Being alone in a plane at 15 made it clear what it takes to stay alive in any context. I’m drawn back to my first time flying a plane at the age of 15. My dad, a pilot himself, believed I was ready to solo. We were on Cat Island in the out-island Bahamas. Cutlass Bay has a short dirt runway with a hill at one end and a lagoon at the other making it a dangerous place to practice, but it was my moment.
The Cessna 206 Stationair heaved from the threshold. I climbed over the hill, banking left and saw the airstrip below get smaller and smaller. For the first time in years my father wasn’t sitting next to me. I was alone, attempting my first landing. With the lagoon below and the flaps down, I approached the runway with complete confidence. But I came in too far down the short airstrip to land safely.
Flaps up, full throttle and back up I went over the hill and around again for my second attempt. This time I came in too fast, bouncing down the runway with my father standing on the edge watching… in what must have been horror. I shoved the throttle forward, lifted the flaps and just made it over the hill, now with sweat in my eyes and my pulse racing, going back around for my third attempt to land.
Dad and I had no way to communicate back then on this remote Bahamian island and there was no one for me to contact on the radio for help. This was one of those “OS!Ms” Steve Farber refers to in his book, The Radical Leap.
“In the right context, therefore, your experience of fear (or exhilaration, for that matter) is your internal indicator that you’re moving in the right direction. That you really are leading, in other words. That scary/exhilarating experience is what I call the Oh Shit! Moment or OS!M.” ~Steve Farber
I was a kid, scared for my life, not sure if I’d be able to get this plane on the ground in one piece. My options were limited. Either land safely or… crash on the runway, or in the ocean, or on the beach.
What “should” I do rapidly became what “must” I do?
I imagined each of these scenarios had already happened, which freed my thinking. And in that moment I grew up.
What must I do? I must do the things my dad taught me to do to land a plane safely. I embraced the fear and on my third and final attempt I landed Yeager-like. Ok… I landed like Michael Kennedy. When facing death, the greatest of all fears, I discovered by looking past it I could think with more clarity, summoning the confidence necessary to make life-saving decisions.