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SW Aviator Feb/Mar 2001
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Wischful Thinking

by Jay Wischkaemper

I just visited a dying lady, a friend of many years. She has cancer and has had for a number of years. I don’t know how long she will live, but it won’t be long. Her life has been a good one, and as she faces the end of it, she has no regrets or fears, nor should she. She’s ready to go, and in her current condition, it will be a blessing when she does. As you get a little older, things like that have a different impact on you. In my younger days, my reaction might have been to think what a tragedy it was to see her die, but being past middle age, I found myself thinking, “someday I’ll be where she is, and it might not be too long.” Death is inevitable for all of us. For some, it comes quickly. The heart attack. The sudden accident. Most people would say that’s the way they want it. Lay down in your bed one night, and never wake up. Spare me from the suffering. Unfortunately, unless we choose to take our own lives, the choice of how we go is not up to us.

There are those who think that we who choose to fly little airplanes have a death wish. That every time we leave the surly bonds of earth in those fragile machines, we are taking our lives in our hands and defying death. Of course, they don’t understand what we do, but, be that as it may, we all have to admit that there is an added element of danger to flying; signs such as “you are now entering the most dangerous place in the world, a public highway” adorning the exit gate to the airport notwithstanding. Even if I conclude that 95% of fatal accidents are attributable to stupidity and are preventable, I still cannot assume with total impunity that some day I might not be stupid. I have my own rules, which include not doing anything idiotic, but when you look at the accident reports of very experienced pilots buying the farm, you have to conclude that there is the potential for stupidity in all of us.

Life insurance companies are great with statistics. Their statistics point out that private pilots do have a higher mortality than non-pilots. Of course, that takes into account the pilot population as a whole, including the idiots. It doesn’t take into account the possibility that that same idiot could just as easily kill himself in a car, but they don’t charge people who drive cars higher premiums. The fact of the matter is, however, that piloting an airplane is, statistically at least, an added risk factor.

That really shouldn’t be a great surprise. After all, no matter how careful we are, there has to be some element of risk in corralling an airborne piece of machinery hurtling crookedly toward a piece of concrete at 100 miles per hour, descending at 500 feet per minute while being blown sideways at 15 miles per hour. Add conditions that don’t allow you to see past the prop spinner, throw in some darkness, and you obviously have a setup that is more dangerous than watching Monday Night Football. Yet in spite of that, the vast majority of the time, that flight ends up perfectly uneventful.

But what if it doesn’t? What if that plane ends up buried in the side of a mountain? What if your airplane is a heaping pile of burning metal with you in the middle?

In the immortal words of that famous philosopher Dr. Joclyn Elders, “everybody’s going to die of something sometime anyway.” As dumb as her remark may have seemed, it is nonetheless true. What really causes death is living. Airplanes may occasionally be the vehicle that carries us to the inevitable, but it doesn’t cause death. At best, it may only hasten the inevitable.

I take all the care I can in flying an airplane. But in spite of all the care that I, or anyone else can take, there are things that might happen beyond our control. The most care, the best maintenance, the best training, can’t always guarantee that I won’t end up a statistic. No pilots are better trained than airline pilots, no pilots are more regulated, and supposedly, no maintenance programs are better, yet every year, somewhere, an airliner will go down. It’s not a perfect world. It could happen.

What if it does? My attitude is, “if it happens, it happens.” I will take all the care I can to make sure that it doesn’t, but I have to face the fact that it might. The other guy that something always happens to wasn’t the other guy the previous time. And if I were to die in an airplane crash, I would want my family and friends to take comfort in the fact that even though I might be dead, I would have died sometime anyway, and at least I died doing what I loved to do. How many people go through life and die with their dreams and their passions still in them? We have no choice about dying. We have all the choice in the world about living. I choose to live. I will not sit idly by, cooped up in my house with the shades drawn and take no chances, incur no adventures, experience no excitement. I want to see the world from a different perspective. I want to see the clouds float by my wing, not above my head. I want the freedom to soar with the birds. I want to be able to do something that very few choose to do. I choose to live. And if I die doing it, so be it. I would rather die living, chasing my dreams, than to have kept my dreams bottled up inside a false sense of security, thinking that taking no risk guarantees immortality. We will all die. The sad truth is that many go to the grave having never lived.

Texas native Jay Wischkaemper is a successful MassMutual life insurance agent based in Lubbock, Texas. He is a long time partner in a Bellanca Super Viking, which he uses for both business and pleasure. Jay’s first article “Dreams,” published in the Feb/Mar 00 edition of Southwest Aviator, was so popular we decided to bring him on board as a regular columnist. - ed

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