True story: I’m afraid of heights. But I’ve got a sense of humor about it.
This is probably best illustrated by a visit to the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center I enjoyed a few years ago. The ground floor exhibits really caught my attention. On the second level, I enjoyed the view. By the time I got to the catwalk of the third level, my palms were sweaty and I was feeling a bit of trepidation at being so high above the floor below.
The irony of this is, of course, if I’d been sitting in one of the airplanes hanging from the ceiling, zipping along with my airspeed indicator nudging the yellow arc, I’d be perfectly comfortable. But while standing still on a walkway solidly suspended above a concrete floor, I was nervous.
I’m not alone, of course. Quite a few pilots are affected by the same malady. Heights bother us. Flying does not. Go figure.Human beings have built-in fear triggers that we often overcome by finding the strength to confront those fears head-on.
For many of us that process occurs in childhood, at our father’s knee.
I suppose it’s similar for women who benefit from the help of their mothers. I don’t know. I’m not a woman and so I have no special insight into the mother/daughter relationship. The father/son relationship, on the other hand, I know quite a bit about that.
There is a great deal of variety in those relationships, to be sure. But there is also a great deal of commonality. Ask most men of middle age or better about their relationship with their father and the answer will be a variation on “It’s complicated.”
My father was a pilot. First in the US Air Force, then at an airline called Pan Am. That’s not the same Pan Am you might hear of today. The logo is the same but everything else is different. Pan Am was the biggest, most prestigious airline in the world back when that really meant something.
The Beatles flew Pan Am, as did the likes of Richard Burton and Liz Taylor.
Taking your coach seat in row 27 of a Pan Am 707 gave you just a hint of the glory the jet set luxuriated in up in First Class. Flying was not yet an activity of the common man, woman, or child. It was a different time.
My dad flew that airplane from the front row. When the massive 747 came along he moved to its left seat. He was what Juan Trippe euphemistically referred to as a Sky God, and he conducted himself accordingly.
Like many dads of his day he did his best to shape his young sons into manly, but somewhat shorter versions of himself. This often involved painful lessons. Unintentionally so, I’m sure.
A good example would be throwing the football. That all-American diversion was less of a leisure activity at my house and more of a survival test. At 6 foot 4 inches and better than 200 pounds, he could put some zip on the ball. I, on the other hand, was still shy of 5 feet and had yet to break the 100 pound barrier when I started high school. It was not at all unusual to come away with bruised arms and chest from successful catches, and a bruised butt from the unsuccessful attempts.
His intention was good, even if his execution was imperfect. And let’s face it, not many young dads have a particularly good handle on being caring and supportive early in their dad experience.
Yet, he taught me skills, and he taught me to overcome many of the fears that plague young boys. He pushed us as much as he led us. But we turned out pretty well, my brother and I. So in the long run, I’m going to say he did a good job.
He’s still doing it, too. Even posthumously.
This past weekend I flew home in my dad’s airplane. He spent years building an AirCam with friends Bob Rosenberg and Nick Monsarrat.
Most of his flying career involved four turbine engines, so I don’t think he was ever going to be comfortable in a single-engine aircraft. He built a twin and looked forward to flying it. But he never did. He died before he got the chance.
His finished but squawk-rich dream airplane came to me this past Spring. It finally made it to my home base this past weekend in top shape.
The AirCam is amazing. I’ve been fan since visiting Phil Lockwood to see AirCam Number 1 boxed up for its trip to Africa where National Geographic put it to work doing exactly what the name implied — acting as an aerial camera platform.
I’m afraid of heights. You know that. But I’m comfortable in an airplane. You know that, too.
The AirCam is something else. A full throttle takeoff in my 1940 J-3 Cub might result in a 250 foot per minute climb. A full throttle takeoff in the AirCam happens at roughly the same speed, but results in a climb rate six to eight times more impressive. It’s like an glass paneled express elevator — without the glass.
It’s startling. It’s awe-inspiring. I think it’s my last lesson from my dad, too.
He’ll get me over my fear of heights someday and he’ll do it with the airplane he built, that I fly, and that I cherish as much as he did.
In cruise, it’s a sweetheart. On landing, it’s a dream. But that takeoff. Whew. That’s something else.
But then, so was the old man. Captain Stu did not walk this earth lightly. He didn’t depart without leaving a piece of himself behind, either.
We should all be so lucky as to have a piece of our parents to shepherd us through the dark nights and the high winding trails through the mountains.
I certainly hope you are so blessed when that time comes, as I have been.