So I was at the gym last night, getting my “swole on,” as they say. I happened to notice some sort of drone racing on ESPN. Apparently there is a Drone Racing League, or DRL. Looks fun.
Then the announcer described the action and said, “Here you can see how the pilot has to…”
(Lifting up glasses to wipe tears away while slowing calming down)
For the pilots. (And Greeny.)
Raccoons might be taking over the world. That is, unless roughnecks hear about the story.
To a roughneck nothing is impossible. So when I heard that the raccoons that Japan imported for fun have multiplied out-of-control and are about to destroy thousand-year old buildings and that there’s nothing that can be done about it, I pictured a roughneck. Clear as day I saw the same face I see on the rig every time I express doubt that something can be done. The face has eyes that are lit with excitement and a mouth whose left-half is pursed together while its right half is barely open in a smirk. And though a still image, I can see that the face is mid-nod and I know that the next words that come out of that face will be a confident, “We’ll get ‘er done.” And they do.
Since day one on the job I have been nothing but amazed at what roughnecks can accomplish. And you know me, I thought I had seen mountains move while serving in the Air Force. So that got me thinking. Who is more capable? Pilots or roughnecks?
It hardly seemed a fair comparison at first, what with pilots winning wars in hours and making ladies swoon by simply getting dressed in the morning and all; but the more I witnessed roughnecks at work, the more I thought back to a lot of pilots I knew that might not make the cut as a roughneck–I know most days I fall short.
Here’s the thing. I love that I get to say that I’ve done both–love it. But there’s something else. The other day I brought the paperback copy of this blog to the rig to prove to the fellas that it existed. Now, these men are not Luddites, so they’d read the posts about them. But one of them, you’ll read about him soon, was very excited to share the stories with a man who didn’t know about the blog. And so this young man started to read aloud in the change house (locker room). I had to hold back tears of joy. The pilots that are reading know why. Most of you know why. And that makes pilots more capable. But hey, even if I’m wrong and roughnecks actually are more capable, I still win. I love that type of competition.
As a pilot, it’s difficult to give a fair review to a book about mankind’s first flying experience. As a friend to Icarus and the Wing Builder’s author, Robert Case, the task reaches impossible heights. Then again, I’m always up for a challenge, so here goes.
Icarus and the Wing Builder is a solid novel that resides in the historical fiction genre. In the prologue, Case mentions that the historical record, if it can be called that, of Icarus and Daedalus (the wing builder) is very lacking. In fact, it seems all we really know is that Daedalus built the wings, and then Icarus used what Charlie Hunnam’s arse-hole character in the film Cold Mountain aptly calls “the confidence of youth” to go and get himself killed. That’s it. (Of course that’s not it. Human flight is something that has always captivated the attention of nearly everyone. To prove this point, during pilot training, our instructors told the story of a few student pilots who crashed and died while having fun in a rental plane over a weekend, and then our instructors provided a home video that some random family took with an air of “look at that plane!” only moments before it slammed into the side of a cliff off camera. The lesson–there are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old and bold pilots. …Re-focusing then…)
Robert has a passion for Greece, a passion for history, and a passion for the plethora of imagery and lessons this unforgettable story has buried within it. As we all know, however, passion isn’t always enough. That’s what sets Case apart. He has already established himself as a credible speaker and storyteller, having been awarded as such by groups who award such things. Icarus and the Wing Builder (which is the first book of a trilogy he is calling The Minoan Trilogy) is the tasty treat created by this combination of passion and skill.
Sure, you could probably go your whole life without reading this book and not be too much the worse for it, but you would be worse. That’s because Case’s book is ultimately about hope. Hope, that pesky concept that just won’t go away no matter how hard we try to blot it out.
Why did Daedalus and Icarus want to fly? Robert would answer that question by asking, “Why did you first want to fly? Because you know you did.” And this fire that is so aptly illustrated by man’s dream to soar through the sky–this hope–needs constant tending.
Getting into specifics now, let’s bring ol’ Mark Twain into the picture. I am a big fan of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, to include the last published prequel The Deerslayer. Mark Twain was not. In fact, Twain wrote a hilarious review of Cooper in which he says Cooper violates eighteen of the “nineteen rules governing literary art in the domain of romantic fiction.”* The first rule Cooper apparently violated, the one that is relevant to my eventual point here, is “that a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.”* Ever since reading this criticism of Cooper I have kept an eye out for tales which neither accomplish anything, nor arrive anywhere. You can imagine as I was editing Icarus and the Wing Builder that I was anxious to discover how Robert’s story measured up. Let me be the first to say that Case’s tale definitely does not break this rule. The book is chocked full of action, and Case never strays too far from the main storyline. The storyline being, of course, Daedalus and Icarus find themselves paired together by a twist of fate and in need of an escape. Along the way they run into several great characters, to include Naucreta, a former courtesan to King Minos. Case uses this book to flex a variety of writing skills. He plays it safe over all, but clearly has a firm grasp on palpable settings and landscapes, authentic dialogues, and likable characters whose trials and tribulations reflect those each of us face to a lesser degree in our own lives.
In the end, Icarus and the Wing Builder is a page-turning account of the events that led up to and surrounded that first flight. It is entertaining, sometimes surprising, and always well-written. Read it. And then join me in waiting for the movie.
*Cooper, James F. The Deerslayer. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2005. Print.
