01.11.2004

The Meaning of Flight

Flier and writer Christopher Kenworthy knows from first hand experience the meditative calm and sense of spirituality that draws so many to defy the laws of gravity and seek out the freedom of flight.

Flier and writer ChristopherKenworthy knows from first hand experience the meditativecalm and sense of spirituality that draws so many todefy the laws of gravity and seek out the freedom offlight.

In order to fly, you haveto trust what you can't see. This statement by authorRichard Bach may seem obvious, but it sums up why flightis appealing to many. Although flying may appear mundaneto some, for others it is more than a jet-set recreationor a means of transport. An old American flier, whospent years building his own aeroplane, put it thisway: 'It's better than therapy, and far cheaper.'

In recent weeks, flying has come to dominate the newsheadlines. Aeroplanes are now seen by many, at worst,as guided missiles for terrorist attack. At the least,they are owned by companies that might go broke. Althoughrecent images have been extremely dramatic and distressing,this is nothing new for flying. Aeroplanes have beencrashing since they were built, and for anybody whois afraid of flying, there's plenty of evidence to provethat it's a terrifying and dangerous activity.

As another author once said, 'We don't fly in spiteof being scared; we fly because we are scared.' Formany, this is close to the truth. Not least because,if the fear goes away completely, you might make moremistakes or take more risks. As long as you remain keento keep the aeroplane away from the ground, you're goingto be sharper. Although this is true for many pilots,it isn't the reason they fly. Fear is a slight tingeof interest, but flying isn't about being a daredevil.Occasionally, you hear stories about people flying underbridges, or buzzing houses - but most pilots never ventureinto this territory. Those who do generally give upafter a close brush with death, and opt for safety.Flying is always dramatic, but it's the sense of calmand freedom that makes it special.

If you hang around any airfield with pilots, you'llhear many stories of freak storms, violent turbulenceand mechanical emergencies survived. Pilots talk aboutthese events because they are exciting, and becausethey're easy to describe and imagine, a way of gettingacross something of the flying experience. The realityof flight is much more difficult to communicate, sopeople rarely talk about it. Sometimes, though, if youwait long enough, the stories of drama and danger arereplaced with a description of a view, rising abovethe clouds at sunset. 'I felt like I'd fallen into adream,' I heard one pilot say.

It is possible to look beyond drama and headlines,and see why some people think of flying as a spiritualactivity. How, you may wonder, can sheets of metal,riveted together, and powered by a combustion engine,have anything to do with feeling spiritual. Many pilotspoint to their dreams. Most people have flying dreamsat some point in their life, and say that it's one ofthe greatest feelings of freedom and beauty they'veever encountered. Scientists come up with some weakexplanations for why we have flying dreams, and howthey can feel so intensely real, but for people whodream this way, it's a semi-religious experience. Manywould-be pilots come to the airfield because they hada flying dream.

On any given day at Jandakot airfield, the spectatorarea contains a few people who have come to watch theaeroplanes. Some are just curious, but others have beenlonging to fly for years, with neither the time northe money. That's the interesting point, though. Flyingmay seem expensive on an hour by hour basis, but youmay find that if you're willing to give up somethingelse, it's affordable. Over a two-year period, it worksout to be cheaper than smoking. I met one man at Jandakot,called Trevor, who that afternoon decided to sell hisshares and draw out his savings. As he pointed out,unless you're on the poverty line, it's affordable.As an afterthought, he said, 'I can't afford not to.'

So what is the attraction? There's no doubt that somepeople learn to fly because they have too much timeand money and have grown bored with golf. Others needtransport. Some even seek a career. For many, however,it is the simple pleasure of gaining perspective ina beautiful place. While everybody else is stuck intraffic, worrying about the news or having an argument,you can be looking at the world from a unique vantagepoint. On a recent flight to Shark Bay, flying low overthe bluest ocean and over miles of desert, I knew itwas impossible to see the world as hard and ugly, whenyou've seen it from the air. When everything below looksso small, and the world so large, there is a rewardingsense of wonder. It's often pointed out that astronautscome back from space bewildered by the size of the earth,and many turn to religion. Being a pilot gives you ahint of that feeling.

I spoke to Emma, a pilot at Jandakot, who is currentlyan instructor, and she said that although she rarelyflies purely for pleasure, it's always a joy to fly.'It's definitely a spiritual practice,' she said. 'It'sa job, but I can't think of a better place to be.'

It's interesting how often the word 'freedom' is usedby pilots, because before you can fly a thousand demandsneed to be met. You never just arrive at the airfield,hop in and blast off. Instead, you plan your flightcarefully. Then you check the aeroplane all over, includinga visual inspection of the fuel levels. Finally, afternegotiating with Air Traffic Control over the radio,you get to take off. Flying requires accurate navigation,reading the landscape, talking carefully on the radioand keeping a lookout. The actual flying - keeping theaeroplane in the sky - is the least difficult part.For some people who take up flying, this is all toomuch, and some give up because for every hour of flight,there are probably three or four on the ground. Forthose who love flying, though, this is half the pleasure.It isn't about instant gratification, but about a long,slow pleasure. Many compare it to meditation. Althoughthere's fun to be had, this isn't something you do ona whim, but something that is carried out carefullyand methodically, with maximum concentration.

In recent years, psychologists and self-help writershave become enthused with the idea of 'flow', a stateof mind where an activity is so absorbing, that youhardly notice time passing, and lose your sense of self.The concentration and commitment required for flyingmeans that it is a flow activity. There are so manythings that need to be balanced at one time. 'It's noteffort,' said Steven, who flies a Cessna out of Jandakot.'You're not trying or struggling. You have to let goof effort. When people first get in an aeroplane, manyof them try really hard to fly it. They grab hold ofthe wheel and fight every bump and force the aeroplanewhere they want it to go. It doesn't work. When theylet go of effort, and allow the plane to fly, it worksall by itself. That's balance.' This description reflectsthe Taoist belief that non-effort achieves more thanstruggle.

People are drawn to flight is because it's an immediateform of meditation. This is what fliers mean when theytalk about freedom; it isn't escapism, but freedom fromthe frantic mind. When faced with the vast space ofair and the shimmering earth, your mind is emptied ofclutter. It's impossible to be amongst the massive architectureof clouds, the horizon collapsing into bright rain,without being absorbed in the moment. You see everything,but focus on nothing specific. Every movement and shiftin the air is felt, but you don't chase those sensations.For some, however, the engines and charts and radiowork aren't as interesting as the simple joy of beingin the air - so they fly in gliders. There's somethingappealing about flying without an engine, that goesway beyond fear or drama. Speaking to glider pilots,you often hear the word 'peace'. Being towed up to afew thousand feet by a small aeroplane is far from peaceful,but when the cable is released, and the glider peelsoff into empty space, there is almost silence. Then,to fly, you need to find rising air, and use it in theway that birds do. 'If anything's going to connect youto nature,' one pilot said, 'this is it.' At the BeverleySoaring Club, just an hour's drive from Perth, glidersare pulled into the rising air all day. There are competitionsto break records for time in the air and distance travelled,but you can tell that the sheer pleasure of being airborneis what drives these people.

I recently met a new pilot called Andrew, who saidthat he came to flying because of reading Richard Bach'sflying stories. 'It thought that if it could mean thatmuch to him, maybe it could to me. But how do you describeit? I only know that if I stay at home and watch television,I might enjoy myself, but I feel somehow wasted. WhenI've been flying, there's a calm smile on my face fordays. If that isn't spiritual, I don't know what is.'

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