From Superman Dreams to Soaring Realities: Through the Skies and the Art of Quitting

The Dunning-Kruger Effect states the less we know about a particular topic, the more we think we know. It’s what won David Dunning and Justin Kruger the Nobel Prize and what I wrote about here. The effect was discussed in the above-referenced newsletter on motorcycle riding, so I’ll not elaborate, other than to say this critical cognitive bias is present in all humans. I’ve been working hard to catch myself before walking into this soup.

Another area of my life that exposed the impact of Dunning-Kruger is flying. I mean mostly airplanes, but other things one can use to navigate in the air. Like my discussion on MC riding, I dipped my toe into flying, too.

In October of 1960, dreaming of flight

From an early age, I dreamed of flying like a bird. With a dish towel from my mother’s kitchen tied around my neck, I’d race up one side of a dirt mound in our backyard and launch myself into the air at the top, hoping to soar off like Superman. It didn’t work, but not from a lack of attempts.

Cessna 172 Trainer: In my twenties, Cessna offered a low-cost path to getting your pilot’s license and soloing an airplane through its Cessna Pilot Center program. The classes were cheap and subsidized by Cessna using their 172 training plane.  The goal of the program was to stimulate interest in flying and expand the market of people who could buy airplanes. The highly discounted classes ended soon after your first solo flight but a few lessons short of your private pilot’s license. (Sneaky.)

On graduation (after just 10 hours of flight time) the cost increased even more, especially if you wished to take anyone else up for a ride or travel very far from the home airport. So I quit. Besides the cost, I’d learned that airplanes were noisy and mechanical, not the “fly like a bird” experiences in my dreams.

Hang-gliding: A few years later a friend purchased a hang-glider. After a few hours of practice with him, he let me try it.  I ran most of the way down a short hill before lifting off, climbing to an altitude of, at best, perhaps 6 -10 feet in the air lasting for less than a minute.  On landing,  again I had to run like hell to keep from falling. This was in Minnesota. There were no mountains to jump from.  In the end, this did not feel good and I quit.

Parachuting: The car mechanic working on my Lotus Elan enticed me to try parachuting.  He was in a club and they were anxious for new members.  One Friday I went through their jump school, learning everything you were supposed to know and do.  The next morning was my first jump – a static line jump.  This is where you jump from the open door of the airplane with a rip cord attached to a line on the plane, making the chute open automatically as one fell. This was fun.  The experience provided a host of firsts and was followed by a few more jumps.  I even got to the point of opening the chute myself.  But the club was focused on free-falling in a group, holding hands, and forming circles. I found free-falling noisy, and windy, and controlling myself in the air was hard – I had a tendency to tumble. I preferred to open the parachute soon after exiting the plane and gently float down under the canopy, admiring the view and the incredible and total lack of sound.  I soon abandoned my sky-diving phase.

Fixed Wing Gliders: A customer of mine at Schaak Electronics in Rochester, John Kaplan, was building a fixed-wing glider in his basement. I was fascinated, and soon I was joining him and his glider club at a small airport near Northfield, MN, taking lessons and flying the club’s Schempp-Hirth, German-made gliders. Fun, but still noisy – not from an engine, but from the air rushing over the glider’s surface areas. But I fulfilled one dream, giving my father a glider ride, which he loved. I’d been learning to fly the tow plane, a tail dragger that had been modified and optimized for pulling gliders into the air and dropping them.  One weekend when I was not there, they had an accident, killing a glider pilot, damaging the tow plane, and destroying one of the gliders.  I never returned.

Paragliding – the best: My final flying experience was paragliding in Los Angeles.  It was the closest to a bird-like flight for me.  The group I joined frequently launched from Soboba Mountain southeast of Riverside, CA.  On July 3, 1991, the LA Times featured me with a on the Sports Page of the newspaper.  I loved paragliding, the closest to flying like a bird as in my dreams as a kid. I was getting better at it, too.  So good I began to show off a bit.  One day, waiting at the top of the mountain for a group of students to Copy of article launch, I easily inflated and collapsed my wing, showing off.  On one inflation, a gust of wind picked me up and I found myself being pulled backward, toward the backside of a mountain, where a drop would have likely killed me.  Thinking fast, I collapsed my chute from a height of about 20 feet and dropped like a rock into some desert bushes, spraining an ankle and scratching my arms and face. But not dead. And so again, after a few days of thinking about it, I quit paragliding.

I have many friends who fly, both recreationally and for some it was a part of their jobs.  Chances continued to present themselves over the years to get me back in the air: Dave Waks, my boss when Prodigy transferred me to New York in 1993 allowed me to briefly pilot his Cessna; Math genius Alan Baratz retired from Cisco and Sun to Arizona and then took on a small company Steve Pittendrigh and I had invested in called Amber Alert and while working with Alan, he brought me on a trip to Utah and then California in his Pilatus PC-12 turboprop, allowing me to slip behind the controls for a few minutes. Modern flying is so far from what I did when young.  I admire and appreciate what they do, what they’ve learned and the mindset needed to fly safely and be prepared for emergencies.  My pilot friends meticulously go through pre-flight checklists, paying attention to everything. It takes little effort to recall the shortcuts and abbreviated checks I made on my gear and metal preparation before flying.  Describing me as “an accident waiting to happen,” is not altogether wrong.  When my pilot friends are together and start talking about flying, I know to keep my mouth shut and avoid being an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Under the canopy in the early 1970s.


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3 Responses to From Superman Dreams to Soaring Realities: Through the Skies and the Art of Quitting

  1. Alex Moore says:

    Standing on the pegs cruising fast dirt roads on a motorcycle is close to flying to me.

    Best ever, however, were the lucid flying dreams I had as a teenager. I’ll never forget them.

  2. Ed Deutsch says:

    I also have had a few hours in a 172 and a high performance glider. For me it was fun but not enough to move forward.
    When Covid hit I started riding motorcycles again instead of just collecting them. I tried several different bikes since I have the itch. The clock is ticking and I’m not sure if there is time left for the next phase of danger with benefits.
    I don’t fear death on a motorcycle if something goes terribly wrong. I do fear needing to wear a diaper as the result of a crash!

  3. Rich Marin says:

    I wonder what they call the effect I have? I wouldn’t dream of flying anything because I just know I am not diligent enough for such an exacting activity.

    Just rode by R-Nine-T (the GS voltage was low so I put it on the charger) up through Fallbrook to the Ortega Highway (Capistrano Bob is in TN visiting grandkids) and then down along the coast past Camp Pendleton and then home. It was about 120 miles of very pleasant early morning riding with no traffic (except on the Ortega itself, which is always busy on weekends). I’m only a little stiff from the smaller seating configuration even though it was 3+ hours of riding. Been stretching a lot since our AZ/NM ride.


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