With the recent loss of two new Boeing 737 Max aircraft, the loss of one of my instructors in an airplane he flew for years, and the recent destruction of the Spirit of San Diego, an airplane I flew around the world in 2015, I’m becoming less comfortable with air travel whether I’m flying the airplane or in the passenger seat.
It’s never easy to accept the loss of life or an aircraft. When I hear about crashes due to an inexperienced pilot or poor aircraft maintenance, as heartbreaking as it is, I understand why it likely happened, but all the incidents I mentioned above involved very experienced pilots flying well-maintained aircraft.
So, how then, do we regain our confidence in the air given this rash of aviation incidents? Or do we? I’m not sure this is a situation where we can reason our way back to a point of comfort. So then, perhaps we explore it in an entirely different way.
Perhaps it’s time to deal with the bigger issue of our mortality and accept some of the risk that life involves. What if we were to examine our mission in the world and then assess what level of risk we are willing to accept to achieve our dreams and goals? Most pilots, including myself, really don’t like to talk about mortality and the risk of flying; even the thought of it makes us feel uneasy, which is all the more reason to open the conversation and talk about this reality directly here and now. None of us is guaranteed how long we have on the planet. There is so much out of our control, and few of us are sure of how much the role of fate plays in our lives.
As I consider my upcoming pole-to-pole circumnavigation and reflect on my first circumnavigation when I flew around the world, taking off and landing in 26 countries in a single-engine airplane, quite honestly I think about my potential mortality quite a bit. Looking out into the total darkness of the Pacific Ocean late at night with thousands of miles of water around me was a constant reminder that I was taking a calculated risk. If that wasn’t enough, I was very much aware of a father and son who attempted an equatorial circumnavigation in a single-engine airplane in similar circumstances a year before me and didn’t make it.
I want to share some of the things that gave me peace of mind and kept me safe on my journey as I experienced six inflight emergencies that made me, at times, doubt my decisions, my abilities as a pilot, and my trust in myself to recover.
Prior to the trip, I had a few signs that I struggled to interpret. Each could have been viewed as a “bad” omen by some. I resisted the urge to see them as bad or good and felt instead the universe was tipping me off that I still had some work to do.
One of these signs was at the exact moment that I decided to do my first circumnavigation. I turned on the TV and the movie Cast Away with Tom Hanks was playing. If you are not familiar with the story line, after an airplane he was in crashed, he was stranded on an island in the Pacific, talking to a volleyball he names Wilson, and eating lots of coconuts. After watching the film and tossing and turning all night, I decided I needed to get serious about my survival skills. I took classes, assembled a rock-solid survival bag, visualized and practiced getting out of my airplane long before it would submerge, which I had heard would take about a minute, and even less time if the airplane was on fire. Echoing in the background more often than I care to acknowledge were the words my father shared with me frequently before my departure, “You are just going to get yourself killed,” which I learned to meet with a Zen attitude by focusing on positive thoughts and actions that would keep me relaxed and help me respond with greater ease and grace.
Next, I decided to go a little deeper and explore my beliefs about my soul and multiple lives. I read many books on the subject and spoke to thought leaders and experts in the field. Out of all this research, I came to believe my soul was eternal, that I would actually live hundreds maybe thousands of lives, and it didn’t matter if this one was long or short because there would be another life coming along a short time later (cosmic time) so no reason to lose sleep over it. In fact, I’d probably come back a better pilot, (possibly more humble?) with a much cooler airplane. Keeping a sense of humor while being serious about my safety helped keep me grounded too. It was also about this time I was watching Star Trek and heard the young Spock talking about the old Spock when he said, “Fear is irrational when you have lived as many lives as him.” Bones then chimes in and says, “Fear is what keeps us alive!” If you’re a Star Trek fan like I am, you know Spock was a Vulcan, which made him logical and unable to lie, except in that one episode. Knowing Spock was a movie character, I felt only slightly better, but life and death and reincarnation were starting to make sense to me and I was still excited about doing the trip.
Another significant moment is when I recalled some words that I heard a graduate level spiritual psychology classmate once say, “If it’s not worth dying for then why even do it?” In other words, what’s the risk/reward ratio? During my flight around the world with hundreds of thousands of people pulling for me, I felt that what I was doing was very important. People were telling me they were inspired by the trip, that they were overcoming their personal challenges and that it was important for the world to see someone going after their impossibly big dreams. In the process my aircraft, Spirit of San Diego, became a vehicle for my global message of oneness and brought considerable positive attention to general aviation. The journey allowed me to fulfill my lifelong dream of using aviation to teach us about life. It was also a way for me to share the concepts I had learned in my spiritual psychology studies to help others manifest the resources of time and money to pursue their dreams like I was able to do.
Another perspective to consider: Have you heard people say that everything happens for a reason in your life? Maybe you have experienced this yourself? A series of events happens for no apparent reason and then you come to realize those events needed to happen first so that something else could manifest. Or perhaps you needed to learn something to understand the importance of some future event. It’s quite possible the path you are on that doesn’t always make sense will ultimately help you fulfill your noble purpose in life and benefit millions in some way. I’ve learned that judging the importance of an event in the moment is only part of the story, so why put yourself through the stress?
No one has been given any guarantees about their time on the planet. Life is a temporary visit to the earth school for each of us. Reminding ourselves of this point helps us to value each moment that we are living and allows us to celebrate life. Perhaps if we focus more on living in the moment and not in the past or future we could appreciate the value of the time we are experiencing now and accept the things that we have little control over that will happen regardless of what we do. Surrendering to what is in front of us is sometimes our only option and perhaps, for those of you who believe there is more to the life you are living, the greatest demonstration of our faith and the reason we get back in an airplane and choose to fly through life with the greatest of ease.