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The Impossibility of Flight

Bach’s Crash Considered Readers around the world were shocked to learn that 76-year-old author Richard Bach crashed his seaplane on Orcas Island on Aug. 31, sustaining serious injuries from which he’s still recovering. But few were surprised by...

Bachs Crash Considered

Readers around the world were shocked to learn that 76-year-old author Richard Bach crashed his seaplane on Orcas Island on Aug. 31, sustaining serious injuries from which he’s still recovering. But few were surprised by the fact that the author was alone in the air that day.

Bach, whose best-selling novella Jonathan Livingston Seagull rocketed him to national prominence in 1970, has lived an outsized portion of his life in the air, as a U.S. Air Force Pilot, barnstormer and lifelong casual aviator. His writing often uses flight as a metaphor for the limitlessness of human potential. But when he clipped a power line and crashed his SeaRey amphibious plane into a grass landing strip, it served as a reminder of flight’s risk.

Seagull’s wild success—and the fact that a 100-page book, half of which is pictures of seagulls, is still a cultural touchstone four decades after its publication—speaks to our deeper cultural obsession with flight as much as the optimism of Bach’s armchair spiritualism.

Among the many pop-Transcendental bromides contained in Seagull is this: “The gull sees farthest who flies highest.” The line brings to mind David Foster Wallace’s lecture “This Is Water”: “Banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance.” Ascent, the most alluring aspect of flight, is all about verticality and vision—the drastic realignment of scope, the creation of novel perspectives. Air travel, at its most ideal, has always been the adventure away from the ground. It’s on the descent, however, where everything returns to gravitational reality. As Bach’s crash illustrates, idealized flight is just that.

“Flying solo is the freedom to do whatever you wish,” says Long Bach Nguyen (no relation), a local seaplane pilot and flight instructor. “But you can kill yourself with that freedom.”

We aspire to flight. We are creatively inspired by it—because it appears effortless. In truth, human flight requires stubborn effort; it requires paying close attention to minute details and hundreds of variables. As Nguyen says, “You don’t want anything to be too exciting.”

A gull strafing the Seattle waterfront for the remnants of a lunch break employs an innate calculus of vector and approach, of updraft, speed and glide. We can’t possibly do the same. Which is probably why we try. 

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