Friday, August 04, 2006

Lions and Tigers and Bears

Learning to fly is a difficult process. Teaching someone to fly is difficult, too. Having been through the former and being currently engaged in the latter, I'm still not sure which is more challenging or rewarding. One thing is for sure, each journey is fraught with difficulties. If you need any evidence, check out Aviatrix Logbook for some poignant, real life stories about the hard times a person can face while trying to earn a flight instructor's certificate.

As a college student, I got into classical studies and one of my favorite subjects was mythology. In particular, I became fascinated by the writings of the late Joseph Campbell. His Hero With a Thousand Faces is a must read for anyone embarking on a quest because it provides a road map of sorts. No one can provide an exact road map for every single person's life, but Campbell provides insights into the symbolic challenges we all face. Yes, that's right - we're all heros, of one sort or another.

One distinction I need to make is that I'm using the term myth to refer to a story with universal, symbolic elements. This is not to be confused with the popular (and incorrect) use of myth as a label for a story that isn't true. A myth, while not factually true, contains symbols and metaphors meant to illuminate our daily existence.

The hero's journey begins with the call. You're going about your life, everything seems boringly normal, and then you are suddenly transported to somewhere strange and foreign. The Call is an element common to virtually all popular myths from a variety of cultures, regardless of when or where the story was created. In the stories, the hero is usually magically transported to a foreign place or their life is changed is some dramatic and fundamental way. But this is just symbolic of how each of our lives can be changed by a simple, everyday event when it is seen with fresh eyes. Call it epiphany if you like, but your life changes from that point forward. For some of us, our lives change when we take our first flight in a light aircraft. If we hear the call and respond, we embark on the journey of becoming a pilot.

In addition to the archetypal hero, there is also the opposite - the anti-hero. A person becomes an anti-hero by hearing the call and choosing, for whatever reason, to actually ignore it. This is a fundamentally bad thing to do and in the mythical stories, ultimately leads to the anti-hero's dismal and depressing life. The anti-hero still provides a useful function by providing a negative example to others.

For those who heed the call, the challenges begin almost immediately. Read The Odyssey and you'll see all manner of road blocks - monsters, siren songs, storms - all manner of hardships that the hero must face. Interestingly, the hero is provided with tools or assistance from a mentor. The mentor is not always benevolent and, in fact, may seem menacing and cruel. By using the tools and the assistance provided by magical forces, the hero can prevail if they remain true to their calling. The monster could be that chief instructor who no one liked. The siren song could be the steady job with the good income that is so boring that it sucks the life out of you. The storms, being lost at sea? Well, here are some examples.

I had a flight instructor candidate last autumn who was good to go until the aircraft he was planning to use for his check ride went down for maintenance and stayed down through the beginning of the new year. It may sound hard to believe, but we couldn't locate an airworthy Cessna 172RG within a 50 nautical mile radius. So what did this gentleman do? He waited, studied, visualized, and read some more - in short, he patiently focused on everything he could do to keep from rotting on the vine. When the time came and the aircraft finally became available, we did a few flights and then he passed his check ride with flying colors.

Almost immediately after earning my flight instructor certificate, I injured my back had to undergo surgery. After the surgery, I was unable to sit (the very thing that flight instructors need to do a lot of) for more than a few minutes at a time. This went on for 4 months and I was, needless to say, demoralized and depressed. So I focused on physical therapy and methodically, step by step, getting stronger. After 6 months, I could teach one lesson per day, followed by laying on an ice pack for several hours. After a year, I was teaching two or three lessons per day. To this day I'm grateful to the neurosurgeon who operated on my back.

So when you can't schedule an aircraft for training, or your instructor just took a real flying job, or you haven't seen VFR conditions for 3 weeks, or the cost of 100 low lead is over $5 a gallon, just remember that the path you are traveling has been trod before. Maybe not the exact path you are on, but one very much like yours. And take heart that your journey is not in vain.


Ron said...

Well said. We all encounter setbacks in this crazy industry. It's how you deal with them that seperates the men from the boys, so to speak.

Most of my students encounter frustrations at one point or another in their training. I've narrowed it down to the fact that most people have either the time OR the money to fly, but rarely do people have both resources in spades.

When I did my flight training, I was fortunate enough to have both. I flew 4 or 5 times a week without a second thought. It was "the call" as you put it. But I never realized what a luxury having the time and money available was until I saw so many people -- highly successful ones -- who just couldn't get the time to make decent progress.

But in a strange way, that's what makes flying so satisfying: it's challenging. If it was easy, everyone would do it and it wouldn't be nearly as special.

Prof. ATP said...

Your writing is always so cogent; I am jealous.

My "call" came last Fall. I lost my medical due to heart problems, for the second time. The first time required bypass surgery, and I did not feel that I could fly until the FAA's 6 months had passed. This time required only a stent, and I was back to running within a week. But not to flying (I had been flying a King Air under part 135).

The "call" led me to finish training for a commercial glider certificate, which added amazing depth to my understanding of flight. I bypassed the obstacle of the medical requirement.

I have only flown twice since getting my medical back: once with my daughter (instructing kept me current), and today in a glider. I am off to Flight Safety next week, then back on the schedule. We are short of pilots, so I will be too busy flying charters to do any recreational flying. Of course charter flights are fun, too, and many present their own set of obstacles to avoid.

I will be interested to see how my exposure to the raw basics of glider flight will change my other flying.