Why I fly
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By Paul Jansen
From the Left Seat
John Markus Lervik fixed me with a grim look and insisted: “You’ll have to give up flying.”
The young centi-millionaire PhD, whose software start-ups had been snapped up by big boys for more than a billion US dollars, wanted to offer me some advice: He thought that my long-time pre-occupation was too risky for someone thinking about starting a new company.
He was (probably) joking, but I replied: “I will – if you give up skiing!” He burst out laughing: “You win.”
The Norwegian loved skiing, and was really good at it in a country where the average standard would qualify as championship status elsewhere. He had continued to strap on those long sticks and risk life and limb even after breaking several bones.
John’s skiing had crossed the line where a hobby becomes a passion. Where mere enjoyment transmutes into anticipation and excitement. The best athletes live in this world.
And you don’t have to be a world-class sportsman to do so. The entry fee is focus.
Those who get the most out of what they do are the people who put in the most into what they do. Often against the advice of skeptics, well-meaning friends and worried family.
Flying requires focus. The laws of gravity have no court of appeal. And the puffy white tufts that have even engendered the Cloud Appreciation Society hide forces that can suck you in and rip your wings apart. So the good pilots pay attention.
For me, it is this that makes the spaces above the ground such a joy to be in. Gazing out the windshield, I look out for other planes on a possible collision course, but also see white canyons and peaks and soaring eagles. Listening for air traffic control instructions, I hear the silence between the pistons firing in front of me. I sit, yet I swoop over roads and rivers, cities and men. I can sometimes see the sun and the moon in the sky, one hot and haughty, the other faint and shy.
I am asked from time to time why I fly. Like most pilots who fly General Aviation aircraft recreationally, I operate in a small non-air-conditioned cabin with seats that have minimal adjustment and face a complex array of instruments that must be monitored constantly. Hardly anyone’s idea of fun. Yet, the yin-yang cycle between the necessary alertness for survival and the natural appreciation of the ever-changing sky sets my senses up for an acute awareness of life’s ephemera.
The late French flyer Antoine de Saint Exupery noted: “I fly because it releases my mind from the tyranny of petty things.”
It is a line often quoted. The latest to do so is Flight Journal editor-in-chief Budd Davisson in his Grassroots column in the May 2011 issue of Plane & Pilot. Like most of us, Budd finds it difficult to answer the question “Why do you fly?”
But he notes that there is flying and there is flying. The closer-to-the-edge-of-the-envelop kind he does requires even more focus. He says in the column: “If I were given the choice of doing the kind of flying/instructing that I do for another year but then having to hang up my spurs, or flying more normal airplanes in a more normal manner for the rest of my life but never again saddling up my little red airplane, I’d opt for the year without hesitation.”
Without denigrating the professionalism of airline pilots who ferry tens of thousands of people around the world safely daily, I agree with Budd. I believe that when you get into your plane not because it is your duty but because the sky calls you, there is a palpable difference in all but the rarest instances.
Like Budd, I, and a bunch of others, lived the life-on-the-edge for a while during our teens, in the air force. For some of us that life was a short one. They never came back from sorties in our prop and jet trainers. Yet, our fruitless wait at the crew room or runway’s edge for friends who would never touch down again did not reduce our determination to strap in and get airborne. If anything, it only increased our desire. The kind of flying we did then required intense concentration. And in that state we found great joy as we struggled to achieve precision in control, perfection in motion.
The pace was gruelling and I did not make the final cut. Of the eight of us in the final phases of training, three would be dead within months of getting a passing grade. I stored my gloves and took up a pen. For years after, I had a satisfying time as a journalist and editor, founding the www.straitstimes.com and the local search engine rednano.sg, and working with world-class teams, especially in the latter.
Yet each time I passed an airfield or watched a plane streak overhead, I felt a pull upwards. My wife noted this. And at every opportunity, she would encourage me to get airborne again, buying me joyrides in gliders and warbirds as surprise gifts, booking holidays where there were air shows. And then, finally, putting me firmly back into the left seat again by making me take a break from 15 hour days in the editor’s chair and go fly the Quicksilver MX in Thailand. From there, it was a short ride to a Private Pilot’s Licence (Restricted) and then a full PPL.
My weekends are now filled with delightful excursions in the company of pilot friends like Anthony Cheong, Roger Lee, Kevin Muk, Domingo Molina and Lee Chiaw Hwee.
To remove the restraints of club aircraft rental, I finally bought a plane, a Piper Warrior II. The 1989 PA28-161 lets me go when and where I want to. That little yellow and blue bird is a lot like the blank notebooks I loved taking with me as a young cadet reporter. It sits on the tarmac waiting for me to start it up and fill in a new page in my life.
Pilot and author Richard Bach perhaps speaks for many of us. In describing what made his “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” book a best-seller, he said that the ideas behind the words were very simple:
“Find what we most want to do; do it, no matter what; and in the doing be guaranteed a very difficult and a very happy lifetime.”
Copyright: Paul Jansen. All rights reserved.
NEXT: Why flying “sells” – anything from cars to politicians.
Paul Jansen is a media professional with extensive experience in journalism with The Straits Times and Singapore Press Holdings. He is the founding editor of The Straits Times Interactive, now straitstimes.com, conceptualised and led the multiple award-winning search and directory engine Rednano.sg, and played a role in the start-up of the telco M1 and other companies. He has left the editorial and marketing trenches and is currently advising firms on dealing with the press on a daily basis and especially in a crises. He is also co-founder and executive chairman of aSpecial Media Pte Ltd, an award-winning company which specialises in collecting and analysing behavioural data for public and private institutions, policy-makers and marketers. But mostly he flies.