Almost regardless of our age, 20-something to gray dog, it’s impossible not to engage in those “Hey, do you remember when…?” moments, where we look back at experiences, people and times in our lives when something memorable happened. Then as we progress through life, we find ourselves hitting milestones that make it impossible not to look back because of the amazement attached to specific numbers. Fifty is one of those numbers.
When we’re student pilots, 50 hours hang in front of us as some sort of incandescent carrot urging us on. Even though at that stage in our av-development we know 50 hours isn’t much in the grand scheme of things, to us, it’s a big deal. The next flight-hour big deal is 100 hours, then 500 hours, then the legendary 1,000 hours. But, 50 is still the first big one. By the time we reach it, we look around and realize that we’re actually becoming comfortable with the concept of three dimensions. If, as with so many new pilots, we didn’t get into the game until after the career was established and the kids were out of college, we breeze past the 50-hour mark and often ask, “Why didn’t I start this sooner? Look how much I’ve missed!”
As our flying life continues and we begin diversifying our aviating, some of us start keeping track of how many different airplanes we’ve flown as PIC. In that area, 50 definitely looms as a big number. Many pilots, even those of the professional variety, go through life never hitting 50. At the same time others, those we know as “type hunters,” often saddle up in over 300 totally different types. To some, it’s just part of progressing up the ladder, and the number is of no consequence. To others, adding types is an incurable disease that keeps the number continuously growing.
Then, a day arrives that we’ve always anticipated with such dread, when we really shouldn’t. That’s when the date on our driver’s license says we’re officially 50 years old! That’s right! We’ve been sucking in air for half a century. Five decades! The day’s arrival inevitably kicks off a ton of self-reflection and is usually accompanied by the full expectation that at any minute, our entire body is going to fall apart. Depending on the miles and maintenance, that could happen, but if it does, it’s our own fault. Otherwise, 50 is just another decade. As it happens, it’s one of the best decades.
Fifty years of age, pilot or otherwise, is when all of those experiences life has handed us combine to make us a much smarter, more talented, more capable human being than we’ve ever been. Okay, so maybe we can’t run as fast as we could when we were 20, but who cares? Every other aspect of our life has gotten, and will continue to get, better. We’ll look back on how smart we thought we were when 25 with a degree of humor. At that age, we didn’t know what we didn’t know.
A caveat: the foregoing comment may or may not apply to all people as they age. Aside from the health differences, it’s highly probable that there are lots of folks who can arrive at 50 only slightly improved from 30. This is because they’ve made no effort to expand their horizons and better themselves. In effect, they’ve lived Groundhog Day, repeating every year day-by-day.
The foregoing having been said, it’s an absolute guarantee that no one reading these words falls into that category. This is guaranteed because every soul reading this is interested in aviation, and it doesn’t matter whether he/she is a pilot or not. The fact that the interest exists automatically says that they’re keeping up with a passion, and passions are the keys to cruising into your 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond vastly improved from prior decades. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself as my own decades stack up.
I got a gray-dog shocker the other day when, for some reason, I had to figure out how long I’ve been an active flight instructor. The number that popped up was 50. HOLY….! I actually pulled out a calculator and ran the numbers twice because when I did them in my head, I couldn’t (or didn’t want to) believe them. Fifty years! People say that when you’re about to die, your life flashes before your eyes, and that’s exactly what happened when “50” popped up in the calculator’s window. I suddenly saw practically every student and every airplane in which I had instructed race across my mind’s eye like a documentary filmed in hyper-motion. I practically refused to believe I’ve been playing this same game for that long.
For whatever reason, I can picture my very first student: He was an av-cadet when I started instructing for the University of Oklahoma’s ROTC contract program in ’65. I was in grad school, and it was the last semester that the school used Champs before transitioning over to those newfangled Cherokees, which is why I have a soft spot for Champs. And Cherokees. From that point on, the newsreel in my mind raced through Cubs into Citabrias and then Pitts, with a few other types scattered between. At least several thousand students have survived my abuse, and every one of them taught me things that I’m still using to this very day.
Students have very definitely taught me at least as much as I’ve taught them, but equally as important is that they’ve blunted the usually sharp knife of aging. Am I a gray dog? Damn straight I am—and proud of it! But because of all I’ve learned from those students, I feel as if I’ve escaped much of the slowdown normally attached to an advancing calendar. They’ve kept me sharp. They’ve taught me humor under stress. They’ve taught me the importance of having a good time when learning a new skill. And believe me, I’m still learning.
Yeah, I’m still learning, and I’m really looking forward to all I’m going to learn in the coming decade. Age? Bring it on! I have the antidote: It’s called “flying.”