Pilot in Command

I’m going to get this blog rolling again by telling some stories from important flights I’ve had in the last few years. By “important” I just mean the flight taught me something about flying or life in general. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a few of these aerial “ah-ha” moments, especially recently.

This past Thanksgiving we were visiting my wife’s side of the family in the Salt Lake Valley. The weather was pretty good, and I somehow managed to talk them all into thinking it would be fun if I got checked out in an old rental 172 and took everybody for rides. Tuesday I did the rental checkout, and afterwards went for a quick spin with my wife, and then with her parents.

Thursday, in addition to being Turkey Day, was my nephew’s thirteenth birthday. I’d arranged with his parents to take him and my wife’s brother for an airplane ride to celebrate. My plan was to fly from South Valley (U42) to Spanish Fork, on the south side of Provo.

On Wednesday night, as I thought about the flight the next day, a nagging voice came to my mind with startling clarity. “What gives you the right?” it said. “Are you out of your mind, Dave? You’re expecting your sister-in-law to trust you to take her oldest son up in that little deathtrap? You hardly ever fly those things. You don’t know what you’re doing. You could get killed, or worse, get him killed! Then what would you say?”

It didn’t take me long to answer the irrational doubt, but in the process I had to say some things I needed to hear. “Of course we’re not going to get killed,” I said. “I am a professional pilot. I may not get as much experience as I’d like in this particular model of aircraft, but it doesn’t matter. I am a pilot, and the Cessna is a machine. It will do whatever I tell it to do. I have trained myself for this. I am the Pilot in Command.”

I spent a good deal of time that night poring over charts and satellite images, until I was certain I could find my way to the Spanish Fork airport and back without any help. I planned the altitudes at which I would fly to avoid the invisible upside-down wedding cake of controlled airspace surrounding Salt Lake International Airport. I planned the point at which I would call the control tower at the airport in Provo to ask permission to fly through its airspace. I called the Spanish Fork airport to ask if there were any unpublished notices I needed to be aware of. There would be no surprises. Even though I had never flown to the Spanish Fork airport, it would be familiar enough to me when I got there.

The flight went exactly as planned. I knew how the aircraft would perform, and together we flew precisely the route I decided the night before. Had the engine stopped at any point during the flight, we would have been able to land safely because I knew what to do and I was always ready for it.

My passengers’ trust in me was not misplaced. The little airplane did not fly fifty miles to a foreign airport and return safely by chance. I flew it. I ignored the nagging voice of doubt, warning of unknowable danger, because it was wrong. It said, simply, “Stay home. Flying is too dangerous, especially with someone else’s kid on board.” I said again to the doubt, as I clicked off the master switch and listened to the gyros in the instrument panel spinning down, “See? If I had listened to you, I would never have known what it felt like today to glide down a final approach and stroke my wheels like paint brushes on this runway.”

Flying is not nearly so dangerous to the soul as a life of cowardice, wallowing in the security of the familiar ground.

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2 thoughts on “Pilot in Command”

  1. I never doubted you for a moment, Dave–I felt just fine about trusting you with the safety and well-being of my oldest child. (And myself, for that shorter flight!) I’ll fly with you any time!

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