Why We Fly

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A few weeks ago, AVweb asked (as our Question of the Week), 'Why do you Fly?' One reader chose to respond by sending the following extended answer, and we thought it was too good to keep to ourselves.


These words are impromptu "Talking Stick" remarks that just came out during a gathering of family and friends to celebrate the life of Richard Dyken on July 15, 1999. A dedicated sky-diver-driver, he had just lost his life doing what he loved so much. The Talking Stick is a symbolic staff that served Native American group meetings to maintain order, much like "having the floor" during business or political gatherings. It also is believed to convey positive spirit from speaker to speaker as it changes hands, thus aiding each to convey his or her message. Dick's family was a big one, and they often used it at gatherings to help keep order. It came out just as we began speaking in his behalf. I believe it worked. Following is my best shot at putting my extemporaneous remarks in writing after the fact. I was mostly addressing the family who knew how much Dick loved flying -- but didn't all appear to really understand why.

Somebody asked me the other day at the office -- recalling that I knew Dick and was much saddened at the news of his loss -- "Why do you guys like to fly so much?" Although many of you in Dick's family supported his love of the sky, perhaps more than most families, I suspect others of you might ask the same question. Dick had many reasons, I'm sure, and I'll bet some were the same as mine.

Carrying a load of parachute jumpers high up at dusk on a summer evening can sometimes place you between towering clouds, perhaps with a distant thunderstorm to the east with its form illuminated and colored richly by the setting sun. Lightning in the clouds gives a hint of real but distant danger inside which only adds to the beauty. There is no sight like it, and what we see from the ground does not compare.

That is why we fly.

High above a great city on a clear night, a pilot has a front-seat view of a majestic light show that earthbound beings cannot imagine. Up front and in the darkened cockpit, the pilot has a perspective that is inspiring and far broader than the passenger's view through an airliner's tiny side window. Even over the rural countryside the pilot has a view of distant cities and towns, which look like jewels connected by sparkling threads. Then, there is the incomparable night flight at building-top height down the Chicago lakefront. These are visual treats hard to equal -- and few people have access to such sights.

That is why we fly.

Cruising serenely over a solid cloud deck, the aircraft nears its destination. It's time to settle in for close attention to the job at hand. Letting down into the cottony billows, the pilot loses all outside references and transitions to a discipline that comes from long training and experience. Now it is time for serious flying, and she plays the tools of her trade like musical instruments. Working the navigational aids and gently maneuvering on approach, she guides her craft precisely until it breaks out of the low clouds, and there is the runway straight ahead. All she has to do is close the throttle and land. Having mastered the skills and passed the tests to fly on instruments, she gains a satisfaction rarely equaled. It is technology and training; not magic, but relatively few among us can do it. It feels good.

That is why we fly.

Taking a young person for a first airplane ride is unique. The youngster might be afraid at first to even get into the plane, but Mom urges her on. "Go ahead, you'll love it." The young teen clenches her hands and closes her eyes at takeoff. The pilot gently banks the plane and taps his nervous passenger to point out her house below. This distraction breaks into the apprehension, and she ventures a peek -- and another. Soon she is excitedly pointing out school, church and shopping center. Then, the pilot removes his hands from the controls and suggests she try it. "Oh, no, I couldn't do that!" "Sure you can. Look, the plane is flying itself. All you have to do is show it which way to go." Tentative at first, she soon is confidently turning and twisting over the countryside, now not wanting to go back to the airport. But we must. The real reward comes after landing when the youngster slips out of the seat with new-found confidence and sense of adventure, turns and says, "Thanks mister; I don't have to be afraid any more!" (True experience)

That is why we fly.

And finally, I know this is one of the reasons Dick liked to fly. To take someone up for a first parachute jump is to expose him or her to one of the most intense, exciting moments in a lifetime, and it is a real reward to share the thrill and happiness it can bring. Even with the experienced jumpers, I know Dick got great pleasure from helping so many people have a really good time for so long.

That, too, is why we fly.

Somehow, right now, I've got a feeling that he is out there somewhere flying right this moment. Perhaps he is looking down on us here below. And I'll bet he's got a brand new airplane!

That's The Emotional Side of the Story ...

And then there are the practical issues -- everyday reasons why light planes tower over automobiles, trains and airliners in terms of convenience, practicality, cost (well, sometimes), and sheer intensity of experience. They, too, help define why we fly. (I speak from the perspective of one who owns a 150 mph single-engine, four-seat Cessna -- not a Learjet!) For the price of a good sports car -- a magic carpet. (Emotions are allowed here too).

