Monday, February 7, 2011

I am an Airman

Low Flight
Oh! I've slipped through swirling clouds of dust,
a few feet from the dirt.
I've flown my Intruder low enough to make my bottom hurt.
I've SRTC'd the desert, hills and valley, mountains, too.
Frolicked in the trees, where only flying squirrels flew.
Chased the frightened cows along, disturbed the ram and ewe,
and done a hundred other things, that you'd only care to do.
I've smacked the tiny sparrow, bluebird, robin, all the rest.
I've ingested baby eagles, simply sucked them from their nest.
I've streaked through total darkness,
just the other guy and me,
and spent the night in terror of things I could not see.
I've turned my eyes to heaven,
as I sweated through the flight,
put out my tired hand
and touched The Master Caution Light

I gave my Dad a call Saturday night as I always do. He's doing better since my Step Mom passed, even going as far as getting a dog, one a family member had raised but needed a new and quiet home, as they had a new baby in the home. Dad took to the dog better than we thought, saying with staid cheer, "his days are numbered, so are mine, we'll enjoy them together. The dog is 11. He is 91. Dad's a remarkable man, having been through a great war and outliving two beloved wives and a daughter. Tragedy never broke his spirit, he learned to duck and cover and survive, with courage and honesty. Adversity only gave him the life energy that propels him to this day, that I am still fortunate enough to share with him. I hope I can muster the same courage as I proceed in life, to take the sequence of events and luck, combined in a thrall of the forces that Clausewitz calls friction and chance, that pull that defines a life, and with it mold who I am, who I can be. Because I am definitely his daughter, for good, bad and always, a fighter, a survivor of wars of life's own making. And like my Dad, a retired USAF Colonel, the sky is in my blood.

It was really stormy yesterday,and again today, with another half a foot of snow dumped on top of another foot of snow and ice. So much for getting out of the house. I did sort through some old photos, some of them back from when I was still flying actively. There's still pages in the album that are blank, pictures loose in a drawer, or stored on the computer, waiting to be cataloged. Pictures of skies long ago, pictures of my last fight before I hung up a set of wings I'd worked years to obtain.

I have no regrets about a career change, and other major changes I made in my life, but within me always, will be the woman my Dad raised, someone who loves freedom and justice, someone who knew that to do anything with my life other than what I have done, would be to ignore my souls natural response to living, and I would now still grow old, but with regret.

Though my career is completely different, the sky is still full of beauty and in my way, I still revel in it, if only for a afternoon flight with a friend. Smelling the rain on the heavens and feeling the wind on your face as I stride towards the aircraft on the ramp, the horizon full of things hinted but not yet seen. Live your life to the fullest and fight for your dream. Better a belated and streaming dawn than a life lived in twilight, the photos say to me, as I look and see myself, four bars on my young shoulders, flight bag in my hand. The flight bag, a battered stickered briefcase overstuffed with technical information that has to be read long after the flight is over; regulations, memos, bulletins. new approaches. Always new approaches to add to those we know too well, the convoluted cha cha that is JFK, the fog shrouded dance that is Beale.

We are airmen.

Male or female, young or old. we are airmen. We know, but do not gleefully await, the lively jig that is a Washington/ Reagan visual. We know the mountains around Anchorage and the deep hole of disorientation that lies east of Miami. We knows the gates at Dallas, and the long lines at LAX and the up and down escalator drill that is Cleveland. We've strolled, walked and ran the full tilt of DFW, trying to catch that transport that will take us home. We have politely pushed through the throng that is New York LaGuardia and reveled in the clear sparkling crispness that is the brand new terminal at Indy.

Civilian or Military, pilots remember. We remember Calgary and Cold Lake, Travis and Tuscon. We remember Phoenix, and Philadelphia, Kallispell and Kabul. We delight in the perfect clarity of a cold New Mexico sky and remember that late night mambo down an ice slicked runway in Chicago. My Dad's generation and mine began on round gauges, and round engines. for which starting was an artistic endeavor requiring holy curse words and sometimes meditation.

Those that fly now, may have been raised on the technology of the wi fi age, but we both understand outdated fire equipment, short runways, poor lighting, and cranky crew chiefs. But there is still something that all of us will never comprehend and that is simply not being aware of these things, the complacency that can end our day on a uncorrectable note of finality.

We relish the cheerful warmth of the coffee in Vancouver and and the pause of an ice cold beer in Denmark. We recall the icy winds of winter and the soaring thermals of a glider port in June. My generation and the last speaks as if old lovers of the DC6's for which landing was not so much a meeting with the earth but a ballet of finesse, prayer, body English and nerve. We remember the C130, the vagrancies of the DC9 and the new car smell of the early Boeings. We still recall with youthful pride the rumbling thunder that is the DC8. We reminisce over the vast remote landscape of the DC10 cockpit and the snug little sports car feel of the T-39. The young ones have no such memory, yet are busy making their own, being front row participants in technology my Dad's generation only dreamed of.

