People will often ask, “Why are you so crazy about flying?” “I really enjoy it” is a typical response. Reflecting on my own passion for flying and that of others, I’ve come to believe that there is something more complex going on than just pure thrills and enjoyment. If all we wanted were thrills, we’d be riding roller coasters or other activities of that ilk. Many theories that attempt to understand human motivation revolve around the fulfillment of needs.
One of my favorites is the twentieth century theorist Abraham Maslow and his “Hierarchy of Needs.” Maslow identified “higher level” needs related to accomplishment and achievement. Maslow believed that these “Esteem Needs” are a fundamental human desire to engage in activities that reward us with feelings of confidence, mastery, competence, and achievement. Look closely at the words that describe the Esteem Needs. Confidence, mastery, competence, and achievement. I believe that what we discover in flying is an activity that fulfills these needs completely. I would argue that pilots in general have a stronger and more deeply instilled need for these higher level Esteem Needs. I would go so far to say that we require a more “triumphant” and consequential experience to satisfy those needs than most of the general population. Across the continuum of human activities, few activities so challenge the body and mind or carry with them the consequences of success or failure. Every time we fly, we are tested in many ways and our performance has life and death consequences. Flying is an activity that demands knowledge and mastery of many complex things. Doing it all successfully has a tremendous emotional payoff and undoubtedly leads to our personal growth. After a particularly challenging flight where skills and knowledge are tested, I feel a unique exhilaration and sense of personal achievement. After putting away my airplane I look back to the sky and can’t help but smile. I’ve escaped the Earth and challenged the sky—a personal triumph each and every time.
Every pilot I have ever flown with projects a certain self-confidence. For much of my twenty-two-year career with the Navy, I flew from the decks of the Navy’s carriers in the back seats of Lockheed S-3 Vikings. I was witness to some amazing pilots. I believe that the majority and usually the best ones weren’t the swaggering egotistical icons we would think of. Actually, I recall very few like that. Most had moved beyond the need for others to recognize them, for women to worship them, for other pilots to envy them etc. Most had a quiet but apparent confidence that revealed their higher level needs were being satisfied from within themselves.
I would argue that pilots in general are a restless bunch and we seek out new flying challenges throughout our lives. As a student pilot, I vividly recall flying solo as my first “triumph” in an airplane. Eventually, it became routine. Cross-country flying then became my next triumph with the added challenges of weather, navigation, terrain, and unfamiliar airfields. Night cross-countries add another dimension and sense of triumph. As our skills progress and our flying becomes more routine, many of us were motivated toward the greater challenges of a complex/high performance airplane, a twin, instrument flight or perhaps aerobatics. There is a limitless opportunity for new triumphant experiences in flying. Many pilots who choose a flying career will eventually make a full circle—achieving the pinnacle of flying success as a military pilot or trans-oceanic airline captain and then find themselves motivated back to the simple joys of knocking around in a J-3 Cub or soaring down cloud streets in a sailplane. Triumph can come in many shapes and sizes.
The consequences of flying can reveal how fleeting is our time on planet Earth and how quickly it can all end. I was in deep peril a number of times in airplanes. The first and most memorable time was one night overhead the USS Eisenhower. We were attempting to refuel our S-3 Viking from a KA-7 tanker in a pitch-black night. After a long scouting mission, we had been delayed in the stack of airplanes waiting to make their approach and we were running low on fuel. I was sitting behind the LTJG pilot at the Sensor Operator station. The “JG” was struggling to latch up to the refueling basket that extended back from the “Sargent-Fletcher” refueling pod on the KA-7’s left wing. He made 3 or 4 unsuccessful attempts, each time correctly diving below the KA-7’s altitude to back off and try again. Trying again from perhaps too low and too far left, he came up and into the basket with too much power and banked toward the KA-7. He overshot badly and went up and over the top of the KA-7. We had banked enough toward the KA-7 that from my back seat, looking out the copilot windshield, I could see the KA-7 pilot’s head turn and look at us. We were just a few feet away and coming down on top of him at 250 knots. The refueling hose and basket came around and bounced off the left engine nacelle before disappearing below. It nearly took out that engine. I don’t know how our right wing missed the KA-7’s tail. I slammed back into my seat and reached for the ejection handle. Any loud crunching noises and I was punching out. It didn’t happen. Luckily, we rolled off to the left as the KA-7 stuffed the nose and dove away to the right. The “JG” was too shook up to continue with the refueling and a more senior LT flying co-pilot plugged the basket on the first try from the right seat. To his credit the “JG” recovered his composure and made an “Okay 3 Wire” a perfect night carrier landing.
The whole episode lasted perhaps two to three seconds but every detail is burned into my memory to this day. I learned a lot that night and was sobered by the reality that flying presents unequaled consequences for unsuccessful performance. That experience didn’t deter me from continuing as an Aircrew man or from pursuing a Private Pilot ticket later in life. I did approach it with a newfound respect for the consequences that before seemed more distant or “couldn’t happen to me.” Looking back, I believe that deep down, we thrived on the dangerous aspect of carrier operations. Each flight provided a level of triumph and consequence that few have ever experienced. I truly believe that such experiences set in motion a unique paradox. We learn to see life as a precious gift and yet we continue to seek out an adventurous life of great challenge and risks. A life devoid of those triumphant and consequential experiences makes us feel restless and unfulfilled.
The final need described by Maslow was the need to “Self-Actualize,” to achieve our full potential as human beings. Maslow used the example of Einstein and other great minds to develop his criteria for a self-actualized person. While we may not be among the great minds of history, I believe that many of us find flying to be our conduit to self-actualization. Many of us feel that the triumph and consequence of flying brings us to the peak of our performance and potential. Triumph and consequence—I’m convinced they keep us coming back to the challenge the sky.