"Balancing on the Wing"

Aviators, ghosts, Machines, and the meaning of life.

As a young boy I had my share of model aircraft hanging from my ceiling. My favorite was the red Tri-Fokker of the notorious Red Baron's Flying Circus. I rated each aircraft by the performance that I valued and not by who flew them. The Tri- Fokker was light and maneuverable and an excellent fighting machine with a good power to weight ratio. Plus, there was something more devilish and appealing about having the aircraft of a national adversary as my personal favorite.
My flying hero was, however, WW1's greatest true ace, Billy Bishop. I admired Bishop over Richthofen because Billy was a loner. Billy fought, for the most part, independently and did not need the help or protection of a flying circus to survive. In other words, I equated my life with the lone wolf, the survivor.
I had read and enjoyed the classic aviation books of my youth, such as Winged Warfare, The Red Baron, Fate is the Hunter, Reach for the Sky, God is my Co-Pilot, and Wind, Sand and Stars, but my true inspiration came from animal books. Late on school nights, with a flashlight under my bed sheets so mother would not catch me, I shamefully cried when I read Old Yeller, White Fang, Wild Animals I Have Known, and Yellow Eyes. I fell in love with the romanticism of animal survival. I related to their struggles to live, especially if their struggle pitted them against man and their relentless progress toward "civilization."
Flying has always been a part in my life and in that sense, I took it as the norm. Where I grew up bush flying was a necessity of life and not a life style. In my community if I had not been a pilot I would have been a logger or a truck driver or a heavy duty mechanic, or a hydro-electric operator. But, in the same fatalistic vein, I was born a pilot. I could never have been happy on the ground. As long as man could fly I would fly. There was no other way. My choice was not in becoming a pilot, but in becoming an environmentalist. And my love for the wilderness and wildlife was instilled in me by my early readings, and certainly not by the example of my fellow man.
I was raised in a community where if you saw an animal you shot it. If you could catch all the fish in the lake you would. If it moved shoot it, if it did not move cook it. Animals were for harvesting and if you could not harvest them you harnessed them or just got rid of them. That was their value to our community. Food or work. Nothing more. In fact, I hated the use of the word "humane." It hypocritically meant to act human toward animals. In my view of the world, to be human meant to kill for no reason. And I did not like this one bit.
So for me to pick up and read stories of early flying pioneers or stories of aviation survival, I envision two distinct themes. One, the horrible cavalier and opportunistic attitude of the pioneers toward their environment, and two, the senseless drama of the pilots brought on by their own ignorance and stupidity. I know this sounds harsh, but I've been told, time and time again, that aviation, especially early aviation, was hard. I am just returning, in kind, my belief that some pilots made it harder and crueler than it should have been.
That is why I was reluctant to pick up and read either of these two aviation compilations. I felt that I was going to be betrayed. Romanticized stories about pioneers and adventurers, who plundered and pillaged the land with little appreciation of the documented damage they were doing to the environment, or of the untold damage they were doing to the future of aviation, were to be forgotten not rejoiced.
     What finally induced me to pick up the first book, as I browsed through the bookstore with my birthday gift certificate in hand, was the inclusion of Anton Saint- Exupery as a featured writer in a book picturing a modern era fighter pilot prominent on the front cover. Although I had read all his books many years ago, I was intrigued at the questions begged of why he was included in the collection. First of all, anyone who has any interest in the spiritual aspects of man and nature has read Saint- Exupery. He wrote as a poet first and an aviator second. Flying was his medium, writing was his art, fighting was his bane. How could he be included with the likes of jet-age fighter pilots.
Secondly, who were the others? Of course, I recognized Charles A. Lindbergh and Ernest K. Gann, but many of the other writers escaped me. I needed to know. As I sat on the floor at the Chapters Book store, ( I was too far from the soft sofas near the "How to Train Your Dog" book collection,) I began to read Going Solo by Roald Dahl. Of course, I expected another droll account of someone's first solo in some patched up Tiger Moth, but I was pleasantly surprised. Furthermore I was hooked. How could I have missed this beautifully understated account by such a talented writer? I guess I was not looking. I have been admonished by several pilots since then who were taken aback when they discovered the unaccountable gap in my reading inventory. "I have read Roald Dahl. Have not you?"
Out of shear Canadian nationalistic guilt I also picked up another book of stories that I had known about and had been avoiding for a long time. Flying the Frontiers, is a collection of flying stories, taken down on tape, of early Canadian pioneers who tell it like it was. Although touted to be first-hand accounts, they are really second-hand accounts in that the stories are changed and coloured by the non-technical and non- aviator editor/writer Shirlee Smith Matheson, who is retelling the stories. The tellers are not writers themselves.
WILD BLUE, on the other hand, is mostly an editorial compilation of first-hand accounts by early and modern aviators who wrote about their adventures or misadventures. The collection is rounded out with three aviation related stories written by craftsman of their trade who are non-participants, but who give us an outsiders view. One story, for example, is the bibliographic account of Chuck Yeager's assault on the "sound barrier," by the well known writer Tom Wolfe. The tellers in this book are all excellent writers.
