The Joy of Flying

Life is More Three Dimensional Than We Acknowledge. Here is a Way to Regain That Perspective.

By the time you read this, I will have finished a couple of days of commercial flying with one of the three remaining large airlines in this country. Rest assured, this blog post is not being published to sing the praises of commercial flight as we know it today.

We could talk about that, but why do that to our blood pressure?

No, today I want to encourage you to listen to the siren song of flight on a small scale. Flight on an almost personal level. I promise you, it changes how you see things.

A very long time ago, the US Army, in its infinite wisdom, sent me to flight school so that I could fly helicopters. There is not a day that goes by, even now, decades later, that I don’t have a moment of appreciative reflection. It was a life changing turn of the page.

Helicopters are funny things. The CBS newscaster Harry Reasoner did a story about this on 60 Minutes many years ago. Every helicopter pilot I know has a copy of the text. What Reasoner said was that fixed wing pilots are generally happy, relaxed people. Helicopter pilots are more often a bit moody and unsettled.

That is because an airplane, if handled reasonably well, will almost fly itself. It is meant to do so. Helicopters, on the other hand, are seemingly plotting at all times for a way to kill the pilot should he or she go inattentive for a moment.

The man had a point, but the joy of flying something so small, so nimble, so close to the earth or up in the clouds is transcendent. All is forgiven, helicopter – let’s go for another ride. The ability to fly so low as to touch a tree, to fly backwards, to hover motionless, to fly in loose formation with birds – is as good as it gets. In somewhat different ways, a similar closeness to nature comes with flying small airplanes, which I dabbled in a bit.

So, too, it is with balloon flight.  The whole thing seems blissfully unreal.  It allows the pilot (and passengers) to revel in a sense of freedom and connection to nature that is hard to beat and almost impossible to describe. Yet it also demands that the pilot pay attention or risk paying a price for carelessness. This is a truism of piloting. I have a sign in my office that reminds me of this:

Screenshot 2018-08-19 19.25.44

Most pilots have a version of this, placed somewhere they can see it often. It is a reminder that the pleasure of such an experience justly expects that we earn the privilege, every time.

I have never flown a glider, but I bet it has these same qualities, and some unique to that platform. I have often heard that the silence in glider flight is profound. It certainly was in the ballon, except when the burners were fired up. The same may be true for hang gliders, but that seems a bit of a reach for most people, and so does not make my recommended list for the general population.

There are two other opportunities to experience such feelings that do not require actual flight, and I can recommend them both.

One is parachuting. If that sounds too dangerous or daunting, try a tandem jump. Someone else brings along all the skills – you just enjoy the ride.

The other is zip lining. If you can find a really good course, it seems to be a heck of a ride. You can even do them at night, with night vision goggles. Lest you think this is too physically demanding, I know people in their 80s who have done this. I have my first one coming up shortly.

So, how about it? Take a little leap into the unknown if you have never done so and find a small vehicle to take you into life as the birds see it. Check around and find a flight service that will take you up in a small airplane, a balloon, or (best of all) a helicopter. Perhaps you will be lucky enough to find an open cockpit aircraft. That is a wonderful experience. Let yourself be truly three dimensional for a moment.

You can thank me later.

EPSON MFP image  Bill Clontz
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7 replies to The Joy of Flying

  1. My Dad was a pilot he always had a small plane that he flew and we took vacations in. He flew us over the rockies in a Piper Cherokee. Can you imagine? It was before they out lawed stunts – I have been in the plane when he did stalls, loops and barrel rolls. Again, can you imagine?

    • Great memories. I know what you mean, Connie.. My wife remembers her dad landing on public beaches when they were flying his little Cessna and I remember “landing” helicopters on top of clouds in uncontrolled airspace, then “skiing” of the edges – felt like driving off a cliff. Flight in small aircraft really is magical.

  2. I did a static line jump about twenty years ago. The freefall only lasted about seven seconds till the chute opened. Then I remember yelling “Oh my God” over and over. It was the most amazing experience to be floating above the earth with the wind rushing by my ears. Incredible rush.

    • Good for you, Denise! You took up the opportunity for a rare experience. Profoundly quite once the aircraft clears, isn’t it? I trust you had a good landing. I always landed like a sack of potatoes.

  3. So cool to see that photo of you in the cockpit! Never knew that about you! Thank you for sharing that other dimension!

  4. I was recently invited to tandem jump, but I declined as I get my kicks on Route 66. As for zip lines, too dangerous knowing someone that perished while doing that. Yes, I know many people do these things with no harm so I try to be objective. My PCP has a sign in his exam room that reads something like “Man’s second joy is flying. His first joy is landing.” My nephew watched the movie Top Gun as a youngster and later became an Air Force Academy trained pilot and is now a commercial airline pilot.

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