Monday, September 28, 2009

Why Do We Fly?


Why do we fly? More particularly, why do we enjoy it so immensely? What is it about being off the ground that so completely absorbs so many men and women?

I asked a sampling of my aviation friends why they fly.

First, some ground rules. As much as some of us revel in The Glory of Flight, it isn’t about scenery. Anybody with an airline ticket can look out the window and marvel at God’s wondrous vista: sun-drenched clouds sprayed orange-yellow or brilliant white against cerulean blue; an aerial palette to etch in the retina of one’s memory forever.

That’s not flying, it’s sight seeing.

Now, I grew up flying behind round engines that flung oil on my goggles. I would not trade that experience for anything. But is sitting in an open cockpit, subjected to the elements in all four seasons, really the essence of flying?

For some the answer is not only Yes but Hell Yes. For others, a canopy and a heated cockpit are part of the Experience of Flight.

For purists, Pure Flight means gliders. No artificial propulsion; just God’s wind over manmade wings; you can hear and feel the airframe working, talking to you. Sailplanes truly are craft of the air.

Then there’s helicopters, which are a whole ‘nuther subject entirely. I like helos; I really do. While I’ve only played with three types (Huey, H-3 and H-52), they were just plain fun. Even with a stability augmentation system as in the ’52, a chopper is a lively, active mount not entirely unlike a horse. Here’s a comment from a long-time friend who earned a poor but honest living pulling jet pilots out of Haiphong Harbor: “A hover takeoff might not quicken the pulse like a burner go, and certainly we're not as speedy, but the thrill is there on an overwater hover or a destroyer flight-deck landing. Same boys, different toys.”

As in any endeavor involving humans, there’s a strong element of competition. One of the most accomplished airmen I’ve ever known has ratings for almost everything but multi-engine jet seaplanes, and he says, “My passion for flying is a combination of the freedom I feel in flight and my love to compete. In the Navy it was to be the best carrier pilot I could be. To win the best landing grades for an entire combat deployment was a high point for me. I want to compete with others to win every dogfight, to have the best bombing scores, to be the only one to get aboard on a pitching deck when the rest of the recovery bingos to the beach, to lead a strike against a difficult target, to challenge myself to keep the needles centered on an ILS to minimums.”

Some airmen seek perfection in three dimensions. This comes from a former military, commercial, and current private pilot: “Flying is fun and satisfying because there are perfect ways to do every part of it. I seriously doubt if anyone has ever flown an absolutely perfect flight, but if you are worth a damn, you are always trying. When you get something absolutely right, it is righteous. Throw in the accompanying elements of danger and competition, and the results can be wildly exhilarating. I am sure that a bullfighter might make the same claims on his profession, except when he is finished, he is left with 2,000 pounds of pot roast. And I doubt that any Grand Prix racer ever felt about his mount as this aviator does. Airplanes have souls, and they lend their ‘drivers’ a certain ethereal class lacking in more vulgar brawls. A wrecked airplane is always a tragedy in ways that a wadded-up dragster is not.”

A highly-experienced commercial pilot says, “To me, going somewhere, anywhere, represents adventure and romance. Flying yourself there increases this by an order magnitude. To do a first-rate job of flight planning, followed by a first-rate nav job, is what makes flying. Given a few hours of instruction, even a chimp can drive an aeroplane through the air (I know someone who has done it). But planning the trip and doing the nav is what brings the satisfaction to me. I will admit to smiling at making a good landing, or a smooth ILS approach, but you have to have done the other stuff right to get to that point."

A former Air Force colonel says, “There is nothing more satisfying than making a good landing under tough conditions. When I was a C-47 IP at Wright-Pat, I had a temporary copilot, indignant that he had to fly in a Gooney Bird. We came back from Boston in rotten weather, lots of ice with snow piled on both sides of the runway several feet high. It was minimums, and I flew a GCA and broke out in blowing snow and a cross wind, and then touched down so softly that you couldn’t feel it--one of those landings where the oleos take time to compress. When we had shut down, the copilot looked over and said, ‘Clutch player,’ and got up and left. It made my day.”

There’s more than just flying. A highly-experienced performer and instructor explains, “There are many nuances to the enjoyment of flying, from experiencing the sunrise at altitude to the type of people you get to associate with, to subtle pleasures such as the smell of high octane fuel or the fumes from a jet engine, but I believe that the essence of the appeal of flying is its element of danger. It is not fashionable to believe that flying is dangerous, and statistically it may not be, but the fact is that leaving the ground at relatively high speeds is ipso facto dangerous. To buttress my argument, look at the popularity of air racing and aerobatics, where the danger level is higher. So in short: aesthetics plus danger.”

To me, there is no single reason for flying--it’s a smorgasbord of attractions. It’s the art of flying, controlling a machine in three dimensions rather than two, perhaps best exemplified by the rarity of a perfect three-point landing. But it’s also navigation: predicting with precision the point in place and time when that machine would arrive where I intended it to. And perhaps most of all, it’s the shared experience with like-minded men and women. A parachutist once said that he didn’t especially relish sky-diving “But I like to be around people who like to jump.” Certainly that applies to those who fly airplanes.

Yet for all the introspection and thought, one response stands out. It comes from a long-longtime friend, a former Air Force officer who loved P-38s, made ace in a Mustang, moved on to “One Oh Deuces” and spent a couple thousand happy hours flying C-47s really low, doing things he still cannot talk about. He spoke for legions of aviators when he said he loves flying “Because I do it better than most people.”

I cannot add anything to that sentiment, and would not presume to try.