Pilot Episodes

I get my thrills pretty easily. A good hike, a sunset and campfire, a rousing game of Mario Kart—it doesn’t take much to rev my pulse into overdrive. Maybe that makes me an adrenaline flunkie, but I like to think I just have a hair-trigger for fun.

Given my preference for grounded pleasures, I felt a bit out of my league when I picked up Wind, Sand and Stars, an adventure memoir by Antoine De Saint-Exupery. Saint-Exupery was a French aviator in the 1920s and ‘30s and flew mail routes across the Mediterranean and into Saharan Africa. Yet, for a man writing about flying — and you’ll certainly get your share of pilot porn and bravado — Saint-Exupery is far more universal in his musings. His material ends up equal parts philosophy and ode to action. More than anything about a single person or a single profession, it’s a stirring and lyrical testament to life in the first person.

And it’s a sharp contrast to so many of our experiences that are dulled and mediated through a screen, or squinted at through a smart phone. Saint-Exupery piloted a stripped-down plane with only his eyes and senses to guide him. His survival depended on feeling the rhythm and pulsations of his surroundings. Spotting a puff of wind playing across the ocean below; a cloud bank bulging on the horizon; a faint runway light blinking through the suffocating blackness of a Sahara night. His world bombarded him with stimuli and pricked him to attention, like walking naked into a sandstorm. It’s no wonder he felt so alive.

In one of his more memorable adventures, Saint-Exupery loses his bearings after flying for hours in cloud cover during the night. Unable to tell water from shore or bluff from plain, he slams into the black sands of an unknown desert and then wanders for days, mad with thirst and hunger, wringing out the dew from a parachute for a few oily drops of water each morning. He and his navigator limp along on the strength of an orange and half a bottle of wine until they’re rescued on the verge of total dehydration and delirium. It’s not the sort of rush you’d wish to duplicate, but for Saint-Exupery it was life-affirming. And it certainly didn’t keep him out of the cockpit.

But Saint-Exupery didn’t expect everyone to be a pilot or flirt with death to reach fulfillment. He was a dreamer, a romantic, someone who loved art and artists as much as any adventure. He felt everyone had a calling, some innate yearning to do compelling and exciting work. The danger is losing sight of that calling, letting the world and social obligations crush it out of you.

On the night of his first solo flight from Toulouse, Saint-Exupery recalls being roused at 3:00 a.m. to catch the bus to the airstrip. Joining him on the ride is a mish-mash of “bureaucrats” — a customs guard, “a few glum government clerks,” other working stiffs nodding in and out of sleep:

We jolted mournfully over the uneven pavements of Toulouse, I in the midst of these men who in the rain and the breaking day were about to take up again their dreary diurnal tasks, their red tape, their monotonous lives… I heard them talking to one another in murmurs and whispers. They talked about illness, money, shabby domestic cares. Their talk painted the walls of the dismal prison in which these men had locked themselves up.

Old bureaucrat, my comrade, it is not you who are to blame. No one ever helped you escape. You, like a termite, built your peace by blocking up with cement every chink and cranny through which the light might pierce. You rolled up into a ball in your genteel security, in routine, in the stifling conventions of provincial life, raising a modest rampart against the winds and the tides and the stars … Nobody grasped you by the shoulder while there was still time. Now the clay of which you were shaped has dried and hardened, and naught in you will ever awaken the sleeping musician, the poet, the astronomer that possibly inhabited you in the beginning.

These lines hit especially close to home, I can tell you, if you’re reading them on a crowded bus heading into work. Look up from your pages, glance at everyone plugged into headphones, swaying in the aisles as the bus lumbers from stop to stop. And then picture Saint-Exupery in his little plane, buffeted by a massive storm, out of radio contact, arms swollen and aching from the fight as he wrestles against the gale. The spectrum of life’s adventures ranges pretty widely between office drone and a freewheeling pilot. But what Saint-Exupery did is not important as how he did it—on his own terms, and according to his passions.

For the same reason, though I may not share Saint-Exupery’s enthusiasm for sweating through life on the high wire, I found his call to action pointed and deeply personal. I earmarked some 80 pages, marking dozens of beautiful lines I wanted to remember. It was enough to get this heart pounding.

– Karl Wirsing


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