Flight. At once beyond human and, today, a demonstration of learned mastery. Far ahead of any other human endeavor, flight and those who pioneered it have also led us in our ability to manage risk. Nature is indifferent – in the air, on the water, on land. It is up to us to understand its inherent risks and to tread with insight and an open mind.
Can we get to where we want to go? Managing risk is about finding a way to get there without irreversible consequences. It involves navigation in three dimensions, weather across long distances, winds aloft, communications, power plants, airframe, take off and landing site characteristics. It’s a bit like a conductor who is not in control of his orchestra players and who has to get an integrated performance from them, somehow.
When I am aloft, I am at the edge, outside the bounds of my evolutionary design, pulling hard from the experience and wisdom of the people and the institutions that extended our reach. It gives me a point of view I can’t get from the ground.
Flight was a key participant in 20th century Arctic and Antarctic exploration – Eielson, Amundsen, Ellsworth, Wilkins, Balchen, Byrd gave us some of its history pages.
Today, flight remains a key transportation mode at high latitudes. We now fly turboprops instead of piston engines. We use GPS instead of dead reckoning and pilotage. We seldom rely on a single engine. We forget what an amazing challenge it is to fly in the cold latitudes, where we have to depend on our knowledge and a pair of pliers to keep our steeds airworthy.
I love flying in the high latitudes. My first steps took me to Baffin Island.