First of all, there is some small truth to the little-known US Air Force saying: “It’s a lot more fun being a pilot than it is flying.”
It seemed on some days that a degree in law might be better preparation than a degree in engineering, which is what I had, engineering. That is, rules, rules rules. And you had better know them! There are specific rules about what a pilot can and cannot do with their aircraft.
Some rules are meant to keep everyone safe, such as which altitude to fly at when going east-to-west versus west-to-east. Or how to approach or depart an airfield. Or how to let people know your radio is not working. There are rules that restrict altitude above populated areas and rules about noise at certain hours. All those rules are very, very good ideas. I have no problem with them.
OK, most of the time. There have been a few transgressions over the years. But, hey, I was still in my twenties.
But learning and living by all the rules can be daunting and sometimes discouraging.
And then there is the sheer physical discomfort to overcome.
Until you get used to it and learn it well, the lap and shoulder belts can bind, the oxygen mask can be uncomfortable on your face, and the helmet can be a real pain. To the young rookie, even the roaring screams of the jet engines starting up in the early morning hours can be a daunting sound of unleashed energy and destruction.
And don’t even get me started on the paperwork.
There is definitely a technical – mental aspect as well. This was not such a challenge for me as an engineer. In some ways the required talent harkens back to the original meaning of “engineer” as the person who knows how to keep a machine or engine working. There are complex systems to be constantly monitored. Decisions to be made when gauges give you bad news. Red lights to pay attention to and seldom-used switches whose time has come to be flipped. And you need to incorporate this knowledge into the process of learning when to act and when to wait for more information.
One lesson basic pilot training emphasized was the need to reach over and wind the little mechanical clock on the instrument panel when you first notice an emergency situation. This satisfies the need to DO SOMETHING without actually touching something that could make things worse. The classic example of worse things is shutting off the good engine by mistake when seeing indications of badness on the other engine. Not good. I certainly hope modern cockpits still have wind-able mechanical clocks!
On the other hand, some emergencies demand immediate ejection. Think fast. Act fast. Back in the early 1980’s, we had an issue with T-38 wing tips, and sometimes entire wings, falling off in-flight. Hesitation means the g-forces will pin your arms away from the ejection handles in seconds or less. This, of course, means a quick death in a flaming pile of aluminum.
But the “up side” of flying far outweighs these little distractions. : )
Once the pilot knows the confidence of harnessing that tremendous force and, yes, even the endless regulations, there is a pure joy deep in the soul that springs up even as your aircraft leaps up off the planet in obvious scorn of piddling physical constraints like gravity.
This absolute freedom in 3 dimensions to twist and turn through God’s great skies is continuously tinged with the vigilance of keeping your craft’s systems operating and the craft itself flying within its envelope. Somehow, that makes it even sweeter.
Only the pilot can really appreciate High Flight:
John Gillespie Magee, Jr.
“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air….
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
– Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”
It was 1977 and I was a rookie right out of pilot training and in the midst of KC-135 training at Castle AFB, CA.
As usual, I had put a lot of pressure on myself to do well. I wanted to be a distinguished graduate. I wanted to arrive at my first real AF assignment at Beale AFB with a good reputation.
It was an early flight lesson. I was putting a hundred new instructions into practice, checking fuel gauges, re-checking flight clearances, re-setting radio frequencies, checking for other aircraft sharing the air with us, checking the flight plan, getting ready for a rendezvous with the receiver aircraft, and much more. I was actually sweating and my hands flew and the checklist pages blurred by like flash cards.
It was during one of this frenzied periods when the instructor pilot screamed in my ear.
Additional adrenaline coursed into my heart. What!? What!? I thought. I looked back at him, sitting between me and the pilot in the instructor’s jump seat, slightly behind our seats.
“Look outside the cockpit!” He screamed. But he was smiling as he said it. The words were loud to be heard over the four J-57 engines, but oddly gentle.
I looked around not knowing what to find, and found only the beautiful deep blue boundless skies, magnificent white puffy clouds, and the tiny earth below.
“Remember why you wanted to fly?” He smiled and pointed and the wondrous vistas — a first class seat for sure.
“Oh… yeah….” I thought and smiled. “I remember now.”
In the end, it turns out, I was a distinguished graduate of the KC-135 school. But I arrived at Beale remembering why flying is a joy.
Photo from http://images.summitpost.org/original/432155.JPG