LIGHT YEARS SHORT OF OLD

We’re all suckers for cliches, not even like we have a choice. We hear some new phrase and get how it works the way babies learn syntax, then it infects our own vocabulary before we’ve even thought about it. Third time you hear the same words in a different context, it’s already a cliche. Fourth is when it spills from your lips unbidden. Cliches may not all live forever, but most will outlast any of us.

I avoid them like ants in a campsite, meaning with little success, and when they persist I try to expedite them somehow. Not only in print for stylistic reasons, but more importantly in general speech, and therefore in thought. Carelessness in thought and speech reinforce each other. Still, however effectively you ‘expedite’, there’ll always be another ant cliche. If they weren’t so small, torturing them might be more fun, but as it is there are better ways to waste my time. Wagged any dogs lately, tail?

Cliches form by verbal accretion because they encapsulate some kind of truth. The ancient bromide about old pilots versus bold ones is… wait for the cliche… a prime example.

Like apparently all kids, I grew up knowing I would never get old, and somehow maintained the self-deception well across one of our vaguest cliches, middle age. How could a simple minded luddite get this far with most of my original equipment still operational? Copious doses of dumb luck is part of the answer, plus some degree of undeserved providence… Wait, you say, there’s a difference? (If there were no difference, silly, they wouldn’t each have their own cliches!) Luck is always dumb, whether it’s the good kind or not, and providence is always predetermined, deserved or otherwise. Sorting that out is like untying a knot, follow one strand first to see where it comes from or risk tightening it before you start.

Anyway… I was coming down from my first flight in something hotter than a 1-26, intoxicated with that godlike feeling, when I woke up on downwind leg screaming across treetops. Yes it was also my first-ever low pass, totally unpremeditated…

Parallel to the runway lay a wide ridge a hundred feet high, that from overhead hardly showed as a hill. Before pulling up I glanced over — and couldn’t even see the airport. Which summoned one of the earliest of a bazillion timely epiphanies in my soaring life. If I misjudged my energy, or pulled up too late, it could be suddenly impossible to reach the runway…

Every moment in flight is subject to prior judgment, and all judgment depends on experience. That day, I had almost none of either. Forty years later I dug out a tattered logbook to find the entry, and it reveals more now than I could imagine at the time:

Greatest flight ever.  Loops, dog fight with hawk, twice below clouds and back up 6000’.  Cloud descents, improvised pattern.

Cloud descents, plural? It was the last flight on that page, and below it my time totaled not quite 157 hours. Bold perhaps, but lightyears short of old.

Uh oh, did I just coin a cliche?

DOG FOOD

Been cooking these weekly stews for several years now, and implausible (or impossibly artless) as some may seem, all are true.  Well truthful, anyway.  Inevitably though, fresh fixin’s have become scarce.  Not much left but distilled morsels, like that overcooked goo at the bottom of a crockpot.  Plenty nutritious if you happen to be starving, but hardly worth space in the fridge.  Dog food.

Exhibit A: 36:00 N / 118:00 W
A hundred miles out, traversing a notorious thin stretch, Pedro unearths our first thermal in what feels like half an hour.  We need this climb, so when the lift improves he tightens his turn to bite in.  It’s exactly the right move, and spontaneously I chirp, “Go Pedro, GO!”

What he hears, of course, is ‘stop circling and go on’.

Once back around to our heading, he squares his shoulders, tilts his head and rolls sharply level.  At first I think he’s only nudging the circle that direction — until he noses over straight away from perhaps our last thermal for another half hour.  My sorry face abaft does no good.

We’ve flown together enough to know each other fairly well, and after one monosyllabic volley each understands the other.  My fault for not communicating clearly.  His mistake was failing to question what he rightly thought a misguided directive.  Like so many sins, easier to commit than to correct.

Suddenly low as our initial climb back home, and with the abandoned thermal receding behind, those querulous angels arise to grapple again in the dust behind my blue-blockers. We really need to keep moving, but ahead lie mountains well above us and no cumulus anywhere. Landout options? Okay for the moment, but getting lower here could push one after another out of reach.  Going back for a thermal seldom works; if it’s already risen away we’ll be lower still and need to retrace ever further toward the nearest lakebed.  All for a groundspeed less than zero.

