Submitted for your approval, three stories I wrote in 2009, 2010, and 2011. For me, the human element of aviation has always been the focal point of my lasting love for it. I love the machinery, the creativity and the history, but the story of the individual, the person, is what intrigues me.
The stories here cover experiences of Astronauts, an Airline captain, and a Navy attack pilot. As a humble general aviation pilot, I will never fly into space, sit in the left seat of an airliner, nor fly in combat. Yet I hold that anyone who has built a single part, soloed a plane of any kind, or has spent years with the inner feeling that they were born to be part of the human panorama of aviation, can relate to the stories below.
The stories are not pleasant. An average day in the life of a professional aviator is one of reliable performance of duty. It is only under extreme circumstances that the nature of their character is revealed. I am a small part of one subset of aviation, and I will not face these same challenges, yet every experimental aircraft builder understands that he had to move beyond the fears that keep the rest of society sentenced to a mundane life, every soloed pilot understands the measure of courage required to go alone, and every pilot who takes a person aloft understands the responsiblity of the words “Pilot in Command.”
The 20th Century saw the discovery of both the North and South Poles, the Conquest of Everest, and the Development of Aviation from the Wright brothers through landing on the moon. These are fascinating stories of human courage and endurance. I have spent countless nights reading this history. Yet, the only one of these experiences that I can know some small part of is the story of flight. Every human challenge that was worth the title of adventure involved actual risk. We endow the title “hero” on the aviators at the pinnacle of our calling. But unlike the general public, we have some understanding of who our heroes are, and the costs they were willing to bear.
Why Bother? (2011)
I stood in my front yard two days ago to watch the last Launch of the Space Shuttle. It was very moving to think about the 30 years of the program, years that have spanned my adult life. “Land of the free and home of the brave” are the end of our National Anthem, but who personifies this? For my choice, I think of Astronauts. I have friends who work in the space program, and they all acknowledge that despite the risks, there is no shortage of very qualified people to go. I can remember the exact spot where I was in Florida the day The Challenger was lost. I have been to their monument on the hillside above the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery. Before their flight, they were briefed that their odds of perishing were between 1/300 and 1/20. They went anyway, not because they were gamblers, but because they know that some things were worth doing even if they brought a very high risk of death. From the Challenger monument, it is a short walk to JFK’s grave. In 1962 he answered the question of “Why bother?” on the subject of Space flight:
“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
When JFK said these words, he only had about 400 days left to live. Almost all of the people reading this have far more time left here. Question is, what will you do with it? Will you succumb to a “Why Bother?” mentality that seeks out false paths because they appear to require less learning and thinking? If the goal of a seafaring captain was to preserve the ship, he would never leave port. If someone’s goal is to save money and learn as little as possible, I humbly suggest that experimental aviation will prove to be a very frustrating and potentially very dangerous path. If “Why Bother” is such a person’s personal credo, they are never going to get any of the rewards while simultaneously taking astounding unnecessary risks. “Why bother” is much better matched to watching TV than building and flying planes.
I am 48 now, and I am past the halfway point. The exact length of the trip and the destination are unknown, but the road of memories behind get inexorably longer. Is it time to slow down, and ask “Why Bother?” Of course not. Anyone reading this has been lucky enough to be born one of the .1% of the people on this planet who has any hope of building something with their own hands and flying it, a dream so bold that it was beyond the reach of any person who every lived on this planet a mere 110 years ago. I am smarter than I was last year; I have learned more, I have honed my skills in the workshop and in the air. Aviation offers a near limitless arena in which to expand your life, to willfully choose the difficult and rewarding over the easy and complacent. This increase of capability and control that is the reward for honest striving and effort is the only substitute I have found for the nostalgia for a fading youth. I will never run a 5:30 mile again, never do 50 consecutive chin ups again, nor a number of other physical milestones from age 24. But I am a much better craftsman, pilot and person than I was then. Experimental aviation is the setting where I will find out how much I can study, understand and master in my life, not how little. For anyone else who feels the same way, I look forward to reading anything you have to say, seeing anything you have built, and being there when you arrive in your plane to a welcome of people who understand what is worth aggressively pursuing in life.
Speaking of Courage* (January 2010)
I just finished reading Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s book, “Highest Duty.” Most of what I read are biographies, and it is rare that I find one from an aviator that isn’t worth reading. Sully’s seemed particularly good. He tells his story back to being an airport kid in Texas flying a Champ. Many polished biographies elevate the subject above reality. Reading this book I felt that it did a good job of shedding some light on the life of an aviator who is likely far more than the pages convey.
If you were in the USAF or work in the airline industry, he emerges as a strong advocate of these callings. Sully does a first class job of explaining the mindset and challenges of the professionals who inhabit these parts of aviation. His sudden popularity says something about America, and he touches on this in the book. He has a Facebook site with 675,000 friends. A few weeks back I read in the New York Times that his book has been a modest success, selling 92,000 copies. The difference in the numbers tells me that people out there are looking for a hero, but they care far less to know how their heroes think or what forces shaped their lives.
