Sunday, June 19, 2011

In Which I Fly

I'm going to just come right out and say it: I flew an airplane. I did. This is something that wouldn't even have made it on my bucket list simply because I couldn't imagine it would ever happen. It wouldn't occur to me. I used to fly on commercial jets a lot more than I do now. But even then, it's not like the pilot gives the passengers turns at taking the wheel up there in the cockpit. Or maybe they do that in first class, but not back where I sit eating tiny bags of stale pretzels with my tiny plastic cup of orange juice.

I love flying a whole lot--the powerful thrust of take-off .... the rush of landing and feeling the wheels touch the ground again at speeds that I can't really wrap my head around. I could do it every day and still maintain my wonder at the act of lifting off the ground and soaring way above the earth and even the clouds. It's one of those unbelievable privileges of being human, the use of such a machine.

As I said though, much as I love flying, I never imagined I would ever take the wheel of an airplane myself. I was excited enough when one Saturday the Pilot (you might remember him from a bike ride I described below) said we finally had clear weather and would I like to go fly that night. We'd been waiting for months for a time to go up, so I didn't even hesitate. I cut short my time at an all-day women's retreat and begged off a dinner party in the evening. Nothing was going to keep my feet on the ground that night.

I picked him up and we drove to the small county airport where his plane is housed. A little voice in my head went "squeeeee" every 30 seconds as we checked to make sure all the lights were operational, pulled the plane out of the hanger--seriously!--took a final pee break (I admit I was kind of afraid I'd have to do that up there; it's not like you can pull into a rest stop, is it?), and then climbed up over the wing into the plane and put on our radio headsets. The Pilot, who tends to be a pretty funny guy most of the time (he often tells me to "have a groovilicious day" in his emails), ran through his checklist, saying each item aloud as he checked controls and gauges and gadgets that had no meaning to me. It was a side of him I hadn't seen yet: serious, focused, in control of a machine that can fly thousands of feet in the sky with nothing but air under the wings. (OK, I'm familiar with Bernoulli and I know it's all about the air flowing over the wings, but I'm taking poetic license here. I'm a poet, not a pilot.) Soon we were wheeling to the runway and then we were picking up speed and then we lost touch with the ground. I felt like I left everything else in my life behind me on terra firma, and for over two hours, I thought of nothing except the experience of being the sky. In the sky!

It doesn't really matter where we went. What mattered was being up there, not held to the earth by the force of gravity. Odd as it may sound, when I fly I feel two things that I never feel on earth. The first is that I feel like I can't fall. No, it doesn't make sense to be 3000 feet above the earth and believe I can't fall. But flying is about the suspension of a lot of things we believe about the weight of objects and gravity and where our little human bodies should be in relation to the earth.

That I love to fly at all is a mystery to me. I shouldn't love it. I should be terrified to leave the ground--terrified that I'll fall. After all, that night I was 3000+ feet above the earth in a little metal shell, propelled by an engine I could only hear roar, but not see. It's a leap of faith to think that the simple act of air flowing over those short wings would lift us two humans off the ground and take us high enough that rivers look like ribbons and houses like tiny boxes and people just disappear. Even the thought of it should stop my heart, because I am terrified of falling. For years I had various recurrent nightmares about falling, and in them I sometimes even hit the ground and died. I've heard that people who experience their own deaths in dreams will actually die in their sleep, but I didn't. I just woke up and felt like my heart had stopped... and then reluctantly started up again.

The dreams finally ended after I really did fall one Sunday afternoon just before Christmas--face-first into a brick hearth. I should have died that day, but I hit just right and only broke up the bones in my face and lost 6 teeth. It took a while to recover, but I didn't die from it. My fear of falling was locked into my very muscles and bones though. Anything that makes me feel like I'm falling sends me into a panic, often accompanied by flashbacks, whether I really fall or not. Actually tripping and falling can give me flashback panic symptoms for hours after. Doing something on purpose that feels like falling--riding a roller coaster, for example--makes me almost catatonic with fear. Why I get a feeling of utter safety and peace when I'm thousands of feet in the air going over a hundred miles an hour is a psychological puzzle I'll never unravel. I could guess that it's because the ground is too far away to fall into, but that doesn't make sense. It's one of those things that just is.