My mother (Djaynn-net) once read somewhere that you can tell within the first minute of a movie whether you’ll like the movie or not. Or maybe she just said that. In any case, thanks to her provocative idea, I am now unable to begin movies or read books without wondering if it will prove true–again. This is relevant because my friend, Robert Case, wrote a book. And I helped him edit it. We’re both very excited about it, and I told him I’d publish a bit of it, as a teaser of sorts, on here. He told me I could pick whatever section I wanted to. I’m going with the first minute of the book. Enjoy! Then click the link I provide below (and here) and buy it. My honest review will be tomorrow’s post.
Oh, and I guess for this to work, you need to have some idea of what you’re getting into to. So, as if a movie teaser, picture these images flash across the screen: a rocky beach landscape that can be nowhere other than Ancient Greece; an unfairly wronged man finding hope in a bird’s effortless flight against a cerulean sky; a young orphan boy answering, “Icarus,” when asked his name; a strong captain sailing a ship that’s carrying an unlikely pair across the Mediterranean; a tribal king leaning back on his over-sized throne with authority after having just pronounced a passionate, yet never uncontrolled, decree; willing courtesans listlessly walking by, hinting at nights filled with passionate love-making; the man concluding a fatherly wisdom spiel with a look which says, “Don’t you know I love you?”; the young man Icarus leaving on a walk-a-bout that he just might not return from; a back-lit image of the man standing on a cliff wearing giant clearly hand-made wings that somehow possess a they-just-might-work quality to them; the man wearing wings falling off a cliff out of sight then rising up as background music enhances his extraordinary success; then the words “Icarus and the Wing Builder” accompanied by a deep percussive sound and an authoritative voice saying, “Read it this weekend on your favorite couch.”
Okay, that should do it–now read!
Long ago, on a verdant island in the middle of an azure sea now called the Mediterranean, a man named Daedalus designed and built wings. Naturally, inevitably, he had to test them.
On that momentous sun-ﬁlled day he stood on a ledge of earth and stone beneath a cloudless sky, long cumbersome wings of his own design draped across his arms, shoulders, and back. The wind was steady and strong and blowing directly into his bearded face. It was a perfect day for ﬂight. But he stood on the ledge of earth for a long while, anxious and uncertain, staring out at the distant gray fusion of water and sky.
The harness and wings carried an unnatural bulk and he constantly shifted his weight to compensate and keep his balance. If he slipped now or was knocked oﬀ his feet, the fall onto the rocks and dirt would likely damage the wings. He had labored too long, journeyed too far for that. So he leaned forward with bent knees, opposing the wind’s power and keeping his weight over his feet.
Far below and before him, as far as he could see, sparkling waves reﬂected the sun’s warmth and light. The majesty of the seascape called out its siren song, clear and serene. High on this remote perch he could not help but feel it. The attraction was irresistible, enticing him into the sky. As he stood on the shared boundary between the sea, sky, and land, it pulled on him as if his ears were at the center of his heart. But once again he was able to shake his head and look away, shifting his weight and keeping kept both feet ﬁrmly on the ground.
How long do I stand here, waiting?
In silence, Daedalus turned his gaze back toward the sea, compelled to feel the power of the sky just one more time; that place where the wind caught under the wings and the uplift began. He rotated his shoulders and held the wings fast. The steady breeze blew across the outstretched wings, its energy ﬂowing through them into the muscles of his shoulders and back. It teased and taunted him, assuring him that now was the best of times–possibly the only time there would ever be–for making this essential leap of faith.
He leaned forward once again and braced against the force, testing the limits of his fragile equilibrium. Once more he opted for the safety of the rocky ledge. But this time, and before he could look back down to the earth beneath his sandaled feet, a burst of windblown sand struck his face and chest. Instantly he closed his eyes and shifted one foot back for balance, squaring his shoulders into the gust, the wings fully extended.
The wind did not relent. It tore across the surface of the wings. Uplift gripped at his shoulders and spine. And now, instead of struggling for balance the wingbuilder pushed hard against the earth, up and away from the rocky ledge. Heart pounding, he dove into the sky. At the apogee of the leap he hung suspended, balanced between time and the jagged rocks of the shoreline below. Gravity, it seemed, had released its hold. Filling his lungs with an intake of breath, he willed his chest forward into an awkward glide, arms and wings outstretched, reaching for the currents of air. Daedalus soared.
The moment was sublime, the splendor of ﬂight on wings of his own design. The sky responded, greeting him with a mighty thermal, lifting him into its invisible spiral and carrying him into the cerulean heights far above the island. Sweat streaking down his face, he banked away like a great soaring bird. It was a dream realized. He felt so alive, his heart singing with joy, so loud and so strong. He never wanted it to end.
Okay, so it was more like three minutes. Sue me. If you like what you read, or you are simply up for something a little off the beaten path, purchase the book from Amazon by clicking here: Icarus and the Wing Builder
“Okay crew, coming down.”
“Clear down right.”
“Come down four, down three, down two, down one.”
“Collective’s full down, cyclic’s neutral. Pilot has controls.”
“Pilot has controls.”
“Pilot has controls.”
Though they joked that at night it was pointless to go through the motions of holding up your hands to prove you’ve transferred the flight controls, the truth was there was always enough light to see the other pilot’s gloved hands being held up as if waiting to catch a ball. Plus, these men knew the score. They were the best at what they did because they executed their job with a studied eloquence. And so when Pete raised his hands to prove he had released control of the aircraft to his pilot, he knew it did not go unnoticed and served the greater purpose.
