As I look back on over 20 years of flying, I realize how much I've learned - not just about flying itself, but about taking on new challenges, making risk acceptable, and pushing away the fears and anxieties which hold us back from what we’d really like to do. One of the things I've learned is that you need to be Pilot-In-Command. You should listen to experts, but then you need to rely on your own judgement and make your own decisions.
I don’t even have to close my eyes to picture my first REAL cross country flight. I had been flying my Sunburst ultralight for about 6 months; I was a cautious pilot and all of my flights so far had been within 10-20 miles of my home airport. My flying mentors - other ultralight pilots - were encouraging me to stretch my wings. It was a beautiful day and they invited me to fly with them to an air show 60 miles away. I was nervous about going that far - especially as we'd be flying across the Columbia River. That sounded especially scary. And I didn't feel confident about my navigation abilities. But they were encouraging and supportive - telling me that I was up to the flight.
So now we’re in the air. There are six if us and the bright colors of our wings dance across the sky. I’m bringing up the rear…the newest and greenest pilot in the group. As we fly over the Columbia I'm in a state of ecstasy. As I look down on the small boats below, I can't believe that I'm really doing this - flying by myself in this tiny contraption.
Now the wind is picking up – my ultralight is starting to give me a little roller coaster of a ride. This is more wind than I’ve ever flown in. I focus my concentration on keeping the wings straight and level and keeping the ultralight immediately ahead of me in sight.
Just then - a radio call from Bob, one of the out-of sight leaders. “Arty – this is a little too much wind for you to be flying in. Find a place to land and wait it out. The wind will die as it gets toward evening, and we'll pick you up on the way back.” Roger and then Lee chime in with agreement. They all reassure me that they'll find me on their way back.
Land? Wait it out? Wait a minute… There are two voices going on in my head.
- “You'd better find a place to land. You think you're doing o.k, but they know better. They're experienced pilots and they know what you can handle. They know what’s best for you.”
- “But I’m doing fine! This isn’t so awful. I’m doing fine!”
- “Don’t be foolish. They are much more experienced pilots. Your experts are telling you to turn around. They care about you and don’t want you to get hurt.
- “But maybe they’re being over-protective! I’m READY to stretch my wings; I’m ready to do this!”
So I hit the radio’s push-to-talk button.
“Look, I know it’s more than I’ve flown in so far. But I’m doing o.k.. I’m going to continue on for awhile before I decide if I should land or turn back.”
This was the moment when I actually became pilot in command. Before this, to look at me, you would have thought I’d already earned that title. I was by myself in the cockpit, working the controls. But I was still letting my experts make all the critical decisions, letting them push me forward or hold me back, based on their assessment of my skills. I was the pilot, but THEY were in command.
There will always be people who tell you, “That’s dangerous…It won’t work…you’re not ready.” These experts could be your kids telling you you’re too old to learn to ski, it could be a friend who cautions you against running for the school board, it could be your mentor telling you you’re not ready to apply for the promotion you want. It’s anyone who says, “You’re going too far…I don’t think you should go any further.” The danger is letting their fears become your fears, relying on their judgment instead of developing your own.
I've found this is especially true for pilots and people who want to learn to fly - there are many non-pilots out there who think we're crazy, who see only the danger and none of the joy. They exaggerate the risks and don't have a clue about the incredible wonder of flying in a small aircraft.
In my case, my experts WERE being a little over-protective. I continued on the flight - and never felt in danger. It was a real breakthrough for me. Flying over unfamiliar farmland and small stretches of forest. Feeling my sweet bird as she handled the slight gusts without much difficulty. The exaltation of touching down at a new airport. When I landed and taxied to a tie down spot, I felt that for the first time I actually had earned the title Pilot-In-Command.