of that flight. All of life that actually happens is generated from a present moment. One after another. That is where life happens. Thank you Mr Conway for sharing your view of this.

  6. Cheryl ray
    Cheryl ray says:

    Thank you so much for this beautiful piece which certainly captured so much of the beauty and the reality of flying, at the same time! I grew up on a cattle ranch in Montana where we had an Airstrip and where pilots sometimes landed. Oddly enough it was in the horse pasture which was perhaps 70 acres where we ran 15-18 horses. I think it was a high point for those horses when a plane landed. Yes they ran madly around but it was hugely interesting for them. They would approach the plane on the ground and one of them tried to have a small taste of the paint on tail of the plane one time.
    Anyway, those “politically correct” of you who are outraged at your imagined harassment and endangering of wild animals, take a break. Not hardly. s someone else said, they love to run. Pretty sure it was a high point of their day. As was reading this entire article for me. Thank you.

  7. Trevor
    Trevor says:

    The article is an introspective love letter to flying….it is not about livestock.

    We can all appreciate the joy of flying….writing about that personal experience, in a public venue, can feel humbling.

    Theodore Roosevelt – a great proponent of the west, wild places, and exploration – wisely said in 1910:

    “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

    That same year, Theodore was the first president to fly in an airplane. I get the sense he would have loved bush planes…

    Personal stories of flying make us all richer. Thank you Peterson for sharing!


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