Two minutes later, never sooner, the aircrew began the post-flight routine of collecting their gear and buttoning up the aircraft. His plastic sleeve pad thing on the seat-belt-like strap never remained in place on the helmet bag. After adjusting it, he realized he’d put his kneeboard in the wrong pocket. Or had he? Dropping the bag to check, he discovered it was in the right pocket after all. Good. Everything was where it should be. Sliding the plastic comfort thing into place once again, he hoisted the bag up. His helmet bag now over his shoulder, he bent down to grab his go bag. Containing enough ammunition to scare away at least the Iraqi wildlife, he also kept some energy bars, and a good first aid kit within the pockets on the bag whose original purpose was to house a water bladder. He always regretted that he didn’t know the contents of that kit better. As he went to sling the bag over his other shoulder, he almost fell over. While he had un-carabineered the go-bag from the helicopter, he hadn’t noticed his M4 was still attached to both his bag and the helo.
“What took so long, man?”
“Oh, nothing. Just saw life through Beetle Bailey’s eyes for a second there.”
“I cannot wait to get back to the trailers tonight.”
“Yeah, I got a package today from the wife. If it’s what I think it is, I’ve got some good reading for the night.”
“What do you think she sent?”
“Well, she told me the other day that some stuff I ordered from this company that sells dome home’s arrived back in the States. She said she knew I was waiting for it, so she packed it up right away and sent it here.”
“I didn’t tell you about it? Are you sure? I feel like I’ve told everyone.”
“Well, I’m pretty sure you haven’t told me.”
“In a nutshell, this guy name Buckminster Fuller invented the geodesic dome. It’s essentially a perfect structure. Much stronger than a box home, it’s cheaper, has more space, and is more efficient.”
“But it’s a dome.”
“Well, where are you going to put this dome?”
“That’s the genius of it. Her dad has eight acres in West Virginia. He’s held on to them all these years, and would basically love to give them to us to use. We’re thinking about taking him up on the offer after I get out of the Air Force. We hope to start a little farm on it. It’s going to be perfect.”
“Oh yeah? Do you know anything about farming?”
“No. But I know how to read. And there are books about it.”
“Ha. Okay man. If you say so.”
Neither man would ever voice such things, but the truth was that they loved their little chats after a mission.
Closing the white Dodge pickup truck’s door had the effect of launching the men into space where they experienced weightlessness for the first time. No more pressure to perform, no more lives at stake, and no more straining to decipher unreadable radio calls. Unlike the helicopter, the truck always started, had good climate control, and there was a cd player. The truck, which was only needed to drive laughably short distances, was only fueled at great intervals at a full service station by a third country national straight from the set of Kevin Costner’s Waterworld. This TCN wore a raincoat with a hand-written “COL” above the right breast pocket and gloves and safety glasses and all. The truck was the envy of many. The truck, like everything in that place, was a symbol. And it symbolized mobility. Who needs to be especially mobile in a combat zone? Important people. Aircrew. It was good to be king.
The life support sergeant was nearly asleep when the crews returned from their missions. The endorphins were contagious as the men returned each piece of their equipment to its proper place. Night vision goggles, already in protective cases, had a place on a padded table. Helmets and helmet bags went into cubbies, along with body armor. Some pilots removed the back plate of armor in favor of lighter travels, but Pete and his aircraft commander simply chose the path of least resistance. Plus, it would just be silly to get hurt in a way that was preventable. Either way, they hoisted the guardian vests into the beat-up plywood cubbies by their elastic shoulder straps turned handles. Next up, the walk to debrief, and hope that the POC crew had done their job correctly and had dinner ready. And some cookies.
Pete stopped off in the social trailer to grab a soda from his personal stash. Sure, the variety of free sodas was enough to please any fan of the beverage, but there was nothing like a Mountain Dew Code Red after a mission. And part of him just enjoyed being able to have something that was his. Something he bought. Something that no one could take without offending the property gods. Given that everything else was communal, he treasured his soda.
“If nobody has anything else to add, debrief complete.”
The first time he saw it, it was leaning against a corner in the basement. The carpet on the stairs leading down to the basement had a plaid pattern. Red with black lines. The kind of pattern that would make a great shirt or wool jacket. What was it doing on the ground? The wall was on the left and wasn’t so much a wall as a bulletin board. It was a mosaic of all sorts of framed pictures. Baseball was the theme, but a few Polish novelties could be found hanging as well. And some scales. Jerry had worked for Toledo Scales after the war.
Jerry lived with his mother still. A five year old doesn’t have any reason to think this odd. Instead, Pete just liked being over there. Jerry would give him pop. And cookies. And if they ever went into the front room, there was always hard candy in a dish. The dish was porcelain. It was a slippery white bird. Slippery, despite being textured with tiny bumps. Being portable, the cookies came from a round tin that Jerry opened by pressing it against his large belly, where he seemed to struggle just for a moment until the lid came free. Jerry loved watching Pete eat cookies. Pete loved eating cookies. But he loved seeing the sword more.
The sheath was brown. It almost looked rusty. There was a ring where a belt or some such thing could be threaded through. The handle was a very hard textured plastic. A real katana would have had a handle that was hand sewn. This clearly mass produced weapon kept up appearances, but also gave off the feel of uncertainty. Jerry had a kind of hesitation every time he brought out the sword. Who was he to deny a child happiness? And yet, Jerry brought the sword back from his time overseas where he had engaged in World War Two. Pete could tell that Jerry was great for other reasons, but for most, it was because of what men like him did during and after the war that put Jerry in the greatest generation.
