Thursday, October 28, 2010

Road Warrior Week Continues - Taking to the Sky

This one is dedicated to the "guy that buys the dog food" at Lagniappes.

When you take on the role of a flight instructor you think about two things. All the flight time you're going to build so you can get that airline job for the aviation majors, or tuition money for folks like me, and for a select few, the sheer satisfaction of giving another person their wings, the realization that what you can do can be passed on, like a runners torch. For most, the desire is a combination of both.

Earthbound, we all all many things, male, female, conservative, liberal, blue collar, white collar. Aloft we are all simply pilots; a small group of individuals who have discovered that vast space where perfect contentment is intertwined with the exhilaration of pitting your wits and your skill against an open sky; a face off with the elements of nature, a match with the heavens that heightens every sense you have.

Earthbound we have limitations as varied as our lives. As pilots, life is simpler as our will is freer; our lives, however different, are truer and more defined. No matter what we cherish in life, we cherish it more; home, friends, the smell of fresh tilled earth from a mile up, the heady gulp of pristine, crisp air that clears both our lungs and our heads. It's a joy worth sharing, and as a newly minted flight instructor I was ready and able.

But what they don't explain when you're putting in the hundreds of hours of study it takes to be a Certified Flight Instructor is this. In this wondrous exchange are the frequent days that if mother nature isn't trying, student will be actively trying to kill you. And smiling while doing it. Because the student hadn't yet learned that just because you weren't yelling at him didn't mean you hadn't just avoided bent metal by nano seconds. That would come after solo.

I put myself through college and grad school flight instructing. I wasn't an aviation major, interested in science and criminal justice, but it was a lot better way to make tuition than "would you like large fries with that". I remember some of the students vaguely. I remember some vividly, the imprint of their panic stricken Steve Urkel "Did I do THAT" expression burned into my brain. There was one fellow to whom I was demonstrating how to recover from a stall, the event where the angle between the chord line of the wing and the relative wind is such that airflow is disrupted and the wing stops flying. The nose drops, you level the wings and you add power. Piece of cake. Except in this case the student took my words "just gently lower the nose" to mean shoving the control yoke full forward with 180 pounds of push. I didn't know it would go that far forward. Forward, straight into the ground, coming up at 100 miles an hour.

For a moment, the woods below rushed up to greet us with a deathly slap, air rushing past with the speed of infallibility, mocking the effort of lift, the effort of life. But, for altitude and instincts born of hours of repetitive movements, that might have been our last flight. But it wasn't, and with a tustle of controls and the movement of the throttle we were climbing back up, with the power of an engine and the unrending breath of youth. Inhaling life from death, not realizing just how close it was until it was over. In that moment I was reminded that nature did not care if we were young and high up on the food chain. The sky, with it's solitude and freedoms, creates a perfect stage for exultation or loss and we are very small actors in the arena.

I have always been an avid outdoors woman and a hunter, bow and firearm. I felt as comfortable in the woods as I was in the sky. I loved getting up early, getting into the camo and sneaking through the woods like I was on some sort of covert mission. Climbing up a tall tree stand trying to hold a heavy 20 gage Belgium Browning semi-auto in one hand was interesting to say the least. I know the pilots I hunted with, more than once, took bets to see if I'd make it into a particularly tricky stand without yelling for help. It might have taken me 15 minutes but I got into my stand solo and the view was incredible.

I remember my last firearm hunt out West. It started snowing early and it was -6 degrees. I had on long johns and two pairs of coveralls and I still had to clench and unclench my muscles to generate warmth as the day wore on. Finally, my friends went back to the house, out on 500 acres in the far North. They'd teased me about being a wimpy girl, so I ate my peanut butter sandwich and stayed out in the blind until almost dark. I'd seen some does and some youngsters but I would only take a full grown buck, venison to get us through the long winter.

Right as the last of the days light leeched out of the sky, a big buck came, moving along the tree line in the distance. I sucked in a breath and fired, one shot, at near dark, as he ran for the thick of the forest. As the shot cracked into the frigid air, the buck leaped into the woods, as I stared, still, amazed at how a living thing like that will keep going, and how far, when it is already dead from that single shot through the heart. But the snow was heavy and darkness was on me and by the time I got down, out of the blind, tracking him was difficult.

