Sweating Through Your Flight Suit

Here is a scene I heard over and over, interviewing Israeli fighter pilots (and I’m sure it’s commonplace in air forces and other combat units all over the world.)

A pilot would describe returning to base after a combat mission. He’d land safely, taxi to a stop; his ground crew would come running to the plane; they’d set the ladder against the aircraft’s flank, open the the cockpit cowling so the pilot could climb out and down … only he, the returning fighter pilot, would be so wrung out emotionally and so shattered with fatigue that he couldn’t get out of his seat.

Ground crewmen would have to literally lift him from under the arms and carry him down to terra firma.

A Mirage IIIC cockpit. Sometimes a pilot didn’t have the strength to get out.

And yet …

And yet, he, the pilot, had completed the mission. He had dropped his bombs, he had fought off enemy attacks in the air, he had done what he was sent out to do.

In such a situation [here is Gen. Ran Ronen on the subject], the pilot’s body will exhibit all the manifestations of fear. His heart rate will soar; his flight suit will become drenched with sweat. But his mind must remain focused. His thinking must stay clear and calm.

I know it’s a stretch to compare what you and I do—safe in our offices with our cups of tea or coffee beside us—with the peril faced by pilots in life-and-death air-to-air combat. But there is, at least metaphorically, a parallel.

You and I deal with panic too. We feel our lives flash before our eyes. Our hearts race, our blood pressure soars, our figurative flight suits become soaked with sweat.

The lesson here is that doesn’t matter. That’s just the body doing what bodies do.

It’s okay to feel terror. It’s okay to break down in tears (as I myself have done countless times). It’s okay to finish the day so weak and limp, you have to pour yourself out of your chair and collapse into the arms of the nearest spouse/wet bar/loyal Labrador. 

It’s okay to feel and do all that.

Just keep flying the mission.

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38 Comments

  1. Joe Jansen on October 13, 2021 at 4:17 am

    It’s interesting to think of duality vs non-duality.

    Duality: Is the body separate from the mind, a spirit inhabiting “the soft animal of your body” (credit Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”)? Our bodies doing one thing in response to its internal systems and its external environment, while our minds inhabit a wholly different space? The mind remaining cool and collected while the body fights for survival?

    Or non-duality: Where everything is a manifestation of a uniform substrate, taking different forms for different purposes. Thinking of ice, water, and steam, as an analogy.

    Contemplating it seems to be a fundamental part of the ride. I love Wednesday mornings.

    • Compton on October 20, 2021 at 3:59 pm

      Joe,
      Thanks for the thought provoking comment.

  2. Yvonne on October 13, 2021 at 6:21 am

    Just beautiful, Steve; poignant and super helpful. Thank you.

  3. Sam Luna on October 13, 2021 at 7:31 am

    And to others this seems like self-inflicted pain. No one asks us or requires us to write or create. In regards to writing I have been told “who cares? It’s not like your next meal depends on this.” “If it’s not fun right now, then don’t do it.” “Save it for retirement when you have more time.”

    Writing Wednesdays gets it.

    • Peter Brockwell on October 13, 2021 at 8:03 am

      Sam you remind me of Stephen King in ‘On Writing’ saying that he was asked why he chose to write horror, and his response: “What makes you think I have a choice?”

      • Sam Luna on October 13, 2021 at 1:02 pm

        Right! Or David Mamet’s … “I write for the same reason a beaver eats wood, if I don’t my teeth will grow too long and poke through my brain.”

      • Mike on October 13, 2021 at 1:48 pm

        After Philippe Petit had spent 45 minutes tightrope walking back-and-forth between the twin towers at 110 stories (illegally), he was asked why he would even attempt such a thing. His reply?

        “There is no why.”

  4. Kate Stanton on October 13, 2021 at 11:04 am

    This is beautiful today. My eyes watered. Thank you, Steven. I enjoy reading the comments, too. You guys all rock.

    • Joe on October 13, 2021 at 12:31 pm

      Kate, your latest, “The Fog.” is really good.

      • Kate Stanton on October 13, 2021 at 12:39 pm

        Joe, thank you so much! I finally had the guts to put my vocals more up front in the mix. You writing this means a LOT!! I appreciate you listening and commenting!

  5. Chuck DeBettignies on October 14, 2021 at 7:11 am

    So good!
    Glued to the mission . . .

  6. Tolis Alexopoulos on October 14, 2021 at 10:16 am

    Everything is against us… dangers everywhere. Distractions that lead to more distractions. New things and experiences that have nothing to do with the book but need time. A mind that -at least for me, today- doesn’t want to concentrate at all and is prone to pleasures -technology brought the best pleasures in front of us, we don’t even have to leave our chair. Low stimuli – high importance things versus High stimuli – Low importance things.

    But we keep on flying.

    We must not try, we must do. When we try, the possibility of failure is opened. The important thing is to sit to that chair, that cockpit. No life-and-death stimuli too, which makes it easier to leave the cockpit.

    Thanks dear Steve! My best wishes to all the company here, everyone.

  7. brookkelly on October 22, 2021 at 9:16 am

    When a pilot is given the option of whether or not to wear a flight suit, it is a matter of personal preference. Some pilots will never fly without one, while others will die in one! The ‘top gun’ flying suit is more than just eye contact, and it’s not just worn by fighter pilots. https://www.logosymmetry.co.uk/ The majority of utility helicopter and aircraft pilots wear it as part of their corporate uniform, but why?

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    I think that perhaps enlightenment would help humanity to reduce the number of wars. I know that people are very aggressive animals, and this aggression needs to find a way out, but perhaps the answer to this question lies outside the realm of killing other people. We could be doing something more constructive or interesting. There are many different activities that help to cope with your aggression and not bring harm to anyone. You can play sports, or choose card games like blackjack at https://blackjack77australia.com/ and strive to beat the dealer, or practice your game strategies. Anything will be more constructive than military action.

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