Initially it never occurred to me to view these two books as similar in intent or accomplishments. One, Frontiers, was written about personal achievements and the other, BLUE, about personal development. One appeared mundane and lineal, and the other was spiritual and encompassing. But, after reading the two, and I will quickly add, after enjoying them both, I reassessed my preconceived notions. Both books served their purpose to not only to entertain, but to enlighten the reader.
I came about this conclusion by realizing something I had always known. The acceptance that, after all, my animal survival stories were all written by humane and understanding humans. Not animals. These writers, although romanticizing the ideas of animal consciousness, wrote in a thought provoking manner that raised my own consciousness for the animals and their environment. So too could aviation stories of survival and pioneering help us to understand where we have come from and where we are going. How they survived is not necessarily how we will survive, but let us learn from their lessons and strive forward to forge our own future.
The opening story of WILD BLUE is a perfect example. In Going Solo Roald Dahl quietly understates the significance of his moment in time. The German invasion of Greece is a critical turning point in the war and a period where "so much depends on so few." And it is also his moment to find himself as an individual. The aviation term for "going solo" means to fly by yourself for the first time in the process of learning to fly. Often in choosing a title, the writer, or editor, is pointing out to us the distilled significance of a particular story. In this case we are asked to look for the process that the antagonist is going through in his search for the meaning or significance of life. Dahl discovers that significance in facing the 50 to one odds against his survival.
What he finds as he arrives in Greece for the first time is gentle breezes, milky blue sky, and millions of new flowers blossoming during the warm and pleasant coming of spring. Spring is the time for renewal and hope eternal, but what he sees on the inland horizon is "a range of massive craggy mountains as bare as bones." We find out later that on the other side of that mountain range lies 1000 armed and manned German aircraft advancing on the defending force of 15 Hurricane fighters, of which he was one. The odds of survival were decidedly against him and his squadron.
To make the situation worse, he finds out from his tent-mate, a fellow Hurricane pilot, that matters are "absolutely hopeless," and that he can expect no check-out, no familiarization flight, no training, no help of any kind, before he is sent out into the fray. Airborne he is to be totally alone. Being alone, however, is not to be totally helpless, as he does have "a splendid weapon to fight with." Naturally we assume the splendid weapon is his factory new "Hurricane," and that is partially true, but in any circumstance where man and machine meld the man has to measure up. In Dahl's case we find out, through his ultimate survival, he does measure up as a man in the trial and error of becoming a "splendid weapon" himself.
This first story in WILD BLUE is so much different than the first story in Flying the Frontiers. In the story The Watcher we immediately sense the deliberate exclusion of the story teller from the events that unfold around him. He is merely watching as opposed to participating. Roald Dahl participates in the Battle of Athens and helps to shape the course of the war. Pen Powell, although a commercial pilot and active businessman, sees himself as an observer in the trials of life's many derisions.
Powell did not learn to fly until his 40th birthday. He was a nervous student and was intent on obeying instructions to the point he would have killed himself on the word of his instructor. As a 12,000 hour ATPL IFR rated bush pilot, my experience would have backed me to guess that this student was not going to survive his first 300 hours if he elected to continue flying solo. The fact that Pen Powell continued to fly until the age of 72 meant something. But, what? The fact that a below average pilot with poor judgment and little common sense could survive all those years of flying must mean something significant.
In a way, Powell was blessed with the same kind of dumb luck when he survived his first of many crashes, as did Roald Dahl when he followed and shot down one of six heavily defended Ju 88 German bombers. Dahl's exploits led his fellow Hurricane pilot to exclaim in exasperation, "Never do it again…Never sit on the tail of 6 Ju 88s and expect to get away with it because next time it won't work." Powell and Dahl both survived their first brush with luck, but the circumstances were certainly different.
Powell was the kind of pilot who I railed against earlier. The kind who plundered the environment for his own gain and who used aviation to advance his gains. In my view he had every right to be flying, but no right to be romanticized for his clumsy exploits. He epitomized the kind of man who aided in both ruining the environment and diluting the public confidence in the aviation industry. 
     During the explanation of his first accident, where he crashed a super cub on floats into the trees, he confessed that his flying was "illegal, I guess. I had no charter or anything like that." But, running a illicit fishing and hunting business abated with an illegal flying business was how he paid for his airplane. The end justified the means, except in this case the end should have ended with his first crash.
Although Powell never went on to kill anyone in his accidents, too many of his kind did. Short Tompkins never killed anyone either, but his story Too Much Hurry in Flying the Frontiers is another example of a pilot succumbing to the shackles of desperately trying to maintain a dangerously under financed air service. Tompkins crashed his first Super Cub in the exact same circumstance that Pen Powell crashed his. Stalling while circling low over rough terrain. "I paid a little too much attention to those moose when I was doing my turn on final, and I was quite low. I stalled it, and ran into the bush."
