I have been on this planet—at least in corporeal form (lately more corporeal than I would like)—for over six decades and I still don’t know if I should trust the Force. Mostly, I think I do, and there have been moments when my trust in the Force has been rewarded, but I do think that, along with angels, the Force can be tricky.
Relative to most others of my vintage, I have not been flying that long—approaching now only about a decade and a half. I might be called a late bloomer, but that would imply that I was a bloomer, and I take offense at that. Frankly, I am still waiting to bloom. But this memory goes back to my training days with crusty old Floyd.
It is not uncommon for instructors to “fail” an instrument in order for student pilots to learn how to fly an airplane in the event that their instruments do in fact fail. They typically do that by covering the instruments so that you can’t see them, and saying something pithy like “Your attitude indicator just failed. Now fly without it.” (You might be able to predict this in advance if you notice your instructor puts a pad of blank Post-it notes in her or his pocket before a flight.)
As I was doing a series of landings and takeoffs at my local airport, Floyd proceeded to cover one instrument after another, so that by the time I had landed several times nearly all the instruments were covered by Post-it notes, and I was landing merely by visual cues outside the airplane. Then, while flying on the downwind leg– which means that I was flying 850 feet above the ground in the opposite direction of the landing runway, Floyd said to me, “Now close your eyes and land the airplane.” I am not sure what was going on in his head, nor had I ever been sure of what was going on in his head, but perhaps he thought it might be interesting that, while he was at it, he might as well fail one of the last critical instruments on the airplane—my eyes.
I immediately thought Floyd had lost his mind, but one thing I did know was that his was the kind of mind that was permanently trapped inside his head and could never be lost. While I suspected he didn’t care much about my life, I knew he had a wife and kids who he claimed to have loved very much and didn’t want to lose, so I followed his instruction, well, blindly.
By this time I had landed the little Cessna 150, I don’t know, maybe 50 or so times, but I always had the world outside or the instruments inside to guide me. This time all I had was my remaining four senses.
So I did what he asked. I closed my eyes, and flew the airplane around the pattern completely blind. That means cutting the power just the right amount at the right time, gauging RPM strictly by the sound of the engine, then turning the airplane 90 degrees twice in order to line it up with the runway, all the while descending at just the right speed and angle.
A few terrifying minutes later, I heard the words “Now, open your eyes.” To my absolute shock, I was about 50 feet right over the center of the runway, in perfect position to land. I have rarely been able to do it so well with my eyes open ever since.
A decade and a half later, I find this memory so incredible that I question it. I do recall thinking that, unbeknownst to me, Floyd summoned his inner trickster and used his set of controls to subtly guide the airplane to where it ought to be, and this was really an exercise in boosting confidence rather than in learning to trust the Force that resided in my muscle memory. I didn’t believe what I had not seen and asked him firmly if he guided the airplane without me knowing it. Floyd insisted that he did not, but to this day I don’t think I believe him. Acts of potential prestidigitation such as Floyd’s make it difficult for me to know whether the Force will guide me when I need it.
Speaking in public was once a difficult thing for me to do, the public amounting to any more than one person at a time. I worked hard at it, and now the public sometimes gets irritated because I don’t know when to shut up. On the few occasions when I have spoken to more than 50 or so people at a time, I have learned to trust the Force and it almost always works out just fine. But on one occasion with well over a hundred folks in the audience my mouth became so dry that I truly could barely speak, and no matter how much water I drank the imaginary cotton in my mouth seemed to absorb so many of the words that very few escaped. Sometimes the Force, I imagine, goes on vacation without any notice whatsoever.
Snapped down on my back while receiving radiation, mucous collecting in that same dastardly mouth of mine, with the act of swallowing made difficult by a large, bulky tumor in the base of my tongue, I summoned the Force (along with a little Ativan) to prevent me from asphyxiating on that same mucous. I managed to make it through seven weeks of 20-minute episodes of this procedure, far less I hasten to add than many of those alongside me in the waiting room whose cancer had progressed throughout their entire body.
Perhaps it was the Force that those big machines channeled into radiation-emitting photons aimed precisely at the enthusiastic cancer cells that enabled me to sit here typing these caffeine-induced meanderings today. I could say without any doubt that those photons were indeed a force that showed up when needed; I just can’t say if they were the Force to which I am herein referring.
Whether the Force was involved in Floyd’s little act of deceit, the transformation of my exquisite shyness, or the beaming of light waves into the soft, mortal tissue of this fragile yet somehow unyielding body, it seems to me I can only remain somewhat agnostic. There is belief, which when brutally honest can only be agnostic, and then there is observation, which is clearly less so. It is from the perspective of observation that, whether due to sheer, whimsical luck or a unifying force greater than that, every day that we open our eyes to this world of flight, science, and ideas, is a day deserving of our attention and awe. And perhaps in that sense alone, may the Force be with you.