Stranger To The Ground

Stranger to the Ground


Part I


The date is September 1965. Your reviewer is a 19-year-old private pilot with 227 hours of flying time.

Dell has recently published a book entitled Stranger to the Ground. It is paperback and contains 188 pages. The promising young author, Richard Bach has autobiographically told a story about a single flight in an Air National Guard F-84G over Europe. The New York Times says, “The incredible story of one man alone in the sky facing awesome challenges of speed and space…penetrating…stands with the works of Saint-Exupery…Masterfully told.” Your reviewer is almost nineteen years old. He is very focused on a career in aviation.

Richard Bach exudes everything a young fighter pilot should be. He has total familiarity with his aircraft. He has an unflinching devotion to duty. He has the courage to do, and courage to admit his fear. Most of all he has an eloquence to describe his experience vividly. Lt. Bach is a New Jersey Air National Guard pilot assigned to fly a special cargo of top-secret documents from Weathersfield, England to Chaumont, France. The mission is important and the weather is forbidding.

Bach’s narration of it includes a background into the details of his aircraft, his training, the Air Traffic Control Environment, and his philosophy. That, of course, is how he is able to expand a single flight into a book-length story. During the idle moments in the flight, Bach reminisces about exciting missions, inspiring people, and dead friends. An intensely proud person, he carefully develops his points, which come together in a compelling view of military aviation.

The flight is an exciting one. At one point he enters a thunderstorm, loses control on his aircraft, and barely recovers in time to save himself, his aircraft, and his precious cargo. He battles ice formation, radio failure, and a variety of unforeseen problems to accomplish his mission.

This book is a riveting story masterfully told. It offers an incisive view of the USAF, and the Air National Guard. Surely Bach is the epitome of what a pilot-patriot should be.


Part II


The date is September 1989. Your reviewer is 43 years old, with 11,580 flying hours of flying time, 2000 in fighters. He is a B-737 Captain for Delta Air Lines.

A dusty, almost forgotten book has been retrieved from long ago. Richard Bach, author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull and other successful books, wrote an autobiography of his aviation career in the mid 1960’s. Stranger To The Ground describes him as a lieutenant in the New Jersey Air National Guard before his huge success as an author.

Lt. Bach was a fool, a very eloquent, highly trained, dedicated fool, but still a fool. This is the story of a young man who risks his life, his aircraft, and likely those of people on the ground to fly a bag of papers from England to France. This book describes a single flight of a young pilot who cannot know the importance of his mission. No one will thank him or even remember its success or failure. Neither can he know that he well likely die if he flies it as assigned. The effect of this is a huge irony. That is, how can such a proficient, highly trained young man come so close to destruction? It is a study in being confident and enthusiastic to a fault.




The date is 2001. Your reviewer is 55 years old. He has 19,140 hours of flying time. He is an MD-11 Captain for Delta Air Lines.

I look back at what Richard Bach wrote and what I thought about his writing. Do I detect a pattern? We were both enthusiastic and dedicated to a fault when we were young. We became arrogant and intolerant in our middle age. Now in our mature years, what are we? I don’t know about Bach, but I’ve never been happier. I regard those early stages as a beneficial process. I have become a member of a group that seems to agree as to what the process should be. As a junior captain, I was too hard on the copilots. I appreciate them more now.




Well isn’t his a surprise. It’s 2016, I’ve been flying for fifty years, and I’m still alive. They gave me a “Master Pilot” award for that. I’ve been retired from airline flying for ten years. Flying my “bug smasher” little airplane on instrument flights still gives me a lot of satisfaction. Perhaps this gives me license to reflect on the different strategies that I have seen in aviation.

“Hot Shot” – These are mostly already dead. Flying inverted under bridges is a very short-term strategy. Probably doesn’t make for a good career, even if you survive the unnecessary risk.

“Natural” – Everyone thinks this person was born with the “gift.” In reality they study harder, work longer, and pay more attention to their flying. They excel through effort and focus. It is strategy to be emulated.

“Jerk” – Really just a fearful person. He doubts his own capabilities and diverts attention to minor flaws in those around him. He is unable to allow anyone to operate beyond his pitifully small world, even the “Natural.”

“Numbers Man” – He knows every temperature, power setting, fuel flow, etc., etc. in the book. Much of that is useless, but if conceals his weak stick-and-rudder skills.

“Check List” – Like the Numbers Man, and the Jerk, he is a weak, fearful pilot. He believes that he will be protected by strict observance to his security blanket. In a real situation he is little help. (I agree with those who define a checklist as a document to be reviewed after you have made you best attempt at conducting a procedure from memory; if you read an item and then do it, it’s a do list)

“Comedian/Joker” – Usually a very bright, but bored person. Like the Hot Shot, he takes unnecessary risk in order to reduce his boredom and/or to be regarded as cool or cute. I’ve seen this guy convince a flight attendant that there is a person trapped in the wheel well. Another idiot liked to scare the copilots by starting an engine on the takeoff roll. Flying doesn’t have to be dead serious, but it doesn’t have to be dangerous or traumatic either.

“Instructor” – He thinks he is a “Natural.” Always ready with some advice, he is convinced that his perfection should be emulated. Copilots only comply when he is present, rejecting his techniques when he is out of sight.

“Chief Pilot” – A legend in his own mind. Like the Instructor, he is an alleged repository of aviation wisdom and leadership. He loves the title and power more than flying. Rather than being selected for his flying skills, he does a job no one else wants, that of a glorified baby-sitter, disciplining misbehaving pilots.

“Normal” – I have listed several strategies to be avoided, and most of us can’t be the Natural. Those represent a tiny fraction of the people I have worked with over the years. The huge majority of the pilots with whom I have flown, share my appreciation of the beauty of flight, the goodness of people, and the satisfaction of a job well done. The new normal appreciates the value of all of the crewmembers. The days of the tyrant captain and the “set your hair on fire” fighter pilot are mostly gone. The guy or gal flying a half-billion dollar fighter doesn’t fly under bridges; the airline captain knows the value of an effective team in the cockpit.I recommend a career in aviation, not for the money, but for the joy of it.


Lindburgh said it best, “Science, freedom, beauty, adventure. What more could you ask of life? Aviation combined all the elements I loved.

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Soloed in 1962. Seven years in USAF flying F-101, F-102, F-106. Got lucky and hired by Delta in 1977. Flew most of theirs, retiring in 2006 off the B-777. Owned and did some airshows in T-33. ALPA's Human Performance guy for 20 years. Helped develop IFALPA and ICAO policy on Automation and Workload. Fly a V-35B Bonanza now.

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