Roald Dohl, on the other hand, was dealing with a larger enterprise over which he had little or no control. He was only doing his part, neither condoning or condemning, to reach a peaceful conclusion to a world war. He was an active participant in a national defense that meant the survival of his and his fellow countryman's freedom. Don't get me wrong, however, as I am not making justifications for war, and neither was Dohl. He was not writing about war. He was writing about the human condition: about finding yourself amid a horrid mass of human conflict. In pointing out the differences between the two stories, I am rather pointing out the difference between romanticizing the act of finding yourself and the act of romanticizing the common thieves of our aviation heritage.
What makes Powell's or Tompkin's stories of woe and plunder even more pathetic, moreover, is Matheson's lack of aviation knowledge. Her editing is limited to attempting to make sense of endless tapes of aviation exploits armed with minimal knowledge of aviation or aviation terminology. Her ignorance makes Powell's poor understanding of aviation theory that much more glaring. At least if she knew the difference between "wing drifts" and wind drift, she could have used her editorial content to show how Powell's own lack of understanding led to many of his accidents. They were not just bad luck or happenstance, they were caused by his own lack of aviation skills.
Powell's brother Gary was not as lucky as Pen. As Matheson admits, "Pilots are not always given the opportunity to evaluate their successes and failures from a comfortable pew." Gary, who ran an outfitting business, "had lots of accidents, but never got hurt." Until the day he crashed and killed himself.
     Matheson writes this little footnote in Powell's story in a passive, non- participatory voice. "On October 5, 1983, Gary Powell lost his life when his Cessna 185 crashed near Dawson Creek, B.C. No one really knows what caused his airplane to go down that day." Oops, I'm sorry, but airplanes don't crash by themselves. Pilots crash them. I'm willing to bet Gary did what he did on many occasions before, and never learned from his mistakes.
     Flying nor crashing is a passive enterprise. Pilots fly (active verb) their planes, and pilots crash (active verb) their planes. The difference between those who do and those who don't are large. I don't agree with Powell in his summary of his brother's death, when he says: "If you're going flying in the mountains it's going to happen." "You've got to have at least one accident to smarten you up. It's ridiculous: if you don't have one you think it never happens. Like mine at Carbon Lake when I had a lousy 500 hours; I realized very quickly that it can happen."
If that was true, then why did he go on to have a second accident and many incidents after his first at 500 hours? Precisely because he did not learn. I am a strong believer that you don't have to learn from your mistakes. Of course do so if you can, but remember that you can do any one thing a million ways wrong and only several ways right. How can you be expect to learn from the million combinations of mistakes that an aviator can make? You can't. You have to learn by the mistakes of others, and you have to survive by learning how to do it right the first time.
     Considering, like the editors of WILD BLUE write, that "the history of manned flight spans just under a century, …it includes some of the most glorious adventures in human experience." I take that to mean, "learn from their mistakes, and, more importantly, learn from their successes." In our time, the information and resources are available for us to learn to program computers, build atomic bombs, or fly airplanes as we see fit. What I am saying is "see fit to learn your craft properly."
     In the story The Sky Beyond from WILD BLUE, Sir Gordon Taylor shows us the difference between his approach to learning and someone like Powell's. The RFC training program for pilots during WW1 was one on the most appalling atrocities inflicted upon early aviators that ever existed. Out of the 11,000 pilots who were killed in WW1, 5000 died in training accidents. With a passive and unthinking attitude toward learning to fly, Gordon Taylor would have become just another statistic. Instead he faced his instructor and actively confronted the consequences of his decision.
     When abandoned after only one hour and thirty minutes of instruction- less circuits where he never did a single take-off or unobstructed landing, and told by his instructor, "You can bloody well go solo now," he refused and stopped the engine.
     "Horror-stricken momentarily by the implication of my decision, I hit back at him. 'I am not going solo.'" His fears of being court-martialed were unfounded, and instead he was given another instructor who started him off "from scratch." He was given proper instruction and went on to learn to fly and ultimately to survive the war.
      Compare this to Pen Powell's determination to crash the plane into an oncoming team of horses, because "You told me to hit him…"
"I didn't think you'd take me seriously!" exclaimed the instructor. Luckily Powell had his instructor on board to pull him out. Gordon Taylor's mate from Australia was not so lucky. His passive yielding to the RFC's improper training led him to accept his fate before he was ready. "Anzac Whiteman was killed; on his first solo he got the nose down and flew into the ground."
This fatalistic lack of thinking can also be seen in the way that these pilots plundered the natural resources of our country. Pen Powell even goes so far as to whine "everyone did it." In other words, everyone shot moose from the air or poached over their limits or out of season. Well, I can tell them that from the time I was old enough to hold a gun, and that was quite young, I knew that we could not keep fishing and hunting with no restrictions and with no regard for the future. I knew that in 1965. Why couldn't they figure it out?