Jerry would laugh off Pete’s attempts to get him to divulge the sword’s secrets. Had Jerry killed the previous owner? Had Jerry used the sword to kill? For Pete, war and guns and swords and bombs were fascinating. Everyone that was involved with such things seemed to be viewed as special, he might go so far to say they were viewed as other worldly.
“You ready to go back to the trailers, or do you need to use the computers for something?”
“I could go either way. There’s always something to read on the internet, but like I said, I’ve got dome home research to do, too.”
“Oh, right. Dome homes. For your farm.”
“Hey! Don’t laugh. In a few years, I’ll be living the good life. And what’ll you be doing? Probably be out here for the 15th time in as many years, fighting somebody else’s fight. If those are my options, I choose farming.”
“You know that those aren’t your only options, right?”
“So are you going to make me walk, or are we taking the truck back to the trailers?”
“Alright. Alright. We’ll go back now.”
Back at the trailers, the routine continued as normal. Boots were taken off, and flight suits removed in favor of almost comfortable PT gear. Every time their fingers touched their ridiculously poor fitting, lined PT shorts, each man wondered why the Air Force didn’t just contract Nike to develop the uniform.
Then, some went to work out, while others headed to the showers. Pete just wanted to read. And after reading, he wanted to talk. He was so excited about the future. About West Virginia, about farming, but most importantly he was excited for the chance to invite people on to his off-the-beaten-path property, and in to his dome home.
“Alright Tail, give the team the one-minute call.”
He knew those exact same words were said in flight lead’s aircraft. But what flight lead radioed next was not what anyone expected.
“Mongoose 01 flight, abort. Abort, abort, abort.”
“Mongoose 01 flight, go-around, go-around, go-around.”
“Mongoose 02 going around.”
Quickly scanning the ground for enemy combatants, all Pete could think was, “They’d be so small. How am I supposed to see anything from up here?”
“Mongoose 01. Confirm the tail of your aircraft has been hit?”
“Negative. My tail gunner’s been hit. Standby.”
“What the hell is Mongoose 03 doing? It looks like they landed and are unloading their guys!”
“Mongoose 01. Mongoose 02. It looks like 03 missed the go-around call. They’ve landed and are completing the infil.”
“Mongoose 01 copies. BREAK BREAK. Mongoose 03. Mongoose 01. Abort the mission. I repeat. Mission abort. Mongoose 01’s tail’s been hit, Mongoose 01 and 02 are headed to the Baghdad CASH.”
“Mongoose 01. Mongoose 02. If you’re good with it, you keep the lead, and we’ll cover you since you don’t have your tail manned right now. We can make the radio calls if you want.”
“Sounds good. We’re going direct. Try to get us clearance, I’ll listen up, but we’re going direct no matter what.”
“Mongoose 02 copies.”
The before and after black and white photos were stored loose in an old shoe box. Those pictures imprinted themselves on Pete as what should be listed next to the word “war” in the dictionary. Having no standard size or border, each photo was meaningless without its pair. A grey building, against a grey sky, along a grey street could have been anywhere and meant anything. A pile of grey rubble, against a grey sky, along a broken grey street could have been anywhere and meant anything. But when viewed side-by-side, against a backdrop of a shoebox full of photographs balanced on top of a man’s knees while he sat in his mother’s basement, the pictures contained a story. Pete interpreted the story to mean that if you need to win, this is what it takes to win.
“I know. I can’t believe it either.”
A gunner washed the blood out of the back of the helicopter with his water from his camelback as everyone else searched for bullet holes.
“It was friendly fire.”
“Apparently the team’s translator was given a rifle instead of handgun, and a rifle with a round in the chamber no less.”
Uncontrollably turning to see the culprit, Pete saw him. He was bawling. They wanted to hate him, but his genuine remorse couldn’t have insisted itself upon them with greater ferocity.
“That still doesn’t explain why he pulled the trigger.”
“I know. I know! But it sounds like when he stood up at the one-minute out call, he carelessly did.”
“Then what happened. How did you know he was hit?”
“He told us over the intercom. He said, ‘I’m hit. Tail’s hit.’”
“Yeah, no kidding. Luckily we had the Doc on board. It’s a head shot for sure, but it seems to have missed his brain.”
“What’d you get today?”
“A book on gardening.”
“Oh yeah? For the farm? You’re pretty serious about this, then.”
“When am I not serious about something that interests me? Sheesh. Why is it that I always have to be your entertainment? I am planning on buying a dome home. Yes, I will assemble it myself. Yes, I know that sounds bizarre. Yes, I plan on living off the land. Happy?”
“Touchy, touchy. Take it easy man. I’m just giving you shit.”
“Well, sometimes, maybe once, it’d be nice if you just respected that I get to live my life how I want.”
“Of course you do. You know you bring this on yourself, right? If you just talked about what everyone talks about, nobody would bother you. You see that, right?”
“Oh, I see it. I don’t think it makes any sense, but I see it.”
“Can I get you something to drink?”
“I’ll have a ginger ale.”
Jerry had died many years earlier. On this, Pete’s first paid-for-by-the-Air-Force commercial flight he decided to toast Jerry’s memory with a glass of ginger ale just like Jerry used to drink. It was Jerry’s parting gift that afforded Pete the opportunity to pursue his dream of gaining the kind of respect that men like Jerry received.
