Time has flown by, and flowed by too, like a fast river in search of its estuary.
Mostly, it was about flying. We were young. We had nothing but the grandest dreams and our illusions were innocent. But we were so young. Freshly out of high-school and suddenly thrown into a competitive world of adults and regulations and realities that can smash you with the weight of a mountain. Our dreams, however, rode on fast machines and their metal wings were real, and so would ours be. We were going to be pilots.
The year was 1984. We had been sweating hard on a college degree for over thirty months. We could not have cared less. The coveted title, printed on paper like the degree but smaller and unframed, worn in a wallet instead, was so close now that we could almost touch it. It would read: “Commercial Pilot License”. Seven hundred hopeful kids had interviewed for a seat in Chicoutimi’s Centre Québécois de Formation Aéronautique; forty had been accepted, thirty would graduate. We knew we were lucky. We thought we were the best, the proud, the few. And we probably were.
The first year had been strictly academics and we had gone through it with our eyes turned skywards, envying the older class, learning their every moves, mimicking their behavior, preparing ourselves to take over the role and the privileges. We had studied hard, general subjects at first, then progressively more aeronautics and less chatter. Aerodynamics, meteorology, aviation regulations, radio-communications, navigation, even wilderness survival—like few students ever will, we had devoured our manuals, worshiped our instructors and looked forward to homework.
The following year, for most of us, had been a fantasy come true. We had finally become airborne, studied some more, practiced, practiced and practiced, and eventually, after an emotional first solo and losing our shirt collar—an ancient tradition—we had earned our wings. We had come off the ground like bats out of hell. We were in. We were up. We could now talk about the rest of mankind as “them”. The crawlers. The Earthlings. Those who never leave the ground out of their own will and control. In a word, the masses. We pitied them. We joked about them. One always jokes when nervous. And nervous we were. As tall as we stood, on the wing of our small yellow Beechcraft Musketeers and Sundowners, posing for posterity, we instinctively knew that from our single-engine piston aircraft to jetliners and turbofans lay as much space as between us and the moon. Uncharted space, unconquered and threatening. But still, we had a go at it, and every single one of us intended to be on the winners list.
So when the third year came upon us, we addressed it like the veterans we ought to be. A crude initiation of the new first-year recruits was organized, just like it had been for us, and a point was made to identify them to the mud we poured on them. Raw matter, they were, full of potential but yet unshaped and unworthy of more respect. We had suffered to get to our stance and so shall they. There were no shortcuts.
But soon our attention was grabbed by upcoming challenges: the commercial license, an instrument rating and our respective specializations—either bush flying, helicopter or multi-engine. Our days and nights were filled with magic. We flew most of the time, classroom sessions having become rare and frowned upon. A typical day would begin back at home or at the college residence, bright and early, checking the weather and preparing flight plans and navigation. We would hop on the bus to get to the airport, pre-flight our respective airplanes—I was by then flying on C-GXOY, nickname Oscar Yankee or XOY, a twin-engine Beech Baron B-55, with instructor Paul Savoie who would rate my performance by watching the paling color of my knuckles on the yoke—and file the flight plan for an IFR trip to Montreal, surfing on a sea of clouds, or a solo single-engine cross-country to the Saint-Lawrence river and back.
At night, we flew some more. Night flying was, and will remain, one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. It was a moody, silent, quiet and yet intense part of our routine. The temperature would drop, dew would materialize as darkness set in, isolated lights would come on here and there where people lived, but more importantly, our own set of lights would kick in. These were green and blue and yellow and red. They were runway and taxiway lights, the sweetest and most beautiful Christmas tree ever offered to a human eye. We would do our walk-around once again but in the dark, checking the plane from tail to nose, wingtip to wingtip and cockpit through fuselage, armed with a red-colored flashlight to avoid destroying our night vision, which the most fanatic would have protected for hours by wearing sunglasses since sunset.
The plane ready, fueled up and checked in with dispatch, we would taxi, do a run-up and then line up for take-off, solo most of the time, and go circle around the airport in the traffic pattern, piling up take-offs and landings, one after an another, training for all situations—landing light on, landing light off, with power, without, full flaps, no flaps, short landing, soft field, again and again. Everything contributed to the magic: the instruments’ red glow, the runway lights shimmering below us, the flashing strobes of nearby aircraft, the laconic transmissions of the tower, the purring of our engine, the world that lay asleep at our feet, a perfect—if conditional—freedom while inside of our rigid Control Zone regulations.
Sometimes, we would go for a nighttime cross-country, unnerving because of all the dark emptiness that would stretch below us for most of the flight, reducing potential landing zones in case of an engine failure to isolated oasis of light around agglomerations—and one does not land very well on top of houses. At night, the sacred agriculture-green emergency landing fields, much better than dark brown ones that would have been recently plowed and hence be much rougher and uneven, were invisible and might as well not have existed. Flying then was more ambiguous. It required faith. And that, we had lots of.