Pilots speak a language handed down from generation to generation and only slightly understood by their non flying partners. We banter about EPR and ALPA and Mach and HUD and pickle pause and pull. But when it's time for the approach, the cockpit quiets and the concentration is almost tactile. For though we have tasted the insulation of the sky, we know too well the adrenalin surge of danger. We respect the power of the atmosphere and we know what it means to fight for control, of the plane, of what we believe in, and that is the uncommon faith in what we can do, what they are doing. But as calm as the enroute segment might be, we never truly relax, for just as strongly as we believe that a pilot's not done at age 60, we believe in capriciousness of the sky and know that every day brings a chance of facing something yet unseen, something not in that textbook or flight manual, that will pit out countenance against the red line of fate.

But there's the beauty- the quiet mornings as the sun peeks over the horizon on that early flight to the east coast, the beautiful surroundings of a fog draped landscape below. It's evocative and inspiring and sometimes, despite the early, early showtime, the joy of it all reaches out and grabs on to us. And despite the occasional bone weariness and the constant change of the job itself, the happiness takes hold. The happiness is like nothing else we experience, not even the wonderful sanctuary of family, and it grabs hold of us and shakes us like a playful puppy. And we can't imagine being anyplace else.

We are airmen.

As a group we are strong, driven, defying mortality tables of other professions, yet we head out to their semi annual physical with all the trepidation of the family pet headed off to the vet for the first time. We are fiercely individualist, yet bonded together, family people at home and aloft. We compete with good spirit, yet bond with courage, we celebrate our successes and mourn our fallen Gone West.

We know the smell of sweat and JP4, the campfire aroma of engine exhaust, the warning red of Skydrol and the blue of the sky over the Poles. We hear and see every little thing, from that imagined miss in an engine as we fly over the north Atlantic, to the banging, belching, manly fart of a Pratt and Whitney as we roar down the runway at full power.

We are reportedly overpaid but usually underpaid, entrusted with equipment worth millions. And lives. Entrusted with so many lives, in transport and protection. We're much less than gods and so much more than bus drivers. We're commuters and soldiers. We're husbands and wives; fathers and mothers, sons and daughters. We're friends whom others trust, whom our crew and payload trusts. And it's that trust that brings with it a reverent responsibility.
We are airmen.

We know the overwhelming beauty of a Pacific sky as the sun seeps into the deep purple horizon, and the pristine beauty of the sun's reemergence after a long Atlantic crossing. We've seen the fathomless jeweled blue of Crater Lake, and the twinkling glamour of Paris. We remember the sea of waving corn that is my home, Indiana, the winding road of the Mississippi and the perfect icy stillness that is Fairbanks in February. We'll not forget the monument that is McKinley, or the deep crack in our planet that is the Grand Canyon. We have seen the tiny blips of the satellites that help guide us, track across the vast gateway to heaven, we've felt the incalculable force of a thunderstorm on the Plains. We have worshipped at the alter of a sun stroked morning, prayed into the beauty of a dark velvet night, spun robes of clouds, the candlelight of dawn. We've shared Communion with God in the sanctity of the stratosphere.

We've danced along the northern lights, seen water spouts in clear air, banners of ash from an active volcano, horizontal rainstorms, microbursts of fury and St. Elmo's fire. We've seen things no one would believe, things only a pilot will experience and we're hooked on it, not for the pay and the glamour, as those elements of it, have, as well, changed. We're hooked because there is a reasoning beyond ego and beyond anything but that we need this freedom as an essential element of our being as we wake each day.

I wish that time, money and the weather would allow for a quick flight today, taking perhaps, a friend with me, aloft with the cool wind. And the solitude. The air. There is a solitude I can find no other place, one that wavers slow while I lean back against the leather seat and close my eyes for just a moment and breathe deep. Head thrown back I stick your hand out into air the temperature of a lover's soft breath, trailing my hand in the wind. Time strolls by like a day at the seashore until the sun melts into the horizon. All I have is the breeze, fresh air, to cool me quick so I can rest, to blow out of our eyes and my brain and my blood all that's making me hot and weary.

If we were able to take that flight today, we'd dip down towards my home, we could smell the scent of the land, reminding us of so many fields in the past, the smell fresh and green , a dense smell of grass as the sun sets upon it. The scent lifts off the landscape just as night covers the day, the signal that we're close to the ground, the strip straight ahead. The wheels would skip off the grass as the new moon glimmered upon us, solitary creatures riding the crest of cool night air, exhaling with the exhaust of the plane, ready to be home, to sleep cool dreams.

I am an airman. With dreams of the pilots that have gone before. Dreams of flights to share; to pass on the life of the sky that my Dad passed on to me.

- Brigid