Life is a journey, not a destination. – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Airplanes didn’t exist in Mr. Emerson’s time, but the essence of his deft observation certainly applies to general aviation (GA) travel around the four corners of the compass. Even though we pilots love flying as an activity in and of itself, the goal-oriented qualities essential to getting us to and through the certification process make us particularly vulnerable to destination-focused “get-there-itis.”
This mentality gets an additional boost from technological advances. The combination of today’s more reliable engines, more comfortable airframes, and more capable avionics can vastly improve our chances of meeting a transportation-by-GA objective. When piloting a sleek GA bird whose glass panel gadgets can put airliners to shame, it’s easy to think of the airplane as your personal airliner and press on. The problem with the personal airline destination focus, of course, is that even the most capable GA aircraft can’t come close to airliner-style performance, and most GA pilots lack the kind of intensive training and extensive experience of their airline counterparts. As too many accidents show in painful clarity, these facts do not give us anything close to the capabilities that allow air carriers to operate safely in almost any weather condition.
For this reason (and others to be discussed shortly), one of the most important safety steps we GA pilots can take is to reset – or rebalance – the mindset in favor of enjoying the journey rather than fixating on the destination. Just as we are sup¬posed to approach every landing primed to execute a go-around if needed, we need to approach every trip with a diversion mentality – and be pleasantly surprised if we make it to the originally-intended destination as scheduled.
Time to Spare…
Let’s get this part out of the way first. You’ve probably heard the “time to spare – go by air” maxim. Please take it to heart, and make it part of your GA safety mindset. If you or one of your passengers absolutely, positively, has to reach the destination by a specific time, do the smart thing. Either use a more reliable form of transportation, or build plenty of buffer time into the overall trip. The “external pressures” part of the PAVE risk management checklist (Pilot, Aircraft, enVironment, External Pressures) can create an incredibly powerful incentive to keep heading to the destination, regardless of other circumstances. So do whatever it takes to avoid the vise-like pressure to press forward.
See What’s In Between
The most important reason for going from one place to another is to see what’s in between, and they took great pleasure in doing just that. – Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth
When flying “to” a specific place, too many of us focus almost exclusively on what’s “here” and what’s “there,” with little thought to anything of possible interest in between. Though I have a strong tendency to do this myself, I try to remember and learn from the wisdom of my parents. After one of my brothers moved to the West Coast of the United States, they made four separate visits…by car. When their baffled eldest daughter (that would be me) inquired as to why they didn’t just jump on an airliner, the answer was simple: “Because there’s so much to see between here and there.” They never took the same route twice, and they made the most of each trip because they were open to the pleasure of all the places they saw en route.
I had a great chance to practice seeing what’s in between several years ago, when I joined two friends for a no-kidding cross-country flight from Virginia to Arizona in their Cessna T206. With multiple legs flown over three days outbound and two days returning, we had many opportunities to see some of this country’s endless variety. That leads to my next point.
Enjoy the Experience
The journey matters as much as the destination. By engaging in the moment on set, I’ve stopped rushing and now find pleasure in the collaborative process – the characters, the costumes – rather than worrying about the finished product. – Michelle Dockery
Have fun as you see and experience all those “in between” places on the journey. As the “Downton Abbey” actress observes, engaging fully in each moment along the way is the key to enjoying the experience and making memories that you’ll enjoy for a lifetime. Some of my favorite and most enjoyable memories from the GA cross-country voyage were formed during the stops we made. For example, the first day featured a celebratory lunch in Lexington with two more flying friends, one of whom had just been named CFI of the Year. At another stop, a friend of a friend met us at the airport, provided transportation to a local hotel, and topped it all off by taking us to dinner and an evening tour of his hometown. Still another stop was memorable because absolutely nobody was at the small west Texas airport where we stopped for fuel. There was a code to access the cozy little FBO, and our absent hosts had thoughtfully left a basket of snacks for itinerant pilots. But we did not see another soul on that stop – an experience we could never imagine at any airport in our congested home airspace.
Learn from the Journey
Sometimes it’s the journey that teaches you a lot about your destination. – Drake
Being pilots, we can also enjoy the experience of aviating as we motor from “here” to “there.” The destination is at least partly about improving pilot knowledge and skills, but the enjoyable process of flying the airplane can also teach us a great deal as long as we are open to the lessons it can teach. On the Virginia to Arizona trip, my pilot companions and I experienced weather, terrain, and atmospheric conditions (e.g., high density altitude) that none of us had ever encountered before. We all ended the trip having learned a lot – but we also learned how much more there is to master in the magical art and science of aviation.
In addition to the lessons we learned about flying, we also learned (again) just how wonderful our fellow aviators can be.
Adjust Your Expectations
I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination. – Jimmy Dean
Adapted for aviation, Jimmy Dean’s astute observation is an important element in the “savor the journey” mindset. In GA airplanes, as in sailboats, we can’t control or change the direction of the wind. Nor can we overcome bad weather or inhospitable terrain by fighting it head-on. What we can do is adjust our expectations to accommodate diversion or delay, and adjust our tactics – e.g., course, heading, altitude, airspeed – to work safely around environmental obstacles.
There is much to be said for GA transportation, and it can offer a pleasant and convenient alternative to the airline world. Just remember to enjoy the journey! (FAA Safety Briefing – JulAug 2015)