“For real. What are we doing over here?”
“I don’t know. I kind of like it.”
“Like it? How can you like it? We invaded a foreign country on questionable logic and evidence and we know there is never going to be a clear cut victory, no matter how hard we try. Hell, there’s not even a clear cut enemy.”
“Pete, I get it. Really I do. Don’t you think you might be focused in a bit too tight? A democracy in the Middle East will be a good thing. That’s as zoomed-in as I get. How we do that, if we are able to provide enough temporary stability to actually let the people here accomplish that, those are questions that are above my pay grade—and yours.”
“Yeah, that’s what everyone says. I just refuse to tow that line. I’m responsible for what’s happening here. Even if only on a miniscule level, I’m responsible. What’s worse is the manner in which I became responsible. I volunteered.”
The two men, two warriors, two friends, laid on separate bottom-bunks in silence. The conversation ceased being valuable. Each other’s prolonged silence said as much. Two men to a room, three rooms to a trailer, each trailer housed an entire crew. Besides the metal-framed bunk beds, the rooms were furnished with two tall metal wardrobes most commonly used as partitions to create privacy, and a desk, and a heating/ac unit. The windows were immediately blacked-out with any material that would do the trick, whether cardboard, foil, or fabric.
The Air Force, for all its greatness, severely lacked instruction regarding what to think about war and death. For some reason, it was just assumed that the men knew. The Bushido-type list of warrior attributes that he had packed and hung on the wall next to his bunk spoke volumes. Bushido—the Samurai code. He knew the Samurai were an unmatched group of warrior-poets. Their swords were said to contain their souls. And the swords were unbreakable and could cut through anything. He’d seen the videos.
Jerry’s faux-samurai sword would probably have broken if put to task. Was it even sharp? Did it ever need to be? All these years later the memory of the brown sheathed, brown handled, silver bladed sword loudly resting in the corner began to fade. Yet, in his own way, its memory still provided him with the strength necessary to do his job.
“Courage is living when it’s right to live and dying when it’s right to die,” he recited silently.
No matter what other thoughts filled his head, he knew it was not right to die. And he knew the others he served with agreed.
“So I think I found the one I want. It’s a double-dome.”
“Double-dome, eh? What’s that mean?”
“Well, you know I’ve got that piano, right?”
“The thing is, it is loud. It really should have a place of its own. So they have this home that is essentially two domes connected by a little walkway. Over three thousand square feet in all. The main dome is around two thousand, if you count the second floor, while the smaller dome is about a thousand square feet. It’s be the perfect piano room, library, study, parlor-type thing.”
“Sounds pretty good. Having a separate place to go from the main house would be nice.”
“Nice? It’d be perfect. During fights, everyone could retreat to their separate places until they cool down. I can’t wait to get back and visit the property.”
“So you’ve never seen the eight acres?”
“Nope. But I can just picture it. I know there’s already a house on it now. But it doesn’t have running water or electricity or anything. I’d probably knock it down and go from there. It’s on a bit of a slope, but nothing extreme. There is a huge shade tree, I know that. And the winters are brutal, but there’s nothing I can’t handle. All you have to do is be prepared for it, and you’re good.”
“What about the summers? I imagine they’re not exactly pleasant. What kind of work would you do?”
“The summers? They’re hot and sweaty. But the dome home stays cool. See, the air circulates perfectly because it never runs into a dead end. Its course is just constantly redirected. As far as work, I’ll be fine. Always have been. There’s a small town nearby. I already own most everything I want. And we’ll be farming, so food won’t be a huge expense.”
“If you say so.”
“You know, one thing I can’t picture though, is how to hang things on the walls. Tons of people have dome homes, but I can’t say I’ve seen enough pictures of the interiors to know if people still hang portraits and stuff. I only ask because we have this awesome framed set of Samurai swords. You know, with the three swords. The two pretty big ones, and then the smaller blade they used as a back-up, or when fighting in very close quarters.”
“Pilots are so much better than everyone else,” thought a young boy once. As a grown man, I think we should all agree with the boy. A few years ago, I found a spare moment hidden in Iraq of all places. That moment contained irrefutable proof that pilots are better than everyone else. Pilots are better because they live many lifetimes, while other people only live one lifetime. Confusing? Maybe it’d help if I said that pilots are better because they live many mini-lifetimes. Any better? No? Allow me to explain.
A mini-lifetime is the term I use to capture the three-part event of flight: takeoff, flight, and landing. In order for the definition’s perfection to become perceivable, you must understand that a lifetime has three key parts: birth, life, and death. To critical readers, I confess that there certainly are other professions or human activities that contain just three parts; however, I’m convinced you’ll see there is a special genius in this metaphor’s specific use of pilots.
To begin the comparison, birth and takeoff share a foundational similarity. Both initiate a sequence of events that will only ever come to an end. Next, life and flight are that sequence. They are the continuation of birth and takeoff. Moreover, during life and flight, no matter how a person lives or how a person flies, a tragic end lingers at a moment’s distance. Finally, the death (near death, at least) and landing phases offer a unique ability to look back over the life and flight phases with the express purpose of forming judgments. For pilots, these judgments, of course, are not the end–but the beginning. The end is the application of the lessons learned. Note, that pilots repeat this three-chapter cycle almost daily. And while doing so, they become very proficient at improving their flying skills through the post-landing debriefs. Grounded folk, on the other hand, are not afforded these vantage points. They must make extreme efforts to be still, take inventory, determine lessons learned, and then apply the lessons as they resume living out their lifetime. Consequently, pilots living all these mini-lifetimes–do not discount the very real threat of death this metaphor demands–are in the habit of debriefing their own grounded lives each day, week, month, year, or whatever time period and applying the lessons learned to the next iteration. That is why they are better.