1 . Try driving from Milwaukee to Rhinelander or any northern Wisconsin town for a weekend "up north." Get off work at 5, scramble to get the car loaded, wolf down an evening snack and on the road at 6:30. Battle traffic made up of hordes of like-minded weekenders and get to your destination around 11 p.m. Unpack in the morning, enjoy just over one full day, barely unwinding, and, then comes 2 p.m. on Sunday, and it's time to get ready to reverse the process. Try waiting to leave at 5, and you'll find stop-and-go traffic at several choke points. Half of them sport Illinois license plates. Drive four hours-plus, unpack and get beddy-bye by midnight if you're lucky. Lotsa luck being effective at the Monday morning staff meeting.

1 a. The aviation alternate is to come home from work as usual, have a normal dinner, depart the local airport at 7 and arrive refreshed in summer evening sunlight at 8:15. Then, complete the day by launching on a twilight pontoon boat cruise with family and friends -- enhanced by suitable beverages. Unpack later and you're in bed by 10 or 11. Wake refreshed for a 7:00 a.m. tee-time Saturday. Live it up Saturday night. Enjoy a full day of Sunday fun in the sun. Then, reversing the trip, enjoy a normal Sunday supper (pilot -- skip the adult beverage, of course). Depart the airport just before 8 o'clock, leer gleefully at clots of traffic below, count the deer in the many fields as you cruise, and arrive in 9:00 twilight (June in Wisconsin) -- in time to enjoy a nightcap and wake refreshed and ready for action at work on Monday. (For maximum career benefit, skip the nightcap). Life is good.

2. Say you want to go on a same-day ski trip to Upper Michigan. Get the gear together the night before. Load up for a dawn departure from your Milwaukee-area airport and arrive at Ironwood for a free shuttle to one of three local "mountains" (sorry, this ain't Colorado) in time for the opening ski lift. Ski until the last lift shuts down at 3:30. Back to the airport and home in time for a normal supper -- in the dark of course. It's winter, you know -- sunset at 4:45. Watch the weather. We don't want to fly at night in a snowstorm, of course.

2 a. Try the same trip by car and plan on two days ... three if you don't want to get home after midnight. Well, you can do it same day by leaving at 2 a.m. and pulling back in at 11 p.m. -- no meal, fuel or potty stops. What? Drive straight back -- 7 hours -- after a full skiing day? Crazy! (And, you'll not likely smack a deer at 7,000 feet).

3. For a golf date 200 miles away -- same deal. Early departure gets you there in time for an opening-time tee-off. Leisurely lunch and home in time for a late afternoon with family and dinner out.

4. How about a Canadian fishing trip 100 miles north of the nearest road? This takes planning, but the advantage is huge. So, now it's 3:30 a.m. Saturday at the airport, and your gear is packed in the plane. Launch from Milwaukee area at 3:45, anticipating mild headwinds. Yes, it's dark -- even in June in Wisconsin. Enjoy a spectacular en route sunrise. Refuel in Hibbing, Minn., at 7, and on to Red Lake, Ont., to meet Canada Customs when they open at 9. You called the day before with all the info they need, and now they simply give you a clearance number. "Have a nice stay in Canada." Nobody even comes out to inspect. A quick ride to the seaplane dock to join the others in your party, climb into the biggest, loudest floatplane in the province, and you're in your wilderness camp before noon -- 300 miles north of the U.S. border (700 miles north of home). Compare that with the others in your group. They started driving on Friday morning, slogged endless miles across Wisconsin and backwoods Minnesota and then faced a big delay at the border waiting in a mile-long line of cars in single file. (Car people get more scrutiny than those in planes -- usually). Then it's seven more hours of winding roads to Red Lake. Overnight in a spartan motel. Then, meet the aviator contingent at the dock. Drivers are now 28 hours into the trip -- still not in camp. Flyers started just 7 hours ago. Guess who's a bit envious -- and crabby.

Revel in fabulous fishing, amazing meals, and world-class bugs. Hey, it's wilderness!

Same deal in reverse -- southbound, but getting started can be a bit worse because you're not out of camp (usually) until noon -- maybe later. Another hour-plus in the decibel machine. Then, drivers load their vehicles, and flyers grab a cab to the airport. Everybody heads south, but drivers find a lot of traffic. Flyers find a lot of nothing but smooth air -- and a lucky tailwind. For drivers, the mile-long line at the border is now two miles. U.S. Customs is polite but more demanding than the Canadians. "We don't want bad guys sneaking over, you know." Then, drivers face the all-night drive home, ever alert for all-too-common Saturday-night drunks and deer on the two-lane roads. The lucky ones sleep in the car -- hoping that the driver isn't nodding off too. The next day is toast so far as being functionally alert.

In contrast, the flyers hop into their plane around 2 p.m. and stop an hour-plus-a-bit later at Customs in International Falls. U.S officials are very attentive (no phone clearance in this direction), but in 15 minutes, we're on our way. Three and a half hours later, we unpack the bird and head home, ready to shower, shave and hit the local night spot with the wife who has felt a bit neglected, after all. The round trip difference is 10 hours of flying versus 32 hours of driving -- and a bunch of hassle-avoidance. (Results may vary in case of "interesting" weather).

