William Faulkner: Advice to a Young Pilot

Faulkner in 1954 (Library of Congress)
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Although novelist William Faulkner enlisted in the Royal Air Force toward the end of World War I and trained in Canada, the war ended before he had the chance to pilot airplanes (despite his later claims). Yet he had a lifelong fascination with aviation, and later became a licensed pilot. In this excerpt from a letter written in April 1943, he counsels his nephew Jimmy, who was then training to be a World War II Marine fighter pilot, and who referred to his famous uncle as “Brother Will.”

My Dear Jim: ....You will be on real aeroplanes soon. You should be all right, a good man. Just remember always that flying is fine, and it gets better but you’ve got to stay alive to enjoy it. You will have two milestones to pass, to pay back to the Govt. the cost of training you. The first one is foolhardiness. A lot of pilots don’t get past that. Uncle Dean didn’t. [Faulkner’s brother Dean died in an airplane crash in 1934.] He managed to blow most of the fabric off his top wing before he found out he had done something you cannot do.

The next milestone is fear. Sometimes they happen at the same moment. This means that you fail to pass the foolhardiness milestone, and it is too late. But if the fear is not a result of foolhardiness, then you are all right. You have learned, and are capable of learning. You must know fear too. That is, you must know how to beat fear. If you cannot feel it, you are a moron, an idiot. The brave man is not he who does not know fear; the brave man is he who says to himself: “I am afraid. I will decide quickly what to do, and then I will do it.”

That will come to you. It happens to everyone who flies and who is not a vegetable. Expect it. It is no more than a sneeze. Accept it when it comes, pass it; tell yourself, “I am afraid. I don’t like the way my heart is acting nor how my mouth tastes. But I know what my hands and feet must do, and I know they will do it, because my brain is running things for the next few seconds, and my brain is too busy to worry about what my heart is doing or my mouth tastes like.”

I want you to do well. No pilot can tell you how much you don’t know. You will have to find it out, from day to day. But you can remember what good pilots have told you, so that when emergencies come, you will merely meet situations which you have already heard about. You will do things without having to think about them, that your instructors have trained you to do...

Brother Will

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