                                                                    Artwork by Larry Nadolsky 
In his story, The Thin Edge of the Wedge, Leo Rutledge blames the use of aircraft for pushing the outfitting and hunting business into an mechanized assembly line for the express purpose of killing." From elk and sheep hunting to poisoning of wolves, aviation was the "thin edge of the wedge" to put undue pressure on the ecosystem. Rutledge says he was pressured as an outfitter to use air support to bolster his ecologically friendly horse-back hunting parties. He was forced to compete with the drive/shoot/kill method of modern outfitters using aircraft, boats, and ATV's.
     Kenvin Van Tighem, a conservation biologist, writing for the April 2000 issue of Outdoor Canada, says: "it's the infernal (internal ?) combustion machine and the get- rich-quick schemes of resource extractors that threaten nature, not human predation." Too many air services and bush pilots of the early days depended on plundering the environment to make their living, and as Canadians today we are paying the price.
What are we as men, however, if we cannot find forgiveness? I forgive the Pen Powell's, and the Short Tompkins' of the aviation world precisely because they shared their mistakes with us. Their courage to bare their inadequacies and insensibilities with the world at large has taught us lessons which we should learn from so as not to have to suffer them ourselves. The title of Pen Powell's story says it all.
The Watcher. "From the cockpit, Powell has carefully watched the rivers, trees, weather, animals-and construction of everything from hydro-electric dams to beaver houses." "Powell has closely observed the North's changing ecology. He has seen increasing numbers of people gain access to remote areas, and commercial enterprises – hunting, fishing, logging, hydro and mining development – take their toll. Although he's been involved in these industries himself, he is concerned about the sheer number of invasions."
"Flying over it, I saw it all."
"It's not going to last…" is his conclusion. And he did nothing to help.
The outfitter/hunter Rutledge, however, wanted to do something about his beliefs. He helped form a coalition that advocated the creation of a new national park in the northern Rockies where no sport hunting or logging or oil exploration can take place. At 84 years old, in 1995 when Flying the Frontiers was written, that was quite a task. I am happy to report that his endeavors were successful in that the park was recently recognized.
Like Kevin Van Tigham writes, the most important aspect of this park was that the hunters and outfitters of the area "also had enough integrity and respect for one another to honour the coalition once the land was safe." (see footnote below) Someone will eventually have to take up where men like Rutledge leaves off. Any takers? Or are we all watchers?
Unfortunately, there will always be the bush pilots who feel the rules of the environment and the regulations of the air do not apply to them. I for one, cannot read their stories without feeling an anger for all the wrongs they have done to our environment and to our bush flying heritage. To be fair, however, most of the stories in Flying the Frontiers are not about the crashers and thieves of aviation. The accounts of G.T. Rowan, Keith Olson, Floyd Glass, and a host of others are about the survivors and winners of the aviation industry. They, perhaps, are the examples we should learn from. Their stories should be told.
Despite my criticism, I thank Shirlee Smith Matheson, with all her glorious lack of aviation knowledge, for bringing all these stories to us. In retrospect, her innocence has helped the tellers to maintain the shape of their stories without the interference of a know-it-all editor. She also presents balance in the choice of stories that allows the reader to see the way it was from many different sides, including a story about an American priest who flew in the Canadian wilderness as a means to bring faith and hope to the indigenes of the north.
My biggest complaint as an editor of an aviation ezine is that with a couple of beers I can get the pilots to talk about their adventures all night, but for love or money I can't get them to write about them. Matheson does both. She gets them to talk, and she writes it down. Bravo. I hope to see more stories coming out of Shirlee's tape recorder to document our bush flying heritage, because believe me I know there are plenty more out there. This time I will not hesitate to buy the next publication.
     In finding a balance we discover the value of either book or, in my case, both books. Flying the Frontiers can be an invaluable guide toward understanding human weaknesses and an entertaining insight to our past mistakes. Moreover, it carries us into the lives of the pilots who treated aviation with respect and got back in return rewarding and accident free careers. Frontiers is a rich source of anecdotes and imagery: the pot-bellied stoves, the horse drawn-cutters, the leg hold traps, the blow-pot engine warmers, and the … of our historical heritage.
      WILD BLUE, on the other hand, is a series of stories where in most cases the antagonists learn from the mistakes inherent in their actions, or just damn well do it right the first time! In the spiritual awareness of Wind, Sand and Stars, and Fate is the Hunter, and West With the Night you relive the classic adventures of the early aviators who find poetry in their flying existence.
      In the modern stories Carrying the Fire, A Lonely Kind of War, and Ironclaw, you can read remembrances steeped in technical awareness and language that binds the profession airman to his fellow aviators. A common language defines an experience unique among participants. Even though these writers are telling stories about experiences we most likely have not shared, like flying in Vietnam, or the Gulf War, or walking in space, we as aviators will share the common threads of language upon which their distinct linguistics and experiences are based on. More importantly, we all have shared, or will share, common spiritual experiences that bind us as a human community. We will understand where they are coming from, and, more importantly, where they are flying to.
It is with the WILD BLUE exert from Spirit of St. Louis, however, that I want to sum up my review. Charles A. Lindberg was a lot more than the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic. He was the sum of not only his experiences, but also of his philosophies. And we can find the fabric of this philosophy in his approach to flying. In contemplating the dangers of his trip across the freezing Atlantic Ocean, he counted all the safety features built into the aircraft he was flying. He balanced the feat against the regular mail run between St. Louis and Chicago on a winter's night, and found the comparison revealing.
"Yes," he concluded, "a winter on the air mail holds fully as much danger as a flight across the ocean."