5. Are you thinking of checking out a vacation cottage in the north woods? OK, drive five hours, spend two hours of looking and talking, and drive five hours home. Or, if you choose the flying way, a leisurely 1-1/2-hour flight, meet the seller, same two hours on business, and home in time for a late lunch. Not so tired either. Hmm, the seller won't pick you up at the airport? No problem. Most airports have a "crew car" that is free for a couple of hours if you buy some fuel for the flight home. No charge for parking or landing at most small airports. Such a deal!

I'm sure there a dozen other reasons we choose to fly, including the infamous $100 hamburger flight just to get in the air for a while. Then there's the ubiquitous fly-in pancake breakfast. Every state has a couple dozen or more. Some airport is holding one somewhere in the state every summer or fall weekend -- often several to choose from. Fun flight, eat cheap, meet people, and look at airplanes. Does it get any better?

We won't go into using private planes on business. Volumes have been written and dozens of Web sites exist to help justify the applications of this tool. It's never cheap, but it saves wear and tear on the body and soul. Time is saved, and the psyche is rejuvenated. Yes, business flyers actually get work done. Rock stars -- no comment.

And then there are the trips which define our Life Experiences. A few years back, I left Wisconsin -- direct to Eagle, Colo. Sightseeing is typical Midwest until I get past Denver. Then it gets really cool! (Yes, I'm mountain-flying qualified). My uncle (an old pilot) and his grandson (a new pilot) joined me. We left the next day, amazed ourselves with the variety of mountain and desert scenery, and ended up in Oakland, Calif. There, we joined several cousins to visit an aunt in failing health. Terrific reunion. Her reaction to seeing all the family was worth the trip by itself. Then, a couple of days later, we cruised aloft up the Pacific coast to view the most spectacular 1000 miles in the continental U.S. Overnight in Coos Bay, Oreg. --and on the next day to Seattle. Three days talking, eating and touring there with my uncle's son and family. Then, cross-country to Jackson Hole, Wyo. -- the most beautiful valley in the Lower 48. Overnight with a friend, a meal on a porch overlooking the Tetons, and back the next day to Eagle. Then, on by myself back home. There was a tailwind, and I had my oxygen system on board. So, off Eagle at 8 a.m., climb to 17,500 feet, throttle way back and ride the tailwind. Just over 7 hours later, old N180FM and I landed at home base -- with 20 gallons of fuel still on board. My California aunt died only months later, so our timing was excellent. I couldn't have taken the whole trip without using the plane. It likely would have taken two weeks and 8,000 miles of driving.

A year later, I flew from Wisconsin to Foley, Ala., (Gulf Coast). There, I met my sister and her husband who would join the odyssey. The next day -- straight to Eagle again, but this time via Gulf Coast and western states. Two fuel stops and we arrived in 90-plus temperatures. A few days there included a surprise 80th birthday party for the same uncle who had joined the last trip. Ten of his nieces and nephews showed up. He had no clue until he came into the party room. Hadn't seen many of us in decades. The reunion was good for the cousins too -- we buried some old hatchets. Later on, back to Alabama (via Houston to visit more family). Then on home. Again, impossible-made-easy for my sister and her husband who couldn't take enough time off to drive. The plane converted the trip from "never happen" to merely challenging. Heavy airplanes in high altitudes in hot weather require experience and caution. We followed the rules, and it looked easy to my passengers. Less than a year later, my favorite uncle was gone ... last of his generation. Again, good timing -- and a family brought together again -- thanks to the magic carpet.

Those are some of the other reasons I fly. Ask me some day about towing gliders aloft with a plane that handles like a Piper Cub on steroids and with an attitude ... Or about taking aerial photos to help pay for the cost of operating a plane ... or volunteering to transport medical patients who can't afford airline fares -- and can't take the rigors of driving ... Or, joining the EAA in their "Young Eagles" program where we introduced over 1 million young people to flying in time for the 100th anniversary of powered flight. This old buzzard has taken 195 Young Eagles aloft as of late summer, '04. It continues because it's the right thing to do. And, it's really fun. Remember the little girl who "doesn't have to be afraid any more?"

So many reasons to fly -- so little time. We never even touched on the fellow who just built a kit-plane, the teacher who spent her pension money restoring Daddy's old classic plane from out in the barn, the WWII vet who volunteers his precious days to help maintain and fly an old warbird ... and so many more.

"Sorry, Dear, no time to do the lawn. Gotta' go to the airport!"

More articles, stories and fiction about the joy of aviation are found in AVweb's Skywritings section..