Listening to that Little Voice of Warning
by Paul Gazis

Pilots have asked when and how one should listen to that 'little voice of warning' that pipes up inside ones head telling one not to fly. As someone half-descended from one of the world's most superstitious cultures, and as one who failed once, in an extremely spectacular fashion, to listen to that 'little voice' when he should have...and no, it wasn't this silly recent beach-whack from which I am recovering but a truly horrifying experience, on March 12 of 1990, which if I ever told the story publicly in all of its terrifying detail, would probably cause at least a dozen people to quit flying, take up competitive checkers instead, and be crushed to death by improperly folded checkerboards in a freak accident at an insignificant regional tournament, which goes to show that you can never lead a life that is totally free from risk but must do your best to have fun and stay safe however you can...let me make a few suggestions.

The problem is that there are TWO 'little voices of warning'. The First Little Voice is the one that looks around, evaluates the conditions with a superb subconscious skill that is trustworthy, reliable, and free from the cares, concerns, and pre-conceptions of the conscious mind, makes its forecast, adds its honest evaluation of one's physical condition, skill, and experience level that day, and makes a valid judgement of how safe it will be to fly. This is the Little Voice that, if one can only hear it, is the one to which one should and must listen. Unfortunately there is also a Second Little Voice, louder and more strident, that screams out, "You're going to die!" at odd intervals for no apparent reason. Not only can this Second Little Voice cause you to miss some awesome days, it can actually make a safe day dangerous by increasing the possibility of panic.

The Trick, obviously, is to somehow learn to tell these Two Little Voices apart, to listen religiously to everything the First One says, and tell the Second One to shut the [impolite word] up. How to accomplish this trick is one of the World's Great Questions. Unfortunately, as an acknowledged Person Who Is Not Sufficiently Clever To Deduce The Answers To The World's Great Questions, I do not know how to do this. I do, however, have an idea that I believe has some merit:

If a Little Voice of Warning starts crying out its predictions of doom, sit down and ask for an explanation. This will often be enough to silence the Second, emotional and unreliable, Voice, which does not have any explanation for its irrational fear. The First Voice, of the other hand, the one to which you WANT to listen, will, when challenged, usually be able to come up with some explanation for its pessimism: something like, "Well, gee, it's blowing in at 20-25, this is laminar marine air with no sign of lift, the first LZ is a 6:1 glide away past a forest of 100 foot tall pine trees, and it's 45 degrees cross here at launch, which just happens to be socked in with clouds." (As you might guess, these are the some of the clues the three of us failed to notice on that Famous Day eight years ago). If this does not give any clue which voice is speaking, go ahead and plan your flight as if there was no voice at all, but PAY SPECIAL ATTENTION TO YOUR BAIL-OUT OPTIONS. Figure out what could go wrong, figure out what you'll do if it does, and make sure that you've got a safe reliable way to dig yourself out of trouble. (Yes, you guessed it. This is another thing that I failed to do on that Famous Day Eight Years Ago.)

These two actions should be enough to answer the question of whether or not it's safe to fly, but if you still have any doubt, bag it. It is, perhaps, easier to give this advice here in Elfland, where you could blow off EVERY day on which you had the even slightest doubts and still get to fly 90% of the time, but remember: even in the Central Atlantic Coast, whose wretched conditions are a source of legend, there will be another good day tomorrow. After all, the mountains have been around for several million years and can reasonably be expected to last another few million.

Since my Adventure Eight Years Ago, which Experience was the source of this philosophy, I have decided not to launch on, and hence missed, all of Three Good Days. How sad. On the other hand, I was also clever enough to avoid at least Ten Really Bad Days: days that were so dire that they have become the stuff of stories and regrets to all who survived. I wouldn't trade the Three Good Days I missed for even a single second of those Ten Bad Days,

The Trick I still have to learn is when to call it quits on an XC flight. I have now fought, struggled, and battled my way into serious trouble at least twice in the last six years, which is, of course, at least two [impolite word] times too many. Ho ho.

Postscript: It seems to me that the Real Problem is not getting pilots to make rational decisions whether or not to fly, it's getting the rest of the flying community to respect those decisions. Some regions and clubs are fine, but I can think of a few places where I've heard conversations like, "Hmm. Looks bad. I'm not sure I want to fly today." "Why not? Whimp! There's cycles coming up! And once you get past those two ridges you'll be out of the rotor. Besides, that thunderstorm isn't headed this way, and those trees in front of launch haven't grown back too much since we trimmed them six years ago."

I guess the real question that we all have to answer is the one that's been kicking around for some time: why do we fly? Is it for fun, or is it for glory? If it's for fun, are you Really doing your best to have fun? If it's for glory, are you honestly prepared to pay the price: in effort, time, and added risk? My own experience is that glory is hollow, and no matter how unambitious you are, there are plenty of days when even a cowardly weenie like me can make it past the honchos, but if someone really IS a fire-eater, and simply HAS to fly close to the edge in order to be satisfied... well... they DO have my respect, and I'll retell their tales of glory as breathlessly as the next man. :-)

Paul Gazis is a California hang glider pilot. This article appeared on the Internet hang gliding mailing list ( Reprinted with permission of the author.

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