My young passenger and I were six minutes out from Runway 5, headed north toward central Florida’s Green Swamp. The Cessna 152 purred along at 1,200 feet MSL. Moderate headwinds limited our ground speed to only 83 knots, but the air was smooth, the visibility was excellent, and I felt good about this, my second familiarization flight of the day.
Introducing aeronautical hopefuls to their first experience at the controls of an aircraft is one of my favorite activities. My first passenger of the day was unreservedly elated. The nose of the aircraft pitched up often as he clung to the controls, which is fairly normal for new pilot wannabes. I reminded him to relax and reduce the pressure he was exerting on the yoke. Things settled down nicely. The same instruction got most of the roll oscillations out of the way, too. By the time we were headed back to our home field, my first prospective pilot of the day was flying fairly well.
In the hangar, my second passenger and his parent told me about his interest in flying. My teenaged right seater walked out to the airplane with a spring in his step. He climbed in with gusto, buckled up without instruction, put the waiting headset in place correctly, and gave no indication that he was anything but exited to get airborne on a beautiful Saturday morning.
As we came up over Interstate 4, I asked, “How are you feeling? You doing okay?” A question I often ask of my passengers.
His answer, through clenched teeth surprised me. “Butt clenching terror.”
“Seriously,” I asked.
Back to the barn we went. Right then. I tried to keep him talking, but the fear factor was rising fast, limiting his ability to engage any thought other than an overwhelming urge to not throw up. That fixation only makes the situation worse. A condition made no better by the high humidity, a bright sun that was quickly heating up the cockpit, and the first bumps brought on by rising thermals caused by those increased temperatures on roadways and parking lots.
Fortunately, we made it home without either of us spilling any body fluids or completely losing our cool. However, my hope that every rider would go away elevated and emboldened was dashed. There was one who was glad to have merely survived. He secretly viewed this short hop in near perfect flying conditions to be a death-defying flirtation with eternity.
I’m sorry to say, this is not a perspective that is foreign to me. Unwarranted? Absolutely. Rare? Not so much.
Ironically enough I had cheated death myself only two days prior. How? By engaging in the absolutely benign activity of spreading mulch in my yard. The scenario looked like this.
It was early afternoon and I was doing well, making good progress on an overcast day just after yet another tropical storm blew through my neighborhood. I had just dumped my second wheelbarrow full of wood chips into a depression along the north property line, when a sharp pain in my right ankle attracted my attention. I flexed my foot in response, but the pain reoccurred more severely and in a widening area that included my lower calf.
Looking down I was not at all pleased to see I’d stepped directly on the front doorstep of an underground colony of yellow jackets. My lower leg was awash in angry wasps. Reinforcements were arriving in large, belligerent numbers.
As anyone who has had a similar experience can attest, the pain is real and remains a vivid reminder of the experience for a couple days.
No matter what your age or physical condition, you might be surprised to find how fast you can run when confronted with a real need to get the hell out of there. I made it to the house in seconds, swatting wasps from my exposed legs all the way. The process of pulling my shoes off left nearly a dozen dead and dying soldiers on my living room floor. An aggressive handful flew and crawled under the fabric of my shorts, causing my wife to call out with real concern, “What are you doing?” as my clothing fell to the living room floor and I hot footed it to the bathroom to find an antihistamine that I could get into my system as quickly as possible.
Thankfully, I’m not allergic to bee stings. If I was, you would be reading my obituary rather than this hopefully entertaining bit of life experience. Yet, it has not escaped my attention that the simple act of walking across my yard literally put my life in danger.
Unless we wish to live our lives in a plastic bubble, risking nothing, living in fear, we need to keep the hazards of an active life in perspective.
I’ve walked across my yard since that day. I will continue to do so, too. Because I know that experience was an aberration, not the norm. I can compartmentalize the experience from the hundreds of other times I’ve set foot on that same ground and recognize the risk as minimal, even if it does exist on some level.
Fear is an understandable, sometimes perfectly reasonable response to circumstances that very well may be beyond our control. It creeps into our minds when we’re vulnerable, or out of our comfort zone, or being influenced by others who put an overabundance of weight on the inner demons we may suffer from.
Rising above that fear opens up a whole new view of creation for us. A richer, better, more satisfying life that allows us to explore not just the world around us, but ourselves as well. We would do well to push our limitations back, ever widening the spectrum of life we can experience with wonder and joy and dare I say it…confidence.
The gift of flight, the willingness to confront a challenge and overcome it, is far more important than simply achieving the altitude to have a better view. It allows each of us to become a better, more capable, more intrepid individual. The kind of person who can inspire others as we explore our own potential.
I truly hope my young passenger will one day realize he was never actually in danger. His fear was an irrational limiting factor, not a protective device. If he comes back for a return engagement one day, with a more positive outlook, I will be ready to encourage him take the controls again for a shorter, less demanding flight. Because familiarity breeds confidence. And confidence is fear’s greatest antagonist. If we can develop that, a whole new perspective opens us up to a far more rewarding, less intimidating life.