I was coming back from a local air show with my friend Joe, who now flies for a major airline but who built most of his 10,000 hours flying anything but easy straight and level flight. Joe is the kind of pilot who believes in getting to know all the corners, nooks and crannies of an airplane’s envelope, as long as they’re still within his own limits. He once even demonstrated to a simulator instructor that one could actually lose less altitude in an uncommanded roll situation by completing a full roll in a 737 than by correcting back to straight and level.

 

So coming back from the air show, Joe wanted me to practice my emergency, short-field spot landings. I did one and was getting ready to turn base for another when Joe asked if he could do one. I relinquished the controls, and Joe immediately pulled the plane’s nose up as he began to turn. Some primal panic from my student pilot days took over as I watched the nose climb and the airspeed instantly drop from 80 knots to 60. A little alarm voice began screaming a tense and anxious mantra in my head that went something like, “slow-turn-stall-spin-die-BAD.”

My eyes fixated on the airspeed indicator, I called sharply, “Slow, Joe! You’re slow! 60 knots!” I was already reaching for the yoke when I heard his calm, quiet voice in my headset.

“Lane, do you trust me?”

Never in all my flying years has anyone cut through all the layers to the $64,000 question at the core of something so quickly, simply, and clearly.

“Do you trust me?” In the nanoseconds that followed, a torrent of possible answers flew through my head. “No, dammit. Of course I don’t. I’m from New York. I don’t trust anybody.” Or, “You mean in general, or in this airplane at this particular moment?”  Or, “Of course I do. Just not with my life.”  It was a tough question. When push came to shove, did I really trust him to know enough about the limits of himself and my airplane, and did I trust him to stay within them so as not to kill me in the next ninety seconds?  My mind began a lightning-speed checklist sort through everything I knew about Joe and his flying. He probably had a thousand hours in an airplane almost identical to mine and had taken it to limits I didn’t even want to see. He has nothing to prove to anyone, in the air or on the ground. He’s a better and more experienced pilot than I’ll ever hope to be. And, perhaps most importantly, I enjoy flying with him because I know that he’ll never try the limits of his envelope with me in the plane.

In the end, the truth is that Joe is actually one of a very few pilots I am willing to trust with my life. I relaxed back into my seat, dropped my hands, and quietly answered, “Yeah, Joe, I trust you. Go ahead.”  He kicked the plane sideways and the nose fell as we dropped out of the sky in a maximum performance slip all the way down to a gentle touchdown on the numbers.

Yet long after we put the airplane away in the hangar, I found myself still turning Joe’s question over in my head. He was right. My comfort level with another pilot is never really about any particular experience, technique or maneuver. It is, at the core, about trust. To let someone else take the controls or take you flying is a staggering test and statement of trust. And it’s not something I do easily.

The first time I realized just how much trust was involved in this flying stuff wasn’t when I got any of my first airplane rides. Back then, I was still immersed in the “ignorance is bliss” stage where I trusted all of my pilots implicitly. They were pilots, for heaven’s sake. Something akin to Olympic athletes, movie idols, master craftsmen or superheroes. It never entered my mind that they might make a bad judgment call or mistake.

No, it was when I took my very first passenger for a flight that the fragile bond of  trust and responsibility between pilot and passenger finally sunk in. I had sixty-seven whole hours in an airplane, and there was my buddy Kirk, smiling enthusiastically at getting the chance to go flying with me. He’d never been in a small airplane before, and here he was, trusting a brand-new, inexperienced pilot to take him off the earth, fly around the sky and then return him safely again. Looking back, I think he needed his head examined.

Even now, I still feel the weight of that extra responsibility any time I take a non-pilot flying. After all, it’s one thing to screw up and scare or hurt yourself. It’s quite another to inflict that on someone else—especially someone who’s helpless to do anything about it. I suppose I should feel this same kind of weight of responsibility any time I take someone driving in my car, but that feels different, somehow.

