Among the things that we get asked on a regular basis, most of the questions are oriented toward how amazing it is to see someone sitting in what looks like a lawn chair with a lawnmower strapped to their back and a parachute above their head. When we come down from the sky, we can be peppered with these questions for hours. Questions like: How high can you fly? Do you need a license? How expensive is it to get started? Eventually the questions will drift towards: Is it dangerous? What happens if [engine dies, wing collapses, lines break]? How do you make sure that you are safe?
Eventually if the discussion continues long enough there is often one question that is less common, and infinitely more difficult to answer. Usually it comes from someone who will also tell you all about their fear of heights, or their fear of falling. They don’t hesitate to tell you that “that’s definitely not for me.” And honestly, anyone who does fly has a healthy respect for anyone who has determined that they are just fine with their feet firmly on the ground. But the question that is hardest for us to properly explain and articulate is the question of: Why?
I’ve been asked this question many times but only recently did I come across someone who answered this question so perfectly that I wanted to share her answer to the world:
I can only imagine for non-flyers, this questioning is even more acute: Why are people risking their lives for a frivolous sport? they ask. After-all, we are not putting our lives on the line to save children, or to defend our country. We aren’t on any obvious do-good mission. But if you are a passionate pilot, you know this is a perspective that only someone who lives on the ground could have. Poet Alehandro Jodorowsky may have sounded a little smug when he said it, but he had a point: “Birds born in a cage think that flying is an illness.”
There are certain poets, pilots and writers who know how to explain flight–who understand risk and the special brand of happiness that comes with being in the air.
“Anything worth doing requires a helmet,” said pilot Stan Koszelak
Richard Bach once said “I’m not happy unless there is a little room between me and the ground. “
“How can you not fly at a time in history when you can fly?” asked journalist William Langewiesche.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry understood flight as an escape from the “tyranny of petty things.”
Geraldine Sloan –one of the first women in the space program– upon getting her first taste of flight immediately recognized the sky as her home and after the flight said she tumbled out of the airplane with stars in her eyes.
There is also is the da Vinci quote we all know well: “For once you have tasted flight, you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.
And then there is Stephan Coonts, who declared flying “the most exciting thing you can do with your pants on.”
My favorite filmmaker Werner Herzog, though not a pilot himself, also understood the obsession. In his movie White Diamond he tells the story of a man obsessed with designing and flying a blimp—ostensibly for the noble task of collect medicinal herbs from the Amazon canopy. But Herzog wasn’t fooled. He saw beyond the altruism and recognized a cause much greater than all other causes: Joy. “Flying is the Great Purpose” he declared in his narration. I was in my first year of flying and I remember how my spine straightened when I heard him say that: The Great Purpose!
But as a pilot you know this to be true: When we are in the air nothing can feel more important or more crucial. It is profound and pointless simultaneously. But, above all, it’s joyful. And in the end as a wise friend of mine recently pointed out “Joy is a purpose unto itself. Maybe the only purpose– along with love.”