Speed or Altitude?

Then there are those who do whatever they can to resist the natural order of things, eking the most out of their lives by doing what nature surely did not intend them to do.   They fly airplanes, jump out of them, dive off 80-foot cliffs, chase tornadoes, scale ridiculously sheer mountains, walk on wires over deep chasms, and take drugs that they find in someone else’s bathroom just to see how far they can bend their consciousness without breaking it.  

C’est pas moi.  I would rather sit by the fireplace in the lodge sipping hot chocolate while reading W.S. Merwin than ski down the side of that groomed mountain I can see out the window.   I’ve never done that, by the way, because I don’t know how to ski and I don’t think I have ever been in one of those places, though it looks wonderful in the movies.  It’s not that I’m averse to the occasional small thrill, mind you, but I just don’t like the idea of breaking things, including myself, and death is inevitable anyway so why push it. 

Aviation journalist Sam Weigel once imagined that there were two kinds of pilots (and by inference, two kinds of people):  There are those who like speed and there are those who like altitude.   Those who like speed I suspect are akin to what psychologists call sensation-seekers.  There’s a robust research literature on those folks, and they are an interesting lot.  It turns out, unsurprisingly, that those who score high on the MMPI sensation-seeking scale are the most likely to become drug addicts.   Their bodies are geared toward going for the high, and with the right chemicals, you don’t need to leave the ground to get there.   For them, it is all about the bodily sensation, the rush as it were.   They like the rush; they like the speed.

But then there’s the altitude folks who lean toward a different kind of high. Pilots who prefer altitude to speed like to be above it all, away from the hustle and bustle of prosaic life, rising above the pettiness of everyday conflict, nestled in their confined cockpit watching clouds go by.   Altitude comes up a lot in these virtual pages, because, for a pilot, as has been said here before, altitude is your friend.   She’s a good friend, indeed, because she is positioned better than anyone to save your life when you really need her.   For these pilots, the earth may be home, but it’s one where all the tsuris resides, the thing that has to be grappled with, approached with precision and caution, the most dangerous place.   Earth sites capable of landing can be difficult to find and hide from you when you need it the most.   Earth can break your airplane and break your heart, and for many pilots it’s the former that matters the most.

Altitude has a lot of advantages.   There’s the obvious, of course, in that the higher you go, the more time you have to fix whatever goes wrong or navigate your way back to earth if you lose power.   In pilot school you are taught something called “dead reckoning”, which is navigation without the benefit of instruments.   (The “dead” derives from “ded”, short for “deductive”.) When dead reckoning, the thing to do when you are lost is to climb higher.   Climbing gives you a greater view of the earth—there’s’ more to see and it’s easier to recognize landmarks.   You see patterns you don’t have an opportunity to see up close, the sinewy rivers, the orderly quilt of farm fields, just how concentrated the earth’s population is, how much is devoid of artificial light at night.

The world from miles up moves much slower, as your field of vision takes up a larger expanse of earth.    Cars on freeways going fast seem to be crawling along, not because you are going that much faster, but because things on the ground are much smaller.   It’s a great reminder that we tend to make petty things in life big and lose our perspective.

I suppose if I had to choose, I’m an altitude person.  It’s often a difficult thing to do, taking the high road, but it’s usually the best way of resolving conflicts.   As Michelle Obama’s Madison Avenue handlers said, “when they go low, we go high.”   Sure, I do like speed, and I tend to rush through much of this life, cramming in as much as I can as I watch the sand settle in this increasingly fragile hourglass.  But when it comes up to it, I would rather dwell less in the petty conflicts here on earth than in the serenity and compassion that resides, at least for me, way up there.

And you?

2 thoughts on “Speed or Altitude?

  1. As an air tanker pilot, after an interval of high and fast I am low and slow, in a large aeroplane, a dynamic with neither the comfort nor the advantages of the former. And yet, duty, willingness, and the endless desire to solve the problems presented…

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