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Not Optional

"Maybe I can go flying with you sometime again. You know, I don't know why but that was one of the best experiences of my life. I think of it often. So, so cool."

My friend Angela's email referred to the time a few years ago when she accompanied my buddy Anders and me in our club's Cessna as we participated in a Hayward Air Rally-style "fun-fly" organized by fellow club members Hal and Michael. She wrote a great piece about it at the time for Wired magazine's Autopia blog. It was just a simple cross-country flight over California's Central Valley—not particularly scenic by California standards—but that first experience of flight in a small airplane really stuck with her.

Like all pilots, I completely understand. My own first ride in a glider is something I'll never forget, and it was less than a half-hour flight. It was enough to hook me, and within nine months I was giving glider rides to friends and family myself as pilot in command.

Powerful experiences like first flights are genuinely transformative, whether they're in aviation or not, and they're clues to what we really care about. We ignore them at our peril. On occasion I've found myself thinking of flying as a "discretionary" activity, a fun hobby to be indulged in as time and resources permit, but which can be sacrificed if time and money get tight.

I no longer believe that. I've come to decide that flying for me is not optional. It's necessary.

Wise people through the ages have taught that money doesn't buy happiness. Fame is fickle. Power corrupts. So while money, fame, and power are extremely valuable tools, they don't bring fulfillment in and of themselves. So what does? I've come to believe that the key characteristic of fulfillment is a deeply felt sense of being part of something greater than oneself. Maybe it's a family, a circle of friends, a community, or the entire human race. Maybe it's a cherished cause or purpose. Maybe it's our spectacular Earth or the infinite universe itself. But whether on a simple or a grand scale, I believe that fulfillment is about connection—about being something more than a small, isolated animal alone in the world.

That's what flying does for me. In an airplane I can see the forest, not just the trees. I can sense my place in the natural order of things—yes, even while burning tens of gallons of gasoline. And when I share that experience with pilots and others who love aviation, I feel more connected to them. I feel that I'm part of a community, a circle of friends, that's greater than myself. And that's very fulfilling.

So yes, Angela, you most definitely can go flying with me again! Let's make it soon. These are the experiences that make life worth living.

They are not optional.

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