Unless it is in relationship to the machines they fly, most pilots I know don’t talk about love too often. Given that our lives depend on those machines, it makes a lot of sense to love them. We take care of the things we love, and when we do, they take care of us.
If asked, I suspect most pilots would say that they love to fly, and not because of the love they have for their vehicles. Instead, they would tell you that they love the feeling they get when they rise above the earth, defeat gravity and part the air. But I don’t know any of that for a fact; I have yet to actually ask any pilots if they love to fly. They reveal that to me in their enthusiasm, and the very fact that they willingly risk their lives in an expensive and dangerous endeavor. I don’t imagine, however, that most pilots will tell you that flying also helps them to love others. I think that it does.
Loving another person requires courage. It requires the ability to be emotionally vulnerable, and to shed the layers of self-protective fabric we have built from childhood. Loving another requires letting go, and not withholding our affection, which in turn makes us vulnerable to hurt. Loving another requires a certain amount of self-love as well. It requires having enough comfort with who we are in order to share ourselves comfortably with others.
Becoming a pilot also requires courage, and as we take calculated risks, fail sometimes and then return to the cockpit for another trip around the pattern, we build mastery and resilience. Each time we successfully battle a tough crosswind to a safe landing, complete a tricky instrument approach, or squeeze ourselves into a frantic traffic pattern, we have demonstrated to ourselves a level of competence, triumph over our fear and in so doing strengthen our ability to handle the next challenge.
There are, of course, many kinds of love, and love itself is experienced differently in different cultures and even from one person to another. The old Greeks divided the love universe into four parts: familial love, friendly love, romantic love, and divine love.
Pilots often come to see aviation as part of a family (familial love), make friends while flying (friendly love), and while romantic or divine love seems a bit of a stretch, I can think of a few pilots whose partners become pretty jealous of the passion their pilot partners have for their flying affair.
Meher Baba, the Indian guru who remained silent most of his life but managed to say some of the stupidest and most beautiful things regardless (the stupidest being the four-word mantra “Don’t worry, be happy” co-opted by jazz artist Bobby McFerrin) described love as a “feeling of unity” and an “active appreciation of the intrinsic worth of the object of love.” There can be no doubt that the pilot in love with flying experiences that moment of unity as she merges with her airplane, and the sense of self as somehow separate from the aircraft vanishes into the act of flying. I have had that peak experience just a few times when flying, but I have seen it happen many times as I have flown with more masterful pilots than myself.
Of course it is not the act of flying that teaches us to love, but the act of doing anything so well, so masterful, that we become one with it. We then pause, and in Baba’s unspoken words, actively appreciate its intrinsic worth. Active appreciation is perhaps another way of simply saying that we are grateful. Love is to be found in the act of gratitude for that which allows us to merge with it.
It simply stands to reason that if we can learn to love the thing we choose to do, be that flying, painting white stripes down the road, knitting a sweater, or helping someone learn to read, we can experience the unity of love, and deeply appreciate the intrinsic worth of another. Whether they know it or not, those pilots who master their craft to the point of unity and appreciation are giving themselves the ability to love others. If asked, they may tell you they love to fly. What they likely won’t say out loud, perhaps because they never thought of it this way, is that they also fly to love.
(Bits of the above have appeared in “Plane & Pilot” magazine.)