Flying lessons from my father

Las Vegas - Before my first flight lesson, my father sat beside me in the small cockpit and told me the story of a flight instructor whose student stalled on descent, panicked and didn't release the controls. They both died in the crash.

"Some pilots won't teach for that reason," he continued. "They don't want to get killed." I was 22, understandably nervous and calming my fears with a single thought: Nothing can go wrong in the presence of my experienced father, a charter pilot.

"Why would you tell me that right now?" I asked.

"It's something for you to think about." And I did. The image of potentially killing my father removed much of the interest I had in his work.

In hindsight, I think it was a tale of caution, some spin on the "With great power comes great responsibility" notion. Crashes during flight instruction are rare, yet the warning fit my father's pattern of knocking down even the faintest signs of over-reliance on him. My mother died of brain cancer when I was four and my sister and brother were six; in the early years after her passing, our father advised us to be best friends, because, as he frequently reminded us, "I won't be around forever".

My father has always displayed this impassive approach to death. He's had many brushes with it. As a reckless teenager he totalled his car. He would have gone to Vietnam, but by then, his father, a World War II veteran, had died, and he avoided military service thanks to the Sole Survivor policy. He spent the late 1960s flying seaplanes in Alaska, where he stalled on a windy takeoff over a remote lake in winter. An onlooker threw him a rope and pulled him from the glacial water.

At 52, he lay alone in a parking lot and passed a blood clot through his heart. He developed Parkinson's a decade later. Now at 71, he is confronting prostate cancer. These close calls, along with my father's inevitable aging, are realities I spent much of my childhood dreading. Kids ages four to eight are particularly prone to developing thanatophobia, a paralysing fear of death and I was no exception. Whenever my father travelled for work, my imagination predicted natural disasters and inclement weather. He easily passed his yearly flight physicals and certifications, yet I was tormented by my impending orphanhood, even after my father remarried, thinking, "What will happen to me, a girl without her parents?"

Occasionally, I find myself indulging in the thought of my own death - reading studies that show children who lose a parent young have a greater risk of early death. I comprehend the physics of flight, but still shut my eyes on airliners at the smallest bumps of turbulence.

My father never had patience for irrational thoughts like these. Toughness was an admirable quality to him. So was independence. Now that we're adults, my siblings and I have acknowledged our shared fear of losing our father, despite his sincere efforts to actively combat it.

We imagine other children who expressed terror at their parents' mortality being calmed with reassurances such as, "That won't happen for a long time", not our father's dressed-up version of, "Buck up because I'm going to die, too".

At the time of my mother's death, there were few books on how to help young children cope with the loss of a parent. Because of that, combined with the fact that our father lost his business and our home soon after, I understand his lack of nuance in assisting our grieving process. Still today, the early death of a parent is considered a largely untreated psychological burden, despite the fact that one in seven Americans lose one before they turn 20 and carry it with them throughout their adulthood.

Whether reminding those children that they will eventually lose their next parent is a healthy approach doesn't matter because it was the one my father took. He comforted us in his own way by giving us responsibilities - instructed us to read the preflight checklist whenever we flew co-pilot - which taught us the difference between fear and preparation. Together, we recovered the way most do: partially, but the best we could.

I logged several hours of flying with my father, but never earned my licence. I moved away and our flights were separated by long stretches of months.

After his Parkinson's diagnosis, he was deemed unfit to pilot planes, so he sold his Cessna 182 and gave up flying altogether.

Peaceful and stoic, my father watched the new owner of the plane he taught us to fly in ascend into the big blue.

"She was a good bird," he said.

It's a lesson I'm still learning - don't hold on to anything too tightly. Even what you love the most.

New York Times

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 28, 2015, with the headline 'Flying lessons from my father'. Print Edition | Subscribe