When I finally got to where he lay, the white tail a small sign in the deepening pool of blackness, I stood, hairs rising up along my forearms, my breath hot in my chest, despite the snow and the cold. I wasn't alone. Something instinctual kicked in and I stopped in my tracks. There, crouching over the remains of that magnificent 12 point buck was a dark shadow, merged onto my kill, hunched over the ribcage, dark on darkness, where I couldn't tell where one shadow began and another ended. Something uttered a low throat-ed growl at me; it wasn't some body's pet and it was certainly not some cuddly woodland creature from a PETA ad. The stink of something primordial was in the air, more than blood, less than my own fear and I knew that I was moving downward quickly on the food chain.

Shooting at it in near total darkness would only have pissed it off, so I slowly backed away and let whichever scavenger or predator had found my buck have it's due. I'd taken something that, in the realm of the wild, wasn't mine to take, and something more powerful was going to take it from me. I carefully made my long way back to the safety of the house, the fear seeping out of me like the deer's blood onto the snow.

We think, as humans, we have dominion over the wild and especially when we are young, we think we are immortal. But when we are in those places, be it the forest or the skies, we are on the edge, and living is accomplished on an edge that is neither a humanitarian or lenient. The slow, the infirm, the careless . . . perish. And there will be blood. I am reminded of that daily. With each scene, each violent stoppage of that which is life, I develop a deeper appreciation of just being here, breathing, living flesh and bone. For it was in that cold wood on that dark night as I stared into the glowing eyes of something toothed and fanged, that I realized that this seemingly sturdy body, that serves me subtlety and so well, is only so much meat, and my thoughts and life history would only be a night's sustenance to some creature of the woods. . . or to fate.

We've all had that experience in one form or another, in deep woods or clear sky. The one that scares the wadding out of you, bringing out instincts ingrained in your breath, making you reticent to get back anywhere near what caused the situation in the first place. "Getting back on the horse" as they call it. Sometimes it's a near accident, sometimes it's the real thing. Most humans experience it at least once. For pilots it's something no one escapes, ever. Show me a pilot who says they've never done anything a little risky and deeply regretted it, or did everything textbook perfect only to be doused with the cold waters of mechanical failure, and I'll show you someone who's flying is limited to desktop simulators.

Sometimes the event leaves physical scars. But for most, the scars are internal and you only touch them, gingerly, and with trepidation, in late night hours of retrospection. I've talked to many a pilot that's had a scare, or through the hand of fate, damaged their beloved craft, and the first thing they say is "I'm never going to fly again". A few don't. But only a few. The rest, like myself, look at the event not as a "near death" experience, but a measure of that which they have proven they can handle. The event may fade in time, but that which it brought to you can never be destroyed, it's cataloged back in a pilots memory to be retrieved in later years, when it can and will save you again.

I remember well one of the first students I had after getting my Certified Flight Instructors Certificate. He showed up for his $10 introductory flight lesson, and we spent about 15 minutes cruising around the foothills of the mountains while I demonstrated the joys he would experience if only he signed up for lessons. As we started our descent for the airport, and the power was reduced, there was a huge "BANG" from the engine,and after a few belabored rotations the prop came to a halt. The prospective student looked at me and said "is it SUPPOSED to do that??".

Uh. . . . . no.

I remember MY instructor teaching me, time and time again, what to do when a rare engine failure occurred and with that experience, I simply acted. I set it up in a glide for a small grass strip that was close by and broadcast a MAYDAY on the local Flight Service Station frequency. They came back with "what are your intentions?" to which I replied "We're going to crash, you moron." or something equally professional. But we made it in to the strip uneventfully with nary a scratch on the plane. I never saw the student again and I had to give him his $10 back so I had no dinner that night.

Was I scared? Absolutely, though I didn't show it. Did I get back in an airplane the next day. Yes. More for the desire to eat than any philosophical direction as to how I should proceed with my life. But, trust me, it would have been so easy to stay on the ground, tethered by all the emotions that a perceived failure can bring, the portent of your own vulnerability illuminated by the near accident. But I didn't then, nor in later years when Mother Nature or a cranky Squirrel Boeing tried to beat me up. You shouldn't.

You calm your nerves or fix your trusty steed and go back to the actuality of flight, not the dream of it. Of smooth polished wood and metal. Something you can touch and smell. A symphony of sound and curves and surfaces that displaces the air that then fills your soul. You move past your fear and enter back into that relationship with the one thing that lets you be a part of something greater than you. Yes, there's fear, and it's growling at you from someplace dark, but it's only for the moment. For like most true airmen you have that supreme confidence in your airborne destiny, like that of birds and their wings, that unruffled belief in your own abilities that launches you, hesitant but full winged from the safety of the nest out into the sky.

Where you belong.