Sully has a simple message inside his tale: Training pays off, even if it isn’t tested, living your life prepared is its own reward. Today, many people want to know the tricks and inside tips on any subject they encounter. They want the Cliff’s Notes on life instead of actually living. Sully, who recounts a lifetime perfecting his craft, offers a strong indictment of such a mentality.
He is quite clear that the terms ‘hero” or “miracle” do not apply to himself or to flight 1549. He explains why he feels that the successful outcome was the result of training, team work, judgment and a few factors going their way. He clearly states that he did not expect to die. However, Sully does believe in both heroes and miracles, and part of the book explains this by contrasting his situation with that of Captain Al Haynes and United Flight 232.
Above, Al Haynes
We forget a lot quickly these days. America has long forgotten the name and the flight number, but most people in aviation remember the Sioux City accident of 1989. It happened my first year at Embry-Riddle. The crash was examined in great detail. At the University, we had a good idea of how low the odds of survival were, and most people felt the term miracle could very well apply. The crew of UA-232 fought to find any way to regain control of the DC-10. Haynes and crew had little reason to believe they would live. Through astounding skill, composure and leadership, Haynes made the best landing possible. 185 people lived. Many did not.
Captain Haynes came to speak at Embry-Riddle not long after the accident. His face still had the scars of the crash. He had been hailed in the media, but I felt being at Riddle had to be different. Here, we had students who had some real understanding of what he had pulled off. In “Fate is The Hunter,” Ernest Gann’s preface states that airline flying is a kind of a war story, where “the designated adversary always remains inhuman, frequently marches in mystery, and rarely takes prisoners.” I went to see him up close, to look at a Captain who had just returned from battle.
I stood five feet away and watched Captain Haynes as he spoke to people. He was kind and direct, but somewhat detached, with a look as if his real thoughts were far away. I was young and impressionable, and clearly before me was a real hero. He had salvaged a victory for a certain disaster. To my eyes, he was now among the pantheon of aviation’s eternal stars. Perhaps the distant look in his eyes was appropriate for a man who was proven in a field where all prepare for their battle, but very few are tested.
Fourteen years later, Captain Haynes is the guest speaker at the evening program at the Theater In The Woods at Oshkosh. Here, at the center of the world of flight, his star has never been diminished. The outside world has forgotten and moved on, but here, inside, the faithful fill every seat. It has been a full day of exciting things, but the people are now settling down as they take their seats. They will soon listen to a serious subject from a man known for a heroic deed. The last time I saw him I was part of a very young group, just at the start of our time in aviation. I looked around and saw where my classmates would be in another 20 years. The people around me had most of their flying logged away. Their gray hair and modest dress told outsiders nothing of the adventures these people had seen. They had led the strenuous life of challenge, and known its rewards…and perhaps its costs also. I looked around and guessed that many of them had lost a close friend to an accident. As soon as I formed that thought, I realized to 14 years later, I too, was in this last group.
The presentation was a technical one. Captain Haynes had made it his duty to frequently speak on behalf of preparation, teamwork, training, and when your test comes, not losing yourself or giving in to fear. He had spent the previous years communicating this, never accepting a fee or any kind of reward. They played the ATC tapes and slowly brought us to the moment of the crash. The audience was moved. Many people near me sat quietly wiping away tears in the dark. Perhaps they were thinking of friends, now long gone, wishing their friends had been luckier and had a man like Al Haynes for an instructor, a mentor or a co-pilot.
At the end of the presentation, a man, looking like he could have come from any EAA chapter in America, stood up. He struggled to gather himself and start a sentence. After a moment, in a choked voice, he got out “I just want to say I think you’re a hero.” A round of applause broke out, but it was quickly put down with a wave of Captain Haynes’ hand. He addressed the man directly. In an even voice with very little emotion, he said “I am not a hero. 112 people on my flight died. Please sit down.”
After the lights come up and the people drift away, I sat with Grace. It was very hard for her. I have little memory of the Burn ICU, but Grace had sat there all day, every day, for weeks. The cost was not abstract to her. Of all the people in the theater, she knew what the last moments of many of the 112 had looked like. After some time, we got up to walk out to the parking lot. As we went past the back of the theater, Captain Haynes was standing there with a few of the people from the stage crew. Grace went over to personally thank him for the evening. I stood about five feet away.
The 14 years had not been kind to Al Haynes. Both his son and wife had died. His daughter was terribly ill. I could not hear what he was saying softly to Grace, but he had the same look as he did in 1989. He was there, but detached. His story reminded me of a Greek Tragedy, no matter how noble his actions, fate struck people in his care.
A different man might have written it all off. Given up, and assigned the events to bad luck, a curse or even a vengeful God. I don’t think it is too much to say that Al Haynes would have none of these outs. He is a man, Naval Aviator and Airline Captain. He has a lifetime of being in command, evaluating the circumstance, minimizing the risk, and taking responsibility for the outcome. Such a man couldn’t easily shrug off or rationalize away the loss. Right or wrong, he is the kind of man who would only see it as his personal responsibility, and this is the reason I will always be able to say Al Haynes is my hero.
*Speaking of Courage is the title of a chapter in Tim O’Brien’s 1990 novel “The Things They Carried.” The writing is an unflinching look at sorrow, love and personal responsibility in the wake of tragedy. It is a profoundly moving work of philosophy for people who do not trust easy answers to hard questions.
