On my way to meet Richard Bach, I’m as nervous as I am excited. Is the man behind Jonathan Livingston Seagull as mystical, resolute and adventurous an aviator as his little-seagull-that-could? Would the fighter pilot-turned-barnstormer-turned-best-selling author intimidate? But the tall, unassuming man who greets me at the airport is friendly, approachable and real. And above all else, he’s a pilot. We visit his 1943 Grumman G-44 Widgeon, which is receiving some TLC in the maintenance shop, and then take to the skies in his 1980 Lake LA-4-200 Buccaneer. At 15 feet above sea level, the water below rushes as fast as our freedom soars, and when Richard passes the flight controls to me, he also passes trust. Later, back on earth, Richard’s gentle, melodious voice—perfectly suited for storytelling—is childish with excitement as he speaks about what flying means to him.
Are you Richard the Pilot or Richard the Author?
I am a creature of the sky and that drives both my flying and writing. Part of me has always yearned to get back to the essential me: a free creature, not bound by space and time unless I so choose. The elements of choice and consent are really important. In flying, you have a calling that each of us can pursue by our consent and our earnest applied study—they don’t just hand out private-pilot licenses. In return for our study and practice, we earn an enormous freedom.
Flying says to us: Don’t tell me who you are by letters after your name, a list of accomplishments or numbers in your bank account; tell me who you are by how well you fly this airplane. I will now give you a 30-knot crosswind. I don’t care who you are, but I do care if you’ll keep this thing going straight down the runway.
When Jonathan Livingston Seagull came out, I was getting way too much attention. It was a blessed relief to be able to climb into my airplane and have a friend—albeit in the form of what we call a machine—who said, “All that stuff is over now, Richard. You just shut the cabin door and it’s you and me.” The more you fly an airplane, the more bonded you become. An airplane can’t do it alone. A pilot can’t do it alone. But when they come together, you’ve got a new creature in all of history and that’s a human being who flies.
A notation in Richard’s logbook (above) recalls a hydraulic leak in his aircraft’s gear system that led him to fly the amphibian with gear down over water, an unusual configuration for a seaplane pilot. Strong winds compounded the situation.
What audience do you write for?
I write for myself. I’ll find an idea that’s fascinating to me and figure out what vocabulary I have to speak of it. Much of my experience is flying; lots of my characters fly or know about flying. With JLS I did my best to communicate a story that made sense to me. I thought only fliers would understand it—wrong! I was stunned when nonfliers said they really enjoyed the book, and I wasn’t prepared to be number one on the bestseller list. There was a lot of ridicule as well, but I didn’t care that much. The Jonathan Seagull that I know is very important; I love that little character. I see him as someone who loved to fly, and from his flying, learned certain truths.
I’ll always have a warm place in my heart for fliers—I understand them and they understand me. There’s a sense of family when I’m at an airport. I don’t have to say “hi” or wave, but I feel a connection with someone way down the line who’s getting out of their amphibian, Twin Beech or Cessna 172. That person has had to meet certain requirements, and every time they push the throttle forward for takeoff, it requires a little bit of courage: “I know the engine may quit but I’m going to do it anyway because I’m skilled enough and I trust myself to put this airplane down safely.” I like that kind of person. I like that person that I see in myself; I’m part of that family too.
What’s your perfect airplane?
The ideal is a mix of many planes, but if I could only have one airplane in my life, I’d probably have a J-3 Cub. It would have an 85 hp engine, wing tanks and floats. A Piper Cub is the gentle, humble little siren of airplanes. It says, “I’m the epitome of low-speed, low-altitude and land-anywhere aircraft.” I reply, “Now that’s being a little self-important, Ms. J-3. What about an ultralight who can go slower and lower?” But she shakes her head and dismisses them. “I’m a J-3 Cub.” There’s so much class there; I love the Cub.
Much of your literature is about barnstorming. Does that kind of flying still exist?
