by Stu Simpson
People ask me what it’s like to fly, to be a pilot, and I’m afraid to answer. I worry that once I get started, I won’t be able to stop. I want to tell the curious about all the sensations and feelings of flight, of all that flight evokes in me. But those who ask are really only stopping by for a sip, not the whole bottle.
I think I can tell you, though.
I feel exhilaration when I fly. Even after more than 2000 take offs in airplanes, each one still shoots a thrill right through me. I’m still so excited to be there, so utterly happy to leave the earth. I see the ground slip away beneath my wings, all things down there getting smaller, and I know I’m doing something amazing and fascinating.
I feel wonder when I fly. I look at the clouds next to me, above me, below me. Clouds are ever intriguing. They’ve so many colours, are so utterly alive. They’re growing, dying and otherwise changing every single instant. And what about the sky itself? I mean, how could anything be so big?! Who couldn’t be awed by flying?
I feel giddy when I fly, like I’m really sneaking off with a precious secret that so few know about. It makes me smile.
I feel safe when I fly. I know my airplane is strong and secure, that my engine is good. I know the men I fly with, that they’re reliable and careful and made of good stuff. I know myself better when I’m in the sky. I know what I can do, and equally important, what I can’t.
I feel like an adventurer when I fly. I love to discover the earth from the air. Each flight becomes an exciting voyage, an exploration. How many times have I been the first to soar through a patch of sky that no airplane has ever traversed? How often have I taken off and not picked a direction until I was airborne? How often have I flown over this part of the earth and never seen it the way it was right then? There are so many unexpected wonders, so many unforeseen encounters and delightful surprises to be found up there.
I feel fear when I fly, but not a lot of it, and not very often. I’m not ashamed of fear, though I don’t enjoy it. But I know the value of fear. Fear helps keep me and my airplane safe and alive. I use it to become a better pilot. I’m afraid that something might go really, really wrong that might break my airplane and me. If that happened, I might not be able to fly. I really fear that.
I feel alone when I fly. The solitude is complete, absolute, even if I share the sky with other airplanes. Another plane may be mere feet from mine, the pilot’s grin and thumbs-up clearly visible. But the distance between us is such that we may as well be on different planets. I can no more fly his plane than he could fly mine. I answer to no one up there, and if I err the consequences are mine alone to endure. I like such independence, the total responsibility for myself and my destiny.
I feel moved when I fly. And I understand why some men are compelled to paint beautiful pictures of airplanes, or to write about airplanes and of flying them. I understand the passion that flight inspires in these people and the love they express.
I feel noise when I fly. I feel the engine thundering, clattering, humming. I feel the prop beating the wind into submission. My airplane’s sound changes when the ball’s not centered and I feel the air thumping against the side.
I feel the wind when I fly. It may come at me from my nose, or from above or below. Like any pilot, I love the wind at my back. Wherever it comes from, I feel it. I feel it gently wiggle my ailerons, or jab at the rudder. I feel it when it stands me unexpectedly on a wing, or throws me toward heaven or earth at alarming rates. I even feel the wind when it does nothing but let me pass unfettered. Such smoothness of flight I adore.
I feel a part of something good when I fly with others. Then, I’m with men whose love is the same as mine, who also delight in the feelings of flight. They too see artistry in the shape of a wing, the curve of a rudder. They smile at a tail wind, and are men for whom few things are more satisfying than the instant of a three-point landing made on a grass runway. They marvel at the bare simplicity of a Continental engine. Their day is charmed when they catch the sun glinting off the plane flying next to them. To be welcomed by such men, to be treated as an equal among them is deeply humbling, and I cherish their acceptance.
I feel at home when I fly. In the sky in an airplane is where I dearly love to be. It’s comfortable and familiar. I know where things are – in my plane, on the ground, and in the air. I know how things work, and if they don’t, how to make them work. The sky welcomes me. It completes who I am, and offers a place where I can escape, or relax, or be excited. In the sky I can be who I want to be. It’s all that a good home should be. I’d feel greedy and ashamed asking for more.
Mostly, I feel lucky when I fly. Very few share this gift I have, so to have it and allow it to go unappreciated would be disgraceful and unworthy. There are others who want what I have when I fly. Thus, I’m certain it’s good, and I do my best to be thankful. In doing so I desperately hope the gods smile on me, knowing I don’t take flight for granted. Maybe they’ll let me keep my gift a bit longer.
And, if I should someday lose this fortune, at least I’ll be satisfied knowing I’ve spent my riches well.