Whew! Glad you’re still with me, as I have great news. That was just the introduction. Let’s not kid ourselves, it was worth it. Next up, the part of the assignment you’ve been waiting for: more meta-for. (Yep, that’s my humor.)
The assignment was to write a(n interesting) paper relating grammar to some other system in life. Naturally, it follows that if my flying-life metaphor is so perfect, grammar being a part of life, then grammar should be able to be explained via flying. As Rafiki tells newly-mature Simba in the Disney classic, The Lion King, “Eet is time.” It is time to push the metaphor further.
Clear as day, the first requirement for grammar is words. Lady Luck, beauty that she is, smiled down on me as it became clear that flying also needs one thing more than anything else: pilots. So words must be pilots. Obviously, humans don’t have physiological wings, so we invented machines that could lift us into the air. Just as all humans are not pilots, all sounds humans emit are not words. Within the sounds that can be classified as words, there are subtle intonations and pauses. When creating written language, earlier man decided these subtle intonations and pauses required special written markings, different from alpha characters. Whatever name initially given, today we call them punctuation. Like a pilot’s aircraft, punctuation is a tool to help words achieve their God-given purpose. A pilot’s purpose is to accomplish a mission and he does so using an aircraft. A written word’s purpose is to accomplish communication and it does so using punctuation.
With words and punctuation under my belt, I pressed onward. What more could I synthesize? I knew that individual words and punctuation didn’t communicate as well as a group of words, a sentence, does. Equivalently, pilots and aircraft don’t accomplish missions in a single action–they need a group of actions. So a sentence, then, is the coordinated cycle of takeoff/flight/landing. Each takeoff is the capital letter and marks the beginning of an independent, complete thought. The flight is that thought. And the landing is the concluding punctuation. (This is pretend world. It’s okay if the punctuation is both the aircraft and the landing…think how a period can be both part of an ellipses and a period at the same time if you need to.)
But wait! Stop here, and consider a new revelation. Consider how an exclamation point has varied tones. I said consider how an exclamation point has varied tones, silly! Then consider how a perfect landing would be a soft, beautiful exclamation point as in, “Man, that landing was as sublime as an outdoor professional hockey game being graced by light falling snow!” While a crash landing would be a hard, abrupt exclamation point found in, “Bam!” At first daunting, the question mark still fits the metaphor. Can you picture a student pilot attempting to land a helicopter? Sometimes the student thinks he has landed just once, when the instructor knows it was at least twice. After all, there is no place to record number-of-times-student-bounced-the-helicopter-before-finally-landing, is there?
Next, while it is possible that a mission can be comprised of just one takeoff/fly/land iteration, most missions include several such iterations. Similarly, it is true that some sentences can be paragraphs themselves. A more elementary view is that sentences need other sentences in order to be a paragraph. A paragraph is usually a more effective method of communication than a sentence or word. This, then, is the same as how missions containing several iterations of takeoff/fly/land are usually more effective missions. Specifically, if a pilot flies to a destination to pick up someone, flies to a second destination to drop them off, and then flies back to the home airfield, that is more effective than just one of those three iterations. One effective mission composed of three total flights.
This metaphor becomes ever easier as we move away from the basics, into the more subjective parts of written language. Lexicon, or an individual’s dictionary, would be the capabilities of a particular pilot, whereas diction would be his or her style. Metadiscourse, or the words and phrases that help the reader understand the writer’s meaning, would be a pilot’s clothing. Is the pilot wearing a uniform, or just dressed in plain clothes? Just as a writer’s intentional metadiscourse helps the reader understand the writer, a pilot’s clothes conveys who the pilot works for, how good he or she is, how experienced he or she is, and what type of missions the pilot accomplishes (passenger transport, combat, reconnaissance, etc.).
In the end, this assignment is over before it begins. That grammar can be synthesized into any system shows that it can be synthesized into every system. That’s because grammar is a system. That’s the point, isn’t it? The real trouble for sticklers of grammar, however, is not that people don’t use the system; it’s that life goes on whether people use or ignore the system. This, just as life goes on whether or not human flight occurs. If there is any overarching lesson this metaphor can teach us, it is that grammar is not a solution to a problem. It is a tool to be used by those who care to use it. Just like flying.
“Chopper down,” the radio sputtered. This was a first. In the worst way. After all, this was supposed to be an ordinary mission. There was no added danger this night. There certainly was no reason to have expected this.
“We have to go get them! I’ll start running the ‘Before Takeoff Checklist,” the flight engineer suggested excitedly. This was difficult to stomach. There are some guys who just want to get into the ‘action’. He was one of those guys. I, on the other hand, was not. I remember my uncle, who was in the Navy, describing how once a helicopter caught fire as it landed on the ship. He recounted how so many guys ran towards the fire. A Sunday stroll was the pace he chose. That always stuck with me.
“Sir, do you want me to let them know the helicopter needs to be destroyed once everyone is clear?” asked the aircraft commander. The unit commander was on board this particular mission. He sometimes sat in the back of the helicopter to make sure he didn’t lose touch with what’s really going on as he only watches the missions on a screen most other days. Again, I was shocked. Wow. This is getting real, really fast.
