Smelling the Roses

Airplanes!

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” — Ferris Bueller

The ‘life’ this John Hughes character was referring to could very well have been that of a pilot. Nobody moves faster than those of us who spend our days flying an aircraft. The question is, are we taking the time to look around? If not, we should, because you never know when that life will come to a sudden and unexpected end.

I’m not referring to bent metal, although as last weekend’s Challenger 600 accident in Aspen reminds us, that does happen on rare occasion. Rather, I’m thinking of the various mundane reasons a long sought-after dream of slipping those surly bonds might run into a brick wall: employer bankruptcy, elimination of a flight department, familial demands. That sort of thing.

For the private flyer (I dislike referring to them as “non-professional”, as they are sometimes more professional than those of us who do it for a living) or student pilot, the nail in the coffin is often monetary. But there’s also lack of time, the grinding effect of regulatory compliance, the loss of your local FBO or club, and last but not least, medical certification issues. Whether you fly for business or pleasure, every visit to an Aviation Medical Examiner holds the possibility that you’ll walk out out of there without that tiny scrap of requisite affirmation.

Speaking of healthcare, I once flew with a pilot who was a “lifetime first officer”. Years earlier, he’d said the wrong thing to the wrong person at the company. I can’t remember the exact details, but it was a minor offense at best. Nevertheless, he was summarily informed that he’d never be upgraded to the left seat. Yet he remained at the firm despite incredibly low pay.

One day we were assigned to fly together and I asked him why he didn’t seek out a different job. He simply stated that he had a big family and needed the medical benefits more than the paycheck. But it was obvious the wind had been taken out of his sails and flying was more of a trap than anything to look forward to. You could see it in his eyes.

Last I heard, he was out of aviation. I doubt he’ll ever return.

I think of that guy often. He’s a reminder of why it’s so important to enjoy every moment in the air. It doesn’t sound difficult to do; after all, nobody’s forced into flying. Each of us jumped into the pool because we wanted to, right?

If only it were that simple. When your $30,000 airplane just came out of an unanticipated five month, $15,000 annual (as just happened to a friend of mine) or you’re stuck with an exhausting back-of-the-clock flight schedule, the grass can look quite green on the other side of the airport fence.

Perhaps it’s a byproduct of our Type-A personalities, but pilots seem to spend much of their time looking for the Next Big Thing: the larger aircraft, next rating, better job, pay increase, or upgrade. There’s nothing wrong with ambition, but if we’re not careful, a literal lifetime of flying can pass us by and we’ll have been so busy climbing the ladder that we never stopped to enjoy the moment while we were in it.

This is not pilot-specific. It’s a a human phenomenon and can be readily found outside the aviation world. Consider the message of this two-minute clip about our cellphone habits:

Sadly, I recognize myself in that video. I’ve been the person with their head buried in a miniature computer screen at an inappropriate time, disconnected from everything around me. I’ve also been the one surrounded by people and yet having nobody to interact with, the one pining for an era long gone.

The difference is that unlike walking on a beach or having coffee, flying is a hallowed, fleeting activity. We mustn’t forget that sooner or later, each of us will take wing for the final time. It could happen while we’re still very young! Perhaps we’ll know it’s our fini flight, and maybe we won’t. Either way, how awful would it be to realize we’ve reached that milestone and were so busy looking ahead that we never stopped to appreciate the heights we’d achieved while we were still aloft to enjoy it?

I’ve never been big on new year’s resolutions, but if you are one of the fortunate few who have the power to defy gravity, do yourself a favor in the year to come and stop to smell the roses every now and then. You won’t regret it.

13 comments

  1. Recently, I found my Commercial CFI constantly checking his phone while we were in the aircraft. On final, on roll out, in flare, between Maneuvours, Taxi. If I wasn’t paying him, which I wasn’t, I would have fired him the moment I walked into the flight school for debriefing. If I was a private student, what does that teach me? Either he was dis-interested, or shows that, yes, sure, attention can be divided to your personal texts on Taxi, etc… If what he is doing on is phone is more important than teaching me, then I’m not paying you. Like AT and T slogan says “It can Wait” and yes it can. What do you think we were all doing 2000 years ago up until 10 years ago? Answer: not impulsively checking our mobiles every thirty seconds. I find the biggest culprit is these people with the smart phones who have linked their Facebook, their Twitter, etc.
    I don’t have any of these, including that smartphone, by design. My sort of interaction with people if I want to talk to them is face to face, e mail or I pick up the phone. This week alone, I’ve known someone who received a baby announcement via text, an engagement notification via facebook message and my friend found out his boss passed away via twitter. Like the girl in the video, she had no one supporting her when she made a good Bowl in the lanes, because no one cared that they were in the “here and now” which is what the author I think was trying to say.

