Posted by: itneverrainsinseattle | June 7, 2010

Why I’m Not a Pilot

My father dropped out of high school. My grandfather thought it was because he was stupid. (Or so I’ve heard, from other family members.) I think it was because the boy who would become my father was bored.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was one of those kids you read about who starts college at an insanely young age. When I was recruited for the program that put me there, they found me because I had scored exceptionally high (well, in the top 99%) of the standardized math tests that New York State required 6th graders to take. I was not, however, doing well in math at the time, and this was a gifted math program.

One of the things that the man who started this program told us was that this situation is not uncommon. Often, kids who are exceedingly good at a particular subject will be bored with the traditional school curricula. Yeah, I get it, this is how to multiply. Can we move on now, please?

I sincerely believe that both of my parents are smarter than your average bear, but traditional schooling just wasn’t for my father. The fact that my grandfather was a teacher and administrator in the public school system, well… he was part of the system.

My father always wanted to learn how to fly, so he signed up for the Air Force.

“What do you want to be?”

“A pilot.”

He had better than perfect vision (another trait I got from him), and excellent aptitude. So, of course, they put him in, er… intel?

I guess they chose him well. He never, ever, ever talks about what he did in the Air Force. But whatever he did, he continued doing it as a civilian once his term was up. And for whom did he do this whatever it was that he did? The N.S.A.

Whatever it was he was doing, I’m guessing it wasn’t super dangerous (ie, it wasn’t what the spy novels might refer to as “field work”), because he got married and had a kid while all this was going on. We’re still good family friends with some of the folks he used to work with, and they also seem to be just normal, everyday folk who to to work in the morning, come home in the evening, and raise their kids and live their lives.

But, the life of a regimented whatever-he-was didn’t suit him. I think he had a bit of an anti-authoritarian streak. Yet another thing I think I got from him.

The thing is, once he got out… there was this benefit that he qualified for called the “GI Bill.” It pays for educational expenses up to a certain point. My father, a smart man, did the math. It would just cover the cost of flight school. He asked if that qualified for the GI Bill.

It did. So he did. And my father became a pilot.

I think he would have become a commercial pilot if he could have, but by the time he learned to fly, there was no way he could compete for a commercial pilot’s job. The Vietnam War was churning out pilots with hundreds, even thousands of hours of flight time. How could he compete?

But he became a pilot, even if not for his career, and loves to fly to this day.


My father was cheated out of many father/son moments that I think he was looking forward to. He mentioned once how he was looking forward to taking me out for my first (legal) drink. Alas, I don’t drink. (No reason… I just don’t. That’s a blog post in and of itself. I’m of Irish stock, for crying out loud.)

I went hunting with him a few times, but never had the patience for it. I enjoy a good venison steak — I completely grok the connection between the meat you get at the butcher’s and the animal it came from. I understand my role in nature. I have no problem dressing a deer (although there are other things I’d rather do). But sitting completely still for six hours in the freezing cold (for days and days in a row), communing with nature while waiting for one of it’s creatures to wander over and offer itself up to my dinner table… I understand it, but it’s not something I enjoy.

I did finish high school, thanks largely to being rescued from it by college at a young age, and pursued higher degrees until I finally, like my father, got fed up with the system. But even so, my experience and my father’s put us in different worlds.

If there was anything my father and would ever be likely to share as a bonding experience, the most logical candidate would be flying.


It’s just not going to happen.

The smell of the fuel they use makes me want to hurl. I don’t mean that in the Valley Girl, ohmigod-it’s-just-so-totally-gnarly way. I mean… it truly makes me sick to my stomach.

I’ve thrown up in his plane on multiple occasions. (Yes, he actually did, and does, own a plane. No, my parents aren’t rich. Some middle-class families like to go boating or camping or keep a cottage in the country. My middle-class parents had, and have, a small plane. Same expenses; similar headaches.)

When it happened to me as a child, well, blame that on childhoodness. But it’s happened to me as an adult. And I’m hear to tell you, it’s not motion sickness. I love to drive fast (well, not that I do that any longer), be a passenger in a fast car (as long as it’s not Penny driving), ride in a boat, water ski, bungee jump, ride the ski lift, you name it. Went up in a hot air balloon once — loved it.