Friday Night, November 20, 2009
Just as I am getting used to Daylight Savings stealing an hour of the evening, the days are getting noticeably shorter here. During the week, our clock revolves around 4 p.m. This is last call to drive the ten miles into town to the Post Office with the days mailings. In the summer there are hours after this to eat dinner, mess around in the shop, and casually pre-flight the Taylorcraft before going aloft for the last hour of light. But now the casual hours are gone. I drove back to the airport with an eye on the low angle of the sun, maybe only 50 minutes until it sank.
I pushed the plane out to the edge of the runway. I stood there for a minute, not a single person was in sight. Just the sound of a circular saw from somewhere up on the North end of the field. The visibility was poor, there would be little to see, but I had been out the past 6 days in a row and today would make a week. Kind of a pointless exercise, going up for 20 minutes to round out a week, frivolous really. These are the things you think of on the ground, by the time I am running through the mag check the pros and cons of going aloft are forgotten. I orbit the airport in big slow circles at 70 mph, engine at 1700 rpm, just licking over. It all looks gray and colorless. Was it noticeably greener a week ago or is it just the haze setting the mood?
When I touch down, the landing gives me the same feeling as finishing a chapter in a captivating book: Looking up from the last page with the powerful feeling that you have just been somewhere else. Taxing up to the house and shutting off the engine I have the same sensation.
Three or four minutes later, our EAA chapter president returns from being away all afternoon. A 180 mph pass at 10 feet signals the arrival of his RV-7. As he flies the landing pattern, I walk the 400 feet up to his hangar. We arrive at the same time. He has an unexpected passenger, Dave, our airpark president. Dave has his own RV-4, and I have never seen him as a passenger in any plane. In his youth he flew an A-4 from the USS Forestal into the most fiercely defended airspace on the planet. The black and white photos of him in his hangar are of a much younger man in a flightsuit with a helmet under his arm. He has the same grin today, but you get the impression that big chunk of Dave’s youth, and a good number of his friends, only exist in his memory after 1967. Either way, he looks really out of place in the right seat, or in any side by side aircraft for that matter.
The moment fits the gray haze: Pat and Dave have just returned after delivering the RV-9 of a fellow EAA member. This man has also taken up residence in Dave’s memory. He was killed this summer, along with another friend, in an unexplained Glasair crash. One moment they were flying a low pass over our airport, a little dog leg to say hello on their way home. The next day Pat found the wreckage in the woods a few miles away. They delivered the RV-9 to the man’s widow, who was very thankful. The plane was just finished, and it is magnificent. She is keeping it in storage until next Oshkosh. The man was an EAA member for 30 years, known in some circles. She would like it judged posthumously. She had said some moving things to Pat and Dave, but at the moment we were standing out on their ramp with the sun fading, neither of them felt up to relating her exact words.
Dave started a sentence twice, but after a pause he didn’t finish. Pat spoke about a guy he knew in flight school, lived 3 doors down, a Marine. Pat heard about his crash on the news, and walked out his front door in disbelief. Seeing the black cars gathered down the block took away the doubt and hope at the same time.
An engine starts at the far south end of the runway. It is Dan Weseman and the Cleanex. After a minute of run up, he roars past us, 50 feet at midfield. Dave looks at Pat and says “Let’s get him.” The RV-7 turned around and back on the grass in seconds. Dave pushes out his RV-4. Their take off alerts the airport, and several people drift out of their hangars to sit on the grass and watch.
If flying at most airports is an elegant ballet, flying at our airport is Mixed Martial Arts. The furball is formed, broken and formed again over our heads at 1500′. Between the sounds of wide open engines, the radio chatter barks out from the base station in Alan’s hangar. In minutes they are joined by Bob in an RV-4 from the North end, and then another RV-7. In the sky they turn impossibly tight. You can’t always make out who is on top, or even who is who, until a glint of the sunset differentiates a painted wing from a polished one. It is hard to believe that the same airport was dead silent 20 minutes ago.
One by one, they drop out and land. Pat is first, and has most of a beer finished as Dave rolls up. Bob is the last to break off, leaving it where it started, with Dan alone in the sky doing a few last slow rolls. The mood is transformed. It was 10 minutes of really being alive. Dan landed, rolled out in front of us, turned a smooth 180 and taxied back towards his hangar, his home, his family. He was close enough for us to see his expression, but he didn’t look over. In the air, he had been far closer to the other pilots. The light is gone now, and the day is over.
A few more words, and the hangar doors are shut, and people drift away. Walking back to my place, I pause in the dark to watch Dave walk out to his pickup. He had been the one to say “Let’s get him.” This had been Dave’s doing, perhaps his ritual. A little farewell to a man whose memory had just been carefully and lovingly wrapped up for safe keeping. It was now stored beside the others. A resident, final age 58, joining a group of younger men, some of whom arrived 42 years ago. Although I’m sure he cherishes them all, he probably doesn’t visit with them often. Dave is too full of life for much of that. Besides, one day he will have all the time in the world to spend with them.