Four Life Lessons I learned by Watching My Father Fly

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By Ron Ross

“Let’s go to the airport!” was a call my brother and I heard often from our father as we grew up because dad loved to fly and throughout our growing-up-years, we always had a little airplane. In fact, the day I was born, Dad was at the airport teaching a young Navy cadet to fly the Navy way.

Dad taught my brother to fly and he has been a pilot his entire life. Even in his so-called retirement he continues to teach corporate pilots to fly some of the most sophisticated aircraft ever built.

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But me? I did NOT learn to fly, though dad did give me a few fight lessons. The lessons I learned from flying were lessons about life. I can think of at least four life lessons I learned by watching my father fly.

Here they are:

  1. The first thing I learned was to check things before you take off. Dad always had a hangar for our little plane so when we went out to the airport my brother and I would help push the plane out of the hangar and then dad would do what he called a pre-flight check. He walked around the plane, caressing the leading edges of the wings and ailerons to make sure the wind would flow smoothly and cause the plane to lift. He would do the same thing to the propeller and then check a variety of other things under the engine cowling. When he was convinced the plane was airworthy, we would load up, fasten our seatbelts and taxi out on the runway.

To be honest, I did not learn this lesson until later in life. Looking back on my life I think, there were a few times I should have given some of my decisions a pre-flight check, if you get my drift. Too often I was quick to make a decision and do something without proper planning. So lesson number one: Check things before you take off – it will keep you from crashing.

  1. The second thing I learned was that you always take off into the wind.

This seems at first blush to be counter-intuitive. Tail winds help you fly faster, right? While that is true absolutely, it is not true for either taking off or landing for that matter.

When you take off into the wind the fast air bearing down on the plane generates an upward force on the wings, which helps lift the aircraft and allows them to achieve “wheels up” faster.

The life lesson here is that nearly everything you want to do requires extra effort in the beginning. It is true of marriage, it is true of starting a business, and it is true of beginning a new job or career.

Right now my oldest son is in Pharmacy school. He is taking his classes from Creighton University remotely in his home here in Loveland. He is sometimes overwhelmed by what must be learned within a few days because the lectures are boring and the tests are intense. He is flying into the wind but with the accomplishment of each course he gains altitude and it won’t be long until he will be flying in the smooth air and tail winds of a Doctor of pharmacy degree.

  1. Another thing I learned from watching my dad fly was that turbulence is normal, unpredictable and almost always, tolerable.

Now there is no question turbulence makes the journey uncomfortable – I know because more than once I felt nauseous and at least once I had to use the barf bag that was always available in Dad’s plane. But in most cases, turbulence won’t bring you down. It can slow you down or cause you to temporarily shift your course, but it is seldom a threat to life.

The lesson for life is clear: there will be days that shake your core and make you feel off balance and some days that will make you ill. For the journey through life, though, you must learn to go along with it. You may have to adjust your altitude or even fly around a storm or two, but understand that you have control over your direction and how high or low or fast or slow that you can go.

  1. The fourth thing I learned from my Dad by watching him fly was – Know where you’re going and keep your eye on your map and your compass. Today pilots have some technology that Dad did not have back in the 1950s and 1960s in that old Super Cruiser or the Cessna 172 that he owned for many years. He had a compass and a few other instruments for navigation, but not the great GPS stuff and all the advance weather services and navigation help available in most aircraft today.

Back then they used a map and a compass. I recall watching dad with a map on his knee looking down at the landscape below us identifying certain landmarks to make sure we were on the right path. I recall some of the pilots referred to it as Dead reckoning which basically meant, if you don’t recon right, you’re dead.

This is an important lesson for life – know where you’re going and keep your eye on your map and your compass. Too many folks today have no idea why they are here or where they are going. It’s like all they do is take up space.

That does not work if you are flying. You must know where you’re going. You must keep your eye on your map and your compass and you will arrive safely at your destination.

Conclusion:

Nearly every pilot has heard the poem by John Gillespie Magee, Jr, a son of Anglican Missionaries in Singapore and a Canadian Air Force pilot written in 1941.

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

Of sun-split clouds, –and done a hundred things

You have not dreamed of –Wheeled and soared and swung

High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there

I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung

My eager craft through footless halls of air…

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue

I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace

Where never lark or even eagle flew —

And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod

The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

Only a few months after this 19-year-old Spitfire fighter pilot penned this poem, he was killed in an in-flight collision.

You and I want to fly where even eagles cannot fly and walk the untrespassed sanctity of space. You and want in this life to put out our hands and touch the face of God.

Let us do it then, but let us learn the lessons of life I learned from watching my father fly:

  1. Check things before you take off.
  2. Always take off into the wind.
  3. Turbulence is normal and almost always tolerable.
  4. Know where you’re going and keep your eye on your map and your compass
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