“Man must rise above the Earth — to the top of the atmosphere and beyond — for only thus will he fully understand the world in which he lives.” -Socrates
“Within all of us is a varying amount of space lint and star dust, the residue from our creation. Most are too busy to notice it, and it is stronger in some than others. It is strongest in those of us who fly and is responsible for an unconscious, subtle desire to slip into some wings and try for the elusive boundaries of our origin.” -K.O. Eckland
“I fly because it releases my mind from the tyranny of petty things…” -Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
“To put your life in danger from time to time… breeds a saneness in dealing with day-to-day trivialities.” -Nevil Shute
“That this tiny two-seater box of metal managed to rise into the air at all felt unbelievable. Once we broke ground, it seemed as if I were floating on a magic carpet… When I took over the controls, I felt as if I were at the center of my universe instead of orbiting someone else’s. I felt then, and still believe now, that piloting a small aircraft is about as good as it gets.” -Barbara Rowell
“The engine is the heart of an aeroplane, but the pilot is its soul.” -Walter Alexander Raleigh
“When I’m up in the air, it’s like I’m closer to heaven; I can’t explain the feeling.” -First Officer Jeffrey Gagliano
If I had felt the ability to handle an aircraft on my own before doing astrophysics, I might have opted out on the pursuit of multiple degrees in science and theology… But I suppose it is good that that did not happen, because it is relatively clear to me now that there is not a good career as a pilot (unless, maybe you are a test pilot).
Flying is definitely the most empowering and liberating day-to-day experience. To be a good pilot, you must completely forget about yourself and lose yourself to become a “useful part” of the airplane. For me, I was so terrified of flying a small plane for awhile that I could not accomplish the goal of losing myself, I just kept thinking about my fear and about how I was incapable and how ridiculous FAA Part 141 standards are. But when you do feel comfortable with the airplane and comfortable flying it alone, there is a feeling of the airplane needing you, and you needing it back- to escape the earth, to escape yourself, to escape into the sky.
When I did my cross country solo flights, afterward I felt that I could accomplish anything- that if I could fly a piece of technology across hundreds of miles alone, away from the bounds of gravity that have kept human beings on the ground for hundreds of thousands of years, that I could go anywhere, that I could do anything. It was the first time that I felt that flying to space is probably not even that big of a deal at all.
I see flying as a merger of religion and science in some allusive way. It is a religion because you have to lose yourself to become a part of something bigger -the airplane- and in doing so, you create a technological extension of yourself in a truly miraculous way. And it is a science of course because you need to have some understanding of how the technology and mechanics and physics of it works and you need to treat all of your actions in a very procedural, rigorous, scientific way. Part 141 flight is very useful for a scientist because it reiterates the scientific critical mindset in a very demanding way. You need to be very critical of every action you take in flight – in every situation in the air you must ask yourself- am I 100% certain that this action is the correct action to take? If not, you could be risking your life or someone else’s. And that’s what’s glorious about it- it’s probably the only time you can feel truly alive because at any moment, there is the possibility of a horrible death that splinters your flesh with metal. And of course, being amongst the clouds and seeing the earth and ocean from thousands of feet in the sky is truly heavenly.
But despite these thrills and allures and the spiritual uplift of flight, a career as a pilot seems to be very rough on the mind and body. I had entertained the idea of a career as a pilot a few times on and off because I love to travel and I love to fly and I love to see the stars and earth from the plane. Seeing the buildings and roads and houses and cars and people become specks is very comforting to me- to leave all the frustrations of the earth in the dust like they never mattered is so satisfying and so addicting. But now that I know about half a dozen people who spent several years pursuing flight ratings and their dream of being a pilot just to immediately quit their job as an airline pilot because of how horrible it turned out to be, I don’t think it would be smart to pursue it other than for fun and for entertaining the joke of astronaut candidacy as a woman (only 60 women in human history have ever been to space!) I’ve talked to people in the private jet industry – get paid to fly an incredible private jet to exotic places where the millionaire jet owner pays for your luxury hotels? Um, yes! – but it seems that typically said millionaire will treat you like a servant and demand demeaning assistant tasks of you despite your years and years of flight training.
I kind of have an inside perspective on aviation. I now work at a flight testbed at an airport and my understanding from the pilots and test pilots there is that commercial aircraft are already perfectly automated. There is no need for a pilot whatsoever- the pilot is the aircraft babysitter in a commercial aircraft. In fact, if you fly regularly in commercial aircraft, some of the landings were probably automated. But in a small plane, nothing is automated, you do all the work or “hand flying” and I think that’s the only way it can be satisfying and exciting and fun. But people will never get in a commercial aircraft without a human pilot and so there will always be someone forced to sit there and be shipped off to some random location. In our lifetimes it might be reduced to one pilot per commercial aircraft instead of two. But just from what my body is telling me from the draining exhaustion of several hours of consecutive flight training and the draining exhaustion of cabin pressure in a commercial plane- I don’t think it is healthy to be in an airplane for extremely extensive periods.. And some research backs this by claiming that airline pilots tend to die as soon as they retire. So I don’t think we should make people who love to fly because it is spiritually uplifting die in commercial aircraft. We should embrace automated aircraft.