I have no license. I only fly twice a year for a total of 30 minutes. I only fly when I’m invited. And, in my 41 years of living, I have a whopping 8 hours of loggable time.
There you have it.
With this one essay, I think I might accidentally, single-handedly rebuke the point of this entire website, because, really, I do not fly.
But in those 30 minutes, am I a pilot?
Let’s say “yes.” After all, for those 30 minutes, I stop being a passenger. I am Pilot-in-Command. I look at the VSI, my altimeter, my turn coordinator, my compass. I look up, left and right for other planes. I have picked my spot if the engine quits. I know where I am in relation to the airport. I am listening to the radio for traffic and info even though it’s expected that I not respond. I say “pitch, power, trim” to myself and I know why it’s important.
For those 30 minutes, I love it. I love it because the pilot with me gets to take a break, because I give them a chance to teach me something they think they know, because I want to exceed their expectations and show them I can do a coordinated turn without losing or gaining altitude.
I can point the plane anywhere (sort of).
I can pick my altitude (within reason).
I can bank as hard as I want (as long as I’m careful of the stall).
I can pretend my pilot is just a passenger (if I stare straight ahead and forget they’re there).
I can see the world smaller and bigger at the same time (assuming I didn’t screw up my ground reference).
Even though after about 15 minutes, my stomach says “enough, surrender, let’s go home,” I know why people fly.
Excuse me. I said “people,” but I know better.
My father the ex-fighter pilot, author of books about flying.
My stepfather the A&P and CFI.
My brother the first officer and flight instructor.
My other brother and my sister who soloed once years ago.
My mom who’s been flying since I was born.
My oldest sister who’s married to a pilot.
My father-in-law the ex-carrier pilot.
My uncle-in-law the airline captain.
My best friend who works for the EAA.
The family friend who took me for a ride when I was 4, and again when I was 40.
The bird for which I was named—Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
I know … or I think I know … why they fly.
The chemistry of freedom and rules.
There are no walls at altitude, aside from technical ones (limits and airspace and ceilings), but that’s the fun. The constant combination of being able to fly almost anywhere on a whim in a machine that is bound by so many rules that make any kind of failure possible, and to fly and land safely in spite of it.
For me, it is that, too. But for me, mostly, it is what these pilots bring to the culture on the ground at the airport. I have never met an angry pilot who slips down on a sunset summer day onto a grass runway whether it be in a 150 or a 1929 Stearman Speedmail. And no one ever seemed to leave me out of conversations. No one ever seemed to speak in Pilot-ese or make me feel like I was not a pilot. And that to me, is always why I’ll relish those 30 minutes of actual flying time every year.
About the Author
Jonathan Bach was named for the “soaring, learning spirit” of his father’s most famous character, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. He has been around airplanes all his life, and despite hundreds of hours of flying, has just 8 hours of official logbook time. His 1993 autobiography Above the Clouds: A reunion of father and son chronicles the influence that aviation and his father had on him by age 21. Now 41, he is known as a software testing manager and consultant in Seattle, having worked as a tester for Microsoft on Flight Simulator 2004 and Combat Flight Simulator 3. Although he is more comfortable on the ground at a Fly-In than in the air, he’d rather be there than at any other kind of gathering in the world. He blogs at http://jonbox.wordpress.com.