I'm not sure if it's a good or a bad thing, but a couple of months ago, I hit 5,000 hours of Pitts dual-given (most of it in the pattern). For me, this is a milestone of sorts, and it got me thinking back. It was early 1971 when I climbed over the side of N22Q, Curtis Pitts' prototype of his then-new two-place biplane. It would be my first flight in a Pitts, and I had no idea how much that flight would change my life. Or that 41 years later, I'd still be flying one.
It's actually pretty amazing the way some inanimate objects can affect your life in so many ways. It could be a P-51D. Or a '57 Chevy. Or an 1873 Colt Single Action. Or a knucklehead Harley Springer. It could be any of a number of different machines that have a special aura that draws people to them and renders them helpless, or at least senseless (as in having no sense).
I can't explain why some machines suck so many of us in like a tar baby. They seem to possess an indefinable mojo that creeps into your soul and becomes part of it before you even know it. Actually, now that I think about it, inanimate objects like these could be considered a form of narcotic. And they certainly aren't inanimate, at least not as the term is defined by the general population.
I'm certain I don't need to be talking about this subject because it's the kind of thing a person either totally understands already or they can't imagine what we're talking about: You either "get" it or you don't. And explaining won't help. It is, however, logical to ask how an inanimate object, like an airplane, can possibly have such a strong effect on what path your life takes.
First, bear in mind that what follows isn't a learned explanation. It's just wild guesses based on my own not-too-limited experience with machine addiction in different areas.
One of the strong attractions appears to be the sense of community that surrounds some machines. This varies from machine to machine, but when the contraption is one that flies, the community can be more properly defined as "family," not just "community." This is what gives rise to type clubs, like the rabid Bonanza Society or the hyper-rabid Swift Association. There is, however, a subtle, hard-to-define difference between Bonanza "enthusiasts" (I hate that term because it trivializes what a near-obsession is), for example, and the Pitts community. The Pitts community is different from the type clubs because a lot of us don't seem to be joiners.
For some indefinable reason, there's no Pitts type club. To a man/woman, each Pitts pilot, whether they fly competition or not—most don't—is a vaguely separate entity. Sort of a loner. While they share a lot of the same tastes, they're as diverse as any group I've ever encountered. Wildly diverse, actually. At the same time, there are very distinct common traits that hide under sometimes deceiving exteriors.
Among the shared traits is that they're keenly aware of the reputation that dogs their airplanes: Word has it that they're "squirrely" and "twitchy," and so difficult to land that only the terminally insane would fly them more than once. On the one hand, most Pitts pilots agree that the airplane's reputation has been blown entirely out of proportion. On the other hand, every single one of them can remember a landing (or five) that they'd just as soon forget. I can think of a couple dozen of mine that fit into that category. Still, somehow, that doesn't make us think of our mounts as being difficult to control. Only that some days we're better than on other days. The airplane is always the same. It's the pilot that changes and the challenge to be up to snuff is always there. Always! And that points to another trait: the compulsive nature of getting better at what we do.
The airplane isn't all that hard to fly safely, but it's damn hard to fly and make look good on a continual basis. On average, most of us would rate one out of five of our landings as being good. The rest vary from being less than perfect to downright ugly, with the average leaning toward "not terrible." And this is an attractive trait to most of us. Why, I don't know, because it's a nonsensical reaction. It may be the challenge thing.
And then there's the way it flies! The way it gives absolutely complete three-dimensional freedom. It reduces gravity to a temporary inconvenience that you can pretty much ignore but never forget. It redefines up and down, inside and outside, because it really doesn't care whether it's right-side up or upside down. And if you want to go someplace, you just point the nose in that direction, and that's where you go. Still, trying to do every maneuver better than the last one eggs us on.
Maybe that promise of freedom is what draws us in. I've felt a similar psychological rush while blasting down the highway astraddle a healthy V-Twin. And while accelerating up a sweeping on-ramp in the dark, the uncapped headers on my roadster letting the world know I was there and all four tires moaning from the side loads.
It's moments like the above that keep us all coming back to those machines. It's as if they touch something deep within us and, as the saying goes, "complete us." They aren't inanimate objects. They're friends, soulmates, spirits that have joined with our own. And we don't expect everyone to understand any of this. Why should they? We don't understand it ourselves.
After 5,000 hours in the pattern at roughly eight landings an hour, I can honestly say that I can't imagine not doing it. Sometimes, I'll sneak out to the airport early in the morning and blast out to the practice area with everything against the firewall. I'll pull a few Gs, twist a few tails, then when I come back, make a half-dozen touch-and-goes, trying hard to make each one better and shorter than the last. Afterward, I always leave the airport with the silly grin on my face that's the mark of the satisfied addict. It's a high that can't be matched.
P.S. I hereby promise not to mention my little red airplane for six more months. Maybe. You do understand that you can't really trust a machine addict not to mention the object of his addiction, right?