My father was a U.S. Navy hero in World War II, so at an early age I had developed a keen appreciation for several aspects of seamanship, and became, largely in an effort to please my dad, something of a junior knot-tying expert. I pursued this admittedly arcane activity with great energy, memorizing a respectable vocabulary of useful knots, and precisely how to tie them. I could deliver rote verbal recitation outlining when each knot should be used, and could define why a given knot would meet requirements of a given circumstance, satisfying a given need. Eventually, though, I was able to see that all this memorized information represented only partial knowledge.
In those days I had mechanically committed to memory each step required for tying each knot, happy under the vague assumption that ancient geniuses had somehow magically acquired original knot tying knowledge, perhaps from divine sources, and then handed down strict procedure. Now that I’m older, of course, I see knots not as magical gifts from unidentified supernatural benefactors, but as orderly management of simple physical resource. I now see how logically arranging various bends, loops and chokes can achieve desired function, and this insight reminds me that knowing the rudiments of something can be adequate, but that truly understanding a thing is, in distinct contrast, profoundly and truly satisfying, and vastly more effective. I think it all has to do with the nature of the maturing human brain, but the knot tying example of knowledge maturation is duplicated in countless other human activities, certainly to include flying.
I can vividly remember confidently flying with my friends as passengers when I boasted very little total flight time. I was still in high school, but had applied myself mightily to earning a private pilot’s license, and had been told throughout that process that my performance was exceptional, so on one particular occasion I was pridefully enjoying the privilege of delivering a friend to her grandparents for Christmas dinner. Astonishingly, my uncle allowed me to use his new Cherokee Arrow, since we both felt that I was an adequate master of that airplane, able to verbalize all the correct numbers and systems descriptions without hesitation or error, and having demonstrated a passable touch at flying it. At that time I also—it should be pointed out—felt an inappropriately exaggerated general mastery of the flying environment at large, certain that I could not be surprised by anything.
With two additional friends in back we enjoyed the short trip from home base in the clear winter air which was now in place behind a recently passed cold front, and as we overflew the small, uncontrolled airport where grandparents waited, I displayed my expertise by overflying the field, noting the wind direction as indicated by a venerable metal wind cone, made all appropriate Unicom calls, and very precisely entered the prescribed downwind leg for a Runway 18 landing. I proudly flew beautifully controlled airspeeds as I executed the landing checklist, lowering flaps and gear right on schedule, and turning base and final as if we were on rails. I didn’t suspect anything amiss even as we flared and the tires chirped, except that the chirps were louder than I expected, and the runway seemed to be disappearing under us too quickly, as I began to juggle the wheel brakes. The end of the runway, in fact, was coming up fast when I realized that stopping in the overrun was going to be a close thing, and beyond the overrun was a sheer drop into a heavily wooded ravine. I got the plane stopped with absolutely no pavement at all to spare, and couldn’t help but notice that everyone was still having a fine time except me.
I spent the time taxiing to the transient ramp silently questioning myself about how I could have allowed a “close call” landing, and as we shut down and deplaned I got my answer. The old wind cone was showing steady wind out of the south, but I could now see that the outdated device had been rusted in place for years, and the wind was literally howling out of the north. I, of course, should have known that a south wind never follows a cold front passage, and, moreover, I should have checked trees, smoke, etc., for secondary indications of wind direction and speed.
Now that many years spent flying within the somewhat complex world of EMS helicopters have imprinted innumerable lessons mimicking the one taught by the rusted wind cone, but intensified by endlessly compounding elements of aviation, medicine, human interaction and common sense, I appreciate that pilots must begin their careers mastering at least a few essential fundamentals, but eventually, if they persevere sufficiently, they can learn to appreciate achieving true understanding.