So… You’re a Pilot, Eh?

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by Stu Simpson

There I was…(dontcha’ just love flying stories that start this way)…not at thirty thousand feet in an F-14, not at Mach 1 in a CF-18, not even at 60mph in a Beaver Rx-35. No, I was walking on a warm spring evening eating an ice cream bar. I know it may sound boring to you, but those ice cream bars are darned tasty.

Anyway, I was thinking about flying, and airplanes, and pilots. I began to wonder what makes a pilot tick, and furthermore, what makes him want to fly? I bet psychiatrists (and pilot’s wives) have been asking the same questions for years.

I think the big attraction to flying is the romance of aviation. Since the early 1900’s, after people realized flyers weren’t just jelly-brained daredevils, pilots have been thought of as people with special talents and guts of iron (and who are we to argue? Right?).

The image of the biplane pilot, as he struts jauntily to his machine, has thrilled people for years. We’ve all had fantasies of duelling in mortal combat with Fokkers, Messerschmits, and MiG‘s, of having stick and rudder at one’s hands and feet, of being able to spew red-hot rapid-fire death at the touch of a button, of lusty lasses and bawdy nights spent recounting tales of aerial daring while quaffing copious amounts of root beer…

Such thoughts are enough to send any red-blooded young (and not so young) man scurrying to the local flying field in search of lessons.

And while we’re on the subject, let’s have a show of hands to indicate who thinks they could have replaced Tom Cruise in ‘Top Gun’? Let’s see now, one, two, three,…uh-huh. Just as I thought. All of you.

A U.S. Navy study tells of a number of traits common to pilots, one such trait being self-confidence.

If a pilot is not confident in his abilities, he simply will not fly well. Every aviator, from the 747 captain to the dirt strip ultralight jockey, has to believe 100% that no matter what happens, he can fly his plane well and bring it back to earth safely. Chances are, he thinks he can do it better than anyone else. Some people call it ‘The Right Stuff‘.

Time for another show of hands. How many of you out there think you could land an airliner if the pilots got sick and croaked?

Notice how you all put your hands up? Again. No confidence problems here.

I mean, don’t you just hate that lousy rule that says each pilot on an airliner has to eat a different meal than the other, in case one gets food poisoning? I do. I’d love a shot at trying to land one of those mothers. Hey, if things get a little rough…well, that’s what those pre-flight crash briefings are for anyway. I live for the day when an ashen faced stewardess walks from the cockpit and asks, “Is anyone on board a pilot?”

Back to the U.S. Navy study. The researchers found other traits common to pilots. Firstly, they love to fly (Big surprise there, eh?). For many aviators, flying becomes central to their very existence, sometimes meaning more to them than family and friends.

Pilots are also rather direct people who like to be in control of things. Translated: We always insist on pushing the grocery cart at the Safeway store. Pilots are usually very honest people (except for a few disreputable reprobate business types), especially with themselves. They are constantly evaluating and trying to perfect their technique. At least the good ones are.

What are some other good things about being a pilot? Let’s see. Well, we get to wear really neat clothes, like leather flying jackets, and flight suits with wings and patches on them, and all those zippers and pockets (and we never forget what’s in those pockets. Right?) Pilots also get to wear ‘flight helmets’. Even if it’s really a motorcycle helmet, once you wear it flying, it becomes a ‘flight helmet‘. And why not? I mean, when I hear the term ‘flight helmet’ it sounds so macho that I could just bend lead pipe, or something.

I think one of the main reasons guys start flying is so they can wear aviator shades. I mean, just go to any airport and see how many guys are wearing those wimpy Wayfarers or Vuarnets (I don’t even know how to pronounce that word). Not many I’ll bet. Here’s a line to justify to your wife why you need to spend nearly one hundred dollars on a pair of Ray-Bans. “Well, you wouldn’t want me to crash, would you, Honey?” Just watch her whip out the Visa card (either that, or she’ll stand there and laugh her head off, like my wife did).

But what really keeps a pilot flying? Is it the thrills, the freedom, the leather jacket? I don’t know. I suppose the reasons are different for every pilot. I think one trait that didn’t show up in the aforementioned study is that pilots are dreamers. Dreamers who have the courage to follow their dreams.

I think ultimately, flying is its own reward. The egotism, the hangar flying, the leather jackets, and the dreams are all just bonuses for someone who flies.

