By Budd Davisson
—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry“I fly because it releases my mind from the tyranny of petty things.”
What a great line! That quote was in an e-mail that just popped up on my screen. A noble thought. So simple, so pure! Unfortunately, it got me thinking about why I fly, and I found that coming up with an answer was neither simple nor pure. And I suspect it’s the same for most folks.
When I started to reply to the e-mail, I expected to rip off a profoundly simple answer about why I flew. But I found I couldn’t. Waaaay too many thoughts came tumbling out of my mind at the same time, each straining to be the overarching reason why I’ve spent so much of my life in a cockpit, and why I’ve spent so much of that cockpit time doing things that have the outward appearance of being just a little insane. Why do I fly? Why do any of us fly?
I seem to wrestle with this concept periodically, and generally avoid getting into conversations about it. I’m not sure why, but I think it’s because I feel left out when others start philosophizing about their own reasons. So many of my friends can flatly say, “I fly because of…” And I can’t. I only know that were I to uncork that bottle of explanation, I would wind up sounding as if I were standing on a pulpit sermonizing, because the “explanation” would come out as a long-winded rant that runs from one corner of my mind to the other, from one corner of my life to another.
Now that I think about it, it’s actually easier to enumerate some of the factors that have nothing to do with why I fly.
One normal reason why people commit to aviation that has nothing to do with why I fly is its value as transportation. The concept of jumping in an airplane and flying the 400 miles to see my daughter in Los Angeles, for instance, doesn’t even cross my mind. This is because of a number of reasons, most of them having to do with the simple fact that it wouldn’t save significant time, and would greatly increase both the expense and the complexity of the trip (renting cars, battling air space, worrying about weather, going to the airport, time spent getting the airplane out, yada, yada). Plus, I really enjoy long-distance driving. I like what my imagination does as I look at crumbling buildings, the mysterious mountains on the horizon, the empty desert, etc.
Also, I’m not a $100 hamburger kind of guy. Nor do I cruise around the local area. However, I do like the concept of both, especially exploring the local area, even though I seldom do it. Since less than 16% of Arizona is eligible for private title (the balance being governmental or tribal lands), the vast amount of what is the sixth largest state is totally empty and untouched—and will stay that way. Much of it is minutes away by air and presents rugged, totally hostile, and therefore alluring, mountainous topography. With so few roads, only pilots and eagles (which have become commonplace on the ridges) see the backsides of our colorful backyard. Still, I rarely indulge in what amounts to high-risk sightseeing.
And, as for Saint Ex’s explanation that flying released him from petty thoughts? I’ll have to think about that for a second. I suppose I could agree with that a little, if only because the kind of flying I’ve chosen represents a very narrow niche of unusual aviating that demands 110% concentration, and tolerates absolutely zero extraneous thoughts. None. It pushes every other thought aside. But, I don’t consciously seek that. That’s just part of the package. It is, however, a place I know I can’t go unless I’m mentally prepared for it. For me, regardless of what Saint Ex says, it’s not a place that will heal distractions nor clear up mental murk. If I carry either into the cockpit, the airplane will kick my backside. Having said that, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it takes only one flight to brighten my mood.
Skin in the game?
As I look back at what I’ve written, I realize I’ve eliminated probably 85% of why most people fly. So, what’s left? Why do I strap myself into a sometimes cantankerous, always demanding little machine that asks me the same question every time I strap it on: “Are you up for me today? Is today the day I’m going to bite you in the butt?” As I’m sitting here thinking about that, a tiny bit of illogical logic has begun to form at the edges of my curiosity about why I fly. And I think it also might explain why others with similar mind-sets fly.
I think I’ve mentioned this before, but, if I were given the choice of doing the kind of flying/instructing that I do for another year but then having to hang up my spurs, or flying more normal airplanes in a more normal manner for the rest of my life but never again saddling up my little red airplane, I’d opt for the year without hesitation. In my eyes, the factor that separates the two groups of airplanes is the never-ending challenge that my kind of airplane represents. I think that attracts a lot of folks to similar flying machines.
Truth is, if we push ourselves to be as good as we can be in any airplane, the challenge that I see in my airplane can also exist in every other. Be it a Cessna 172 or P-51 Mustang, the same mental attitude can exist. The difference is a 172 doesn’t demand it. The Mustang, Pitts and similar airplanes do. And some part of my mental makeup enjoys demand. It literally, as the saying goes, completes me. I like having some skin in the game.
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Actually, as I again reread these paragraphs, I realize they don’t really answer the question as to why I fly. That’s probably because I don’t really need a reason to fly. Does anyone? We don’t look for reasons that we fall in love. Why look for reasons that we fly?
Bud Davisson has been training pilots and writing and taking photos about flying for 39 years. His Web page, Bud Davisson’s AirBum.com, is dedicated to “Sport aviation as seen through pilot reports, kick-butt photography, flight training, aerobatics, how-to build and how-to fly articles”
He is editor-in-chief of Flight Journal magazine [http://www.flightjournal.com/] and has written two novels involving airplanes. He contributes to flying magazines such as Planes & Pilot, from which this post is adapted.
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