Last night I had a dream, the type of dream, perhaps, that only former airplane pilots have. I’ll tell it to you anyway.
I was flying an old Piper Cub when, at the last possible moment, I saw a Cessna 150 approaching too close. In the kind of vivid, slow-motion imagery that only happens in a dream, I saw that the other pilot wasn’t paying attention. He had one of those old-fashioned, clunky video cameras on his shoulder and was peering through the viewfinder, unaware that a midair collision was imminent.
I pushed the stick forward and to the right, diving down and away, but the Cessna’s prop clipped my rudder anyway. In a scene reminiscent of some Red Baron movie I saw years ago, I was still alive and flying, but barely, and my troubles were far from over.
With my rudder in tatters I couldn’t maneuver very well, and when an old Navion approached from my left, I was unable to move away. The pilot of the Navion saw me perfectly, but for some reason didn’t seem to care. The Navion kept edging closer and closer, and eventually our wings touched, which sent my Cub spiraling toward the ground.
In real life I am a pretty darned good pilot — or was until I gave up flying. My instructor once told me I was the best student he’d ever had, and that my handling of difficult crosswind landings was instinctive and natural. I guess that’s why it should come as no surprise that in the perilous skies of my dream, I was able to set my damaged Cub down safely on a dirt road at an abandoned logging camp. The dream ended when I exited the plane and chocked the wheels with two chunks of wood.
Funny thing though is that this post really isn’t about airplanes or piloting skills. It’s a post about hope, and knowing when it’s time to give up.
When my mother lay dying from pancreatic cancer — a certain death warrant if ever there was one — I remember running to fetch a nurse the day before she died. I was sure they’d screwed up, and that the shunt that had been draining fluids from her ravaged body should have been left in place, and if only they’d allowed it to drain, she might yet recover.
Then, a few years later when my father lay dying from esophageal cancer, I didn’t recognize that death was imminent because he didn’t look anywhere near as bad as my mother had looked in her final days. I walked away from Daddy and flew home, confident that I’d see him again in a few months. Beyond all reason, I was stunned when news came that he was dead.
And now, with my country facing a scary and uncertain future, last night’s dream has me thinking, when is it time to have hope, and when is it time to just give up?
My flying instructor was a funny guy. While teaching me how to read aeronautical charts, he pointed to a tall radio antenna that was depicted there and said, “That number there is how far above sea level the tip of the antenna is, and that’s what your altimeter will read when you hit it. But this other number is how tall the antenna really is above ground level, and that’s how far you’ll actually fall to your death.”
While learning to fly at night he told me, “If you lose an engine at night, turn on your landing light, but then, when you get close to the ground, and if you don’t like what you see, turn it off!”
He’d drill a certain mantra into me: “Aviate, navigate and communicate, in that order! Always fly the plane first! Aviate, navigate and communicate!”
It was all sage advice, but his best wisdom came one day while taxiing back to the hangar in a gusty wind. “Keep flying the plane even on the ground,” he said. “Keep flying until the engine is turned off and the wheels are chocked!”
I haven’t flown in years, but I suppose I was still following his advice last night when, despite all odds, I continued to aviate to a miraculous landing on that logging road, then kept flying the plane during rollout until the engine was turned off and the wheels were chocked.
This morning I’m thinking, didn’t I do exactly the same with my parents? Wasn’t I still trying to aviate, navigate and communicate for my mother, and then didn’t I not even recognize imminent death for my father when it was staring me in the face?
Inauguration Day is almost upon us, and the realist in me thinks we’re probably gonna auger in. But the pilot in me says keep trying to aviate, because sometimes — against all odds — it pays off, you stop the spin, you level off at the last possible instant, land, chock the wheels and walk away.
No, this probably ain’t gonna end pretty, but there’s one bit of advice from my flying instructor that I refuse to follow: I will not switch off my landing light, even if I don’t like what I see.
As citizens, we are all pilots of this country, and despite the peril, despite the odds, it is our responsibility to keep looking for a safe spot to put ‘er down with unerring skill.
They say any landing you can walk away from is a good landing. We have to try not to auger in.