Back to Shan’s Thoughts On Flight
-Another one of my favorite old old writings about flying. I fly sailplanes these day instead of powered aircraft, but the feelings are oh-so-similar.
Something must have gone wrong at the very first, when I was learning to fly. I remember that I had a very difficult time really believing that these little machines actually lift up OFF THE GROUND. One minute the planes are all solid on the earth like a pool table or an automobile or bright-fabric covered hot dog stand, and the next minute they are IN THE AIR, and you can stand beneath them at the airport fence and they go right over you, there is nothing at all connecting them to the ground, nothing there at all.
I’d walk around an airplane, touch it, knock on it, rock it a little bit by the wingtip, and it merely stood there: See, student? Nothing up my sleeves. No gimmicks, no tricks, no hidden wires. It’s real magic, student. I happen to be able to fly.
I couldn’t believe it. Maybe I still don’t believe it, today. But the point is that there was something spooky going on, eerie and mystical and otherworldly, and maybe that’s how I got myself walled into this corner and now I’m trapped in here and I can’t get out.
It’s all gone worse, there’s nothing about flying that I can take for granted, there is nothing that is common and everyday. I cannot just drive down to the airport and step into an airplane and start the engine and take off and navigate somewhere and land and let it go at that. I’m a prisoner in this state of mind that sees flight so all-fired awesome and cosmic that it won’t let me do the simplest things at an airport without insisting that the stars are changed in there course because I do them.
Like….look. I come out to fly, and before I’m even out of the car, before I ‘m even in sight of the field, I look at the sign AIRPORT and it sets me off. AIRPORT. A port of the air, as a seaport is a port of the sea… And I think about the little ships of the air sailing through the sky to this one port of all the possible ports that they could go to, choosing this one place, now, to return to earth. Touching down at this island of grass that has been wafting all special and patient for them here, and then taxiing in and being tied to their moorings, rocking gently in the wind as little ships rock in their harbors.
I’m not even THERE yet, I’m just seeing the airport sign, and maybe a Cessna 172 off in the distance hushing down final approach, disappearing behind the trees of the roadside foreground onto what I know is a large level place for landing. Where did that Cessna come from and where is it going? What storms and adventures has the pilot faced in his time, and his airplane. Perhaps many adventures, perhaps few, but they?ve been out in that vast tremendous sky somewhere, and they’ve been changed by it and now they’ve come from it to this one little harbor, the very port of the air that I’ll see the moment I turn this last corner.
I can’t just say “airport,” like that simply, and go on to the rest of a sentence. It is always “airport…..airport….” and I get going on it that way and either make the wrong turn or nearly run off the road or frighten some innocent person pulling out of the gas station. It’s such a wondrous place, an airport, that if I dare to stop and think about it or even use the word, the chances of having a routine flight are pretty well out the window before I even stop the car.
Car stopped at last, though, having avoided collisions-by-daydream with the thousands of things they put along roadsides to collide with, the first thing I see is my little airplane, waiting for me. And I can’t believe it…That is an AIRPLANE, and it belongs to ME! Incredible. All those special-formed pieces and parts fitted so carefully together into such a beautiful clean sculpture, they can’t be mine! An airplane is a thing too beautiful to own, like the moon or the sun. There’s so much there! Look at the curve of that wing, the sweep of the fuselage into the vertical stabilizer, the sparkle of the glass and glint of the sun on metal and fabric….why, that belongs in the main gallery at the Museum of Modern Art!
So what, if I worked my heart out for the money to buy it, or if I rebuilt the whole thing up from sticks in my basement, or if I cared for it to the exclusion of every other element in a normal life. So what if I spent nothing on sodas, or dates, or movies, or bowling, or eating out, or new cars or stocks or savings. So what, if I value this airplane when no one else in all the world has valued it, it still makes no difference, it’s still unbelievable that anything so beautiful could happen in the world to make an airplane mine.
I get to thinking about this, looking at the instruments and the radio, touching the control wheel, the fuel selector, the nav-light switches, the upholstery of the seats, the little numbers on the airspeed indicator and the way the altimeter needle moves when I turn the adjusting knob, listen to the wind sliding ever so gently over the grass and around the curves of the airplane, and half an hour’s gone past, whap, like that. I sit there all alone in the airplane on the ground without moving much or saying a word, just looking at it and touching it and thinking about the thing and what it can do, that it can fly, and half an hour is half a second, it’s gone before one tick of the aircraft clock.
