All Commentary
Tuesday, February 1, 2000

Heart over Mind: The Death of JFK, Jr.

Our Feelings, Indulged Without Examination, Will Kill Us

Eric Nolte is an airline pilot, a writer, and a classically trained pianist and composer of contemporary concert music. E-mail him at [email protected].

Because I am an airline captain for a major carrier, I was deluged by friends with questions from the moment John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s airplane disappeared last July.

“Why on earth was he allowed to take off into weather he wasn’t trained to handle? Why didn’t the government do something? Why wasn’t he stopped? How could anybody with his lack of experience be given permission to take off on such a night? How can we make sure this won’t happen again? Why can’t the FAA create and enforce laws that are strong enough to stop this kind of thing?”

When the waves closed over the watery graves of Kennedy, his wife, and sister-in-law, calls began to arise for greater regulation of private pilots. But there were already plenty of regulations on the books to cover every facet of Kennedy’s last flight. As I asked my friends, how would the government restrain anybody from getting in their cars and driving off a cliff? How does one regulate common sense? And more to the point, what are the hazards of granting government the power to attempt such regulation of horse sense?

We live in an era when most people assume that every new problem is properly open to solution by government regulators. Implicit is the belief that the regulators have enough power, information, and wisdom to meet any new challenge.

Young Kennedy’s pitiful death illustrates some of the issues that arise from the question of government regulation and the hugely vexing and misunderstood question of the major political tension of our age: the questions of the political primacy of the individual versus the state, and the very purpose of government.

As you read on, ask what sense you can make of the moral philosophy and political policy that are invoked by those who in the wake of young Kennedy’s crash are now calling for more government regulation. Also consider a life metaphor that was suggested to me by my career as a commercial pilot.

Why Did Kennedy Crash?

In the last few minutes before Kennedy’s little single-engine airplane went into the heavy seas off Martha’s Vineyard, its radar track showed all the evidence of a mind wobbling in the tortured confusion called vertigo. This confusion steered Kennedy down a horrifying spiral to his death on that hot and hazy night in July. If you’ve ever felt the searing pain of belly-flopping off a diving board, you might rightly suspect that hitting the water at high speed is an impact not much different from colliding with a granite cliff.

The kind of bafflement and panic that killed Kennedy arises in a mind as it struggles with the contradictory signals of its inner ear and its rational faculty. Reason and emotion are at war. The inner ear evolved over millennia to measure one’s movement in relation to the fixed sensation of gravity. Gravity always acts as a vector pointing straight down to the center of the earth. The inner ear is equipped with tubes of liquid that shift in response to any movement while the mind compares these signals against this fixed sensation of gravity. This balancing apparatus signals the pilot’s mind and says, “You are strapped into a seat that is now as level as if you were sitting squarely at your kitchen table.”

By contrast, at the same moment he was feeling perfectly right-side-up, the aircraft instruments, when correctly interpreted, conveyed the message, “Your wings are tilted steeply to the right of level, the nose of this airplane is pointing way down, and your airspeed is already howling past the red line.”

The airplane’s flight path creates forces that befuddle one’s awareness of earth’s gravity. To judge by the sensations in the seat of your pants, you literally can’t tell up from down, left from right. You are as helpless to move out of the airplane’s acceleration field as you would be if you were pinned to the side of a spinning circus centrifuge when the floor drops away.

And here is the crux of the matter: the pilot’s emotions drowned out the flight instruments’ story about banking and diving at high speed, and screamed out, “No way! It can’t be! I’m actually flying straight and level! I know it! I feel it’s true!”

What Is Essential to Seeing Rightly?

Antoine de Saint-Exupery was a famous French pilot of the golden age of aviation and a renowned author. “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly, for what is essential is invisible to the eye,” says the fox to his eponymous little prince, in Saint-Exupery’s most famous book.

I take Saint-Exupery’s sentiment about the heart’s efficacy to mean that emotion is the proper tool for grasping what is essential about life. We feel what is right. We know life’s truths through the prodding of our heart. This notion has ancient roots that go back at least as far as Plato’s formulation of “anamneses.” Anamnesis is the doctrine that our knowledge is rooted in a perfect realm beyond mere experience, which we can discover through some mystical process of feeling. Such notions of knowledge are widely held in our culture to this day. Moreover, there are legions of people who hold reason itself to be a coarse and unsophisticated faculty that does not grasp reality so much as it invents an idiosyncratic fantasy, peculiar to each individual, conditioned by the irresistible forces of race, gender, and class, stemming from the accident of a person’s birth. Millions of people reject reason as a proper tool for making sense of the important problems of life.