    1. That is exactly what I was trying to say, yes.

      I’m starting to think of the non-smartphone as the digital equivalent of the tailwheel: a throwback to an earlier time that still has an awful lot to teach us about the basics. Makes the “smartphone” moniker a bit ironic, doesn’t it?

      As for the CFI, it’s one thing to be on a mobile device when you’re in a social setting, but it’s quite another to intentionally divert attention from the task at hand in a professional situation. It sends the wrong message to the student and ensures that behavior will pass down to the next generation of instructors, to say nothing of being potentially dangerous. Even if your physical flying was flawless, the instructor has another set of eyes which can be invaluable in avoiding traffic. He might be the first one to see an issue with oil pressure or an obstruction on the taxiway. And the time in between maneuvers is important: that’s when you’re setting up for the next task, and just as a good approach leads to a good landing, a proper set-up greatly increases the odds of success when performing commercial tasks.

      You might want to say something to him about your observations. If someone saw me doing that while instructing, I hope they’d call me on it.

  2. Ron,
    This might be my favorite post! As John commented above, “Well said.”
    It is so easy to take what we have for granted and it might be the biggest tragedy of all.
    Brent

    1. Thanks, Brent — I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Even something as simple as good weather can be taken for granted. I’m thinking of the sunny 70 degree winter flying conditions we are blessed with in Southern California. I heard parts of Wisconsin reached -50 degrees yesterday. That’s 120 degrees colder than here!

  3. I think this is a great message to get out.

    We offer flying vacations that are trip-of-a-lifetime experiences. These trips don’t just happen for our clients. The stars and planets don’t miraculously align to make it easy to leave home for several weeks. Our participants have made a conscious decision to make these trips, often in spite of scheduling conflicts and other pressing priorities, and to really take advantage of the fact they can defy gravity.

    Sadly, every year at our booth at Oshkosh, at least a couple pilots drop by to tell us that after many years of putting off their dream-vacation plans they are no longer able to make the trip. Often they have lost their medical or their spouse has health issues that prevents them from travelling.

    So yes, enjoy every minute you are able to fly, and find as many minutes as you can now. As you said, we never know how many future minutes we have!

    1. An air safari would be so cool! I’ve been to most of the places you tour — and I’ve even done so in an airplane — but it’s a different experience seeing it from low altitude on your own schedule instead of someone else’s.

      It must be heartbreaking to hear the stories of lost medicals, health issues, financial reversals, etc at AirVenture. It’s not always easy balancing the responsibilities we have to family, community, and career with the truism that life has an expiration date.

  4. Ron, superb article…. really, really hit home with me.
    You see, my flying days will be over at the end of this month, and I imagine my last flight in the left-seat will be a sad one for me… happy to be flying yet quite sad knowing it’s coming to an end. But I’m luckier than most people, at least I got to do it.and had the PIC experience of seeing beautiful, and interesting, countryside from a perspective a relatively few can. I’m most definitely gonna miss it.
    Made the decision not to renew my SI medical, the expense and hassle of jumping through the FAA’s over-the-top hoops in conjunction with the overall cost of flying.

    By the way, I don’t own a smart-phone. I tell folks I’m too dumb to use one, just an old, and cheap, TracPhone for me.
    But liked the video which makes good points, see folks doing the same things all the time. ;(

    1. What a bittersweet moment, Mike! I’m not sure if I should say “congratulations” or “condolences”. Probably a bit of both.

      It’s sad to hear you’ll be leaving the cockpit permanently, though. GA needs seasoned pilots more than ever as mentors, instructors, etc. Imagine how much knowledge and experience you’ve accumulated.

      At the risk of being that little devil standing on your shoulder, are you sure a taildragger, biplane, or sailplane isn’t calling your name??

  5. I love the message behind this post. It applies to everything in life, aviation included. I’m always amazed by how kids are amazed by the most simple things. Growing up adds a lot of responsibilities and restrictions, but it’s no excuse to stop appreciating the little things.

    Louis CK’s sketch sums it up nicely:

    1. Looks like NBC has blocked the video on account of copyright issues, but I know and love that clip! If I recall correctly, he talks about both airplanes *and* cellphones as these incredible things we completely take for granted. Very apropos.

      Re: kids, we could do worse than to look at the world through their eyes. It’s so easy to be amazed as a little kid… I don’t know where we lose that ability as adults, but there are times when I definitely have to work at it a bit. Even when it’s forced, the change of perspective never fails to make me feel better, though.

  6. Hey, I am 84, flew out west since late 60’s. No youngster today will experience the pleasure and satisfaction that I had. The pvt pilot is gone, The 3rd class is the faa’s job security. And yes the hardware industry (aviation) Will not take on the faa.

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