Pilotage: Happy anniversary

August 1, 2008

Mark R. Twombly is a former editor for AOPA Pilot who now lives and writes from Florida.

The e-mail popped up in my inbox just in time: A new flight schedule, leaving Friday and returning the following Tuesday. Whew, that was close! Now I had a legitimate excuse for not attending the weekend 40-year reunion of New York’s Wellsville High School Class of 1968.

I wanted to go. I really did. I told the reunion organizers that I would be there. But I’ll admit I was having a lot of trouble getting into a swell mood over an event intended to commemorate four decades—two score, a half-century minus 10—since I and my fellow classmates graduated from high school. I kept bumping up against the sobering perception that 40 years sounds like a very long time ago. Why be reminded of it?

Perhaps the reason I was hung up on the reunion is that barely a month prior I observed another 40-year anniversary. On April 17, 1968, one month and six days shy of being able to celebrate over a beer (back then you could do that legally at age 18), I passed my private pilot checkride.

Today, whenever someone younger asks me how long I’ve been flying, I dutifully report the correct information, but I add that I took my checkride a year before I was born. It’s my way of saying that, yes, I know, 40 years is a very long time.

If I wanted to be annoyingly precise, I would say that I have been flying since July 23, 1964. That’s the date of my first logbook entry, an orientation flight with my instructor-father in N5550Z, a Piper Colt, at Dekalb-Peachtree Airport in Atlanta. According to my father’s notation, we spent 45 minutes at “st & level-turns.” Things progressed quickly from there. A week later, on my second lesson, we added stalls, climbs, and descents to the turns, and for my third lesson five days after that I graduated to forced landings. This before I had even attempted a few normal takeoffs and landings. But, I’d rather not be that precise. Forty years sounds like a long time ago, but 44 is even longer.

The anniversary snuck up on me. I hadn’t given it any thought until I had to answer a question on an aviation insurance application that asked when and where I received my private certificate. I pulled out my dog-eared first logbook to check, and there it was: A one-hour, 10-minute flight in N6385W, a Piper Cherokee 140, at Wellsville Municipal (KELZ, although minus the K back then). “Passed Private Pilot Test,” wrote Mote Tarantine, the imposing, gravel-voiced examiner who also was my father’s boss at the time. I was so exhausted from the tension of the experience that Mr. Tarantine (he’s gone now, bless his soul, but I still refer to him as Mister) had to peel my fingers away from the yoke when it was all over.

All of this anniversary stuff has me a little preoccupied with my age, and how it relates to my flying. Will age significantly affect my capacity to handle the physical aspects of flying an airplane? How about the ability to concentrate, to understand and absorb new knowledge? And perhaps most important, what will growing older do to my desire to fly?

We can’t help but be frustrated by our inability to stop the aging clock, no matter how hard we try. The years giveth, physiologically speaking, and then, doggone it, they taketh away. A child’s body grows taller and stronger, more beautiful and physically capable, up to a point. After that, it takes an increasingly larger maintenance commitment to improve strength and flexibility. The improvement period is followed by an attempt to preserve and, finally, a long and inevitably unsuccessful struggle to stop the loss of physical powers.

The physical manifestations of age have little to do with flying an airplane, however. A more subtle, but more frustrating, manifestation of age on my flying is the ability to absorb new knowledge, especially technical knowledge.

Learning comes naturally when you’re young. As you age, it takes real work. I’m glad that I learned to fly when I was young, because I’d find it much more difficult now to devote the time and the brain power to the task. I admire people who learn to fly when they’re older, because I know it’s not easy for them.

But aging isn’t all bad. In fact, there are some marvelous aspects to it. The years bring with them certain advantages and comforts unknown to younger, more impetuous types. So it is in flying. We can’t do much about the effects of the march of time on our physical strength or mental dexterity. We can, however, appreciate what it does for our skills. Chief among them is the byproduct of experience. Call it judgment, perspective, wisdom; whatever, it adds a richness to the skills and knowledge that we acquire and develop as pilots.

In the airplane we constantly make decisions that directly affect the safety of the flight. Can I take off from this short runway at this weight and density altitude? Skill and knowledge determine whether we can or can’t do that. Wisdom enables us to decide whether we should or shouldn’t.

Finally, the years bring with them a deeper appreciation of the privilege of being able to fly. It seems to me that as we grow older, we are driven to seek substance in our lives, to find meaning in the things we do, to make each day count for something. Flying contributes to the substance of my life. And I’m convinced that as the years roll by, it will count for even more.