Absolutely. No question about it. When I was doing it a lot I could survive on $3 a ride. I could buy gas and oil and hamburgers. Ideally today, I’d like to do it for $2, as a sign that I want the ride to be of value. Now whether I could survive…I don’t know. All through the Midwest you can almost always find places to land; my rides are out of farm fields close to a small town. If the farmer has just cut the hay—it’s brown from the air—then there’s a kind of ingenuousness about landing your little airplane in a field that’s so innocent and so trusting.
You couldn’t do the same thing on a motorcycle. If you took your Harley Davidson and decided you were going to sleep in a field, the farmer would probably be distressed. But a Piper Cub has charm and is understandable. “I’m making an odyssey across this beautiful land of ours, sir. And I saw your lovely field and I saw that you just cut your hay so I’m not hurting money crop. I wonder if it would be okay with you if I stay here; I’ll be gone by dawn.” They’ll look at you, smile and say, “Sure.”
A Cub is nonthreatening. How does it cool its engine? Well, it sticks its little cylinders out in the air! How do you start it? You turn the propeller by hand. Kids touch the airplane and say, “It’s cloth!” The reactions to an airplane in a town that doesn’t have an airport are lovely. It’s a moment of passage when passengers lift out of the hay field and they see the horizon and look down at the water tower. My biplane had room for two passengers in the front. I could tell they were always scared because I’d see white claws holding onto the cockpit, squishing the leather as we bumped over the not-so-smooth ground, and they thought, “Is this the last minute of my life?” Then you push the throttle forward, and it gets louder and bumpier and crashier, but then all of a sudden, it goes smooth. The ground goes away, and they relax. And they look back and give you a big smile and the wind’s tearing their hair into knots and we’ll circle over their farm and someone will come out on the porch and wave. It’s traveling back in time along a soft emerald road in which we don’t live in fear.
Do you plan to write another aviation book?
I don’t know that I will ever finish it, but my wife challenged me to write everything I know about flying. My first reaction was that I could write it on a pinhead. But I’ve been messing around with airplanes for a lot of years, and this idea is a fun challenge to approach.
Everyone has their own version of things they never learned in flight school, but some of my ideas are controversial. If the weather is going bad around you, land. Don’t look for an airport. Airplanes have landed in fields for years and year and years—simply pick a level field and land. Granted, some airplanes are a little better at landing off airport, but much preferable to tear the nosewheel off and be sitting on the ground than to be up in the air and have all kinds of bad things happen.
I want there to be an organization called Captain Chicken. The only way you can join is by writing an account of something you decided that you wouldn’t do, even though there were other people who could. I’m so glad I’m a chicken. One of the old maxims of flying is that pilots’ funerals always happened on sunny days. Early aviators would die in the weather, and at their funeral three days later, the storms were gone. They could have waited. So can we.
Richard plays in his 1943 Grumman G-44 Widgeon in the maintenance shop where it’s being serviced.
What does flying mean to you?
Ask airline pilots why they do what they do, and they say, “It beats working.” Other times you talk with them and they will tell you about flying from Los Angeles to Tokyo at night. There’s no moon, but there are the stars and the sea and you feel adrift in space. They’re trying to say something that they can’t say. We sometimes feel so insignificant, and other times we feel so joyfully, gloriously empowered by flight. And so I think everyone who flies is at some level asking to be deeply touched by what happens. The experience of becoming part of the sky is something that leaves most of us wordless.
You look at your logbook and think back on flights, but how can you tell it to someone? If you’re crazy like me, you’ll try. Maybe it touches something with others or maybe it misses the mark. I’m willing to be a fool in print. I think about what we learn, flying. How to trust what we can’t see: Not steel cables, but the invisible principle of aerodynamics is going to lift our airplane and us with it. When we learn instrument flying and we climb, don’t mind the rain or the gray or the rough air—sooner or later, we’ll break out on top. We’ll touch beautiful sunlight and the storm will fall below us. I remember that, when I’m going through difficult times in my life. Keep climbing. No matter what.
After 37 years, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach, with photography by Russell Munson, is still in print.