The flight engineer pushed again for achieving ‘hero status’ in one mission, so finally I addressed him. “Look, we don’t even know what happened. If they were shot down, it probably isn’t the smartest thing to go fly into range of that weapon, is it?”
Confusion like this was relatively rare. But as pilots have a knack for analyzing past mistakes to avoid making them again, we knew what to do. We called it the ‘conservative response rule.’ This was a helpful tool to use in cases of disagreement among the crew. Basically, past aircraft mishaps revealed that when there is disagreement, the more conservative option voiced should be followed until more data can be gathered.
In the above example, one crew-member wanted to fly, the other wanted to wait. The more conservative idea was to wait, therefore we waited. Waited only until more information was available.
That’s the key to this rule. Even the name ‘conservative response rule’, brings to mind always doing the conservative thing, but that’s a severe misunderstanding which can hamstring entire missions. There are times during flights that being aggressive and daring is the right decision. The point of this rule is to make sure everyone is in agreement that selfless bravery is called for. If there is not agreement, stick to the conservative course of action until more information is available.
What’s the practical application to grounded life? Outdoor activities come to mind. How many times have we been with friends and disagreement shows up about what to do next? Say, climbing a mountain as a storm is brewing. Some want to continue, because they say the storm will surely pass. Others suggest turning back. Friendships have been lost over such situations.
As for me, I say stick with the pilots. Turn back or at least wait a while to see how the storm develops. Dead aircrew are longing for you to learn from their mistakes.
Unlike other ‘lessons learned’, this one has a specific audience. Within each of our friend groups, there are those who are natural leaders. If this is you, next time there is disagreement, put this rule to good use. Besides enhancing your status (rightfully so), it just might keep people and relationships intact.
The reason pilots debrief a flight after landing is to see what lessons the experience can offer. The end goal being to use the lessons learned to improve their performance during the next flight. A continual striving, as it were. But, at its core, experience is not an exclusively positive thing. If left unquestioned, it can have negative consequences too. Seasoned pilots know this all too well.
I’m talking about the danger in mistaking the current situation to be the same as a past experience. For pilots, this occurs most when troubleshooting a malfunction. Pilots have a tendency to enjoy being able to say, “Oh, that’s nothing to worry about, I’ve seen it before.” However, choosing a course of quickly reaching a conclusion without proper evaluation of the situation can create larger problems down the road. For pilots in the air, this course, if uninterrupted, leads to death. While grounded people don’t face immediate death for mistaking “this” for “that”, the result is definitely unpleasant.
Who can’t relate to this lesson? I’ve had many, many arguments with loved ones that only after they went to great pains to rephrase and re-rephrase their point did I realize, “Hey, while it seemed like they just wanted to re-hash some past grievance, it actually turns out they aren’t thinking about it at all.” I then experience the wonderful feeling of dumbfounded shame. All the energy I had been putting into the argument up to that point was misguided. Instead of devaluing their position and jumping to the conclusion that this was the “same ol’, same ol'”, I should have given them the benefit of the the doubt and really listened.
Ask yourself, “Have I ever actually been hurt because I gave the benefit of the doubt to the other person until more information could be gathered?” Unlike pilots, who have a strict and short time-table to work with, I have seen no reason to act under the guise that life has a time table. We can take all the time in the world to hear each other out. In fact, that might lead to a longer life in the end anyhow.
I can hear a few of you right now, “But that’s the thing… I really don’t have the time to deal with (Insert your favorite combatant).” Hmm. Sure. Okay. We’ll do it your way then. Instead of being patient and seeking understanding, which has been proven time and again to result in strengthening relationships (regardless the outcome of that particular discussion), let’s rush to a bad decision. Come to think of it, I now see why you want to rush to a bad decision. If I rush to a bad decision, I will then have even more time for even more rushed, bad decisions based on misunderstandings. Just think about how many bad decisions I’ll be able to make in one lifetime if I hurry! Sorry, no. I’ll take my cues from pilots. If their unique and ongoing relationship with death teaches them to gather all the data before making a decision, rather than forcing the current problem to look like a past experience, then I, too, will treat every situation as unique until proven otherwise.
What about you? How will you use this experience?
“We can’t break the rules! They keep us alive!”
(Deep breath.) “Calm down. What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about the MASTER WARNING light we just saw informing us that the tail-rotor gearbox has pieces of metal floating around in the oil. That means the tail-rotor could be coming apart and seize at any moment. We need that tail-rotor! The aircraft manual says we must ‘Land as soon as Possible,’ which means the first available area. We are flying over available areas. We should land!”
(Another deep breath. He’s young, don’t mess up this teachable moment.) “Look, we were just performing some maneuvers which reduced the g-forces on the aircraft. Chances are there were already some ferrous pieces of metal lying on the bottom of the gearbox. When we performed the ‘bunt’ the lowered gravity probably caused those pieces to float up. The magnet grabbed them resulting in the MASTER WARNING light. We are over the beach. I do not believe we need to land on the beach and incur a logistical nightmare to confirm that the gearbox isn’t disintegrating. I am going to fly to the nearest runway and land there.”
(Okay, now’s the time to make it clear the decision has been made.) “No ‘but’. Here’s the thing: If at any point there is even a hint of any sort of problem, we will land at the first available area. That’s the plan you need to hold me to. Anything else, even bad weather, and we’re heading to the ground. Deal?”
