In the Greek myth, King Minos gets pretty annoyed with Daedalus, and exiles him and his son Icarus to a remote area of Crete. Crafty craftsman that he is, Daedalus creates wings made from wax and feathers in hopes of escaping. Knowing his son well, as good fathers do, Daedalus warns Icarus to fly neither too high nor too low, because the sun’s heat would melt the wax and the sea’s mist would drench the feathers. The father and son together practice flying, and when Daedalus is satisfied that the two of them have mastered it, he sets a date for the escape. When the date arrives, Icarus ignores his father’s injunctions and flies boldly toward the sun. Lacking the strength of youth to fly after him, Daedalus can only watch as his son eventually plummets to his death.
The very first aviation aphorism I learned was that “there are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but no old bold pilots.” While some may point to the exuberance of youth and lack of fear inherent in the young as the primary moral to the Icarus myth, to me it is a story about the danger of boldness, or what those old Greeks called hubris.
Pilots crash and die for many reasons, and although there is no official category for hubris, it is often easy to detect. At my local airport, a pilot died a couple of years ago while flying low along a riverbed. Besides being illegal, it is also stupid, for reasons bold pilots have ignored since they took to the sky. The pilot who died while flying along the riverbed managed not to see the electrical wires that spanned the riverbed, and he and his new girlfriend got tangled up in them just before reaching their ultimate destination. I don’t mean to be tongue in cheek about a disaster that killed two people, but it is hard to be sympathetic knowing the pilot also killed his new girlfriend and caused such grief in their families. All, it seems to me, as a result of a case of hubris.
Before doing a radio interview once I was coached to not be self-effacing. The coach didn’t know me from Adam, but apparently he knew enough about radio to know that people who listen to radio aren’t particularly drawn to those who put themselves down. Humility is one thing, but taken too far it sucks the sex appeal right out of you.
On the other hand, given the popularity of such characters as Donald Trump, hubris can have its own cachet, at least for half the populace. From a romantic perspective, I believe I understand this. Self-confidence and self-assuredness spawn feelings of safety, and that is the foundation of any relationship. You don’t want your partner to quiver in his or her boots when protecting you from the blue meanies who have come to ruin your day. But just as humility can slip into a lack of self-confidence, too much self-confidence can easily turn into hubris. While a lack of self-confidence can cause you to melt under pressure, hubris can cause you to fight when fleeing would be the wiser (and safer) option. It can cause you to believe that somehow you can outsmart nature and find a way to make it through that nasty thunderstorm, or believe that the instrument that is giving you that strange reading is just a faulty gauge and not the first in the long line of problems that will eventually kill you.
The Greeks knew this thousands of years ago, when they conceived the story of Icarus rising. For pilots, altitude is our friend because it gives us more time to recover from problems and prevents us from bumping into things near the ground. Hubris, however, has a way of evaporating our friendships, and leads to the kind of mistakes that can kill us.