Wednesday, November 4, 2009

High Stakes, High Standards

I’ve always had high standards for other people.

It all started as a young girl, trying to get a ride in a particular airplane with a particular pilot. It may have looked like I was a typical “ramp rat” at the fly-ins and airshows, flying with anyone who would take me. But each pilot/plane combination was the result of careful observation as I calculated the risk/reward ratio—obvious then even to me.

I learned it from my Dad, actually. He taught me not to fly with anyone that I didn’t feel comfortable with. “Fly with only the best—it IS your life on the line, after all”, I remember him saying.

So I watched for evidence of “only the best”.

I watched how other pilots flew, the decisions they made, the way they cared for their airplanes, the stories they told before and after their flights, the way they swaggered (or didn’t), the claims they made about their own flying, and even what they said about other pilots.

I learned quickly who to avoid. I considered boasting crass, and hot-dogging the lowest of the low. But those too timid gave me warning signs just as obvious.

On my A-list: a humble confidence, a clear decisiveness, a quiet patience, an eye for endless detail, a love and trust of the plane herself, a joy in sharing the sky with another…that’s what attracted me every time.

As a result of my observations and my choices, I’ve flown in some magnificent aircraft with some magnificent pilots--the best of the best, in the best. Antique to Warbird to Classic. Wunderkind to Veteran to Legend.

A few weeks ago however, I felt an old stirring in my gut. And it hurt my heart to feel it, but I couldn’t deny it. My husband wanted me to fly with him, in an airplane I knew little about.

Now, you must understand, I hadn’t seen Kerry fly in a very long time. Years ago, he had been the finest pilot I knew, knowing his airplane, knowing the landscape, knowing the weather, knowing his limitations and those of his airplane. I’d seen him land hundreds of times, and they were landings beautiful to behold, grace in motion, the perfect harmony of man, intention, and aerodynamics. He’d flown on land, on floats, in weather, in different planes.

Trouble was, here we were in 2009…and I hadn’t seen him fly on his own in ages. I hadn’t seen him takeoff, climb, get in the pattern, and land again. I hadn’t seen him taxi out, and taxi in again. I didn’t have enough data to make a good decision.

And so, my stomach aching, I told him that I wouldn’t fly with him…not yet. Not until he proved himself worthy.

Well, I didn’t actually tell him in THOSE words, but he knew it in an instant. I could see the reaction on his face. With all his hours, with all our history flying together in the past, how could I possibly not want to fly with him??? But he didn’t say anything. His face went a little steely is all, and then he told a friend of ours (in my presence I might add) that I refused to fly with him. (Aw, man…now what have I done?)

Still, I could hear my Dad’s voice, distant in my ears after so many decades, but just as powerful in my gut…”fly with only the best”. I just couldn’t force myself to do anything less. If this was a “deal-breaker”, well then, I’d have to live with that.

That afternoon, Kerry decided to go flying in a J-3 Cub (really, he wants to fly in this rain???) (Yes, the photos I included 2 blog entries ago are from this very event.)

I took shelter inside, overlooking the runway. The day was pretty dreary, but hey, Kerry was a bush pilot. He knew how to fly in the rain.

I had to see him meet my standards. And he knew very clearly, without me saying a word, what he needed to do.

He took off and it was fine. (Hard for anyone with as many hours as he has to screw that up, I rationalized.) He pulled up, got back into the pattern and back around, and the moment of truth….the landing.

Which I couldn’t see…

There was a big tree blocking the view. (Aaargh!)

He flew the pattern again….and again set up for a landing. As if he could read my thoughts, he floated farther down the runway so I could see it this time, before settling gently to earth (well done!) then up again… more time around, and this time he slipped it in sideways, and oh man….is that him landing on one wheel??? (A good practice for crosswinds, it had that definite element of “Look….See????? that was meant just for me. Not grandstanding, just simply demonstrating what he could do if necessary.) And again up and around one more time, this time to land on a very specific piece of grass, a landing perfectly timed to settle on that patch of grass alone.

When he came in, he grinned and said, “So…did I pass?“

I smiled, “Whatever are you talking about?”

But I hugged him, thrilled and relieved, and sighed “Nice job”.

That night on the drive home, I told him about what I’d learned from my Dad. And how my commitment to that wisdom had kept me safe all these years. I’d also learned what excellence looked like, sounded like, and even felt like, even if I wasn’t yet a pilot myself.

With that, he felt much better, knowing that it was advice from my father that I’d taken very seriously—so seriously that I didn’t even let the fact that it was my husband that was in question sway me from it.

Then he said a little wistfully, "I only hope my daughter values my advice as much as you valued your Dad's."

I hope so too.


  1. Beautiful. Now Hear This kind of beautiful.

  2. Well done. I really liked this entry. Tests define who we are. It is not whether Kerry passed your tests that struck me. It is that you set up a test (a standard) for yourself, and *you* passed. Inspiring, and thanks!

  3. Rachel here. I felt I must put my wonderful father's mind at ease. My roommates can attest to how often I quote the wisdom Dad has passed down. I can hear specific phrases in my mind - "NEVER leave the first location", "Always treat it as though it's loaded", "Listen to that little voice inside your head", "Don't compare yourself to others, only to yourself." I am so lucky to have had a Dad like him. <3