If it had happened only once, I would have passed it off as just one conversation with an aviation newbie. He had to be new to aviation not to know Richard Bach’s name. But then it happened again. And this time, the student not only didn’t know Bach, but he didn’t know Ernie Gann either. Then it happened with another student. And another. I was floored. So much so that for the next month, each time a new student sat down in “The Ground School Chair” in my office, I’d bounce those legendary names, plus Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and a few others, off of them.
In truth, about all I accomplished that month was sending myself into a serious funk. How could names as gigantic as Bach, Gann, Saint-Exupéry and others of their literary ilk not remain emblazoned in the minds of all aviators, young and old?
First, let me clarify what “student” means in my world. It’s a licensed pilot who has decided that he or she wants to a.) master a supposedly wild little machine (it isn’t); b.) increase his or her proficiency (he/she will); c.) check off another box on a bucket list (this will also happen); or d.) walk on the wild side (inevitably, he/she will love it). These aren’t your average students, as their taste and their goals are way out on the end of the bell-shaped curve. They’re out where words like “serious enthusiast” and “hard-core” are used. Of all the pilots on the planet, I thought these would be the ones who knew the works and the words of those whom I’ve always regarded as heroes. But they didn’t. And don’t.
As I’m having this conversation with my digital interpreter, I realize there’s probably a sizable percentage of people reading this column who don’t know those names either. And I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. A lot of time has passed and a lot of changes have come about since they penned their fabulous works. Some of Richard Bach’s best works, such as Stranger To The Ground and Nothing By Chance, came out in the 1960s, and the obscenely popular Jonathan Livingston Seagull came out in 1970. To many of us, that isn’t that long ago. But I shouldn’t be surprised when a 30-something pilot doesn’t know Bach’s name; he was barely born when the author’s star shot into the stratosphere. [See “A Visit With Richard Bach” in Pilot Journal May/June 2007.]
And then there’s Ernest “Ernie” K. Gann. People who consider themselves to be “writers” need to read almost any of the 21 novels he wrote, starting in 1940 and running into the 1980s. If, after reading something like Fate Is The Hunter, said writers still consider themselves to be writers, then those people have a stronger ego and a less realistic view of their work than most of us do. Gann could paint a picture with words that put you right up there in a storm or had you working your way down onto a narrow strip in a forgotten valley with his fictional hero. One of my favorite phrases comes from one of his many aviation articles, this one about flying DC-3s; he titled it “On The Beak Of An Ancient Pelican.” How can computer jockeys like me compete with something as simple and elegant as that? The smart ones—and I’m one of those—don’t even try.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry predates WWII, but his Night Flight and Wind, Sand And Stars became classics before the ink was dry. The Little Prince made him famous, but, in the minds of many aviators, his aviation books are what made him memorable.
The world is full of those who think they can write. In fact, the world is full of wordsmiths that are held in high esteem by the aviation public. And, yes, most of us who pound keys for a living know how to string words together and make a point. Given the fact that my little survey shows that about nine out of ten pilots don’t know these writers, however, raises suspicions about their ability to judge prose. If you’re judging a writer by using any of us who clog up magazine pages with words as a measure, you’re using a noodle for a yardstick. Crack open any Bach or Gann book, read any paragraph and then tell me you if you still feel the same way about magazine writers. Most of us anyway. Oh, yeah, there’s something else about writers like Bach, Gann and Saint-Exupéry (okay, so I can’t pronounce it either): they were/are pilots. Real pilots. When Bach writes about the tension of hunkering down in an alert hangar while strapped into an F-100, it sounds real, because he’s been there. His tales of barnstorming a Parks biplane sound so personal because they are. When Gann spins a yarn about anything (and I mean anything) from Saint Elmo’s fire dancing around a cockpit to fighting through a gale at sea in a sailing ship, he’s just describing his own life as a longtime transport pilot and sailor. And Saint-Exupéry can make crashing in the desert or desperately threading the passes in the Andes sound lyrical because he’s singing his own song. He did it. He understands it. He can describe it. He also orchestrated a seemingly poetic death by disappearing over the Mediterranean in a P-38.
It chokes me up to think I’m flying with pilots who have never soared, laughed or philosophized with the likes of Bach, Gann and Saint-Exupéry. They’re missing so much. If, when you finish reading this, you have to admit that you haven’t tasted their prose either, then do us both a favor. Google the aforementioned names, pick out a few titles and let Amazon.com make a few more bucks off you. Believe me, you’ll never regret it. Never.
Budd Davisson is an accomplished aviation writer and photographer, CFII & CFIA, aircraft owner and builder. He has authored two books and lectured at the Smithsonian and NASA’s Langley Research Center. Check out his website at www.airbum.com.