Why learn to fly?

I’ve written already about what it’s like to get a pilot’s license in Canada, a process that sounds rather arduous and expensive on its face. However, learning to fly was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, and it’s something that I relish in spite of the high effort and cost. In this article, I aim to help you understand why you might agree if you learned to fly for yourself.

Pilots will tell you that flying is a feeling like no other; that being in a small airplane is an incredible sensation of freedom and that it allows you to experience the world from a unique perspective. Those things are true, but I won’t try to persuade you here that flying is fun. The truth is that for most people, myself included, $14k is too much for an incredible sensation and a unique perspective. Adventure can (and should) be had for much less than that.

What I think makes flying valuable is the breadth of knowledge and skills that you learn, and the effect that these things have on your character. Let’s run it down.

With respect to aviation: You’ll learn why airplanes sometimes crash (and why they mostly don’t). You’ll learn about what causes turbulence, and why it’s really nothing to worry about. You’ll learn about the ingenious methods by which airplane engines, instruments, and systems are built for redundancy and failure-tolerance (even in small aircraft). You’ll be able to fully comprehend how stunning the public safety record is for aviation in the developed world and how it got to be that way. You’ll understand the reasoning behind flight delays and cancellations, and you’ll come to respect the remarkable logistics happening behind the scenes. Your worldly travels will be less frustrating and more amazing.

With respect to physics: You’ll learn that the classical “equal transit time” explanation of lift is a misconception, and that the real explanation is way more satisfying. You’ll learn how engines work. You’ll learn why your car feels more powerful in the winter, and how condensation forms on and disperses from your windshield. You’ll learn that drag is not only the enemy of thrust, but a required ingredient for lift. You’ll learn that the secret to flying is to maintain both kinetic and potential energy, and that the secret to landing is to run out of both at just the right moment.

With respect to weather: You’ll learn how to understand the weather report, even if you thought you already did. You’ll learn to perceive trends in the weather and opine on the accuracy of the forecast. You’ll learn how lakes, cities, hills, and mountains affect the wind. You’ll have a new appreciation for the formation and three-dimensional structure of clouds, and you’ll find beauty in that. (I now think about clouds in the same way that I think about scotch whiskey). You’ll learn how the atmosphere works.

With respect to navigation: You’ll learn how to find your way without a GPS, and how to find your way back if you get lost. You’ll learn about the different ways in which maps can distort reality, and how to read them more effectively. You’ll learn about the importance of the magnetic field that surrounds the earth and when you can rely on a compass to guide you. You’ll find new pleasure in exploration, and new confidence that if something goes wrong, you can figure it out.

With respect to safety: You’ll learn to appreciate the benefit of old, simple mechanisms over new, complex technology in safety-critical applications. You’ll also learn how the mindful use of technology can compensate for the limitations of the mind and enhance your awareness. You’ll learn to evaluate risk, and what your own tolerance for risk is. You’ll learn that using your hard-won skills and knowledge to do a risky activity safely is exceptionally fun.

With respect to human beings: You’ll learn about how the brain perceives balance and orientation, and how it can be tricked. You’ll learn about how you behave if there isn’t enough oxygen in the air you’re breathing. You’ll learn about the fallible human mind, and how to compensate for forgetfulness, control instinct, and moderate fear in stressful situations. You’ll learn that it is impossible to eliminate human error, and thus blaming people for negative outcomes is a waste.

With respect to yourself: You’ll learn that, given enough time and effort, you’re capable of learning pretty much anything. You’ll learn that, in nearly all situations, fear is of the unknown and panic is only a lack of preparedness; each can be overcome by studious effort. You’ll learn to seek out and enjoy the scary things, because those are worthy opportunities for personal growth.

Is there a cheaper hobby that offers a similar range of skills, knowledge, and personal growth, but still indulges that part of us which seeks thrills and excitement? If you find one, let me know.