Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Include, Don’t Exclude

A look at some of the deterrents to flying and what can be done to reverse them

A young Wagstaff at the controls of a DC-6.
We all love stories of how people are seduced by aviation, but it's just as interesting to know what keeps them out. I understand time and money issues, but a lot of people say they just had the wrong beginning—bad press, family members expressing fear or sometimes a scary ride turned them off from ever considering getting their pilot's license. Can we bring them in instead of keeping them out?

A lot of us who grew up in aviation had positive and encouraging early experiences. When I was six years old, I held my mother's hand as we stepped on to a gangplank, looking up at a big DC-6 that would to take us from San Francisco to Hawaii. I was excited but a little scared. When I told my mother I had butterflies in my stomach, she scolded me. I was being silly, she said. After all, it was only an airplane, and my father was at the controls! My fear instantly melted away. Such is the power of a mother's encouraging words at a young age.

When I was nine, we moved to Japan. Trans-ocean flights in those big four-engine recips were endless like The High and the Mighty, but I loved being up in the air, making visits to the cockpit, and watching the sun rise over the ocean. It was magic. And, as a plus, I never got airsick. My mother had already told me that "turbulence was fun" (though I doubt that she really felt that way).

Infatuated by aviation's romance and potential for escape, I begged my parents for any opportunity to ditch school and fly with my father on his trips around Japan. I loved being around those airplanes as much as I wanted to be with the people who flew and operated them.

I remember the first time my father got out of the left seat and put me in it. Pointing to the altimeter, airspeed and attitude indicators, he told me how to keep the airplane straight and level, and told me a good pilot was a smooth pilot. Then he put on his Captain's hat and went to the back, as they did in those days, to greet the passengers. Of course, there was always a kind copilot who enjoyed watching this 10-year-old girl fly and answering her questions about the switches and gauges.

They were my first flying lessons. My father and his friends were professional, low-key gentlemen, and while they might have displayed a few tail feathers to the stewardesses on occasion, it was never visible to my young eyes. I never equated flying with fear, exclusiveness, brashness or ego, but apparently some people do.

We've heard all the stories. Case in point, I have a girlfriend who was given a ride in high school by a "friend" who insisted on showing her how well he could stall (and stall and stall) the Cessna he was flying. Years later, she can still hear the stall warning horn that scared her so much she never wants to get in any airplane again! Ironically, the pilot called it a "joy" ride.


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