One last thought: Ever notice how the view from a tall building, or a big hill doesn’t seem to mean as much now that you, as a pilot, have been higher?

About Time

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by Stu Simpson

Time plays a crucial part in nearly everything we do as aviators. Most critically, of course, it tells us when we have to land, because there will come a time when the fuel gauge reads empty and gravity will forcefully remind us of our own mortality. I like the old Transport Canada poster that gravely proclaims “That’s time in your tanks”.

Time is also a way for pilots to keep score, a way of measuring who has the biggest, uh,… log book. It often seems he who dies with the most hours wins. Other things being equal, we seem to naturally respect pilots who have a higher number of flying hours. Of course, it’s important to remember that anyone with 10,000 hours at some point had 10.

Time is important to our airplanes, too. The number of hours an airplane has under its wings tells a lot about it; things like how the airplane’s been flown, and maybe by whom. Alternatively, an airplane’s age may also give it a certain value. The date it was built might cause a pilot to stare misty-eyed into the sky and dream of a different, simpler time when Cubs, Vagabonds and Taylorcrafts ruled the lower regions of the sky. Time tells whether I need to change the oil in my airplane’s engine. Time tells if a helicopter’s rotor blades need replacement. And like it or not, time tells each of us when we’re used up, too.

But to me, time is so much more than just a measuring stick. When it comes to airplanes, I think of time as a gift. The more time I get in the sky, the more cherished the gift.

For instance, some guys I know love speed. There are few things that excite them as much as 200 mph. They want to get into the sky, go as fast as they can, and get there, all in the shortest possible time. After all, speed is really just a function of time.

I subscribe to a different logic. For me, speed just isn’t where it’s at. I don’t need a lot of speed with my airplane. Fact is, I prefer to go slow. If I go too fast, I get there too soon and I don’t get to fly as long. I don’t really have any place to go, anyway. I’ve no family far away that I visit regularly (though I did fly a few hundred miles to see my folks, recently). Nor do I use my airplane for business travel. For me, and most of the guys I fly with, the journey really is the destination. And the destination is always an adventure. Wherever I end up is pretty much where I want to be, as long as I flew there. If I have at least some airspeed I’ll be content.

I miss too much if I go fast. I don’t get time to see the fields beneath, or the rivers, mountains or clouds. When I fly Merl I get to really see the world. I see where people live, what their towns look like, where they’ve built roads and water towers and gardens. I see the things I want to see. Going any faster I might not have the time to watch and enjoy all that.

Yup, Merl and I cruise along at about 80 mph, and I do get to fly a little longer. Oh, I know it helps to have a little extra go when the sun’s getting weak and the wind’s getting strong. But if I went any faster I’d lose time and flying would just be too easy.

I like to truly appreciate each second I’m aloft, to enjoy where I’m at, what I’m doing and the people I’m with. On each flight I look at the world in a new light, looking for things I’ve never seen before. I take time to enjoy the subtle shades of sunlight bouncing off the Rockies during a winter inversion. I look for the beauty in the planes flying off my wing, to see the sun dazzling off their fabric, or throwing tiny shadows past their rivets. And yes, we really do fly close enough to see all that.

I also use the time to enjoy Merl. I try on each flight to cement in my memory the feel of the controls, the way I pull the stick when we climb. I absorb the gentle bounces and the minute sensations of each flight. I take time to feel what it is to fly, to have Merl at my whim, to sense the tilt of the wings – to really feel it – as we bank into a turn. Indeed, I try to get the absolute most out of the time in my tanks.

You see, I know that someday this will all be gone. There’ll come a time when I can’t fly, when Merl, whose engine dates from before the middle of the last century, will be no more. I know there’ll be a day when I look up at a plane in the sky and say “I used to do that”. And young people will stare at me and wonder what it was really like to go up in machines that burned 100LL and took thrust from propellers, of all things.

Time, in fact, is one of the main reasons I write of flying. It’s my feeble attempt to actually capture some time, to harness it and hold it back so that far from now I, or someone else, can read my scribbles, return to this time and know again how it feels to fly – not merely drive – a small, simple airplane around the sky.

And, too, many years from now, the writing will help me remember after they’re gone, the men and the airplanes with whom I’ve flown. It gives me a chance to say now that I’m glad I’ve known you; glad for all the time I’ve spent just off your wing; glad that I’ve shared with you the wind and known what it truly means to fly; that I’m glad for this gift of time.