I attended a Holiday party recently where I met a FORMER pilot. Not really that unusual, but what was unusual was his attitude about flying.
His whole world was aviation. He said he ate, drank, slept and breathed it. His uncle had a Cub on his farm, which he grew up flying in the great state of Montana. He shared with me that he felt instrumental in getting his friends involved in aviation. They all went to college together in the seventies and graduated with degrees in Aviation Science, all with the intent of going on to be airline pilots. He earned his Pilot certificate with the Multi-engine, Instrument, complex, and turbine ratings. After graduation, he and his friends had agreed to enlist in the Navy. They were to report to take the oath in July of 1983 but he didn’t show up. And he never flew again.
This surprised me. He was obviously so very obsessed with aviation and the sky. He talked passionately with me for nearly two hours about the planes he’d flown, where he’d flown and what he still wanted to fly. He loves Cessna. He really wanted to fly the Cessna Sovereign. “It’s the sexiest thing I’ve seen.”
He thought the Rockies in Colorado were “cute,” but the real mountains were in Montana. No better flying. “Soaring above the jagged peaks and riding the bumps in the sky keeps you alive and young,” he practically purred. He literally was aglow with enthusiasm for the sky.
He talked about his friends and how they all continued into the military and eventually gained the coveted airline pilot job. He laughed at how silly they all were to think there was money in aviation. “Just before I enlisted, they changed the rules to extend the term with the option to call me back, for life. I didn’t like that.” I sympathized telling him the Army still “owned” me that way, too.
“I decided to go into Information Networking,” he said as an afterthought and shrugged.
But then I asked the critical question, “Are you still flying?” His reaction was… odd. He flinched. I wasn’t sure if I had stumbled across a taboo subject. He was so excited about aviation, and the way his eyes lit up when he talked about it, I was sure he’d still be flying.
“No. I haven’t flown since I decided not to join the Navy,” and then he was off again almost racing with the words to share stories of flying over the Great Lakes and the Florida Everglades. He was in love with his aviation past. His eyes glazed over. He smiled. For all the frantic energy, he looked relaxed and at peace.
While we talked, his wife would come listen for a time and then wander away. His daughter would come sit with us and look in awe at her father as he shared stories of training and near misses. She’d chime in once in a while about how exciting it sounded to fly, but was careful never to say she wanted to try.
Eventually, our conversation ended as the party progressed to the secret Santa phase & those of us with young children checked in with the hired sitter. I was still confounded by the man I had met. Every time I mentioned flying again, or suggested introducing him to other pilots, he was quick to stomp on my words and run off on a story or complain that the cost was too prohibitive. “I don’t talk with those friends anymore,” he said wistfully.
Unsurprisingly, his thirteen year old daughter sought me out and stayed by my side throughout the rest of the party. She was really interested in learning to fly. “It’s just the most amazing thing my father has ever done. He’s so excited about it, that I want to try it myself.”
I talked with her for quite a while about the Centennial of Women in Aviation event and would she be interested if I could set it up for her. Her eyes lit up and she called her mother over to talk about it. Her mom was very supportive and thought it was a great idea. But then a shadow was cast. They paused and looked across the room. “Your father has to agree.”
It was strange to see the enthusiasm in the daughter’s face flicker between fear, uncertainty, excitement and dread. “Maybe we can work on him.”
Again, baffled, I asked why it would be a problem, but neither would answer. They just shrugged. “I’m still too young, anyway. There’s plenty of time,” the daughter sighed.
Mind-boggling. Here was a man who had gone so very far in his training and clearly still had a strong, vibrant passion for the world of aviation. So much so, that his daughter was eager to try her hand at it. And yet it seemed there was something very powerful that prevented him from even considering the idea of returning to aviation, or having friends in aviation. It was such a strong barrier that the excitement and possibility of his daughter showing an interest in aviation couldn’t break it.
I still don’t know what the barrier was. I can’t imagine a self-imposed barrier that would prevent me from even thinking of letting my daughter try it. I wasn’t even sure if his wife understood the reasons. He was still so involved in following aviation but he seemed to do it alone and only gushed during the rare times he crossed paths with another enthusiast.
As the party began to wind down, I gave my information to his daughter, should she find a way to take wing with her father’s approval. Her mother gave me a strong bear hug and thanked me for giving her husband an ear, promising to find a way to help her daughter take flight. Just before my daughter and I left the party, I found him, cold beer in hand, staring out a window at the crystal clear, night sky. “She is always beautiful,” he sighed. Turning to look at me, he continued. “The sky keeps you alive. I hope you get back to flying soon.”
Slightly uncomfortable and highly confused, I wished the same for him, and he immediately shook his head and again said, “Too expensive.”
Shaking my head, I bid him farewell, and headed home. In the few days since, I have been thinking about the whole exchange with him. His objections were well rehearsed. His passion was not a façade. Something was killing his dream and I wasn’t entirely sure it wasn’t himself standing in his way. I don’t know what could keep someone with that much passion out of the sky and away from aviation. I only hope that he finds a way to come to terms with it so that he can see the fire he lit in his daughter’s heart.
He was an impressive man. I feel as though the world of aviation lost the chance at someone great. I do hope to hear from them again. I’d love to find a way to help break that wall. I don’t know how, but it seems like a wall that shouldn’t be there.