Alone in the sky, staring at constellations and following our route with a finger on the map, we were as close to god as one can ever be. But god, for us, was named Saint-Exupéry, Mermoz or Yeager. We believed. We belonged. We would be welcomed up there.
The third year, despite its rising challenges and mounting stress, was also a time for recreation and fun. While I was learning the entire Quebec City Terminal Area Chart by heart, memorizing every single low-level airway, route, heading, minimum altitude, radio frequency and navigation aid in a complex labyrinth of permissions and restrictions meant to keep planes on course and away from each other and the ground, we were also given a chance to relax and enjoy life. We organized an airborne rally, entered in teams and flown in successive steps as diverse as Precise Navigation, Timing, Speed, and Aerial Bombing. Yes, I am not making this up. We had to hit a target on the runway with a flour bag dropped in flight off the side window, after a low approach and a fly-by. Three of us were necessary for the task: a pilot, a navigator and a bomber. How we ever got that one approved, I will never understand.
Then there was this strange instructor training program in which we were given the role of flight instructors and sent up there with rookies to evaluate them after their first solo. It was a lot of fun and I took it extremely seriously, going as far as bringing along an empty can of Coke that I would ostensibly place on the dashboard before take off to see if the student would remember to check for loose objects, and regardless would then place it on the cabin floor to make sure they would figure the can could actually roll and block the rudder pedals. I was quite anal about it, I think. It is only much later that I realized the rookies had most probably been recruited for a similar program in which they were to evaluate us as potential instructors.
But we had fun. The uniform seemed to fit perfectly. We were eating aviation regulations for breakfast, using exclusive aviation humor to flirt with and engage the opposite (or same) sex and shaping our entire lives around the absolute certitude that our future was written among the clouds. We were action geeks. Our skill was psychomotor coordination. Our craft was the art of flying. Our playground, the sky, limitless and open. Our ego was enormous. Rightfully so.
Graduation came. June ’84.
For years before my time, Air Canada had awarded a first officer seat to the best graduate of the airline program, mine, one-third of the thirty remaining braves. That year though, aviation having dropped to the deepest trough of one of its cyclic lows, Air Canada had no such seat available. I won the prize. “Sorry,” they said, “times are tough.“ They offered me instead a free ticket anywhere I wanted to go in North America. I almost cried. Well, I probably did. I was broke, having spent all of my student loan—and grant—on completing the program. I opted for San Francisco and Calgary because they were as far as I could go on the stupid ticket. I spent two days in each city, sleeping at the YMCA.
Then I came back and, still believing, launched into years of un-training, regression and failure. I was young, and aviation was old. Too old for its own good. Ex-military pilots were still saturating the market. I was also immature. I lacked a dad’s example and drive, even if foot would have had to meet buttocks. My uncle had connections, though. I got an appointment with Air Canada’s Vice President. He was busy. I met with his assistant. “We will see what we can do,” I was promised. It was a politician’s promise. No need to even consider stealing my lollipop, I was nobody. I drifted, mostly away.
The closest I ever got to an actual flying job was with a small fire patrol gig. Their fleet was a single Cessna 182. A week before deciding between me and another guy for the poorly paid seat, they crashed their plane. That was the end of that.
I wonder how many of us have made it*. That year, I do not think anybody was hired. The following, maybe a couple got lucky, or mature enough, or supported enough to jump in. A few followed within years. I do not know if they kept flying. I have lost touch. Maybe I actually severed it. It stung. It still does. The thought of flying always will sting. It is in my blood forever, flowing thick, full of passion, without reason nor control. That is why and how I came to paragliding: as a cure, a revenge, a compromise that is not one, another way to fly.
But all this has brought me where I stand today, and generates nothing but gratefulness. Life has turned out to be quite amazing, in many different ways, and although I will always look at the sky and want to be there, for “When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the Earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return,” (overused maybe, but so essentially true) I also know that flying is only a thing. It is practical and it is material, and it is technical, and a bit selfish.
I have, however, found an even greater level of flight. It involves someone else. My wings have become invisible, but they are stronger. The sky is within us, its limitless space only measurable in terms of caring and giving. The storms are present, still, and so are the flight-planning and the mathematics. But now, finally, no tower is needed to request clearances and vectors. When I take off, it is because I have a copilot that is my captain, and me, hers; and we can now fly wherever we want. It is only a matter of time. And planning. And never, ever, forgetting to check fuel drains for the presence of water. But then again, water… Oh well, that’s another story.
* Written in 2008. I have since then, through the wonders of the internet, found out that some of us made it and to this day, keep flying. You can read Part II, written in 2015, here.
“Then I’m dying at the bottom of a pit in the blazing sun,
Torn and twisted at the foot of a burning bike,
And I think somebody somewhere must be tolling a bell…”
Bat Out of Hell – Meat Loaf
“The hardest years, the darkest years,
the roarin’ years, the fallen years,
These should not be forgotten years…”
Forgotten Years – Midnight Oil