on the Wing"
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
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.
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
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"
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"Flying over it, I saw it
"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.
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
Article and Book Review by John S
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:
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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