I find it ironic that a seasoned aviator like Saint-Exupery would hold this mystical prodding of the heart as a proper guide to knowledge. Let’s consider what this would mean in the cockpit of an airplane and then look again at the known facts surrounding John Kennedy’s crash.

I was a flight instructor for many years. My students were mostly beginners and private pilots seeking an instrument rating, so I know something about teaching a neophyte how to pilot an airplane in bad weather, solely by reference to the flight instruments.

It’s not so hard to keep an airplane straight and level when you first fly into “the soup.” You can fly along happily enough without any view of the world outside the cockpit by using the various gyroscopically stabilized instruments. The whole array of instruments provide accurate indications of the airplane’s pitch, roll, and yaw—the measures of motion around the three axes of flight.

The tricky part of flying on instruments is what happens after inevitable moments of distraction. You’re flying along happily when the air-traffic controller tells you to switch radio frequencies so you can talk to another controller before you fly out of radio reception range. You reach down to fiddle with the knobs, and when you look back up at your six basic flight instruments, from which you extract and integrate all the information you need to keep the airplane right-side-up, you think, “Hey, what’s going on here?” You didn’t feel the airplane bank, and you feel a sudden moment’s confusion when you see a frighteningly different picture from what you expected to see.

So the real skill of instrument flying consists of the ability to regain control of the airplane when it inevitably veers off in alarming directions. Instructors call this lifesaving skill “recovery from unusual attitudes,” and the mindful instructor always gives even beginners big doses of it.

Recovering from unusual attitudes consists of one essential belief: your feelings cannot be trusted as the final authority on what the airplane is doing. Your mind is boss. The instruments are your window on reality, and you desperately need to understand the data they provide. The only power that can grasp and integrate this evidence correctly is reason, which evaluates experience by logic.

But what happens when an instrument fails? The truth exists in a context, not as a commandment carved in stone from some authority. If, for example, the artificial horizon indicates that you’re flying with the nose well above the horizon, and at the same time the airspeed indicator reveals a high speed with the engine at idle, and the altimeter and vertical-speed indicators reveal a dive, then the artificial horizon is clearly broken. Reality is contextually absolute. The pilot’s task, no less than everyone else’s, is to grasp reality, not to invent it, and we do this by applying reason to the evidence of our experience.

Cheating Reality

Some years ago, a visitor freshly back from the halls of Congress reported a rash of lapel buttons proclaiming that “Reality is negotiable!” I don’t doubt that in the world of Congress, where creative accounting and deception are fine arts honed to a bright shimmer, “reality” may appear to be as malleable under the legislators’ hands as clay in the sculptor’s. But to a pilot asking whether he can get away with cheating the reality of poor or rusty skills in the face of overwhelming weather conditions, reality should be as evidently threatening as if one were contemplating a leap off the Empire State Building, and wondering if flapping one’s arms could allow a gentle touchdown on 34th Street.

I take this relationship between instruments and mind as a metaphor for the wider question of the relationship between reality, broadly understood, the human faculty of reason, and the senses and emotions that also inform the mind. Reality is not relative, as the cultural relativists would have you believe when they tell you that your mind creates your reality. Reality is “out there” (notwithstanding introspection, which is merely thinking about one’s experience). The uniquely human problem is how to grasp it correctly.

For the pilot, the mind must rule.

Feelings, according to cognitive psychology, are automatic, somatic manifestations of our underlying beliefs. (See the work of Aaron T. Beck, Martin E. P. Seligman, Albert Ellis, and especially Nathaniel Branden.) For example, on the instrument panel the artificial horizon shows a picture of an upside-down airplane. If you think you should be flying along straight and level, this sight will arouse fear and confusion. If you are doing aerobatics, rolling the airplane through 360 degrees of bank, this sight will arouse joy and a sense of control. These beliefs operate as the source of our emotions whether they are conscious or not, whether examined in the light of reason or merely breathed in and acted on without a thought.

Our feelings, indulged without examination, will kill us. Feelings, intuition, and emotions are inputs that should be fully heard, but they must never govern our behavior. For those of us whose goal is happiness, it is only with the mind that we can see rightly, for what is essential is invisible to the heart.

In the mud-wrestling contest between the rational faculty and the feelings flooding the mind, the fully trained pilot learns to trust reason and to fight any contradictory emotional and sensory signals with all the power of his love of life, because it is only the power of reason that will save him from destruction.

Following your heart will kill you, as it killed young Kennedy, and thousands of other pilots over the years who have failed to recover from a graveyard spiral.