The air is an extremely dangerous, jealous and exacting mistress. Once under the spell most lovers are faithful to the end, which is not always at old age.
Sir Winston Churchill
I had a friend express an interest in flying recently. All that was mentioned was a life long curiosity about flying. That’s it, just a vague comment made in polite conversation. Of course, you know me; the mere mention of an interest in flying by someone triggers me into a full-blown “show ‘n tell” mode. However this time I tried to contain myself so I just briefly described how a person could get the feel for it on the cheap, flying that is, then bowed and stepped away.
After the familiar rush of attempting to convert another curious questioner into the “cult of ascension” I wondered to myself “why does that get me going” and “why do I fly anyway?” What is there about that activity that has always affected me so profoundly.
What is it I feel when I’m airborne and driving solo and how do I put those feelings into written text?
I wasn’t sure I even knew enough words to capture the song it sings or how to pass on those feelings and since I didn’t understand it myself how was I going to explain it to someone else.
In order to gain a better understanding of it all, I decided to go back to my first contact with aviation. To accomplish that required me to revisit some early memories, from back in the day, that still replay in my head as video loops attached to an email. So in my mind’s eye I punch the triangle in the middle of the screen and I’m back on patrol again flying for the US Navy as flight crew on a Lockheed Neptune ASW patrol bomber. Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) operations have been going on 24/7 for the past sixty years or more and I’m sure will be continued on, searching and patrolling the oceans and seas of the world looking for the ever elusive Soviet submarines, the phantoms that lurk in the deep. They, watching for me, as I’m hunting for them. It’s 1962 or there about, midstream in what history now calls the Cold War. When every living thing on the planet was in danger of extinction and very few even knew it.
In this particular session of dream time I’m flying eastbound out of Jacksonville Florida. It’s sundown and as I turn in my seat to look behind me I can see the last light of the setting sun
still inflaming the western horizon. I turn back to the front and look forward through the nose turret and out over the Atlantic and it’s already pitch black with stars starting to become visible as the light show begins again. It’s that same show as last night, last week and the same as observed by humans every night for tens of thousands of years. It was at these times that I understood how they must have felt when gazing at and pondering the view of sea and sky all those millenia past. The questions and mysteries that were vaporous in the mind then are still unanswered now and once again I feel attuned to it all. An energy rising up from the night black depths sparkling below to entwine with the spirits of the heavens canopied with stars like diamonds on black velvet and streaked with the frequent fires of countless meteorites and comets.
I felt at those times a confirmed member and participant of all that occurs in the universe. For some reason the action of flight aligns my senses and consciousness in a cosmic join up that connects me somehow to the gene memory that extends back to the ancients.
Those times on patrol were when I first became aware of my affinity for most things airborne and now those feelings come forward again to replay whenever I’m flying alone in the cockpit. The view of the crazy quilt pattern of streams, roads, hills and valleys thousands of feet below and the constant of the shadowed arc of the prop barely visible a few feet in front with the limitless expansion of space above becomes my portrait. The roar of the engine and the sound of the prop meld into one resonant vibration felt deep inside as every nut bolt and rivet speaks to you in a primal tongue and it’s that conversation that keeps you up and out of the water and weeds.
The “freeing experience” that is talked about by pilots to help market their trade and vocation is definitely part of it but with that freedom comes an element of caveat that is always out there on the edge, always on the periphery of the core experience, something that colors and enhances everything that happens in the air. Once early in my flight training I was up with a retired airline captain who asked me, “want to know why I’m still alive?” We were practicing landings at the time and this pilot had thousands of hours flying international routes so I was a little startled by his question. He was a very intelligent , fun character and a consummate professional but when he threw out the question he was dead serious. “Flying is an unnatural act”, he continued while gazing out the front windshield at the approaching runway “and as a pilot you must always be on the alert and stay aware that one of the purposes of the machine you’re flying is to try and kill you.” That thought must always be vibrant somewhere in your consciousness whether you are cloud dancing, fence jumping or canyon tracking. Never forget that the aircraft you’re hitching on is watching you and if you do not stay focused it might just jump up and dope slap the hell out of you.
I’ve always had a layman’s interest in physics, and aerodynamics is definitely Physics 101. Newton’s three laws are alive and well in the airborne airframe and the “Principle” discovered by Daniel Bernoulli over 300 years ago still does its dance along every airfoil on every airplane and every flight. I flew a small aircraft for a while that was very cool. Every time the cross winds were just right and the speed on the takeoff roll reached rotation I could tell the wind had attached when I felt a slight bump in the yoke. I knew at that point that the shape of the wing and the air flowing over it had combined to create work in the form of lift. It was like the machine was saying “OK sport, we’re ready to go now… do it” and I could imagine Mr. Bernoulli somewhere dancing and singing and yelling “I told you so” and I would laugh out loud as I lifted off.
Landings were much the same for me. I loved landings. When turning from the Base leg onto the Final approach of the airport traffic pattern, the vision of the runway with it’s white centerline would flash dead center in the windshield and seem to draw me forward until I was hunkered over the yoke. Heartbeat and breathing ramp up along with that familiar tingling at the back of the neck as all the sensory systems take the fast lane and every time I would think, “this is why we do it”. The eyes are constantly switching from the flight instruments back to the approaching runway threshold markings with an occasional quick scan of the area to make sure no other air traffic has strayed into the pattern.
The focus is intense, joyous and complete. Left hand on the yoke and right hand glued to the throttle slowly bleeding off power to reduce RPM and allow for a controlled descent along the angle of the glide slope, yielding altitude to that invisible hand reaching out from the center of the earth to help draw you down. The runway markings flash beneath and your right hand pulls the throttle all the way back. With no power the engine slumps to idle and you’re floating in ground effect a few feet above the runway. A “flare” of back pressure with the yoke to break the lift then it’s a satisfying “squeaker” as the main gear tires kiss the runway.
Thats all I can conjur up for now and I’m still not into ILS procedures that were developed by some mad demon but save countless lives every year. Your airliner would not leave the ground without them.