Tagged: pilots

Review of the Hype Surrounding “Top Gun: Maverick“

The hype is real. The hype is palpable. The hype is fantastic.

It’s the kind of hype that inspires. It’s of a sort which begs the question, “Is it possible he actually made the perfect movie?”

I’ll say this: the just released official music video for Lady Gaga’s “Hold My Hand” is the perfect music video for a film soundtrack’s main song.

I’m officially applying for pilot training.


The Right Brothers

“Read it.”

H- slowly read, “United States of America.”

I took back the card and scanned for the line I intended her to read and be impressed by, and then reattempted my quest, this time with my finger as a guide for her eyes.

“Flight Instruction.”

“Flight Instructor, H-. Flight Instructor. I can teach people how to fly.”

She was not impressed.

“Oh, look at this. These are the two guys who invented flight,” I said, showing her the back of the license.

She scanned it, displaying deep resolve to not feed my ego.

“Wait,” she finally said as I took it away. “Let me see it again.”

This time her eyes studied the images.

Her turn to impress, she dispassionately declared, “They look like the Wright brothers.”

Ummmmm, No

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…”

The pilot?



(Lifting up glasses to wipe tears away while slowing calming down)




Ummmm, no.

Pilots More Capable Than Almighty Roughnecks?

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.

Eight Acres


“Okay crew, coming down.”

“Clear down right.”



“Stop left.”

“Stopping left.”

“Stop back.”

“Stopping back.”

“Stop right.”

“Stopping right.”

“Stop ba-ack.”

“Stopping back.”

“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.”

“Ha.  Whatever.”

“I cannot wait to get back to the trailers tonight.”

“Oh yeah?”

“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.”

“Dome Home?”

“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?”

“Sure.  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.

“Tail’s hit.”

“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?”

“Right turn.”

“Clear right.”

“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.


“What happened?!”

“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.”

“Mother fucker.”


“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.”

Grammar at the Edge of the Envelope

“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.

The Secret to Avoiding Danger

To begin, I learned that an email containing my last blog Special Fourth of July Interview with A Mugwump was not sent.  Read it.

For today, read on to reveal the secret.

Censorship is murder.  To be a human, as opposed to all other known life forms, requires an unfettered ability to communicate one’s value (in the form of words, images, or music) to other humans.  And an external restriction of a person’s expression of value is the same as telling them they have no value.  In other words, to censor is a malicious attempt to end the censored’s life.

Defining censorship in this way is meant to cause careful consideration of censorship.  Exploring censorship at its most basic level is the only way to get to the root of the issue, by definition.

The fairly recent article, “The Ed Sullivan Show and the (Censored) Sounds of the Sixties”* is the case study in question.  In it, Ian Inglis discusses the widely popular Ed Sullivan Show and its unique experiences with censorship.  That television show showcased up and coming performers every Sunday night.  Popular wisdom states that if a performer appeared on the show, he/she would achieve great material success.  The article discusses three now well-known performers and their experiences with Ed Sullivan’s censorship.

First, after being selected to appear on the show, Bob Dylan was asked to perform a totally different song than the one he had planned to perform on the show.  Second, the Rolling Stones were asked to change a lyric; they did.  Third, The Doors were asked to change a line from one of their songs.  They paid lip-service to the request, but when live, they did not change it.  Inglis concludes, “Ironically, one consequence of the censorship suffered by all three performers was that their positions were unequivocally enhanced (Inglis 571).”

Inglis rather wordily describes the simple fact that censorship is murder.  Each instance demonstrates this perfectly.  First look at what happened to the Rolling Stones.  Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote the song in question, “Let’s Spend the Night Together.”  Before their performance, an outside entity changed the lyrics.  Logically, though subtlety, this means that while the performers looked similar to the Rolling Stones, they were in fact some other band, some new band.  By allowing their lyrics to be changed, in effect, the Rolling Stones murdered themselves for that night.  Next, take Bob Dylan.  He wouldn’t concede to the censor, so he didn’t perform on the show.  It is now clear that The Ed Sullivan show never wanted Bob Dylan to perform.  They wanted someone who looked, acted, and sounded like Bob Dylan to perform.  When they couldn’t get what they wanted, they murdered him.  Finally, take the Doors.  Long live the Doors.  They played the game, they fooled the “man”, and they played their song, uncensored.  The only performers who remained unscathed, then, were the Doors.

In my own life, an even more appalling proof that censorship is murder took place when I was young.  My mom censored my sister from the New Kids On The Block “Step By Step” album.  To the uninformed, this may not seem like murder.  But those of us who are close to the situation know that the New Kids On The Block died after releasing that album.  The New Kids On The Block never released another original studio album after “Step By Step.”  The five men who made up that group did eventually release more original songs, but under the name NKOTB instead.  How can this be explained except to say that censorship is murder?

The question remaining is why did Ed Sullivan and my mom choose to murder these performers?  To discover the answer, we must turn inward.  Violence is often committed against those who we find threatening.  Murder is the fullest expression of violence and is resorted to when all other attempts fail.  Time and time again we see that if humans feel they are in danger, they remove the danger.  If necessary, they remove the danger through violence.  What danger can possibly exist in the form of words, music, and/or images?  In and of themselves, they are unable to physically harm a person.  Therefore, the danger in question must be regarding the mind.  A short story can help explain the deficiencies in this way of thinking.

Aircraft pilots are people who professionally deal with avoiding death on a daily basis.  To draw the metaphor, we could say they professionally deal with avoiding danger of any sort.  This is very different than most other professions.  But it is common knowledge within the aviation community that at the end of the day a pilot really just wants to have successfully completed the same number of landings as takeoffs.  The point being that a pilot counts success as being alive at the end of each daring flight, not whether or not some particular mission was accomplished.

Pilots avoid danger.  Censors believe they protect people from danger.  It should prove very instructive, then, to learn how pilots avoid danger.  Pilots avoid danger, not by actively avoiding danger.  Over time, the community of pilots discovered that if they attempted to avoid danger, they only compounded the danger already inherent to human flight.  Instead, they fly correctly.  They focus their energy on learning the right way to fly.  Naturally, this matches the safest way, but it is important to note that pilots think in ‘correct vs. incorrect’ not ‘safe vs. dangerous’ terms.

Regarding words/music/images, the same principle should be applied.  Artist’s (people) should not be censored because their art may cause harm.  They should be encouraged to achieve their fullest potential.  Regardless of whether the work is appropriate or inappropriate, it may have value.  The only way to measure the value is to determine its quality.  Ancient wisdom would have us believe that there is a time and place for everything.  Rather than focus on the–as demonstrated by pilots–ineffective idea that danger can be avoided if it is censored, how much better informed could a population be if it only cared about quality?

Returning to the thesis then, we need to remind ourselves that what we’re really discussing is freedom and value.  If Ed Sullivan would have simply acknowledged those three performers had value and the public wanted to see them, not look-a-likes, the results would have been untainted.  As it stands, the saying, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” rues the day.  Would those three performers have had such success if no censorship attempt was made?  Probably.  So the fool, then, is Ed Sullivan.  The fool, then, is the censor.  Humans require the freedom to communicate their value.  Inherent to the act of censorship is the death of this freedom to communicate.  Furthermore, we have seen that censorship does not—cannot—deter any coming danger.

*INGLIS, I. (2006), The Ed Sullivan Show and the (Censored) Sounds of the Sixties. The Journal of Popular Culture, 39: 558–575. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-5931.2006.00279.x

Experience’s Danger

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?

Break the Rule, But Don’t Give Up

“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.

I Need You To Pay Attention

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.