Echos of Daedalus’ Lament
How we teach flight, from mythology to today.
By Sarah Arkinstall
The world remembers Icarus for we are captivated by those who first dared to venture into the realm above. Although this mythological pioneer showed courage and passion, his fatal flight has endured as a cautionary tale of the danger of being blinded by hubris.
I urge you to recall the other figure in this myth, Daedalus. He was a master craft-man, and the Father of Icarus, it was he who first succeeded to navigate the air. Only knowing the full story do we see the veiled lesson — a reminder to respect the natural order of things.
A King summoned him away from his beloved home. Reluctantly he set off to the Island of Crete, accompanied by his son. He was charged with creating a labyrinth. But at the completion of the task, the paranoid King reneged on his word and refused to grant the pair liberty.
Daedalus, longing to return home, was not devoid of hope. The surrounding seas were closed to him as they were guarded by the King’s fleet. As he sat on the shore, driven by need, it revealed itself. A vast uncontrolled sea above, with it’s own storms & calms, only intended for winged creatures, but his way to freedom. Two pairs of wings he crafted using fallen feathers and fastened with beeswax.
As a master of crafts he contemplated the nature of things he worked with. He understood to succeed in this venture, that the sky must be navigated with caution.
‘Let me warn you, Icarus, to take the middle way, in case the moisture weighs down your wings, if you fly too low, or if you go too high, the sun scorches them. Travel between the extremes. And I order you not to aim towards Bootes, the Herdsman, or Helice, the Great Bear, or towards the drawn sword of Orion: take the course I show you!’ — Metamorphoses Book VIII
Icarus, no more than a boy, overcome with joy from flying, became overconfident in his skill. He sought the heavens to play amongst the clouds. As he flew higher, the Sun’s rays warmed the wax and his wings began to crumble bit by bit...
“The love of beauty sealed my doom,
Charred, I have not been granted this:
To give my name to the abyss
That is to serve me as a tomb.”
— Charles Baudelaire, as translated by Jacques LeClercq, Les Fleurs Du Mal.
Aviation is experiencing another historic fall from grace. Reminding us of how Daedalus lamented his creation, as he wept for his son, who heeded not his warning.
In aviation you will encounter those who evoke Daedalus. Experienced aviators who advocate the middle way, providing wisdom on how to avoid the dangers of the sky. In teaching they strive to allow student’s confidence to grow, but also weeding out recklessness. For Daedalus is not the only one to lose a child to flight.
Early training is an understandably dangerous period, but what comes after is more so. Low-hour pilots, leave behind their instructors, take command though decision-making & ability is yet to be seasoned with years. From the beginning new aviators must contemplate their path to ensure they remain safe in the sky.
I begun my flight training in September 2019. Four months in I found myself experiencing my first aviation crisis, the Coronavirus Pandemic, but there have been many — so I gather it’s not my last.
What now for you, Reader, who perhaps planned to start training in 2021? I imagine you’re still eager to begin, which is why you’re here. It’s okay to be setting out to acquire skills & study, for the world will take flight again. Life’s a journey, not a race.
I encourage you to explore your initial training options as it’s a considerable investment. There are a number of flight schools operating, so don’t just look for the fastest route. Research further than company websites — speak to current or past students, instructors & some institutes even hold ‘Open Days’ that you can attend. You want to graduate with the best theoretical understanding, in addition to technical skills. Ensuring the best quality of your training should be a priority, regardless of the now increased competition on the other side.
When we think of teachers, most of us have preconceived ideas of an older figure, like Daedalus. This is because we understand that through years of experience, mastery is acquired. Only then does one have a wealth of knowledge vast enough to share with others.
Flight instructing, however, is an entry level job in the industry. Instructors, youthful like Icarus, can tend to focus on what they love to do most — fly. But they are being relied upon to be educators. For as we can agree; to fly is not enough, you must comprehend what is not visible to the eye.
It’s natural that we question their capacity to teach. They themselves are now in the dangerous stage of limited experience combined with over-confidence. Though we must all start somewhere & this has developed as the natural order in aviation. Remembering though that our mere existence as aviators challenges the natural order of things.
What I suggest you do is to seek intuitive educators, not singularly eager pilots. People’s motivation to this role differs — from a desire to teach, an enjoyment of being in a learning environment, personal reasons or simply opportunity. I understand schools will likely consider this in their recruitment process. But it is not foolproof, some shall still be primarily focused on their own ambition, and the role is a means to hours. Thus emerges a hazardous ethos that struggling students are ‘bad students’, rather than a product of somewhat inadequate teaching, at the hands of under-qualified educators.
I do not pretend to know how to solve this disparity in teaching evident in early flight training. Though perhaps a re-evaluation of salary would enable those who would consider instructing as a career path, to more securely make their commitment. This could even attracting an increase in talent, which would ultimately benefit the whole industry. Additionally a stricter means of aptitude testing for potential students, could better select those who are suitable for the career. Then instructors would not be dealing with such a vast divide in ability; allowing them to better direct their efforts & delivery a high standard of knowledge. This is not even bringing into discussion the obscure divisions under which flight schools exist- education establishment, business & aviation operator.
The airlines shall remain the goal for many an instructor which is fair. But it is fair to their students, if they do not strive to improve their skills as educators? Due to the events of 2020, they’ll be sticking around for a while longer. Find instructors who are genuinely interested. You want the best training at the beginning for solid foundations — invest wisely.
Interestingly problems in flight training are mirrored in the education system. The difference is that the education industry tries to evolve to match the world. The principles and methods of instruction remain much as they have always been. Though the students of today are different from those of the past, we’re the product of a very different world. Aviation certainly doesn’t ignore technology or breakthroughs in knowledge, flight education shouldn’t either.
Can we afford to not progress and continue to develop methods of instructing? It poses a risk of losing potentially talented pilots and failing to provide enough support to those who can endure the obsolete ‘carrot-and-stick’ approach. Simply because something isn’t broken, doesn’t mean it’s the only way.
Aviation is a community which has a culture of striving to better ourselves, share knowledge and learn from past events. These shared values join those impassioned by flight. If we apply this desire for growth to the quality of teaching, we ultimately improve foundations for future aviators & achieve ‘safer skies’.
My sympathies are profound for all those endeavouring to overcome this challenging period of history. Pilots for one, have been grounded or made redundant, after years of training, study, shifting their lives, families and sacrificing much. They shall be the first to be returned to the skies, reassuming their responsibility to navigate safely between Helice & the drawn sword of Orion.
In the meantime they demonstrate courage and leadership of a different kind. Adopting roles outside the one they’ve chosen, to assist in this unprecedented time by contributing their talents to other fields. We must remember this, for in time, they will likely become our Captains, possessing a deep understanding of adaptation & resilience. One which we must endeavour to equally possess.
Thus I set before you, it is one thing to understand that the Sun did not bring down Icarus, for the temperature would lapse as he soared closer to the tropopause—but it would be folly to completely disregard the fable. There are many things which pose a threat to flight & we must have knowledge to avoid them.
Let us continue to seek the skies, for as they say, we have wings. But in doing so, we must find an equilibrium between Icarus & Daedalus. Let us be spirited, but most importantly, wise.