The airplanes I learned to fly more than a dozen years ago were built between 1958 and 1977, so were at least 30 years old at the time. I was only 50 then, which is a really funny thing for me to say now, because at the time I was quite a bit over the hill, unusually old to be learning how to fly. Now, age 50 seems quite young to me, but that is how this aging thing goes.
I had some scary moments in those airplanes, learning some lessons that, due to the accompanying moments of terror, emblazoned them in my memory. While I appreciated learning those lessons, and even moreso appreciated the fact that I survived them, I did vow to leave those creeky little Cessna crates behind as soon as I was able to afford more modern and reliable equipment.
In the course of shopping for a new airplane, I test-flew a Columbia 300, which later became the Cessna 400 TTx. It is a beautiful, sleek, fast airplane. When landing it, I found myself lined up perfectly with the centerline, but I floated nearly all the way to the side of the runway before I touched down. There was more to do to slow the airplane down and much less time to do it in than I had been accustomed to, so I found myself “behind the airplane.” The airplane did things before I anticipated that they were going to happen, so I had to react to them rather than lead them. Had I had some instruction beforehand, I might have prepared myself better and not have felt as though my airplane was pulling me toward a ditch, and possible oblivion. In fast airplanes, things can happen quickly, and sometimes a small mistake can lead to an airplane or an autopilot doing something surprising. In those moments, it can feel as though the airplane is flying you, and not the other way around.
When I was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, I felt as though I fell behind the airplane. The cells in my body were out of control. They were doing things I didn’t expect or want them to do. However my DNA got corrupted, this bug in the programming was likely going to kill me, and I didn’t know which buttons I could push on the panel to regain control. The airplane was flying me.
I have been blessed with a few good friends, and one of them is an architect who had also been diagnosed with cancer. At one point, I asked her what kept her going in her darkest days. She mentioned several things, but the thing that affected me the most was her sense that she was being held. I don’t recall at the moment who she felt held by, but we did discuss the idea that perhaps all of us, in one way or another, are being held. Whether that means that we are held in God’s hands, the arms of our ancestors, or whatever else might be meaningful, there is within us the sense that—as a mother holds her infant child, there are arms that enfold us.
I don’t know exactly what it means to be held in the context of death. But if death can never be known and only imagined until it occurs, then being held can be imagined as well. Sure, it’s just a metaphor, and in the face of death relying on a metaphor to carry us gently into the good night can seem inadequate to the task, but given the unknowable nature of death itself, it seems as though metaphor is the only tool in the shed, if you’ll pardon the metaphor.
The traditional wisdom in learning how not to get behind the airplane is to practice as much as possible, dreaming up whatever might go wrong in advance and either getting oneself to a simulator, or up to a safe altitude with an instructor, and create the situation that might lead to adversity and rehearse the actions required to respond safely and quickly. While that will help, rehearsing the unexpected is also an oxymoron, and when something truly unexpected happens all the prep in the world may not help.
In those truly novel situations we can struggle to problem-solve our way out of extinction with so much trepidation that panic sets in and the mind goes blank, or instead trust that somehow, some way, someone or something will put tender arms around us, keeping us safe while we muster whatever resources we can to keep flying. It may indeed be a metaphor, but if it keeps us ahead of the airplane, it might be one worth believing.