Monday November 17, 2008
Inspiration is the dividend paid by the unanticipated events that make our calendared plans obsolete. I’ve always been fascinated by those unexpected moments, usually outside our control, that, well, call the whole assumption of control into question. They often become the very things I choose to write about. Sometimes these events provoke laughter. Sometimes terror. Sometimes tears. But always emotion.
A pilot friend e-mailed a video to me with the simple phrase attached – “Check this out.” Darrol is known for his one-of-a-kind sense of humor. The well is deep, and he never stops pulling up yet another bucket full of laughs. Often the punch-line is preceded by a story that captures your worst fears, greatest imaginable embarrassment, or some impossible scenario with no way out. So when Darrol says “check it out,” he knows I will.
It’s an air show video. The camera held by an amateur videographer in the bleachers fixes on a single seat, single engine aerobatics plane as it makes a low high-speed pass. The pilot pulls back on the stick sending his sleek silver bullet soaring into a steep vertical climb. Engine screaming. The camera zooms in close. As he flips and spins at the pinnacle, a grainy close up reveals what only the stunt pilot knows at that moment. The violent g-force separates the fuselage from the main right wing. It falls away like an October leaf. The spinning goes on, but now out-of-control.
The video-cam picks up the audio. “He’s lost his wing,” someone says, sounding as though she doesn’t really believe her own words. “What happened to his wing?” says another, who apparently didn’t hear the first. The camera stays on the broken airplane, now sputtering and spinning at an altitude of barely a thousand feet.
My friends who fly airplanes all think about moments like this. And even a wanna-be like me can’t help but wonder what it would be like to be in the pilot’s seat at that moment of sudden calamity. It’s the stuff of nightmare; night sweats; the adrenaline shot of fear that grips you as the reality of certain doom strikes like a lightning bolt. In the cockpit, everything remains intact. The engine is still running. The stick is in your hand. The rudder pedals at your feet. The throttle operational. But the wing’s gone just outside the Plexiglas. You check it again. Yep, it’s gone. You have but a few seconds to attempt everything you can think of to regain some semblance of control. You feel the pull of gravity; the absence of lift. And you are smart enough to know the outcome. It’s not going to be good.
As I watched Darrol’s clip, I remembered a couple similar videos that I’d seen before. When a tragic aviation incident gets captured on film and replayed on the news these days, it’s recorded on my DVR. With my remote in hand, I can replay it over and over until I figure out exactly what caused the fatal break. Like the four-engine tanker flying by on a low pass with a heavy load of chemical to drop on a raging Southern California brush fire when both wings snapped off. Or the Aero-Commander (also an aerobatic airplane) that lost both wings in a steep climb. And now Darrol presented me with one more visual of aviation tragedy. And I imagined myself at the top of the curve, glancing first at the wingless space on my right, then at the bleachers filled with on-lookers below, then at the runway spinning toward me like an impenetrable brick wall. My heart raced. Palms got sweaty.
The plane sputters and spins above the bleachers when someone yells, “Run!” But the cameraman, perhaps knowing he was about to capture a scene that might just make the evening news, stays on his crippled subject. With no horizon in the scene to give perspective, it is hard to tell just how fast he is falling. But as the airplane approaches the bleachers, it becomes clear. The pilot, utilizing the enormous power of the acrobatic four-cylinder engine, using the what was left of the elevator and vertical stabilizer, slows the plane just enough to pull up in a stall just above the runway. The pilot strapped to his seat, pulls on the stick, pushes hard on the rudder, hovers on his side, perpendicular to the ground. The good wing above, empty space below, you hear the screaming on the audio from the stunned fans in the bleachers. The tail gently strikes the ground and bounces the plane upright. You hear the wheels hit. The pilot releases the throttle. The plane bounces on its landing gear and coasts to a stop. Safe and sound. The crowd screams in utter disbelief. One shouts out an expletive.
It’s hard not to cheer right there in the presence of your computer monitor. Darrol did it again. I laughed out loud. I wanted to high-five that pilot.
Another friend who is also a pilot watched it, too. He’s doubtful. He thinks maybe this dubious Internet video is the product of some guy’s clever CGI (Computer Generated Imagery). Perhaps. If it is, it’s very good.
But either way, it got me thinking on this Monday morning. You are a leader and now that you’ve got some time and experience on your résumé, you remember well those moments when the wing fell off. It was unexpected. Uncalendared. Unplanned. There was no time to assess blame, no chance at a “redo,” no easy out. It was you, your wingless craft, and a couple of control switches and levers with little or no capacity.
All you had was your training, your ingenuity, your seat-of-the-pants navigation… and God.
And somehow, someway – as a watching world expected a spectacular crash and burn, replayed again and again in freeze-frame and slo-mo – you set her down. You survived to fly again. One more time. You had a new awareness of the power and care of the God who made you.
And today, you are here to tell the story.
This weekend, here in North Orange County and up there in Montecito, the winds blew and the fires raged. Our friends and family packed their cars and evacuated. Some experienced indescribable loss.
But on this Monday morning. We are still standing.
Copyright Kenneth E. Kemp November, 2008