  1. Wonderful piece of writing. I've got the scars to prove that I've gone beyond that edge a few times.(In other activities than flying though)

    I don't blame the introductory student for not coming back but I think he should have taken it as a demonstration of your skills under pressure and signed up knowing he would be in good hands.

  2. Me and that engine would have some serious words once back on the ground, safely.

  3. Great post Brigid!

    I've been there several times in several ways.

    As a new LEO 20-some years ago when I came face-to-face with the business end of a gun in the hands of an unhappy husband standing on the neck of his wife...

    Getting stabbed in the fore-arm by a worthless criminal who tried to rob me as I walked home from a college party...

    Swimming for the surface as the tractor and loader I was operating plunged into a 40-foot deep, water-filled quarry as the ground-wall collapsed...

    Rolling and totaling my pick-up after being broadsided by another driver not paying attention...

    Our high-stress, life experiences just seem to be additional notches carved in our handle on life that make us see clearer, appreciate more, love deeper...

    Brigid, you seem to know when to grab the stick just in time.

    Dann in Ohio

  4. I learned the importance of proper semantics when a foreign student made me feel as if I had left a head shaped dent in the top of the cabin during stall training. The pre flight briefing change to "release the back pressure" from "push the yolk gently forward when the aircraft stalls".

  5. My flight instructor was EVIL...she was also my grandmother and a tough as nails FAA safety inspector. I cherish the many, many lessons learned from that experience though. As a result, it's hard to get me worked up about everyday snafus.

  6. Toughest FAA examiner I ever had was the mean little woman who came out to sign off on my SODA so I could fly again after losing my leg.

    My instructor told me that she'd just want to see "minimum competency" and "safe operation" so that's what we were ready to show. However by the time she was done with me, I felt like I'd just tried out for the Blue Angels (and washed out). But she grudgingly passed me, probably only because I reminded her that if she didn't, she was going to have to make the long drive back out to test me again, and sit in traffic for hours getting back home again afterwards--two things that she'd been griping about all during our test.

    Sometimes you have to work the angles.

  7. Flying can provide a number of surprises---practicing 360 turns under the hood and finishing to look up and see a large buzzard hit your prop; on final to a grass strip and see a batch of geese fly up in front of you just as you start to flair; getting hit with a wind gust on take-off that leaves you 20' in the air with an airspeed of only 35kts (Piper Cherokee 180); pranging back onto the runway after that gust and not seeing the landing gear emerge up through the wings.

    Life has been much quieter and more boring since I stopped flying. :-)

  8. One of my old rotary wing IP's (yea, that too) told me that a 70 year old rotary instructor has faster reflexes then an 18yr old racquetball champ. A certain amount of self-preservation instinct is in all of us. It's more of it in CFI's.

    Another great read.

  9. Brigid:
    I have been reading your blog for over a year but have never had the courage to comment. But this post brought tears to my eyes. As a 50 year pilot, I can appreciate every emotion that you have described. I, too have been scared to dry mouth state, but have experienced exhilaration beyond my ability to express it. You have done it for me. Thank you so much.

  10. Anonymous - thank you for commenting. I am glad the post touched someplace. I don't write about flying much, but am always glad when it resonates.

    If you ever get up to IND I'd be honored to take you up for a spin.

  11. Today I tagged along as my roomie took a flight lesson.

    They practiced recovering from a stall.

    The landings included four bounces.

    Still, my buddy couldn't stop grinning. It reminds me of how I started out so timid on a motorcycle, not quite mastering the combination of balance, power, steering, braking, needed to get the machine to perform the way it was meant to.

    Maybe I can scrounge up enough money to pay for pilot lessons...

  12. I like all of your writings but especially your ones that mention flying. I took a year and 2 rejections to get my ticket. I only flew 2 years beyond that due to little things like finances, hurricanes that killed my rental and cardiac issues. I will still treasure those few years a lot. The incredible feeling every the wheels left the pavement and a squeaker of a landing. Not to mention the fear experienced when the engine faltered and all the imagined scenarios that come with that.
    Thank you for your artistry called "Home on the Range"

  13. Perfectly written.

    I was still in the early stages of training, doing hours and hours and hours of pattern work, when I stalled on the base-to-final turn. It scared the bejeezus out of me to stall at 500' AGL, and ever since then I've kept at least one eye on the airspeed indicator in the pattern.

    Another time, my CFI and I went up to do ground-reference maneuvers, and on the way back into the airport a thunderstorm hit. Poor planning on our part, we wound up going VFR into IMC and I was worried that we'd crash.

    Luckily, we came out alright. You live and learn, and go out and try not to screw up again.


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