On the morning after Thanksgiving 2007 came a welcome telephone call from Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, the first American woman to walk in space, the former CEO of COSI, and now the first director of the new Battelle Center for Mathematics and Science Education Policy housed at The Ohio State University's John Glenn School of Public Affairs.
We were planning to have lunch that day, but Kathy had other plans.
"You know that airplane I recently bought?" she asked. Of course I knew. She had recently described the plane, like a teenager describes a heartthrob.
"Well, I've been in it all week and I suddenly have the hours required to take a passenger. Want to fly?"
Years of fearful flying have receded, so I accepted without hesitation.
Up, Up And Away
At OSU's Don Scott Field, Kathy strapped me into the back seat of the cute, bright red two-seater. When a former astronaut straps you into an airplane seat, you are strapped in – like a space monkey.
After the pre-flight tests, we took to the air. The flight path was joyous and childlike, with us turning this way and that. "I don't like to fly flat," said Kathy. "It's more fun to dip the wings, from side to side, so we can look down at the homes and people below us."
Cockpit as Classroom
For Kathy, the airplane is a classroom, and she is both teacher and student. I learned this when I asked, "Of all you've flown, what's the hardest craft to fly?"
"Everything's different. With jets, you have to be thinking ahead, farther downfield, because you are going to get there faster. With a plane like this, you have to be flying all the time, with all the controls. In fact, there are couple of controls I'm still getting used to on this plane."
This would have been alarming, but Kathy is possibly the most competent person I've ever met. And she added, "I believe that there must be something that I need to learn during every flight. Each flight has a lesson plan. When a pilot thinks there is nothing left to learn, he's on the verge a making a big mistake."
(For more on competence, see The Gravitational Pull of Competence.)
What a great lesson for life. I can respect the life-and-death importance of daily decisions. And I can enter every activity with an objective for learning.