“Okay. I can agree to that. Let’s just hurry up and get there.”
Today, I still question if I made the right decision. I know that dying because I didn’t want to inconvenience some tourists and mechanics, let alone embarrass myself, wouldn’t have been smart. Just the same, I did not believe the tail-rotor gearbox actually had a problem. We had all had metal ‘chip detector’ lights illuminate before. There were so many false alarms in fact, that it was difficult to ever believe that there was a problem. Just the same, the book said we should have landed, so we should have landed.
Then again, I am living proof that we didn’t need to land. We weren’t actually in danger. How did I know? Where did I get the confidence from to break the rules? I got it from listening to the old pilots. As you get older as a pilot, you learn that rules will need to be broken. Policies will need to be ignored. There is just no way that policies and rules can be written for every conceivable situation.
The important thing when breaking rules is to set new rules. When breaking rules, don’t go totally freestyle. Just because you need to break a rule, doesn’t mean that you no longer believe in the value of rules. Naturally, pilots developed a five step process to follow when breaking rules.
Step 1. Get Feedback. Maybe someone else has been in a similar situation. Maybe not. The important thing is to ask.
Step 2. Make a decision. In the above scenario, I decided to fly to the closest runway.
Step 3. Plan carefully. While we were discussing the merits of this decision, we were navigating to the nearest runway, coordinating our new flight plan with air traffic control, and ensuring we had enough fuel to execute the plan.
Step 4. Set limits. Breaking rules isn’t what kills pilots. Continuing to break the rules is what kills pilots. Break a rule, but always set a limit to the new rule. If you find yourself bumping up against the new limit, time to really get conservative and land.
Step 5. (Most important) Brief the plan. We don’t live in a void. Other people help keep us accountable. If we don’t tell others what the plan is, no one will be able to help us stick to it. In the above example, I set the new limit very conservatively to show the rest of the crew that while I didn’t believe we were in any danger, I took the situation very seriously. When they heard that one random light bulb burning out, or one reported thunderstorm in the area would convince me to land, they bought into my decision. A great instructor taught me that three little problems, no matter how unrelated, equal one big problem. Big problems should be handled on the ground. Therefore, make the conservative decision and land the aircraft.
As should be expected by now, these five steps transfer perfectly to life as well. Life has no comprehensive rule book. Just the same, there are codes of behavior that should generally be adhered to.
For example, let’s say you’re one of the lucky few to have never had revolving credit card debt. One day life finally happens to you in such a way that you need to leave $100 on your card. What should you do? Only you will know the truth of the situation, but chances are you need to break your rule. So break it. Just don’t forget that there is a force, where it gets it’s strength we’ll never know, which tempts you to give up the good fight. You’ll find yourself needing more and more things you can’t actually afford.
To avoid the credit pitfall, act like a pilot. Ask for feedback, make a decision, plan carefully, set limits, and tell someone the new plan.
Don’t give up on rules, just because you’ve had to break some. I’m counting on your being there for me in the future.
Monochromatic green. That’s the color of Iraq. All the cities we ever flew around appeared as varying shades of green. Despite several flights per week around the country, I can’t even say that I ever actually saw Iraq with my own two eyes. Instead, it seemed like I was in a helicopter watching a movie about flying around Iraq.
Viewed through night vision goggles, all light appears white; to include shooting stars. There we so many shooting stars. Here’s a tip for any aspiring military pilots: When executing combat missions under the cover of darkness, don’t talk about how many shooting stars you see. Other crew members simply won’t appreciate the beauty inherent to these singular events. Apparently, looking in the direction of possible threats has more value.
Why was I noticing shooting stars? Because they’re attention-getting. They are a bright light, the essence of ‘visibility’ itself, streaking across an otherwise dark sky. My crew’s point was well taken though; “Pay attention to what needs attention.”
Outside the cockpit, distractions abound. When flying, when living one of these ‘mini-lifetimes’, it is easy to categorize things as distractions. During a flight the timeline is set; the end is literally hours away. Think about what a distraction even is. Fundamentally it begs for something to be distracted from. There must be a goal, a reason. When flying, the mission, the intent, the goal; all these are clear. Mankind doesn’t take to flight on a whim. Or maybe it is a whim, but even flying for enjoyment is still a goal whose attainment distractions can prevent. Crashing and dying is not enjoyable.
Regular grounded life, on the other hand, does not have a set timeline. The end is nowhere in sight. But, just like flying, life has responsibilities that must receive attention. Does life have events like shooting stars that are distracting? Certainly. Should life’s shooting stars be viewed at the risk of failing to attend to the bigger responsibilities? No. Like I had to learn to stop noticing the seemingly unavoidable shooting star, all of us could stand to stop giving attention to life’s many distractions.
Attention is a function of time. It is a scarce resource. Pilots learn this the hard way. We call it channelized attention. Channelized attention is when we focus too much attention on something insignificant, such as a burnt out light bulb, instead of the significant gauge that tells us we’re descending into terrain. Channelized attention’s effect on grounded people may take longer, but let’s not kid ourselves about its strength.
Each of us must decide how long we will focus on life’s burnt out light bulbs while the aircraft is descending. The difficulty is, unlike large flying organizations which have an overall mission from which they delegate to pilots smaller missions, life does not have a universal mission. Each one of us must decide our purpose. Only you will ever know yours. But you do know. You’ve always known. It’s time then. Pay attention. I can’t afford for you not to.