Hot Stove

How close do you need to get to an accident?

At the age of 27, having just made my first film, Boiler Room, I found myself riding a brand new BMW K1200RS south on the Henry Hudson Parkway in Manhattan. The bike was a gift from Ben Affleck (it’s customary to buy the director a modest gift when you wrap a film, but this was generous by any measure). This is a relevant detail because I thought the world belonged to me at that age, and an ancillary effect of that foolish thought is the sense that you are immune from harm. Or as some refer to it: your 20s.

I was in the left lane on the elevated section around 68th Street, and I was flying—90 mph and threading the needle around slower traffic in front of me. I shifted my weight, leaned in, and shot from the left lane all the way to the right. An old Ford van switched lanes just as I made the move. He never saw me coming. No amount of braking would get me slowed at that speed. I was committed. The only thing my reptile brain allowed me to do was to try to make the quickly disappearing gap between the van and the short concrete wall overlooking the 100-foot drop down to the Hudson River. The van was so close, I might have touched it with my left elbow. I can’t remember. Your brain only allows the production of certain memories in situations such as these. Some details stick, others disappear forever.

What should have stuck was that I fundamentally needed to change the way I rode on the street. But surprisingly, that event did not change the way I ride. On that day, I cruised away thinking I was just an exceptional motorcyclist. I refused to acknowledge that it was mostly luck that saved my life. See above regarding your 20s. Throw in some arrogance for good measure.

There is a sense of disconnect between who I am today and who I was back then. I don’t altogether recognize that version of myself. What I remember clearly is that sense of always needing to touch the stove. I look back at that 27-year-old me and marvel at how fortunate it is that he didn’t kill himself.

But this can’t be chalked up to youth alone. Quite a few touch-the-stove moments presented themselves to me years later as a budding pilot at the ripe age of 40. Some I learned from, some I did not. There was the time, as a newly minted private pilot, I flew down to Georgia from New York to see my friend Jay. The rental plane did not have an autopilot. I hand-flew for hours, dodging thunderstorms the whole way down. Twenty miles out, the controller I was talking to told me he didn’t think I’d beat a 100-mile-wide squall line to my destination—Heaven’s Landing (4WV4), West Virginia. This was my first time flying into mountainous terrain as well as my longest flight to date, and there I was trying to convince myself I could beat a quickly approaching, massive line of storms. The concern in his voice was sufficient enough that I landed at the nearest airport.

The rain and wind that hit before I even parked on the ramp scared me. The approach I made into Heaven’s Landing a few hours later, after the storm passed, scared me still more. The airport is located on top of a mountain with rising terrain on all sides—a challenge in even the best conditions. It would have been ugly had I attempted it.

Read More from Ben Younger: Leading Edge

How much closer to the stove did I need to get to understand that it could burn me? I am a firm believer that pain is a far better teacher than praise when it comes to self-preservation in the cockpit, but when I think further about other close calls I’ve had in the past, I always see the younger version of myself as being green and inexperienced. It’s always in the past tense, as if that person no longer exists, replaced by an adult who makes impeccable go/no-go decisions. This is an obvious fallacy.

Unlike the BMW incident on the Henry Hudson that happened more than 20 years ago, the close calls I have experienced in airplanes have all happened in the past eight years—the time I’ve had my pilot’s license. How is this possible? I view myself as being far more cautious and responsible as compared to my 20s, and yet, the examples persist.

Not too long ago, I took up my brother and two nephews in a rented Piper Arrow for a low-and-slow flight over the Delaware River. We departed from a short strip in Cherry Ridge, Pennsylvania. My sister-in-law, Stacey, stood on the ramp watching us taxi out while holding her newborn daughter—my niece, Bella. She looked nervous. Sure enough, I forgot to pick the gear up and wondered why the climb rate was so sluggish. We cleared the trees at the end of the runway, but it was a lot closer than I had planned or wanted. Stacey was right to be worried.

Today, I see myself more clearly. I am a motorcyclist of moderate ability possessing an incredible amount of historical luck. But how can I be sure that I have the right amount of deference? If every few years I look back and think, “Boy, you didn’t know anything back then,” how can I completely trust my ability in the present? I suppose if I stayed home and never flew in anything but CAVU, I’d know I was sufficiently cautious. But then I wouldn’t be flying very often.

One benefit of age is that it allows me to feel the heat from the stove from a distance and learn the same lessons I would from an actual burn. But there is still danger. From wishful thinking regarding weather to confirmation bias on runway selection, I continue to commit sins in the cockpit. I cannot count on my currency and experience as enough. This is why we use checklists. This is why we read Aftermath in this very magazine. This is why we want to hear, in agonizing detail, how the next guy ended up bending metal. Anything to stay away from that stove.

This story appeared in the September 2020 issue of Flying Magazine

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