On some quiet level, it always amazes me when someone willingly and cheerfully jumps in my airplane to go flying with me without even questioning what kind of pilot I am. Some of them don’t even know me, and yet they’re going to let me take them a couple of thousand feet off the ground in a machine they know little or nothing about. Their blithe trust in me and my plane probably comes from the same “ignorance is bliss” perspective I used to have. But I’m aware of what they’re doing, even if they’re not.

Perhaps being given that level of trust by someone—blind and ignorant as it may be—still affects me because I have such trouble giving that kind of trust to anyone else. I’m a pilot, for heaven’s sake. And while that may not make me an Olympic athlete or infallible superhero, it does mean (according to psychologists who’ve purportedly studied the matter) that I am a certified control freak. I’m just not comfortable giving up control to someone else. None of us are, or we wouldn’t fly airplanes. We’d go sit in the back and let someone else find a way around that thunderstorm.

I also now have the disillusioned awareness of experience. Gone are my innocent pilot-hero-idol days. I have a lot better idea now how many ways there are to screw up, and I’ve seen pilots demonstrate quite a few of them. I’ve been scared to death by pilots whose egos far exceeded their skills, and I’ve come to agree with the friend of mine who told me that the two most dangerous words in aviation are, “Watch this.”

Trust gets more difficult to dish out as we get older because we’ve learned the hard way that there isn’t always a happy ending. I’ve buried more friends than I choose to count—some of them very good pilots who just made the wrong mistake at the wrong time. We’re all human. Which means we all can and do make mistakes. So how do you trust someone who is by nature fallible not to make an unrecoverable error?

Struggling through that one is tough, but it’s where the issue of trust becomes both real and significant. Anyone, after all,  can have the trust of the blind and ignorant. But to understand the risk and know the failings of another human being and still put your life in their hands involves something much greater. It stops short of being a leap of faith, for trust is generally built on solid pieces of information and history. I can look at how well I know a particular pilot and his or her skills and ask myself kind of judgment calls they make on the ground; how carefully they approach their flying, in word and in action.

But trusting someone—with your heart or your life—still requires letting go of control, which is hard for anyone, let alone control-freak pilot personalities. It makes us vulnerable, which isn’t exactly a safe feeling. It’s the equivalent of giving someone else your diving regulator and then trusting that they’ll make sure you’ll get enough air, as well. Not exactly something you want to do with just anyone.

Of course, one could also ask, why do it at all? Why not fly single-seat airplanes or keep hold of the controls with an iron fist? Why not, for that matter, go through life single and self-sufficient, with a nice, safe Maginot Line defense around your heart?

Perhaps because there’s a reward that comes from pushing through the fear of letting go and finding a trust well-placed. Trusting someone with your heart or life—or having them trust you with theirs—is a gift, whether we consciously acknowledge it or not. It opens up risk, but it also creates an opportunity for a connection and bond that the invulnerable walls of control would never allow.

Not all pilots—or people—treat this gift with the care it deserves. It’s a shame. Because even if everyone lives to tell the tale, it’s harder for someone with damaged trust to offer that gift again. One more wall goes up, making it that much harder to find that gentle space between friends where trust can soften the edges of a solitary journey.

Perhaps I trust Joe because he actually understands this. He knows that in giving up the controls to him, I’m giving him a gift, the same as I know he will treat that gift—and the responsibility that comes with it—with great care. It may also be because of this that I’m better friends with some of the people I fly with than other people I know. Good friendships are all built on trust, but I don’t usually have the opportunity or need to test the depths of that trust as clearly or sharply as when I fly with someone.

I’ve given Joe a number of compliments over the years. But I’d wager that the one that meant the most to him, and told him the most about our friendship, was those few words on base to final turn. “Yes, Joe. I trust you.” It’s the highest compliment a pilot can give.

A Question of Trust

 

By Lane Wallace

 

©1999 Lane Wallace
First appeared in FLYING Magazine, March 2000

It was a classic VFR day in the Los Angeles basin. Which is to say that although I’m suresome tower person somewhere on the ground could see three miles in some direction, I finally found my home field by spotting the big movie theatre at the corner of Edison and 71 below me, following Edison to Euclid, making a right turn, and a left onto downwind at the next light.