Flying in the Face of Reason — or, “No VW, No 7-11”
(This is after all the bushed pilot blog, so now and then the bushed pilot writes something about flying!)
Pilots quickly learn that some people dislike flying, and that, among those, a sizeable population does not enjoy flying in small airplanes. “Small” being anything less than the size of, say, a Dash Eight or an Avro RJ or a Boeing 737. Those are all small airliners by today’s standards, but they are large enough that somehow going aboard and finding a seat can almost convey the impression – the illusion — that no rising from the surface of the earth and hurtling through thin air is about to happen.
The other day I flew with a young Norwegian adventurer over to the village of Lutsel K’e, 55 miles southwest of our place, in the Husky. The Aviat Husky, for those unfamiliar with it, takes “small aircraft” to the smallest end of the spectrum. Two seats, front and back, for a pilot and passenger; a fuselage welded and bolted to an ample pair of wings; an engine and propeller; instruments, control stick and rudder pedals, and some sort of landing gear – fat tires, wheel-skis, or floats. Total takeoff weight about 2000 pounds. It is a marvelously capable, modern, and robust little flying machine, but the emphasis is emphatically on “little.” (There is a photo of the Husky on the “About This Blog” page — but please read on.)
My passenger had just completed an eight-month sojourn in one of the most remote parts of the North American mainland, and he had come through his long adventure in good spirits, and mostly healthy. The tip of one toe was giving him some worry and pain, thanks to a scary encounter with thin ice, cold water, and frozen ski boots, but he was hale and hearty. He was eager to go home to his farm in Norway, and at the same time sad to leave this beautiful part of the circumpolar world. I glanced back at one point in our 35-minute flight, expecting to see him glued to one of his side windows, ogling the cliffs and coves along the south shore of Christie Bay. I was surprised to see him instead looking down, sidelong. “What?” I thought, “Is he staring at his frickin’ phone?” Maybe he was; I didn’t ask. We landed on the runway at Lutsel K’e and taxied up to the tiny terminal building. “Looks just like Gatwick,” he quipped. He gracefully extricated himself from the back seat of the plane (no easy feat) and I started pulling his gear out of the cargo pod on the airplane’s belly. Standing there on terra firma again, he said matter-of-factly, “I don’t like flying. I never have.”
We talked and laughed a little about flying, and parachuting, and I told him that when I was in high school I had had ambitions of becoming a smokejumper for the U.S. Forest Service. The training center was in Missoula Montana, which is where I started university back in 1975. I even knew a few smokejumpers who lived in the dormitories at the U of Montana, and every one of them was a confident, happy-go-lucky guy. My path in life soon took me out of the mountains for a long time, and my interest in smoke-jumping morphed into a passion for dogsledding and the Far North. Over the years I became a pilot, and as such I have joked now and then about my long-lost smoke-jumping aspirations: “Excuse me, but what inspires a person to jump out of a perfectly good airplane, into a forest fire!?” (Now, a little older yet, I have circled back around in my thinking. I think on some level I understand smokejumpers again. Too late now, alas. But what a life! What a livelihood!)
As I flew northeast toward the Hoarfrost after saying good-bye to my passenger, I thought about people who just don’t like flying. Maybe, I mused, it’s a sign of intelligence. At the very least, I think, it is a sign of clear and independent thinking. It seems like unhappy flyers – some of them, anyway – are the kind of people who have a habit of thinking on two levels. One that discerns and appreciates the basic principles of the physical world, and the other that is keenly aware of the foibles of human nature. Gravity and weather, to name two examples of the former; distraction and hubris, as examples of the latter. This frame of mind and level of intelligence is a direct contrast to lolling along in a shallow warm bubble-bath of glib assumptions, not to say naivety.
My good friend Mitch is another wise, savvy, adventurous soul who I think would be perfectly content if he was told he would never again need to step aboard what he refers to as “those heavier-than-air machines.” But he does like visiting us at the Hoarfrost River, and so he flies along whenever he comes north. (He and I first arrived at the Hoarfrost together by boat back in 1983, and he made that 210-mile voyage up the lake from Yellowknife again on a freighter just a few years ago. I am willing to bet he has enjoyed those boat trips a lot more than any flight.)
There is a long list of other people I can think of, some of them daring climbers and skiers and sailors and so on, who become noticeably silent and pensive when aloft. I can tell they are not enjoying the ride or the view very much. I think it might be partly about trust and the control of one’s destiny, and the feeling of giving one’s fate over to someone else. Because let’s face it, when you get into a plane as a passenger you are not doing anything less than saying: Okay, I trust you, all of you. I trust the flight crew, and the people who built and maintain this aluminum crate, and I trust all the layers of the Air Traffic Control system, and on and on. For some people that’s a tall order of trust, what with Gravity being so steady and strong and eager to hurry us all home.
I have often wondered whether John Muir would have been a bush pilot, given the chance. I think he would have loved flying. (Thoreau, on the other hand, would have shunned aviation entirely, I think, in his patent curmudgeonly manner.) Muir was an inventor, a tinkerer, and had already become a brilliant machinist and millwright in his early years, when a workshop accident nearly blinded him for life. I think he would have found the perspective from aloft exhilarating, even spiritually intoxicating, and that he also would have embraced with fascination all the bits and pieces and principles that go into every aspect of mechanized flight from liftoff to touchdown. I wonder if he ever wrote about airplanes, because his lifetime did overlap the birth and first decade of aviation. I will have to check on that.
For pilots, on a lot of days, of course, flying is a job, plain and simple. (Today, Easter long weekend, I am grounded, writing from a hotel room 200 miles from home, working for a moose survey, and waiting on the weather. Yep, today it’s a job.) A pilot mentor of mine, from whom I learned more about bush flying than I have from anyone else, once remarked to me, “It has to get to the point where it’s just like jumping into your VW to drive to the Seven-Eleven.” What my friend meant, of course, was that all the various layers of preparing to fly and making a flight must become absolutely ingrained, at a level both below and beyond step-by-step thinking, and essentially instinctive. At times I do feel that there is more instinct than anything else in the process, and every good pilot soon learns to trust his or her instincts. As years go by, though, I do take exception to the most casual interpretation of Bruce’s little saying, and I think he would understand. Because it’s not a VW, it’s an airplane, and we’re not driving to the Seven Eleven, we’re going flying!