      "But, I didn't start on this flight to Paris because of its relative safety. I used that argument only to bolster my decision, and to convince people that the hazard wasn't too great. I'm not bound to be in aviation at all. I'm here only because I love the sky and flying more than anything else on earth. Of course there's danger; but a certain amount of danger is essential to the quality of life. I don't believe in taking foolish chances; but nothing can be accomplished without taking any chance at all."

      What all the authors and storytellers have in common is the fact that they define themselves through their flying. In finding a balance between the love of flying and the necessities of life, they are balancing on the wing.
Charles A. Lindberg went on to find another sort of balance in his life, one lesson we could all learn from. He found the balance between his love for flying and personal freedom, and the social obligation to make a living at it. Lindberg went on to make his fortune in aviation without having to sacrifice his freedom to the big airlines or succumb to the shackles of desperately trying to maintain a dangerously under financed air service. He used his experience to become the chief consultant to what would grow to be, in it's time, the largest and safest airline in the world. Pan American Airways. That is another story.

Article and Book Review by John S Goulet

For the best in bush flying stories, read the exert out of Flying the Frontiers, titled The Airman's World is an Unique Place by Keith Olsen.

Note from the Editor. Kevin Van Tighem, the Canadian conservation biologist, has a wonderful quote in the April 2000 issue of Outdoor Canada, that I am going to use but with insertions of our aviation lingo. After reading the featured books, see if it doesn't fit.

"Why does this matter so much to me? There are those of us within the hunting (aviation) community who work to motivate our fellow hunters (pilots) to embrace the great hunter-conservationist (professional-aviator) tradition of Sigurd Olson, Aldo Leopold and Andy Russell (Punch Dickins, Anton Saint-Exupery, Ernest K. Gann, and Charles A. Lindbergh). We fight against the shallow-minded greed, competitiveness and technological excesses that tempt some hunters (pilots cum airline owners). That struggle, however, becomes more difficult every time hunting groups (pilots) find themselves under attack by people who dress up otherwise legitimate philosophical (safety) concerns in environmental (economic) rhetoric."

Kevin has book out called:
Coming West: A Natural History of Home.

The attitude indicator will take you back to Features 2.

Article by John S Goulet

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Last modified on January 06, 2015 .
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