Life Lessons from Flying

My mom taught me that life wasn’t fair. This was her go-to answer when an atrocity such as unequal desert portioning occurred. Random events happen that, for good or bad, affect us.

A long time ago, when I was still flying regularly, my brother and I decided to fly from St. Louis to Atlanta to attend a wedding. It was a beautiful day for flying and we were both excited to get started. I made a call to get the weather and was disappointed to find out there was a large thunderstorm between St. Louis and Atlanta. The meteorologist said it didn’t reach as far south as our destination and we may be able to fly south, then east and go around the storm.

That sounded like a plan to us, so we did our pre-flight, climbed aboard, got into the air, and turned our nose toward the southeast. About an hour later we were near Cape Girardeau, MO and could see some darkness out of our left window. It was still a long way away, but we could tell it was there.

An hour and a half later, near Jackson, Tennessee, we could tell the storm was getting closer, so I turned the plane a little to the right and headed due South. By the time we hit Tupelo, Mississippi, the storm was upon us and I was looking desperately for a place to land as the low clouds continued to force us lower and lower. Fortunately, we were close to Tupelo Regional Airport, so I called the tower and asked for clearance to land.

We were able to get down before the full fury of the storm hit. We borrowed a car from the airport and drove toward the center of town where we found a cheap motel. By the time the storm passed the next morning, it was too late to get to the wedding, so we flew home. It was a harrowing experience, an utter failure in regard to getting us where we wanted to go.

Sometimes our environment works against us. It isn’t always the weather, sometimes it is rules or regulations, or custom or social norm. Whatever it is, the sooner we remember that sometimes things happen and we can’t change it, the sooner we can accept it and move on. Despite missing the wedding, my brother and I had a good time flying and seeing the sites.

Early in my flying career, I started taking my kids up. I started with my oldest, Sarah, then took up Laura, followed by Jon, the youngest. Jon was in his toddler years. He was old enough to be starting to talk, but he certainly wasn’t ready to have a reasoned discussion.

I grabbed the car seat with one hand and Jon’s hand with the other and walked over to the airplane, an old Cessna 172. I buckled the car seat into the copilot seat and then got him strapped in. I went around and climbed aboard. The skies were mostly clear with just a few puffy white clouds. Soon, we were up in the air having a great time doing lazy-eights and big wide circles so Jon could see the ground.

We flew for about an hour going nowhere in particular and then started back for the airport. About ten minutes out, Jon decided he wanted to get into the action and began pressing the control yoke with his feet. The plane went into an unexpected dive as I struggled to level off. Jon was young, but his legs were very strong. I had to reach over and knock his feet off the yoke before I was able to level off.

About the time we got to straight and level, he stuck his feet up and started pushing again. I got his feet off again and started explaining the forces associated with flight, but he wasn’t having any part of my analysis. His feet shot back up to the yoke. I spent the next ten minutes flying with my left hand and holding his feet down with my right. Each time I had to take my hand away from his feet, for instance to lower the flaps, I had to do it quickly so he didn’t have time to get his feet back up.

We were eventually able to land safely, but that is the last time I will ever take a toddler up in a small plane alone.

There are times when other people will work against us. Everyone has their own hopes, aspirations, desires, and ideas. Sometimes we are the pilot, trying to do what is right, and they are the toddler, not understanding the bigger picture and working against something that is actually in their best interest. However, we need to recognize that sometimes we are the toddler. Jon knew nothing about what the yoke did and how it related to his own survival. He was just doing what he always did–interact with new things in order to see what they do. We have to be willing to be open to the possibility that it is possible we don’t know everything and the person working against us is actually trying to save us.

While I did take people flying occasionally, I usually flew alone. The airport was near my office, so it was easy to head over after work and go for a quick flight. On one such day, I decided to fly over to a rural area that was often used for flight training to practice my stalls. A stall occurs when the wing is raised to too great of an angle and is no longer able to create lift. Pilots practice them so they know how to respond if they ever find themselves in one.

Shortly after I took off, I noticed some abnormal wind noise. I noticed that the latch on the cockpit cover was not completely closed. I was flying a Diamond Katana, a very small composite aircraft that was only a few years old. In this airplane, there are no doors. The entire top of the cockpit is one canopy made of clear plastic and opens on a hinge at the back. To lock it shut, you have to push two bars (one on each side of the cockpit) forward and into the fuselage.

The left rod was not pushed all of the way into the slot and was allowing air to leak in between the fuselage and the canopy. I pushed as hard as I could but the bar would not budge. Then I tried pulling back to see if I could get it to move at all. Unfortunately, it did. The rod came out completely and the canopy opened two inches on the left side of the plane. The only thing holding it down now was the right rod. If it broke, the canopy would fly open and back and could take out the entire tail section.

I made a quick U-turn and called the tower. “Chesterfield, this is Katana Papa-Foxtrot-Nine-Sixteen. I am having problems with my canopy and would like to land as soon as possible.” The tower responded, “Katana Nine-Sixteen, are you declaring an emergency?”

“No, I am definitely NOT declaring an emergency. However, I would love to get down as quickly as possible.” I said, knowing that once an emergency is declared, months of investigation would kick off leading, almost certainly, to nothing good for the pilot.

“Roger, Nine-Sixteen, you are number two, behind One-Seven-Four,” I heard the tower reply.

An unknown voice broke in, “Tower, this is One-Seven-Four, I am going around.”

“Roger, One-Seven-Four. Nine-Sixteen, you are cleared for landing,” the tower replied.

I landed safely and taxied back to the parking area. I tried the latch and it worked fine. I had the canopy checked out and everything was working fine. I just failed to get it completely latched and the wind pressure during flight was just too high to allow me to push it closed.

Sometimes we work against ourselves. Whether it is carelessness, ignorance, or something else doesn’t matter. We sabotage ourselves and hold ourselves back. The only thing to do is to realize it and stop, then move forward.

If you aren’t making the progress you thing you should, figure out what is holding you back. Is it environmental? If so, figure out a way to go around the problem, or change your destination.

Is someone else holding you back? In this case, you need to figure out who is the pilot and who is the toddler. Remember, neither the pilot nor the toddler thought they were doing anything wrong.

Are you holding yourself back? Did you do something stupid or careless. Then land the plane and start over. Fix what you are doing to hold yourself back and take off again. Like drag on a plane, there will always be things that work against us as we try to fly through life. The more we know about what is causing the drag, the better able we are to eliminate it.

See you next time…