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The other day my father took Kent Gorton, an airshow pilot for Toyota Air Sports, with him on a once a month trip to Herman, Missouri, a town about an hours drive away from our home in St. Louis, in a Robinson R22 helicopter. My father is a doctor, and when we used to own our own helicopter, he would make trips each day to small towns for checkups on patients. Now, these have sadly dwindled down to once a month trips, if that, to only one town, Herman. During the flight with Kent, which was about 20-30 minutes in length each way, they zoomed over the trees that blanket the gently rolling hills of the Missouri River Valley. Spotting deer, wild turkey, coyotes, even bald eagles, and numerous other wildlife, Kent was thrilled. After all those years flying 15 feet above the ground, he never in his life expected to see all the beautiful wildlife. Kent is around 30 years old. When my brother and I were a mere five years old, this was a normal part of our lives.

Flying was and still is a part of our lives. At 14 years old, and 250 flight hours in more than 30 airplanes, it makes me realize that there are very few people in the country, much less the world my age, who are as privileged as I am to be able to fly. I have seen and experienced things not many people will be able to do. When the word ‘aviation’ is mentioned, most people will think of airlines and military. They have been blocked off from all the other aspects of flight. They are missing (my favorite of all) the ‘old style’ open-cockpit flying. It is great pleasure to skim along the ground at 100 mph, in the old leather jacket and helmet, and who can forget the long silk scarf, feeling the rush of the air in your face and the loud roar and heat from the engine. Who can forget being surrounded by two sets of wings and all the beautiful scenery, being able to reach out and grab a cloud. Yet many will not experience this. Who can forget your first ride in a light airplane, after being scared half to death about even touching the thing, being used to the big ‘solid’ airliners? But sadly, very few people will ever get to experience this pure thrill of flight. They wouldn’t touch any airplane that wasn’t an airliner with a ten foot pole. But what really gets to me the most is that most people say that people who fly are crazy. "Anyone who flies (light airplanes and airshows in particular) that low and fast in those dinky little planes has definitely got something wrong upstairs," I have heard more than once. While it is true that aviation is not 100% safe, it is one of the safest means of transportation today. Really, no means of transportation are 100%safe. Each time you hop into your car for a 2 minute drive to the gas station, there is a chance you could get hit by a drunk driver, there is a chance you could lose control of the car and hit someone else, killing you and the other person. When filling up your car with gas, someone could have forgotten you’re not supposed to smoke, and BOOM. The gas station could be robbed while you are visiting, and so on and so on…Yet most of the common American people see aviation as the most dangerous thing to man. Yes, there is a risk in flying. Pilots realize this, and we accept those risks. No pilot wants to become an oily hole in the ground, another statistic on the board, so we train hard to learn how to control the aircraft in every situation, to learn and practice as much as we can. Even if you are the most experienced pilot flying the safest airplane at the time, you can still make errors. The airplane can still fail. And it does happen. Most accidents are unavoidable, but handled as best they can. You will hear of an airplane who lost power in flight and had to make an emergency landing in a farmers field, and during the landing, the gear gets caught in the mud and the plane flips over, injuries are light to moderate. There wasn’t very much the pilot could do about the gear. This was one of the safest ways the situation could be handled. Most accidents are most likely caused by inexperienced pilots failing to do the most important job of all, which is to keep the plane flying under control and flying at all times. When the engine quits on the plane, you could be making the most incredible approach in an emergency, and yet 300 feet above the ground the pilot gets distracted by the happiness everything will be allright, and forgets to watch his speed. The plane drops like a rock, killing all aboard. At 14 years old, I have seen my share of airplane accidents, and lost friends to crashes also. I am very aware that flying is not entirely safe, and I accept that. I understand the risks associated with flying and I realize there is a chance I could be in an accident in which I lose my life. Should that unfortunate event come, I hope it is very quick and painless. If I do die in an accident or any other event, my final wishes are to be cremated and have the ashes spread in the forest. I tell my friends, half serious, that if the crash is really convenient, that will already be taken care of…

© Dr. Günther Eichhorn
Email Guenther Eichhorn