To my great disappointment I’ve turned out to be a crotchety old fart. As a young man, I regarded older people who ended up with a poor attitude later in life as something I never wanted to become.
Still, here I am.
I’ve had to put on glasses just to be able to sit here and see well enough to write, and even though I’m in a state-of-the-art Herman Miller Aeron chair, my back hurts, my knees hurt and one of my fingers does not always respond to my commands.
How did this happen?
I’m crotchety in part because I have to go out next week and do a flight review, which, short of getting another rating, is something we all have to do every couple of years—which is why we used to call it a biennial flight review—but now don’t, even though we still do it every two years. To me that name change sounds pretty silly, but I’m sure it’s for good reasons I don’t understand.
This year I’m being particularly fussy about having to go do it. I mean, it feels like I’ve had to do this so many times that it qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment. I know, I know; it’s important that we all be able to keep our skills honed… but it’s such a pain the derrière.
Yes, I can still make turns without gaining or losing much altitude, I understand the rules of the road concerning Class Bravo airspace (though I thought the term TCA was perfectly fine), and the last instructor I flew with suggested I get a preflight briefing online instead of on the telephone, where I was perfectly happy talking to a real live human being.
Like it or not, the day is coming when I won’t be able to pass muster. Maybe a decline in my motor skills, cognitive skills, maybe a failed medical—or all of the above. None of us get to fly forever.
But when I try and stop being a crotchety old man and look back over all the years I’ve gotten to fly airplanes back and forth across the hemisphere, I can’t help but get this huge smile across my face. Man, have I been a lucky guy.
And I really, really mean that. Flying has made more of an impact than virtually anything else in my life. I have crystal clear memories of being in the air at first light, the sun flashing back at me from the silver flying wires of a Stearman…
Or how about those IFR flights where your clearance puts you just inches above the undercast and you’re zinging along at what looks like a billion miles an hour, just skipping along over the cloud tops at sunset?
In the old days, before the flood of airspace restrictions above the Grand Canyon, I hear tell that pilots used to just drop way down below the rim—way down below the rim—and fly the twists and turns of the Colorado River with the throttle shoved to the firewall.
Of course, I never did that. But this example serves to remind us just how lucky we all are, how wonderful the privilege of flying is, and how we get to do things mere mortals only dream of.
Not only did flying change my life, it made my life. In many ways I’ve gotten to be an aviation version of Charles Kuralt, the CBS journalist who crisscrossed the country in his motor home in the 1960s and ‘70s, stopping to report wonderful little vignettes of Americana. (Better yet, he got to do it on somebody else’s dime!)
I’ve been that lucky. I’ve set down floatplanes in the flooded calderas of volcanos in Alaska, eased onto the Greenland ice cap in a ski plane, yanked and banked in an F/A-18 with the Blue Angels over the Caribbean, landed on the glaciers around Mount McKinley, circled herds of elephants in Botswana, and so, so much more.
That’s how incredibly lucky I’ve been. Those are the things aviation has allowed me to do, things only possible because the world has given me the chance to fly.
And even better than the places I’ve gotten to visit were the people that aviation brought me to meet. I was lucky enough to get to learn to fly from a man who flew bombers in World War II, fighters in the Korean War and helicopters in Vietnam. In addition to some flying skills, can you imagine the insight into American history—if not the world—he gave me?
I got to sit face-to-face with Brig. Gen. Paul Tibbits and listen to him tell entertaining stories about flying the Supreme Commander Dwight David Eisenhower across northern Africa—stories that I can’t repeat here—stories that gave me a more than personal picture of the man who would become our 34th president. Wow, was I lucky.
More importantly, I got to look into his eyes when he explained that in his heart of hearts, he truly believed that when he gave the order to drop Little Boy on the city of Hiroshima that he was helping bring World War II to an end and thus save the lives of tens of thousands of soldiers, both American and Japanese.
I got to see real tears in the eyes of a young A-10 Warthog pilot when she tried to describe how much she loved her country and how much she appreciated the opportunity to serve across the deserts of Iraq.
I got to hear the squeals of high school kids when they saw the airplane they’d built make its first flight.
I’ve orbited a pod of gray whales who were spy hopping to look back at me.
I’ve gotten to meet men who have walked on the moon, landed on the Hudson and flown at 3.3-plus Mach.
I even got to have lunch with Gloria Winters, whom many of us remember as Penny on “Sky King.” (And yes, she was still hot!)
All this merely because I fly.
Thankfully, my experiences are not all that rare. Most of us who’ve been flying for a while have lots of wonderful stories and experiences, many of you more than I do.
Some stories may be simple, though just as inspiring… like that time a pilot loaned you his car to get into town, or gave you a place to stay when your airplane was sick.
Or that time when you took the neighbor kid for his first airplane rider ever, and listened to him giggle with glee as you circled his house.
These are truly the things that give meaning to our lives. And I mean that with all my heart.
Still, I’m crotchety about having to go do a flight review next week. (The poor CFI that has to fly with me!) But I’m looking forward to getting the green light for another two years, and a renewed membership in the club—those luckiest people on the planet, those of us who get to fly.