The Loon is a Harsh Mistress: The Pilot’s Dysfunctional Love Affair

More than anything else, Jonathan Livingston Seagull loved to fly.

—Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Ask a pilot how he started flying and you will hear a love story.*
One just like mine:
From age 5, I dreamed of flying.  Scanned the skies.  Built model airplanes.  Along with my buddy Alan, doodled dogfights during math class.  Thrilled at the occasional trip to the airport and practically peed my pants to actually fly.  To this day, I remember verbatim the conversation I had—at age 8—with the Hughes Airwest pilots in the cockpit of their Boeing 737.
When I was 14, I announced my intent to buy a hang glider.  Dad said, “Son, if you have the money, you can buy a hang glider.”  Little did he know that this flying-obsessed boy had been saving up lawn mowing allowance for the past three years!  I promptly bought a used Rogallo wing for $430.  I diligently took the ground school, aced the tests, and was thoroughly prepared.  Nevertheless, the flight school, perhaps wisely, made me wait another year, till I was 15, to fly.  And, God bless his soul, my father honored his words, crossed his fingers and let this fledgling chick spread his wings.
It changed my life.  The euphoric feeling was a drug that I would pursue for the rest of my life. 

Fly.  Flying.  To Fly.
Me and my First Love, at age 15
My soul is in the sky.
— William Shakespeare, 
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
Shortly thereafter I visited the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, which included a viewing of the classic IMAX film, “To Fly!**  Like few other earthbound media, it captured for me the sheer joy and grandeur and magic that is flying.
To Fly…
Hearing those words still give me goosebumps.
From that moment on, I was determined to fly two types of craft: a bush plane, and a spaceship.

The summer of ’87 saw my first wish fulfilled in Alaska.

Death And Ex’s
A pilot retires.
All at once in love again with this painful
bittersweet lovely thing called flight.
— Richard Bach, “A Gift of Wings”
While an Ex or two may have had her suspicions of a fling with a flight attendant, the true culprit would be my long-term love affair with “Fifi,” my A320.  Today, her graceful looks, sleek, sexy lines and loving, yet quirky and unforgiving personality are my obsession.*** 
Indeed, I believe more airline-related divorces can be traced to this plain plane obsession than sexual flings.  Often, the plain plane-obsessed pilot comes home from his trip, pecks his wife on the cheek, repacks, and is off to the weekend fly-in.  Football widows got nuthin’ on airplane widows.
Cap’n Aux and Fifi.
Accountants, firemen, even physicians can retire and live to a ripe old age.  But, despite the relatively youthful forced-retirement age of 65, the pilot-retiree often augers in within scant months or years.  I am convinced that this is because, inside, he is heartbroken.  He has lost the Love of his Life;  his harsh mistress of 30-some years has traded him in for a newer model.  Oh, he may have dabbled with his own Cessna 182 during his brief twilight years, but it’s like trading the Supermodel for the cleaning lady.  He has lost his purpose, his identity, a large chunk of his core personality.

Love. You can learn all the math in the ‘verse, but you take a boat in the air you don’t love, she’ll shake you off just as sure as the turning of worlds.

Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down, tells you she’s hurting ‘fore she keens. Makes her a home.

 Captain Malcomb Reynolds, “Serenity”

Mal had his Serenity.  Kirk and Picard had their Enterprise.  Adama had his Galactica.  And have my Fifi.
Fifi is my spaceship.  From her glass cockpit at FL390, on a moonless night I can gaze out the window at the lights of Planet Earth as they meld with the Milky Way, and imagine being in command of a starship cruising at Warp Speed.

I savor these fleeting years, when I and my mistress are perfectly content.

MCCOY:  Well, I doubt seriously if there’s any kind of love antidote we can give the Captain for the Enterprise.
SPOCK:  In this particular instance, Doctor, I agree with you.
KIRK:  Mr. Sulu, ahead warp factor two.
—Star Trek, Elaan of Troyius (paraphrased)

Happy Valentine’s Day to you and the Love of your Life.

* While sailors et al have traditionally referred to their vessels as “she,” feel free to substitute a more gender-neutral or politically correct moniker for “pilot” and “plane” than “he” and “she,” respectively =)
**Still shown daily at the Smithsonian Air and Space museum in Washington, DC
    • The first few minutes of To Fly!:
    • Buy the DVD on Amazon, eBay or the like.  Better yet, go see it at the Smitshonian.  Best yet, go take a flying lesson!
***My all-time favorite planes:  Those I’ve flown:  de Havilland Beaver, Twin Otter, Grumman Mallard, Airbus A320.  Those I’ve always wanted to fly:  Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny,” DC-3, Boeing 727, 747, and anything on floats.  My all-time favorite airplane:  P-51D Mustang.
What’s your favorite plane, and have you been lucky enough to fly/ride in one?  And, briefly, what’s your most memorable aviation experience?  Please comment and let us know!