How to Be a Pilot. Not

The sailplane was wonderfully quiet, with just some wind noise as we sliced through the air, soaring high above Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

The instructor told me how to steer and then the controls–a joystick between my knees and two pedals to move the rudder–were mine.

At first, I enjoyed the view and the feeling of being suspended far above the ground on the plane’s wings, without an engine to intrude. Soon, though, I realized that I didn’t feel like I was going anywhere, and there was no sensation of speed. If I were actually trying to travel, the flight would be rather boring.

Then the instructor, asking me to look down, had me try to locate the airfield. I looked and looked, but I had no idea where it was. From our altitude, the world appeared so completely different and the landmarks unrecognizable. I couldn’t have been more lost.

Perhaps the instructor felt I was less than impressed with the flight, because then he suggested we try a “wing-over.” This is a maneuver where the plane dives to gain airspeed, then the pilot turns up sharply and banks the plane so that it topples sideways as if balancing on one wingtip. Wanting to make the most of my gift glider ride, I agreed. But as he took me through a series of three or four wing-overs, I felt nauseous and thought I was going to pass out. I wanted to get off.

“That’s enough of those,” I said into my headset, struggling to stay oriented and conscious. It was a sad dose of reality for someone who once wanted to be a pilot.

Me in 1978 with my pilot's gear on.

Me in 1978 with my pilot’s gear on.

When I was young and still under the illusion that I could do anything I wanted, I dreamed of flying airplanes. The idea seemed exiting and liberating, and the airplanes themselves were shiny and sleek and powerfully beautiful.

So when I was given the glider flight as a gift a few years ago, I was stoked. This was going to be great, I told myself.

My wife and I drove to the airfield on a clear autumn day. We checked in and showed our gift certificates. After the pre-flight briefing, we were shown the two-seat training glider in which we’d each go up separately, with the instructor.

When it came to be my turn, I was excited as I climbed into the cockpit and put on my headset, letting the tow plane take us aloft. But it became clear to me that day that I don’t have what it takes to be a pilot.

You could say that I didn’t give it a fair try, that I should have put more effort into it if I really wanted to fly. But let’s not confuse interest with aptitude. It was unambiguous that I don’t have an innate ability for flight. To pursue it would be to insist on doing something that I’m not good at. That would make me vulnerable to the Dunning-Kruger effect. I could think I was a great pilot while actually suffering the fate of all incompetent pilots when I eventually crash my plane. An aircraft is not the place to have delusions of competence.

After we landed, I could feel my boyhood dream fading in the harsh light of reality. There’s a reason people don’t have wings. Most of us just aren’t cut out to be anything more than pedestrians.

I like airplanes to this day. I just no longer believe that I should be the one flying them.

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