A Good Approach

images-1It has often been said that the secret to a good landing is a good approach. In flying, a good approach means that you hit all the altitudes and airspeeds you intended to, you are neither too high nor too low, neither too fast nor too slow, and that, above all, you remain stable.  Remaining stable means that you are not continually fluctuating your airspeed, trying to nail your altitude and constantly shifting to find the centerline of the runway.  Stability, in a good approach, is the key.

While I try to fly my approach in as stable a fashion as possible, I fail more often than I succeed.  I have become perhaps overly confident in my ability to land, because I have a history of pulling it off at the last minute.   This is bad technique, but a license to fly is a license to learn, and I keep learning.

I suspect that most of you have read these posts long enough to know what’s coming next.  Hopefully, neither you nor I are close to our final landing, but to the extent that any single moment could be our last, it is not far-fetched to try to live life as if we were always on our final approach.   And, in that sense, I confess that I have yearned to live my life as stably as possible.   And, as in my flying, I tend to fail more often than I succeed.   I am constantly struggling to find my right “airspeed” and stay on the centerline.

I don’t believe that I intend to live my life unregulated.  I yearn for stability, but for some reason stability and my nervous system don’t want to cooperate.   As I once had a yoga instructor who criticized my warrior pose because I was leaning too far forward, and I thought, “yup, that’s me… always leaning too far into the future,” perhaps my discomfort with stability has something to do with why I find it difficult to maintain stable approaches when flying.

But all this is overly simplistic.   In reality, in order to fly a stable approach, a pilot has to make constant, hopefully small, adjustments.   The pilot remains hyper-vigilant, sensing any shift in the wind and reacting quickly and gently in order to remain on target.   This is by no means a passive activity.   The irony of it all is that it takes a lot of activity to become stable.

That is where the difficulty of flying one’s final approach—and every other approach, comes in.   Just how does one achieve the hoped for “perfect landing”?  How does one face the inevitability of our flight coming to an end in such a way that we gently welcome the wheels to the ground, kiss the earth without having to frantically wrestle with our airplane?

Perhaps it is true that the secret to a good landing is a good approach.   Perhaps what is required is relaxed pressure on the controls, while calmly but vigilantly making the small adjustments needed to maintain just the right airspeed and just the right altitude, such that when our wheels finally come to rest, we find that we have barely noticed that we have eased ourselves onto the tarmac.  That would indeed be a good landing.

Grushenka Turns Final

GrushenkaI lost my beloved German shepherd Grushenka a couple of weeks ago, the family having made the decision to end what increasingly seemed like a hopeless string of hospital visits, unwelcomed medications and transfusions.   She was only seven or eight years old, much too brief a lifetime; at least too soon to say goodbye to that extraordinary, powerful spirit of hers.   We were all so blessed with her presence, and now, out of that sadness arises gratitude for all the joy and complexity she brought to those around her.

Certainly, none of us get out of this life alive, and I’m sure most of my readers have had many losses in their lives.     Nearly all pilots have known fellow pilots, as well as friends and family, who have “gone west.”    Death seems to come in waves, and I’m all too rapidly approaching the age my parents reached when their friends and family members seemed to die off one after another.    I talked to my father about how hard it must have been for him, outliving so many of them.  He was a very sensitive and emotional man, but after a while he became inured to it.   I remember when he heard the news about one of his friend’s passing, he just mildly shrugged, said a brief “hmm,” and went about his business.   At some point, I suppose, it all becomes too much.

There is no way to truly understand death, at least not scientifically.   Science can explain certain aspects of it, but science is ill-equipped to handle the big questions, especially those having to do with consciousness, and what happened before and what happens afterward.  All we really have to understand death are narratives and metaphors.

Sometimes I think about life as if it were the rectangular pattern around an airport.   Grushenka was a rescue dog, so I have no idea how she entered the pattern.  She had a rough upwind leg, struggling with two TPLO (knee joint) implants, but she recovered well, and eventually had a smooth downwind leg, carefree with the wind at her back.

Turning base, she somehow developed an autoimmune disorder, and her red blood cells were constantly being attacked.  For a while, there was some hope, with steroids and transfusions, and she was fighting the crosswinds well.  But eventually, turning final, the headwinds were too much for her, and she seemed to be giving up the fight.   Her landing was forced, as a pilot might say, but the euthanasia, surrounded by her doting family on the spot where she stood guard over the house, made it a good one.  Sadly, this was the one she couldn’t walk away from.