Writing, Flying, and Saint-Exupery

I've started reading Stacy Schiff's 1997 biography of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, about which I've heard only rave reviews and which indeed is wonderful so far. Every good omen that it will join A. Scott Berg's Lindbergh and Fred Howard's Wilbur and Orville on my list of first-rate biographies of fliers. I suppose that list should be extended to include Robert Coram's Boyd, about the military theorist and one-time fighter pilot John Boyd, and The Right Stuff, and....

But on the second page of her book, Stacy Schiff says something that rings completely wrong. Rather, it suggests to me that while she has admirably researched her subject, she has not made the imaginative leap to understanding what flying is about. She notes the obvious -- that Saint-Exupery was both a renowned writer and a career aviator -- and says:

Generally speaking the two are not professions that go well together. The writer lives with some detachment from experience, which it is his task to recast; a pilot works his trade with a fierce immediacy, perfect presence. One may reshape events; the other must nimbly accommodate them.

My experience and observation suggest exactly the reverse.

True, the great majority of people who fly airplanes are not literary types. Truer still, the overwhelming majority of literary people have no interest in flying airplanes. But there is a striking tradition of serious aviators who are also serious writers. Consider:

  • Beryl Markham long ago (West with the Night);

  • Lindbergh himself, in a sense, and his wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who was also a flier, even more;

  • the Langewiesches, pere et fils (the father, Wolfgang, wrote the classic guide to airmanship, Stick and Rudder, the aeronautical counterpart to The Elements of Style that is still widely read 60 years after its publication; the son, my friend and former Atlantic colleague William, has written wonderful books about flying in addition to his other reportage);

  • the novelist James Salter, whom literary types celebrate for the elegance of his memoirs and fiction (my favorite: the unforgettable Light Years) but whose days as a fighter pilot in Korea inform his novel The Hunters and the recent Gods of Tin.*

  • Rinker Buck, whose Flight of Passage recounts the cross-country trip he and his brother made in a Piper Cub as teenagers and is a classic in the coming-of-age genre;

  • Nevil Shute, who was a professional pilot and aeronautical engineer before he became a novelist (On the Beach, A Town Like Alice, etc);

  • Ernest K. Gann, whose Fate is the Hunter is much more impressive than most people who haven't read it think; same with North Star Over My Shoulder, by Bob Buck;

  • I might as well add Richard Bach, of Jonathan Livingston Seagull and other books, and Arthur Hailey.

There are many fewer pilots than there are, say, real estate agents, dentists, or bowlers, but the piloting ranks have produced more known writers.

How can this be? What did Stacy Schiff, skilled as she is, get wrong? Two elements, I think.

First, most of flying is not, in fact, about living in the tension-filled vivid moment. I'm not talking about the extremes of aviation here: Blue Angels, fighter pilots in kill-or-be-killed encounters, cropduster pilots flying within inches of obstacles that could kill them, even space shuttle pilots who must steer the plummeting craft to a make-it-or-else landing at Edwards Air Force base. They indeed require "perfect presence."

Instead I mean people who do what Saint-Exupery did during most of his flying career: guide a passenger, cargo, or pleasure airplane from one point to the next. Most of the time this process requires far less manual dexterity than driving a car on a two-lane road. (Lose attention for five seconds in a car, and you could veer across the line and be killed. Lose attention for five seconds in most phases of a flight, and nothing will happen.) The exceptions, in normal flying, come when the plane is close to the ground, on takeoff and landing.

But flying requires much more thought than driving does, and vastly more anticipation. Pilots are instructed always to be thinking of the next three things that might occur, observing what seems to be happening with the weather, sensing how the wind has changed or how the engine feels, and in every other way "keeping ahead of the airplane." This fits the "detached" perspective that Schiff says characterizes the writing life.

Second, and more important: flying is beautiful, and it is magic. Nothing about airline travel seems that way. But any sentient being is changed by the experience of guiding an airplane into the air, moving it through three-dimensional space in a way human beings otherwise experience only when swimming underwater, and viewing the earth from a perspective that only birds enjoyed until a century or two ago. Do people like the view from the top of observation towers? Almost all do. And there is no comparing that static, limited perspective to the view from a moving, steerable platform a few thousand feet above the ground. Familiar features of the earth fit together with a logic difficult appreciate in any other way.

That is why, in my own experience, almost all pilots are "writers" of a sort. Not many are literary, and "freight-dogs" and airline pilots often grumble that they're stuck in routine, bus-driver type jobs. But surprisingly many people who have flown airplanes feel compelled to share and describe the experience -- in anecdotes known as "hangar talk," in letters and now web postings, and in a large number of published books.

To come back to the starting point, this book by Stacy Schiff, like many of her others, is very good. That's all the more impressive, I suppose, considering the emotional distance she had to cross to try to understand one of her subject's main passions.


* The one time I met Salter, at a conference seven years ago, I told him that I had started flying three years earlier. He asked me how much flying time I had accumulated. I told him, and he said: "Well, you'll probably survive."