Today, flight shapes yet another metaphor. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
How awful to fail at being a
teenager! What worse horror than finding yourself
tied to the ground, just when you should be taking
flight! Imagine being 17, dropped out of high
school, with only dying hopes of material and
intellectual normalcy before you. I have some sense
of that since I graduated dead last in my own high
school. That's why my antennae went up at what I
saw last evening.
The Lone Star Flight Museum asked us to join their
volunteers at an I-Max movie about flight and the
Blue Angels. As we approached the theater, a
squadron of late teenagers in sweat gear ran up in
formation. They waited quietly in ranks at the
theater gates -- mostly boys, a few girls, looking
healthy and deadly serious about their discipline.
I asked the man in charge who they were.
They were the Seaborne Conservation Corps. Texas
A&M University at Galveston runs a boot camp
that leads to high school diplomas for at-risk
youth. Most get to the program before they get in
trouble with the law. They live on a ship moored in
Galveston Bay and follow a regimen of study,
exercise, and community service.
Now the movie begins, and I forget this youth corps
for a while. I wouldn't have chosen 45 minutes of
Blue Angels doing their high-speed formation
flying. I want flight to be more buoyant than that.
But the movie doesn't show jet planes at first.
Instead, it shows birds -- geese in their
incredible close formations. It shows close-ups of
their flight -- the delicate micro-movement of
wingtip feathers correcting and directing their
The movie, it turns out, deals with something I
return to like a mantra in this series -- the
paradox of control and instability. Self-control
means living with instability. The camera segues
from delicate adjustments of birds' wings to tiny
flickers of jet rudders and flaps. An eighth of an
inch error in the pilots' controls spells the
difference between glorious synchronicity and
The pilots talk about the freedom that comes with
the iron discipline of their craft. They become
free like a bird when they and their unstable
airplane merge into a single entity.
Then the lights come on, and I look over my
shoulder at those young people being redeemed to
live in an unstable world. They receive a round of
applause for the volunteer hours they've given the
Air Museum. Afterward, I catch up with a student
and ask about the program. He talks, ending each
sentence with the word "Sir".
He's finishing his high-school diploma. Then he
aims to enter a college with an ROTC program. He
wants to be an officer. Like the Blue Angels
themselves, these young people understand what that
eighth of an inch miscalculation in self-control
can mean. They've survived their own terrible
tailspins and they'll be better equipped to live in
the unstable world out there. For they have known
-- first-hand -- the paradox of freedom and self
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds