There are certain words we just don’t say at major airports. Words like “bomb,” “hijack,” or “weapon” will quickly get you whisked off to a small room where you’ll face off with folks wearing stern expressions. Even if used in the context of a joke — an obvious joke — you’re still likely to miss your flight, or worse.
Similarly, pilots learn early in their career that we too have certain words we would be wise to avoid. Words like “stress,” “anxiety,” and “depression” will not relieve us of our troubles. Rather, they’re more likely to add to our woes.
In the mental health sense, aviation is stuck in the 1950s. Mum’s the word. If you’ve got troubles, keep ‘em to yourself. Pilots don’t suffer from anguish, over-work, personal tragedy, or financial hardship. At least that’s the general consensus.
All the things that non-pilots struggle with somehow magically skip the pilot community. And we know that’s true because if a pilot should admit weakness in the sense that he or she is having certain difficulties, the industry will generally help resolve that problem by barring said pilot from flying.
There, problem solved.
Recently, I had the pleasure of witnessing a series of powered paraglider students launching from and landing in the grass alongside a little used runway at a non-towered airport. It was a remarkable experience.
Powered paragliders don’t operate under 14 CFR Part 91. Their pilots aren’t constrained by the training requirements of Part 61 or the medical qualifications fleshed out in Part 67. Rather, they operate in the margins, under Part 103, where ultralights reside.
Often, these folks are considered to be the least capable, most reckless of all participants in the aeronautical arts and sciences. Frankly, I’ve heard them referred to with disdain more than once.
The powered paraglider is a funky machine. Pre-launch, pilots stand slumped over, balancing the heft of an engine, propeller, and safety cage on their back. Behind them on the ground lays an envelope that, if managed correctly, will rise off the ground, inflate with air, and with just the slightest forward movement and application of power, lift the pilot into the ether.
Done well, this process unfolds with such grace and style I can easily imagine Fred Astaire at the controls. Done poorly, it’s closer to an old farm truck driving the wrong way across a plowed field at high speed, dismantling itself as it goes.
Unfortunately, none of us were particularly smooth when we first took up this flying thing. A bit of humility goes a long way in those early hours, no matter if you’re flying a helicopter, a fixed wing machine, or a flexible envelope at the end of a multitude of tethers.
As beautiful as the flights were, where this day out really turned a corner for me was at the debriefing. Like so many flight training organizations, Aviator Paramotor in Lake Wales, Florida, gathers its students together in the pilot’s lounge for a debrief after each training session. Nearly a dozen instructors and students filled the room sitting in comfy old chairs and deep, expansive couches.
The students are working hard to acquire a set of skills that is challenging. They speak openly about their particular issues. Jokes fly about. Instructors offer insights that benefit specific students directly, but also shed light on concepts and procedures the whole room benefits from.
Somewhere in the process, the discussion takes a turn. Students start talking about their motivations and the challenges they overcame to get to this room, to this activity. Some are exuberant. They’re struggling, but they’re seeing improvement. They’re satisfied. They’re flying.
Everyone, instructor and student alike, is connecting in a meaningful way. It’s a therapy session disguised as a pilot’s debrief. It’s a support group that meets in a hangar. It’s a way of life that acknowledges the struggles of being human as much as it celebrates the allure of altitude.”
Others speak openly about how flying these simple machines, in a place that’s so supportive, a place where encouragement is frequent and sincere, makes the term “community” begin to have real meaning.
Somebody lost a parent unexpectedly. They’re battling the sense of loss that comes with such a difficult life experience.
Another student lost a child. I don’t think I could even get out of bed if such an event befell me. And maybe he couldn’t for a time either. But he’s here, getting back into his life by throwing himself into something new, something awe-inspiring. Something that’s giving him a renewed sense of hope, of life, of a future without unrelenting grief.
Tears are shed. Real affection and admiration is expressed openly. We sit in a room that’s stereotypically male in every sense. It’s undeniably a man cave. Engines sit in the corner. The not unpleasant scents of fuel and oil waft around us. It’s a setting that calls out for a big screen TV tuned to a sports channel and recliners with built-in beer lockers. Yet the conversation is hushed, the emotions are raw. Honesty is the name of the game here. Share your fear. Accept anxiety as a real human emotion. Shed your burden.
Nobody here is alone. Not here on the couch. Not under the canopy at altitude. Everyone, instructor and student alike, is connecting in a meaningful way. It’s a therapy session disguised as a pilot’s debrief. It’s a support group that meets in a hangar. It’s a way of life that acknowledges the struggles of being human as much as it celebrates the allure of altitude.
There’s something going on here the rest of us would do well to emulate. We are pilots, but we are not supermen or superwomen. We sometimes hurt and need repair without the fear that opening up will ground us or render us unemployed.
These guys are on to something. I sincerely hope their level of professionalism and caring spreads far and wide, for the benefit of us all.