reed magazine logoautumn2006

My essay

Kevin Henner ’10 and his father started flying several years ago to beat the ski-season traffic: instead of driving from their home in Pacifica, California, to Squaw Valley in the Sierras, they flew their Cessna Skyhawk 172SP. Henner graduated from a private school in San Francisco and learned to fly in the summer after ninth grade. He had his first solo flight two years later and as he was landing the wheel suspension under the nose went out. “Instead of coming down gently,” he says, “you hear a ‘crunch.’ It’s disorienting.”


Kevin Henner

At least fifty percent of flying an airplane is knowing what to do when something goes wrong. A pilot spends countless hours practicing for stalls, spins, engine failures, engine fires, electrical failures, stuck flaps, malfunctioning radios, emergency descents, emergency landings and countless other dangerous situations, and just as much time on the ground doing maintenance checks, flight-plans, pre-flights, and run-ups in the hopes that none of their practiced emergency procedures will be tested. As a pilot in training with my check-ride just around the corner, and several solo flights in my log book, I’ve memorized my emergency checklists and practiced my maneuvers, but thus far haven’t had the opportunity to put those skills to use and gain some exciting college-essay anecdote in which I remain calm under pressure and save myself and my airplane from certain and fiery demise by sheer pluck. The fact is, as disappointing as it may be, that the most valuable lesson I’ve learned is nowhere near so bluntly audacious as landing a burning airplane in an asparagus field might have been.

There’s another fifty-fifty division in flying: things that are useful outside of an airplane, and things that aren’t. Knowing, for example, that the minimum VFR visibility in class Delta airspace is 3 miles, and cloud clearance is 500 ft. below, 1,000 feet above, and 2,000 feet horizontally, does very little good in any non-aviation context, but a knowledge of physics, engine mechanics, and weather patterns is applicable in other situations. The most useful lesson of flying, however, isn’t found in the textbooks or FAA regulations. When I’m flying an airplane, I’m the pilot in command. The controllers on the other side of the radio love to give suggestions, but when they’re in chairs looking into their radar scopes, and I’m suspended thousands of feet in the air by some clever little trick of air pressure (much to the chagrin of the other laws of physics), they’re in no position to make demands. If something goes wrong because I followed their directions when I shouldn’t have, it’s my fault. If something goes wrong because I didn’t follow their directions when I should have, it’s also my fault, and neither the FAA nor the ground below takes kindly to errors in judgment.

henner image
Kevin Henner’s flight instructor snapped a Polaroid of him after he completed his first solo flight.


To be solely responsible for my own actions and safety is quite definitely something that falls into the “also useful on the ground” category. Though I’m primarily independently motivated, and therefore try to take responsibility for whichever direction I choose to take, the immediacy and consequence of the responsible reactions needed to pilot an aircraft are uniquely significant and challenging for me. In everything I did before I learned to fly an airplane, there was opportunity for error correction. If I wrote a bad essay, I could generally rewrite it, if I skied to the edge of a cliff with no landing, I could take a few steps up the hill and ski out. In an airplane, there is little room, legally or practically, for correction. An improperly calibrated altimeter can easily beguile an unsuspecting and uncleared pilot into Bravo airspace (Bravo means big: 747 territory), and once the radar has spotted you where you shouldn’t be, there’s little chance of backing out of the hefty penalties, and once you’ve been flipped upside-down and had your wings torn off by the wake of a jumbo jet, there’s only so much good emergency procedures can do. The precaution to avoid this situation is simple: set your altimeter. As simple as this is, however, when it is combined with the hundreds of other adjustments, checks and preparations, it becomes crucial to form specific habits of mind to assure that everything necessary for the safety of all involved is assured.

Such a manner of thought is integral to all aspects of aviation. Everything from flight-plans to radio calls to landings must be efficiently and systematically conceived and carried out in a continuous process of preparations, actions and reactions. I’ll look up the forecast winds aloft and temperatures for a cross country flight-plan several times, making the necessary corrections to the ground-speeds, times and fuel consumption for each of perhaps a half dozen legs, then make constant and inevitable corrections and adjustments based on the differences between the calculated times and actual times in flight. There’s a similar process for nearly everything done in and around an airplane. Landing in a crosswind requires continual estimates and adjustments based first on reported wind and gust speeds and directions, then on the constantly changing visceral reactions to the dynamic and increasingly precise necessities of the task, and even radio calls require every word spoken to be thought out, and every word heard to be understood, which requires a constant readiness to express where you are and what you’re doing in about a dozen words. As these processes are generally too complex to be completed on a cognitive level, they must be internalized and innate, and thus it’s hard to avoid applying them to other parts of my life. I see myself following these patterns in most everything I do, from a rather simple car-starting checklist involving the parking brake and a lack of small children behind me, to scheduling my academics in such a way that instead of saving the last minute to complete an assignment, I save the last minute to perfect it.