No, it’s not motion sickness. Part of it is the smell of that fucking, wretch-inducing fuel.

And part of it is my sinuses. Even in a pressurized jet plane, roughly one out of every three landings are preceded by this feeling like an ice pick is being driven through my forehead and out the back of my skull. I love to fly, love to watch out the window, love to try to pick out landmarks, but it’s hard to enjoy it when, on descent, all of a sudden your sinuses feel like they are stabbing you.

I’ve seen a doctor about this. More than one, actually. The consensus is that it’s a sinus problem, even though it often happens when I can breathe perfectly well through my nose. When I plan ahead, I load up on the analgesics before take off, which often helps. But not always.

I’m disappointed by this problem. Obviously, I’m disappointed when I fly and it happens. (Actually, a better word than ‘disappointed’ would be ‘writhinginagony.’) But I’m also disappointed because it’s something my father loves and that I’d love to share with him. But I just can’t. I’m never going to be a pilot.

And why do I bring this up today?

For the first time in many years, I’m taking a vacation. Solo.

Part of this trip includes a reunion of that very program I mentioned above that allowed me to start taking college classes at the age of twelve. Part of it includes my “full time” college reunion (ie, for the college I went to full time after that high school / college combination).

But the first stop is to visit my parents. And I know my father would like to go for a fly. And I’m going to go… and hope for the best. But…

I’m typing this at the airport where I have a layover. And that landing? Excruciating. Ouch, ouch, ouch. I’m still reeling from it.

One more flight to go.

[If you’re reading this, the plane landed safely, at least.]

And I’m thinking about fathers and sons.

And I’m thinking about possible futures.

And I’m thinking about choices we make.

And I love my parents, now both of whom are pilots (go Mom!), and I do enjoy flying, the exceptions above notwithstanding.

But I will never be a pilot.



  1. Completely understand what you mean 🙂 I’m terrified of heights (try to get me on a bridge, I dare you) yet I can fly in any size of plane without being scared (jets, cesnas, gliders, helicopters, you name it)… Yet you know why I always drive to the West Coast? Because going from the Rocky Mountains down to sea level makes my ears feel like they’re going to bust out of my head. It’s actually so bad that I’m afraid my ear drums will burst, and it usually affects my hearing for several hours to a day or so. I know how brutal that is, so I can’t imagine it every time I flew!

    Anyway, thanks for the nice story and I hope you have an incredible vacation and you tell us about it along the way (since we know there won’t be time once you’re home!).

    • Not that this adds anything salient to the conversation, but have you tried EarPlanes? Sure, you can’t really sit with headphones on allowing for music or movies, but they (for me, at least) alleviate the, “I wish my head would just explode so it’s over with” feeling. Ice picks I don’t know. Ears in immense pain, I get, as well as on-going hearing issues. BTW, the rest of the regimen (unless you’re forced to be sociable) is Afrin and Benadryl (pillow and anti-drool devices are optional).

  2. May your sinuses not prevent your enjoyment of the journey. And even if this isn’t something you can share/enjoy with your parents, I’m sure if you dig deep you can find lots of other things you can and do.

    Big hugs. May the trip be everything you hope for and more.

  3. Yikes…that’s some issue – the gas (throwing up-inducing?!) and the ear thing, man. Not sure how you can even set foot on a plane after that! But, good for you, and looking forward to meeting up in a few days!

  4. Hey, those fumes are deadly, so it’s lucky they make you sick. Imagine what’s happening to the folks who breathe them in with abandon?

    You’re MOM is also a pilot? That’s the best part of this story. :o)

  5. Oops…. “YOUR”. lol

  6. Hopefully you get a chance to read this before your next flight… Take one Maximum Strength Mucinex Expectorant an hour or so before take off with water. Lots of water helps the Mucinex work. Use saline nasal spray before take off, after, during the flight, and after the landing. If you can take the Mucinex in the days leading up to the flight, that will help too. It hasn’t erased the issue for me, but it’s much more tolerable. Have a safe trip!

  7. That was a lovely post INRIS. Hope you have a wonderful, non puking time!

  8. :0

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