One of the greatest truisms about flying is found in a sign that used to be popular in flight schools. Alongside a funny picture of what looks like an Avro crashed into the top of a tree is the sobering warning: “Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.”
I write this at the beginning of October, for some reason the month in which South Africa seems to have by far the greatest number of flying fatalities. And I write it under the pall of yet another tragic loss: that of Werner Nel, an inspirational pilot who had overcome the handicap of having lost a leg above the knee in 2009 and had, despite this, progressed to becoming an instructor and owning a single seat unlimited aerobatic aircraft, a Zlin 50, in which he died, on just his third flight in it.
Flying is a demanding mistress. It demands commitment, time and money – and yes, even occasionally our lives. But like most things with significant risk, aviation rewards greatly too. Flying is not easy, and flying well takes years of dedicated application. Only now am I beginning to appreciate the skills required to be an airline pilot. It’s a tough career choice, with slim financial rewards while you earn your stripes. I confess that once or twice, when asked by parents whether they should make the huge sacrifices necessary to fund a son’s flying training, I have discouraged them.
But I was wrong. In this issue we have provided a brief but inspirational story of a young man’s passion for flying, which drove him to solo a glider when he was still 15, and who then soloed a powered plane on his 16th birthday.
A recent musing by AOPA writer Dave Hirschman reminded me of something of which we often lose sight. He describes how, when a similar young man passed his initial PPL flight test, someone asked how much it had cost to get a PPL. Hirschman says that the question got him thinking about the not-insignificant amount this family had spent on flying, and whether the risks and the reward was worth it. The answer was a resounding “Yes.”
Hirschman writes, “… having witnessed the transformation that took place in this teenager, from the day he somewhat hesitantly started ground school, to the self-confidence that blossomed at the time of his first solo, to the determination, skill, and know
ledge he demonstrated during his checkride, I’d say this family got the deal of the century.”
Flying may demand all your money – and in those hopefully rare moments of ‘carelessness, incapacity or neglect’, even your life. But not to fly is just to die slowly, without ever having lived.
We only get one life, and it is more important to fill our lives with challenges faced and won, than to eke out lives of quiet earthbound desperation for as long as we can.