But the angels deal in realities, not rationalities.  Tiring of the trivial, they curl up together for another nap, leaving just Pedro and me, alone with gravity…

So how do we get out of this jam?  You’ll have to ask him.  The preceding testimony is my entire recollection of that day, swear to Gaia.  All other details have stirred themselves into memory’s broth of uncategorized data, atomized, emulsified, but never lost.  What I wonder is, by whom was this single vignette resected from an otherwise ordinary (memorable) flight, and why?  Maybe the angels know.

Regarding denouement, off-field landings are anything but forgettable, so it’s safe to assume we escape somehow.  Probably involving luck, right?  Use your imagination.

Hey, there’s an idea!  If scraps like this are all that’s left in my cockpit crockpot, maybe YOU should toss in some vittles of your own and heat ‘em up.  Somebody out there ought to have chow more satisfying than these greasy bones.

And if not, why not?  Dogs who eat too well only get fat.

PAR < EXCELLENCE

Say you’re up, soaring locally with no special plan except to have fun and stay safe. Good for you.  Still, even the most casual soaring involves making crucial decisions whether you enjoy that part or not.  Deciding not to decide is… you get it.  One choice that’s always yours to make is, would you rather have a beautiful flight or a mediocre one?  That’s entirely up to you!

For a mediocre flight just stay with what you usually do, maybe bring music or some of your favorite foods.  It’s easy, but less rewarding and less safe than continually, fiercely pursuing excellence.

Why repeat the same old meaningless victories?  Pick some uncertain goal, like soaring to a far edge of the neighborhood and back more quickly — or simply staying up when no one else has the imagination.  Not something easy, something with a fifty-fifty chance.

If success meant avoiding failure, playing checkers with two-year olds would confirm your fancied eminence.  Better to challenge yourself, learn a lot, and find new forms of personal satisfaction.  View every flight as a singular adventure or opus, expressing your unique relation to our limitless sky here and now.  Then weave each little gem into the mosaic that will one day comprise your entire soaring career.  You need not achieve greatness to make it worthwhile, but failure to strive toward excellence will drag your flying down into mediocrity, or worse.

Honor the art by engaging other pilots however you can, and learning their secrets.  It’s treasure for the taking.  Be gracious but not bashful, for after all, the only stupid questions are those you never ask!

Excellence is within your reach any time you care to embrace it, always bestowing greater knowledge, pleasures, and safety to boot.  No one can ask for more.

WHAT MISTAKES?

Math teachers always reminded us, “Be sure to check your work.”  I never thought it necessary but usually obeyed just to say so, and was surprised anew each time by my countless careless oversights.  Rarely did I bother with a second check – that would only expose even more dumbbooboos…  Yes I was not a star in school, but only because I didn’t try.  There were so many other things to think about!

I spent whole weeks of teenage class time contemplating one question that still seems, in any context, more worthy than all others:  ‘What matters most ?’  (You must admit it carries a lot of freight.)  These days, beyond pondering the question, we negotiate it, like traffic.  Like traffic it’s nearly everywhere.  Ultimately of course there’s no unifying answer, but that does nothing to diminish the question’s pervading relevancy.

When time came to settle on a line of work, nothing mattered more to me than showing folks how to float in the sky.  It’s easy and fun, so being lazy as a buzzard I sank right into it.  This is also where I finally learned that sometimes you really do have to try.  Okay that’s fair, some things are worth it.

Knowing far from enough about too much of everything, I cooked ‘What matters most?’ into all the paltry foods I fed my poor dear students through year after year of learning more and more how to soar and teach.  Turns out the answer (r)evolves like all else from one stage to the next.  In soaring as in life, for there is no difference, a big part of the answer at every stage is to never abandon your hallowed status of Pupil.

Now well across a fourth decade of learning to correct, critique, cajole and eventually cheer student pilots toward our shared desire, what matters most seems not so much operations done properly or well – those are mostly prescribed and allow scant uncertainty regarding standards.  What it shakes out to is two kinds of mistakes:  those few we resolve and the unknown legions we don’t.  My own flying and instructing have amounted to hardly more than bundles of mistakes like clumps of prickly sand grass ever woven by time into grounded cables of error.  Unraveling these, like all God’s work, is a truly endless process. That’s much of why soaring compels such deep fascination.  So many ways to do the wrong thing and so few ways not to!

Students signal collaborative success when they correct mistakes on their own before I tire of biting my tongue and plead for relief.  I have only one tongue, you know.

So here’s the point.  Anytime you’re up there, alone or otherwise, imagine every pilot you admire is with you and try to fly so they won’t need to bite their tongues…  After all, if you’d like them to admire you too, that’s part of what matters most.