That’s just a start, that’s not even getting off the ground. That one word “airplane” means so much! How can anyone not like an airplane, or fear it, or find it less than beautiful to behold?? I’m unable to accept that there can be a person alive, any human being anywhere, who can look upon this creature of curves and wings and walk away untouched.
The time comes, eventually, when I can force myself to get the engine going, the propeller turning, but I tell you it takes super-human concentration to dot it. Because I reach down to that handle and it says on it STARTER. Starter. That which starts, that which begins the whole journey into they sky, into home, across any horizon in the world. Starter. Touch that and my whole life changes again, events are set in motion that would otherwise never happen. Sounds will sound on the planet when otherwise there would have been silence; winds will twist and blast when otherwise there would have been calms; motions and blurs when otherwise there would have been still sharpness. Starter. It is so momentous that I sit there, hand suspended in mid-reach towards it, and I have to swallow and tremble and ask whether I am woman enough, whether I have the divine Permission of God to set all these galaxy-changing events in motion. The handle waits there, and the word on it is STARTER, all right, black letters on ivory plastic, letters faded from being touched so often over the years.
Touch that handle and a whole separate cosm lives: the engine. ENGINE. Dead cold steel for now, but a moment from now if I will it, warm life and oiled bearings turning round and sparks flickering in darkness and pulses through eel-black wires and gages lifting awake and smokes and thunders and purrs and the standing whirlpool of sparks and wind that is the propeller. PROPELLER. It propels. Forward. Into what? Into spaces that have never felt the touch of man, into events that test us all, against which we can measure our worth as human beings at work on destiny…
You can see the kind of trap I’m caught in. I can’t do the simplest work at the airport (oh, port of the air, haven of the little arks that sail the skies), I can’t just step into the airplane (wonder-filled machine built of magic prin…) and start (to set in mo..) the darn eng…(cosm…) without all the world roaring out in great golden glory-streaks and trumpets sounding in the heavens and angels flapping around the clouds and singing Alleluia in chorus twenty thousand strong, man-angels with low voices and woman-angels with high voices and all so grand and magnificent that there are tears in my eyes and I’m all melted with joy and praise and gratitude to the Mind of the Universe and I haven’t even touched the damn starter yet!
It’s that way with everything aeronautical, nothing’s immune, nothing that has to do with flying. If I stop the slightest instant over takeoff, for instance, I’m lost again. TAKEOFF. The taking off of those shackles and chains that have bound our fathers’ fathers’ fathers to the ground for centuries compounded, that held the wooly mammoth on the ground before them and the stegosaurs before them and the trees and rocks before them. It is our power, right now, to strike those shackles, to line up there on the end of a runway and press that throttle forward and move slow first, and then faster and faster and lift the noise and clankrattleclinksnap the chains are gone. We can do this. We can take off. Any time we want, we can fly.
Or airspeed. A simple basic thought like AIRSPEED and I’m out there in the wind and my arms are wings and I can feel that air, that speed, that airspeed lifting me up, way up over the clouds away from everything false and into everything true, the clear pure straight honest sky. And there’s those trumpets again, and those blasted angels singing about airspeed. A hundred miles per hour on the dial, why can’t it be a simple fact and let it go at that? But no, never, not a chance. Got to be the glory.
You see how it is them. Hangar. Fuel. Oil Pressure. Runway. Wing. Lift. Climb. Altitude. Wind. Sky. Clouds. Airway. Turn. Stall. Glide. Even Airline, and Flight Service, on and on and on. You see how it’s got me like a rat in a trap.
Am I a freak? Am I a solitary martyr? I’ve been quiet about this for a long time. I bear upon my back the burden of this rare malady for the sake of all of those who fly. How glorious and wondrous… and oh so lonely!
But it’s all right now because I’ve seen other pilots land, once in a while, and stop their engines and they stay in their airplanes longer than is necessary to fill out their logbooks, almost as if they were aware of the glories.
So maybe I won’t bear that terrible burden alone anymore, or listen to those angels.
I’ll just got out to my airplane and I’ll climb into the thing and I’ll reach out for that starter and I’ll just reach right…out….for….that….starter….