Richard Bach: Bad Influence in All the Right Ways
Richard Bach, who was injured in the crash of a small seaplane over the weekend and who remains in serious condition in a Washington hospital, has been on my mind, as he has for many Flying readers, I’m sure. Like many pilots my age, Bach was a major influence on my decision to become a flyer in earnest.
Bach’s most famous book, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the story of a rebellious seagull, struck a chord for me when I read it as a 12 year old. What young boy could help but be entranced by the story of a moody and sensitive seagull who learns to fly, both literally and figuratively, while learning a hard lesson or two about the real world in the process. Published in 1973 just before the expiration date of the 60s (an era whose namers paid no attention to the numbers on the calendar), JLS was a sensation. Bach, whom you might know was a Flying staffer, wrote the short work (the first novella I ever read; tastes great, less filling), and Flying photographer extraordinaire Russ Munson took the perfect seagull pictures that accompanied the book. Within a couple of years the book had sold millions of copies, and introduced many more people than that — my copy got read by at least five different people — to the thought process of someone who likes to go flying. It really is, I keep telling my non-flying friends, a deeply compelling activity. There was even a movie, with a soundtrack by Neil Diamond, of all people, that made me wonder if there was any popular thing Hollywood wouldn’t make a movie about.
As cute as Jonathan was, the book that really got me hooked on a number of bad habits was Bach’s follow up to Jonathan, Illusions, the Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, which was published in 1977, the year I graduated from high school. Illusions took much of the love of flight inherent in JLS and associated it with actual airplanes, in this case a Fleet biplane piloted by the likes of Donald Shimoda, a modern-day barnstormer who looks deep within himself and learns how to make Snap-On wrenches float in midair. Truth be told, the ever-present themes of magic and spiritual insight were not my cup of tea, but that didn’t stop me from loving the book, which talked very sensibly about the beauty of flying (and, by the way, of back yard mechanics). Those twin themes set me on two dangerous paths, one of being a pilot in earnest and the other of being an enthusiastic, dangerous and untrained tinkerer. (Read too, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig, for an ambitious take on many of those same themes, only two wheels.) Most importantly, Illusions made me think about flying in ways I never had before, in particular encouraging me to see flying as a means to self discovery and not just as the obvious means to outward exploration that most people, those who aren’t pilots, reflexively see.
My favorite quote from Illusions is this one. “Here is a test to find whether your mission on earth is finished: If you're alive, it isn't.” It seems a fitting reminder any day, but these days in particular.