|In the spring of 1997, David Kruglinski, one of the Northwest's most colorful and best loved paraglider pilots, died on a cross country flight in the Methow Valley in Washington. Dave's death sent a shock wave through our close-knit community, forcing many pilots to really confront for the first time the danger of our sport. I wrote the following piece in the weeks after Dave's death.|
According to psychologists, people who experience loss pass through a grief process that has several stages:
DenialThis process is different for every person and there is no common timetable for getting through it. Some people go back and forth between stages, get stuck at some point or experience more than one stage at a time.
Recently, many of us experienced the loss of a good friend through paragliding. It is not my intention to discuss that loss here. We each have to deal with it in our own way. Instead I would like to discuss a different kind of loss--the loss of our flying innocence. Though we may not realize it, this loss requires us to go through stages much like the classic grief process. Perhaps you will recognize yourself or your friends in this description.
This is the most common stage. Many pilots never get beyond denial. We know conceptually that flying is dangerous but we convince ourselves that the pilots who have been hurt or killed made mistakes that we would never make. We convince ourselves that we are better flyers or that our gliders are more docile and safe.
Often it takes a bad scare or an accident to shake a pilot out of denial. The lucky ones learn from the mishaps of others. Eventually, we realize that we're not as good a flyer as we think we are. No matter how many advanced flying clinics we complete, we discover that we're really not in control up there, the air is. We are no more immune from mistakes than the pilots we read about in the accident reports.
For some pilots, the loss of flying innocence leads to anger. When we first learn to fly, it all seems idyllic--the gentle slopes, the protective care of our instructor. Paragliding is so easy to learn and so forgiving. After all, you've already got a parachute over your head--what could go wrong? The sky literally seems to be the limit.
But then someone we know crashes, and it shatters illusions as well as bones. We become angry--angry at the instructor who never quite told us how dangerous the sport could be, angry at the magazines and manufacturers who claim that anyone can learn to fly while glossing over the dark side, angry at the pilot culture that continues to reward risk taking and bravado, angry at fellow pilots who still are in denial.
It is natural after a fall from innocence that some pilots should drop out of the sport. It may not seem worth it anymore. We may find that other things can be just as rewarding as flying with far less danger. We may take a hiatus for a few months, to reconsider how and whether flying fits into our lives.
Those who work through the process and keep flying are not the same pilots they were before. Most of us accept that reining in our ambitions is the only way to maintain a reasonable safety margin. The few who still aim for the clouds realize that high achievement demands a high price. It takes a big commitment to gain the skills and knowledge needed for safe cross country flying. You can't be an off-the-couch flyer and push the envelope for very long. It also takes humility, as even the top pilots have a clear sense of their limitations.
Most of us come to realize that the reason paragliding captivated us in the first place was not big air or big thrills, but simple pleasures--a sunny day, a green hillside, the breeze in your face, the laughter of friends. We still experience these things even when we decide not to launch. And when we do fly, we do so with the knowledge that, like life itself, flying is a rare gift that should never be taken for granted.