Part of our weekend entertainment included the movie Flight. It was gripping – both the pilot’s struggle with the airplane and with his alcoholism. To quibble, I don’t see how a mechanical problem in the tail could cause loss of hydraulic pressure and my understanding is that for a plane to fly upside down special strengthening of the wings is required. I was totally involved, though an essential part of me wanted Denzel Washington, when he had the opportunity, to say, ” My name is Whip Whitaker and I am an alcoholic and a pilot.” And I wanted him to take that Cessna 172 up into the air. ( I think they wrote that scene out.)
Somehow I knew when I was quite young in college that flying a plane, particularly a jet fighter, is one of the highest attainments that a modern person can strive for. A pilot applies physics at a gut level. He or she must be intelligent enough to learn navigation and aerodynamics and mechanics and electronics and be able to think in three dimensions. He or she needs a sense of speed, of equilibrium, of kinesthetic feedback. This was the ethic of The Right Stuff and Top Gun which I sensed before they became cultural phenomena.
One summer when I was in graduate school, I studied for and earned a private pilot’s license. My flight instructors at Meadowlark Airport in Huntington Beach California were amazed that I got a hundred percent on the the written part of the exam. I told them, “That is what I do. I take tests and I am good at it.” And I was but I wasn’t a good pilot. I could handle the plane intellectually but not viscerally. I had a few adventures though. My friend Spike and I flew a Cessna 172 across the country and back, sleeping in small airports. I tried to learn to fly gliders in Fremont California. But I knew I wasn’t confident or able in the air and quit flying.
I always was a dreamy kid with my books and my myopia, yet my physicality, my sense of physical being was always trying to express itself. I just wasn’t going to be flying or, for that matter, performing a sport at a high level. The best I would do was ride my bike and work a while with my hands. Whip Whitaker was a good pilot and there must have been some moments when his better self “touched the face of God.”