The entertainment world lost one of its greats this week when Titanic composer James Horner died in his S312 Tucano turboprop. He was by himself when the aircraft crashed about 60 miles north of Santa Barbara, California. While reading the news accounts, I thought about why we fly and the perception of risk.
Horner’s website and colleagues noted that he was a passionate pilot who rated flying as one of his greatest personal accomplishments. Coming from one of the world’s leading contemporary composers, it way more than offsets the few snarky comments that accompanied some of the articles: “Small airplanes are the rich man’s motorcycle,” sniffed one small mind. Others were more derogatory.
Initially, my reaction was one of anger but later it morphed into pity. Henry Van Dyke said “Some people are so afraid to die that they never begin to live.” For me and every pilot I know, we become forever changed. We look at life and ourselves differently. Each of us comes to aviation in different ways and with different motivations. There are different risk tolerances and different anxiety levels: Aviation allows the calibration of intensity, but we are all pilots.
For some, flight comes easily—others have to work at it. In teaching people the science and art of aviation, the instructor often guides someone grappling with something far different than normal life challenges. Much as we like to think, it’s impossible to bluff gravity, aerodynamics, or weather. The hardware has limits, and sometimes it breaks. Pilots have limits, and sometimes they are exceeded. Ignorance and arrogance are dangerous individually, and when co-mingled they become lethal. Most learn to avoid those areas—and as in any human endeavor—a few do not.
In modern protected life few get to live in a total reality environment. It is antithetical to “Reality” TV and the virtual world that most of our fellow humans inhabit. Perhaps our nation is becoming too risk-averse. The country could not have come this far—flight, railroads, and yes, the Titanic would have been impossible. We might well have been under the subjugation of a monarch or some other dictator.
Pilots understand there is risk in aviation, as should the general public. There is also risk in climbing ladders, taking a bath, riding a bicycle, or driving a car. Naysayers will opine that those activities are essential. For me—flying is essential. The United States has labored long and spilled much blood to allow freedom in speech, religion, political expression, and in how we live life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. (Thank you Mr. Jefferson!)
Most of us have lost friends and family before their time—in aviation and in other situations. For pilots, be mindful of increased risk and do not expose others without their informed consent. Sometimes one does everything right but circumstances or truly bad luck conspire. Stuff happens, but most of the time (mostly) it can be managed.
“Ideally, the music shouldn’t be noticed at all,” Mr. Horner told Time magazine in 1995. “It should just manipulate the hell out of an audience. Music shoves the emotions around, and it has to be done skillfully and elegantly.” Much the same could be said about flight—it has to be done skillfully and elegantly. I believe James Horner would agree.