You might be thinking that I’m going to go on and on about how as a Libertarian minded person I’m opposed to “for your own good” laws such as the mandatory seat belt laws. We could discuss how it’s none of the governments damn business how I live my life and what safety choices and chances I make and take. Sure you could counter about how many lives and health care dollars have been saved because of such laws and I could point out that now that we don’t have saber tooth tigers anymore stupid people need to get taken out of the gene pool somehow and that using the excuse that the public can’t afford the bill if you get hurt so we must ban things that are dangerous is precisely why we shouldn’t have government health care. No, I’m going to talk about the other reason they invented seat belts.
Before I ever even started flying I was convinced that I was a shit hot pilot. After reading dozens of books about the dog fights of WWI and WWII I knew that I would have been there I would have been an ace. I just needed to get into a cockpit to show the world how great I was. At least those were my thoughts when I was thirteen. Buy the time I actually started taking flying lessons in my early twenty’s my opinion of my natural ability had softened somewhat, but I still needed that first humbling experience to bring me down to earth, so to speak.
Just days after my first solo I went out to the airport for a flight lesson only to be told by the cute flight school receptionist that my instructor wouldn’t be able to make it out that day. I tried to pretend I was disappointed but I was really ecstatic because the last time I talked to my instructor he told me that I could fly by myself if he wasn’t there but I was to stay in the landing pattern at the airport. That meant for the first time I would be able to just grab the keys and log book from the receptionist and go flying, just like a real pilot. I went out to the little Cessna 152 trainer, did a through pre-flight then climbed in and started the engine. Grinning from ear to ear I taxied to the runway and the most professional voice I could muster requested permission from the control tower for take off. Once aloft my grin got even bigger if that’s possible. I was finally flying by myself. I’d flown solo before but always under my instructors supervision, now I was responsible for myself, master of my own destiny, the pilot in command. I stayed in the pattern like my instructor told me to and did two touch and go’s but the little red devil on my shoulder had other plans.
“Hey Kerry, let’s leave the pattern and go do some REAL flying!”
It was tempting. The guys in the control tower had no idea I was supposed to stay in the pattern and there was nobody at the flight school but the receptionist and a mechanic. No one would have any idea I’d been gone. I looked for the white angel on my other shoulder to try and talk some sense into me but he was a no show.
“Crystal tower, Cessna 65 tango, departing the pattern to the west.”
“Cessna 65 tango right turn approved.”
And just like that I was free. I flew west to the flight school’s practice area and immediately started screwing around. Steep banks, baby wing-overs, stalls, the works. I was in heaven. I’d grown up listening to my uncle Kerry tell me flying stories about his life as an aviator in the U.S. Navy and dreaming of flying fighters off an aircraft carrier into combat. I had thousands of hours of flight time in my daydream log book and now I finally had the chance to prove I was as good of a pilot as I thought I was. I swooped, dived, turned and banked as aggressively as the under-powered trainer would let me.
After a few minutes of aerobatics that I’m sure would have made my uncle proud I decided to try something new. I pulled back on the control yoke and climbed steeply. Just before I lost all my speed I pushed on the yoke as hard as I could putting the plane into a steep dive and floating me out of the pilot’s seat in a negative G maneuver. The whoop of delight died on my lips. Instead of gently floating off the seat and hanging there in zero gravity for a few seconds my body fell forward into control panel trapping the yoke under my chest in the full down position. In a flash I realized why it was important for pilots to wear their seat belts snugly. The Cessna continued diving at the ground below and I desperately tried to pull on the yoke and level the plane out but trapped against the control panel I couldn’t get any leverage. As a large airplane manual flew past my head I pushed myself back into my seat, held myself there with one hand and tightened my seat belt with the other. As soon as the belt was holding me in place again I hauled back on the yoke with both hands and pulled the Cessna out of the dive. More than a little shaken I decided to cut my airshow short and head back to the airport.
After landing and shutting the plane down I sat in the cockpit for a few minutes contemplating my actions. On one hand I was very angry with myself for making such a boneheaded mistake and almost getting myself killed. On the other hand I was kind of proud of myself for not panicking in an emergency situation. With the two attitudes conflicting with each other I decided to go with pride. After all, I told my self, all the great pilots did dumb stuff early in their careers. The trick was to learn from your mistakes. At least that’s what I told myself.
Then I remembered something my uncle Kerry told me when he heard that I’d I started taking flying lessons.
“Remember Kerry, when a young man starts flying he’s issued two bags, an experience bag and a luck bag. When he first starts out his experience bag is empty and his luck bag is full. Every time the pilot survives doing something stupid or dangerous he takes a little out of the luck bag and puts it in the experience bag. The trick is to fill the experience bag before the luck bag runs dry.”
Those words rang true in my head as I realized I’d just made my first withdrawal from my luck bag. I hoped it was a deep bag.
By the way, just for the record I always wear my seat belt when I drive, and when I’m flying it’s usually uncomfortably tight.