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No Pilot Is an Island

The altimeter crept past 9,500 feet, the highest I had ever been at the controls of an aircraft. I gazed out over the landscape through the glider's big, bubble canopy and surveyed the scene below. From horizon to horizon, a layer of brown muck blanketed the ground—smoke from raging wildfires in Oregon far to the North, trapped below a strong inversion layer. I had found the one booming thermal powerful enough to break through that layer and climbed far above it. For those few moments I felt completely free—I was alone and on top of the world.

Of course I wasn't really. Alone, that is. Rhett the tow pilot towed me to my first thermal of the day, way back down at 2,500 feet or so. And Ken hooked up my tow rope and ran my wing on takeoff. The maintenance crew made sure the glider was ready for me that day, Connie reserved the glider for me and greeted me when I arrived, her husband Jim, his son Jimmy, and my instructor Jeffrey had taught me everything I knew about flying, and my patient wife Janet had supported me throughout my many hours and thousands of dollars of training. Before long, I'd be landing back at the gliderport and going to dinner with her and the whole crew. No, I wasn't really alone up there at 9,500 feet.

We pilots tend to be independent sorts, which is part of why we fly. We like to go where we want when we want by the route we want! But no pilot is an island, and as the years pass I find myself more and more grateful for that. One of the best decisions I've made in my flying career was joining my flying club as soon as I'd earned my airplane rating. In fact, it was the opportunity to buy into the club that prompted me to earn that rating in the first place. The experience has contributed immeasurably to my learning and enjoyment of the craft of flying. Our annual inspections are among the aviation events I most look forward to each year, not just because of what I'll learn about our airplanes, but because of the camaraderie, the "hangar flying," the runs to the deli for bagloads of sandwiches. It's some of the best smelly, greasy fun I have all year.

A recent AOPA survey looking into the reasons for the appallingly high dropout rate among student pilots identified this experience of community as one of the things that students crave when they come to aviation—and it seems to be increasingly hard to find. At many rental FBOs, even some that bill themselves as flying clubs, it's all too common for a student to show up, preflight the airplane, take a lesson, tie the airplane down, and leave. Their instructor might be the only person they talk to while at the airport. No hanging out on the FBO porch with the old timers, listening to tall tales. No fellow students getting their shirttails cut after first solo. No Saturday afternoon barbecues. If we want general aviation to stay healthy and vibrant, we have to change that. We have to welcome new pilots into the fold as fellow and sister practitioners of a magical craft. I know we can do better.

I lingered at the top of that monster thermal for some time, reluctant to leave it. I knew on a day like this that there was nowhere to go, and once I turned away I would return quickly to Earth. Glider pilots are acutely aware that "what goes up must come down," and sure enough, the moment I turned towards the gliderport, the bottom fell out and I pushed the nose down to speed through the ridiculously heavy sink. In just a few minutes I was descending back into the muck and entering the pattern for a landing.

As I tied the glider down, I noticed something else—I was hungry! I smiled as I anticipated the evening ahead: gourmet pizza and micro-brew—and good friends.

Yes, I thought, I'm a lucky man.

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