The second thing I feel when I'm up there is the absence of this little bit of constant claustrophobia that I associate with being on the earth. I can never see the whole picture when my feet are on the ground. Up there in the sky, I get the overview. I can see the context of the earth, how the skin of it all fits together. The only time I've ever felt the same feeling was years ago when I was sitting on the side of a mountain in Montana by myself with nothing around me but tall clear sky and the slope of the mountain below. Otherwise, I'm always conscious of something on the horizon, whether near or far; something is always blocking other things from view, always touching the edges of my vision. Up in the sky nothing but the curve of the earth blocks the view. And on the night we flew, even that was soft and fuzzy from far away clouds. I felt like I had a perspective of living on this precious planet that I can never get from the ground. It's almost godlike to be up there and look down on the chunk of rock that gives us life.

The Pilot pointed out landmarks as we flew south, and asked if I wanted to go anywhere in particular. I didn't. Just up, and we were already up. I'm not sure if he asked if I wanted to take the controls or if I asked if I could. Either way, he said I could and I put my hands on the controls in front of me--there are two sets-- and he said, "The plane is yours." My response, I learned, was, "I have the plane." And then I was in control of the plane.

I flew us back west and north, following an interstate highway, one I've driven on. Flying a plane is not like driving a car. The wings have to be level, the nose level, and the altitude has to be steady. I tried doing it by reading a gauge, but I think I did better by just looking at the wings and the nose of the plane and trying to keep them in line. A couple of times I had to give the controls over because I didn't calculate turns right and I lost the highway. (It was still down there, of course.) The plane doesn't respond as quickly as a car. Once we were too close to a cloud and he said, "I'm taking the plane." I said, "The plane is yours," and he made a sharp bank and took us away from it. The telling of it doesn't begin to compare to the experience itself. I'm not that good with words.

Eventually the sun went down and we were flying above the city in the dark. Even better. That feeling of being safe and held by an invisible hand is even stronger at night. It's like being in love and untouchable at the same time. We made two landings at another small airport so the Pilot could stay current for taking passengers up at night. He'd done it weeks before so we could fly, but he has to do it every 90 days. We reset the clock and did my favorite part of flying, taking off, two extra times. Bonus. And I got to turn the airport lights on and off by clicking a button on the steering wheel.

When we finally landed for good and pushed the plane back into its hanger, I couldn't believe we'd been up there over two hours. Time just flew by.*

The other day I was talking to my mom on the phone. "Mom," I said, "you won't believe what I did. I flew an airplane."
"What? You flew an airplane? Did you wreck it?"
"No, Mom, I'm pretty sure that would have made the news."
"Did you land it?"
"No, I just flew it around in the air. The Pilot landed it."
"Is this man safe?"
"Probably not."
"What? Then why did you go up with him?"
"Oh. I think he's a good pilot."
"Hmmm. That still sounds pretty scary."
"Nope, it really wasn't."
"Well, I would have been scared."

So would I have been...except that I wasn't. Never have been, even the night they closed the Atlanta airport right after the plane I was on took off, because of severe thunderstorms. That plane bucked and tossed and rose and fell sharply a few times before the pilot finally got it above the storm. Some people were crying, and the ones I could see were white-knuckling their chair arms. Even that night I wasn't afraid. For some reason I can more easily believe that plane will stay aloft than that it will drop from the sky. How is it my mind can make up stuff like that?

The Pilot also does Angel Flights from time to time, ferrying people who can't afford to go to doctor appointments to the place they need to go. Just like the night landings, he has to fly a certain number of hours to qualify, so our flight will add to those hours. He doesn't get paid for it and just the fuel for the plane costs a lot. But he says it's a privilege to own the airplane and it's a privilege to be able to help people that way. I guess it's a way to level out the karma. I would want to do that too....if I were the kind of person who would ever fly a plane. Which I'm not. I'm really not....but I did. I flew an airplane! Squeee!

*What? You've never made a bad pun in your life? Suck it!


  1. Bernoulli my ass!!! It's all spirits and magic and string holding those things in the air! Magic I tells ya! MAAAGGGIIICCCC!!!!

    Also, the angel flights are a REALLY cool thing! That earns 10+ cool points, at least! AT LEAST!

  2. Of course you're right. It's magic! Bernoulli who? That guy never made sense to me anyway. He wrote that shit on a bar napkin and somebody believed it and that's how rumors get started.

    Yep, got his own cool. Grow it.