Community discussion among pilots takes the broad assumption that more flying is better, and predominate reasons pilots do not fly more is a limitation of money or medical conditions. Further, it is passively assumed that the mere act of being in an airplane is sufficient, and that we pretty much all do it for the same reasons.
It then occurred to me that, even though I grew up next to my grandfather’s airstrip and aircraft restoration shop, the standard dynamic was that I nagged him to fly, and he opted not to for sometimes weeks at a time. With an aircraft and runway next door, and from my perspective, the cost of avgas not an issue, the reality was that he wasn’t motivated to exert the effort; it only interested him in limited circumstances. Eventually, he confessed to the syndrome at age 75, when he bought a Bell 47 and earned his helicopter certificate, to cure the fact that fixed wing aviation lacked sufficient intrigue to bother.
It is assumed that we all love the $100 hamburger, and would engage in the practice more if schedules, money, or weather permitted such. Having lived for a period in the vaunted mecca of aviation, Alpine Airpark, there was a predictable phenomenon: new arrivals flew all the time, whereas longer-term owners would fly once or twice a week. The fantasy of daily formation flights among friends happened when it was new and exciting. When it became the new normal, people flew less, save for those who used aviation as a mode of transportation, or had some economic basis for flying.
All of these unspoken realities beckon the question: why do we fly?
I had that question smack me in the face in early December. We received a heavy snowfall in the mountains, with snow levels that came down relatively close to the valley. Of course I went flying, and captured some initial scenery that I intended. As I kept flying, I opted to head over Andorra, out of a sense of obligation with regard to a book project I had in mind. While it was pretty, it wasn’t, in the core sense of the word, something I was all that interested in. As I traversed extremely severe terrain in the Pyrenees, the thought crossed my mind that I wasn’t really enjoying myself. I immediately pushed it out as nonsense, and continued along.
The next flight was a few days later, as I saw some clouds encircling Puigmal, a peak just shy of 10,000 feet on the France-Spain border. As I climbed above the clouds, I was greeted with stunning scenery of snow-covered peaks and sunshine, mystically set against a backdrop of clouds. Air was still, and the experience should have been magical. Instead, I had a profound and visceral realization: “What the hell am I doing up here?”
Puigmal – What the hell am I doing up here?
Consistent with a strange sense of determination that I have, I obtained the photographs I had in mind for that flight and flew back to the airport, knowing that something was different inside. For the next three weeks, I had zero interest in flying, period. There was no desire, and the thought didn’t cross my mind at all. I made some headway after a text conversation with an acquaintance back in Wyoming, who made the comment: “You’re the most intrepid Cub pilot I know.” His observation opened up some very interesting introspection, as I started to make sense out of that profound personal moment circling Puigmal above the clouds.
The tail had begun to wag the dog with the airplane. My personal goals are to explore terrain unknown to me; I photograph as a complementary activity. As my work enters the public sphere among readers, it gets noticed for the happenstance adventuresome elements required to undertake such exploration and photography, and that circled back to create a chase seeking more adventure for the sake of adventure. In a strange recursion cycle, I had the rare chance to be part of the public conversation about myself, and then started thinking I was personally motivated by the very things that others enjoyed about what I was doing.
That leads to the broader question that affects the entire pilot community: how often are we affected by the tail wagging the dog? Public conversation implies a binary and reductionist motivation to flying, and to what extent do we tell ourselves we are motivated by the very things others think applies to all? For that matter, are we doing ourselves a disservice by portraying a fantasy that many have to learn the hard way? For those that came to Alpine, Wyoming as new residents, brimming with joy about finally living the dream, there was someone else putting the property for sale, and still many others where the property sat dormant and remained unused. How many decades did some of these people fantasize about living a life centered around aviation, only to achieve it, become demotivated, and end up giving up on the dream altogether? Wouldn’t it be wiser to sort these issues out in advance, as opposed to making a massive purchase later in life, only to become disillusioned?
When I shared certain realities about my globally nomadic lifestyle with a friend, honestly cautioning him against falling into the same traps that I did, he wrote back and said: “You’re ruining the dream.” At first, I felt kind of bad, as though I was the Grim Reaper, here to tell people that their dreams are nothing but vain fantasies, until I did some deeper analysis of the matter. It is then that I realized that this friend of mine was feeding on the same zeitgeist about the romanticism of travel, that the mere act of doing it implied a deep sense of satisfaction, as others are portrayed as happy for doing so. My warnings to him were to understand his own motivation for wandering and to ignore popular reasoning, as things are not always as they are presented.
It is easier to accept a dream held out to us by others than to build our own, as many times our own is much more complex. Do we all wish to fly for the airlines, live on an airpark, commute to work in an airplane, restore an old airplane, have a personal jet, or the like? There is no straight answer, as aviation is a wide area of interest with almost limitless possibilities, and we participate for our own reasons. Certainly, the worst possible motivator is to decide to like something merely because everyone else thinks that is what the majority wants.
A logical question is what happened after my three week meditative hiatus from aviation. I figured out why I fly: to explore new things. Once that little switched turned on upstairs, I hopped in the plane and finally conquered Montserrat, the volcanoes of Olot, and a list of some other things. The reality is that, since that moment, I am flying more on average than before, and I distinctly enjoy the freedom I have chosen to give myself. As for the question I left at the end of my last blog post: I have not flown to another airport yet, though I am sure the time is coming soon.