That’s a harder question than it first appears. It is tempting, seductively so, to just finish this right now with five words, and then walk away whistling, hands in pockets, hoping nobody notices: “Because it’s fun. The End.” But let’s assume, for the sake of discussion anyway, that I can come up with something a little better, or at least a little longer than that.
You could say that flying is in my blood as I’m a second-generation pilot periodically following in the vortices of my father, an airline pilot who began his career in a DC-3 and retired in a 747. My parents met on an airplane, a DC-6 — dad the captain, mom the stewardess in an era when it was not only okay to call her that, it was company policy that she be fired when she got married.
I was even named after an airplane, at least after a fashion. My parents had been considering names for me, and one of their choices was Harald, the name and its spelling an acknowledgment of the Scandinavian halves of their ancestry. They took a trip to Copenhagen while my mom was expecting me, and they flew on SAS, aboard a DC-8-55 named Harald Viking — choice made.
Of course, a lot of nurture sprang from those bits of nature; flying and flying machines were a constant thread in childhood. There were pictures of airplanes on the walls and books about them on the shelves. My first pedal-car, shared with my older brothers, was an airplane. And it even “flew,” thanks to a well-strung wire that started up the hill above our house and ended with the airplane making a perfect carrier-style landing on our deck.
My toys were rubber-band-powered North Pacific Sleek-Streeks and Skeeters, Vertibirds and U-Fly-It, foam Delta Darts, and die-cast Hurricanes and Spitfires from Dinky. If it flew, or looked like it should, or might, I encouraged it. Encouraged it, that is, by throwing it, and, if necessary, pointing my hands at it like a cartoon genie and yelling, “Fly!” My powers peaked on airplane-watching trips to nearby airports, when I learned that even mighty jetliners would fly at my well-timed command, but were ignominiously retired in what’s known as “the dinner plate incident.”
As a kid, I lived on a private airstrip with a hangar in the front yard and a runway in the back. I first flew the family airplane, a 1944 Cessna T-50, when I was 4 years old and had to sit on phonebooks just to see the artificial horizon — it would be a few years before I was tall enough to see the real thing. I begged neighbors and fly-in visitors for rides and stick time in everything from a Breezy to a hot-air balloon. I moved away from the airstrip after I turned 18, full of teenage independence, and I’ve been trying to figure out how to get back ever since.
The subsequent years got me my private and instrument, and 29 years (and counting) of being “just about finished” with my commercial, and I’ve been lucky enough to fly scores of different types, especially for someone who has managed never to actually fly for a living.
It is safe, then, to say that I’ve had an affinity for flight as long as I can remember. Longer, even, as they tell me I had my first airplane ride when I was 6 months old. But why has it stayed with me, why does it still hold such importance, 579 months and nearly as many careers later?
For some people, flying is an adrenaline rush, an extreme sport, but that’s never been the case with me. That’s not to say that I don’t find flying fun and exciting, or that I’m strictly a sunny-day, low-and-slow, round-the-patch sort of pilot, though that is my first love. No, I like the occasional burst of speed and I enjoy aerobatics and instrument approaches, when I’m prepared for them. But I’m not a daredevil, not an adrenaline junkie. I don’t fly because I might die, although I do try to fly better because of that.
If I have one thing in common with history’s great thinkers, Renaissance men like da Vinci, Galileo, and Jefferson (and, despite the evidence, let’s just blithely assume that I do), it’s that I’ve never been content to identify myself as either right- or left-brained. My creativity is matched by my reasoning which is a nice way of saying that I’m just as bad an artist as I am an engineer.
In giving a talk about da Vinci and his designs for and dreams of flight at a museum, it occurred to me that the right half of his brain wanted to fly and the left half wanted to build the things that might get him there. Five hundred years on, taking to the air on the shoulders of giants, I find that flying is one of the only things that feeds both halves of my brain — the left side manipulates the machine while the right side is free to wax rhapsodic about the view.
I fly because it satisfies my need for input. The down side of being interested in everything is being interested in everything. My mind doesn’t like to rest, but prefers to flit lightly from topic to topic, pausing only rarely, only when things get really interesting. But when I’m flying, my mind is right there and right then. I’m always thinking ahead of the airplane, but never ahead of the flight.
Taking my dime store psychology a step further, it’s as if my fragile attention span is a lock, and much of my time is spent with a noisy and competing series of lock-picks, occasionally tripping a tumbler or two. I’m always on the lookout for the next thing, another combination of tools that might work if I wedge them in just so. But when I fly it’s like inserting a key — the tumblers slide easily out of the way, the lock is unlocked, and a door opens to a world of metaphors that mercifully write themselves.
I fly because I’ve been around it my whole life. I fly not to risk that life, but to live it. I fly because it uses my whole brain, and because it demands, holds, and rewards my attention.
Naturally, there are some more prosaic reasons as well: I fly because I love history, and because I love machines. I fly because I love the tangible application of theories and skills, and the way the world looks from a few hundred to several thousand feet up. I love the figurative change in perspective that comes with the literal, and I love being able to share that with people who might not otherwise have had the opportunity.
The real reason I fly, though, is unquestionably the simplest of all: I fly because I can’t not.
Oh, and because it’s fun.
Note: I originally wrote this about 7 years ago for a blog I was associated with called WhyFly. I had to update it a little — mainly the part about how many months I’ve been alive — but I’ve found that it’s as true today as it was then, if not more so. Special thanks to Michelle Goodeve for the header photo, the best picture of me ever taken.