Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Wild Blue Wander

The air didn't stir, not even the steady inhalation of the crew disturbing it.

Outside as the wind rushed past at 400 and some miles an hour, the clouds go by the window like a blur. Passengers don't get this view, and if you're lucky and have a cruise altitude right on top of the cloud deck, where you are going in and out of the whitecaps of clouds, it's a breathtaking display of speed.

But outside right now there was only darkness and inside only those small sounds that survive each movement, the flick of a switch, the input of data, plotting course and heading, the key of a mic.

Dad asked me the other night if I missed it. not flying in general, the putting around the sky in a small craft, stopping for a landing and a hamburger somewhere, but the flying that I used to do. If someone walked up to me today and said "here's your jet and the credit card to pay for its gas", I'd be on my way to some far corner of the world in a heartbeat.  But the thought of getting up at 3:00 am to put in a 15 hour day, eating meals that might actually be good warm, and being away from loved ones for weeks on end lost its appeal somewhere around my 40th birthday. Flying over countries where there is occasionally small arms fire is even less appealing.
So I hesitated as part of me, snug in the warmth of my house, with hot coffee and biscuits in the oven, was thinking "no I don't miss it at all".

There are part I miss.  I missed the chirp of wheels on a very short strip that had likely  not seen a large transport before, and the crowd that came out to see this wonder.  I miss seeing the formation of weather from aloft, the ring of moisture laden air that dances around the calm of the center even as the air currents begin their uprising, forming into a sinister dark wall that should have a sign on it "there be dragons".
I miss the low moaning of the engines as the sun peeks up over the horizon as we head into the eastern sky, our ship laboring heavily in a sky of black water now lit by the gleam of a distant world. I miss looking up into the heavens, of the generation that still knew how to navigate by the stars, the stars themselves looking at us as if for the last time, the cluster of their brilliance, laying like a crown upon God's brow.

I miss the crews, even the not-so-nice one that liked to shove his seat back into the new engineer's knees on purpose.  It's surprising how warm the metal ends of a seatbelt can get when someone holds a lighter to them for a bit.  The sky holds its surprise  and its vengeance you think, as the flame diminishes to a burnt spark that vanishes with a click that's as sharp as metal against bone.

I miss some of the old birds, the ones that bear with them the weary air of a schooner that's been around the world.  I miss those even more than the new, shiny craft with a glass cockpit and all the personality of a microwave.  So few of them left, so many just languishing in the desert.  Some have bones that rattle at night in the hot desert air, the fight in them still strong, even as their form is aged. Others fold their winds up in rest, weary from their battles.
I miss that feeling I had when four bars went on my shoulder for the first time, and I wore with it, not just a pride but a responsibility I wasn't sure I was ready for, even as my crew looked at me for their first directions.  But I found out quickly, just how weighty is that role when there's a fire in #2 and an inch thick coating of ice on the wipers and in the simple whine of a master caution light is every sound of the sky, the deep, drumming  vibration of the air and the clang of metal, tumultuous in only your head and you expect at any moment to hear your own name in the clamor of the ship that only you hear because you are the one it's doing battle with and you'd best do it now or your men will be lost. But you can't let them see this, you simply give the commands and make the movements you've practice a hundred times that calm down the sounds in your head, as the engine is secured and you make way to the nearest port.  It is only later, much later, and alone, that you let the fear out.

There are other things, that lie in distant memory that come to mind as I lay in my bed, one that I can sleep in without it pitching and rolling over an ocean at night. There's a conception of wind and weather that can't be experienced in any classroom, those storms that penetrate the defenses of man, the awful pause that is the ship's hesitation as it breaches a front, and the curse and the prayers that can be awakened within the breast, when you realize that the weather forecast is nothing more than someone in a dark room casting bones across the ground and hoping for the best.
There are a million little ways to hurt yourself, not the obvious big, hole in the ground kinds--but bungee cord engine covers and small pieces of metal, the dinosaur exoskeleton of a craft that is more carnivore than herbivore, which likes to take the occasional nip out of you as you prepare it for it's day.  I look at the small scars on my hands, and for an imperceptible moment, feel my fingers close upon a switch to start the engine at the beginning of the mission, a symbol of every little habit we pilots have that bind us to our wings.  In my mind I release it--listening for the sound of returning wind.

So many nights spent away from my family and my bed, my spirits falling with the barometer, longing for lightning, something to spark me from another strange bed in a strange land, eager to get back in the air again. There is so much missed out on-- birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, faces and names and sheer human touch, even as we bonded, brothers in arms, with weariness and laughter..
But it draws us, like moth to flame, that sky, in our youth and in our trust, giving us an confidence that some might call ego but we simply saw as something that we held that made us a worthy opponent to the demand of the day.  We looked at it as a challenge as a man in a shirt of chain-mail would watch the sharp point rushing towards him, born on the forward motion of deep black and the rush of the wind.  We loved the boredom of it, we loved the abject challenge of it and when the sound of the engine ceased, hopefully on the ground, it seemed as if there was a pause in every sound of the world, but that of our own hearts.

The sky, with it ability to tear up the earth, to uproot trees and to dash the small birds of the air to the ground, had simply challenged me in its path one day, and I stayed for the battle.  But the day came that I turned from her, not in submission but simply, with weariness.  It was on such a day that I looked at the visages of those that have gone before, those that climbed up to that line between earth and sky, that point in space where sometimes heaven does not release her crew back except as dust of this earth. And I knew I was ready to hang up my wings.
I enjoy what I do now, putting together the pieces of puzzles, the trinity of man, choice and fate that often ends badly but from which there can be reckoning.  Everything else is the past, one we can lean on and learn from, even as it remains in the past.  The whole great blue expanse of those memories for me now is simply a flicker, a small flame that blazes and then burns the fingers, as my future plucks me out of the noise and the wind that I had not been fully aware of, until I had passed beyond its hearing.

Like any airman that's done battle with the sky and lived to remember, I do miss it-- even as I leave it behind.
 - Brigid


  1. I lose a good half-hour every time you put up one of these posts. I envy your ability to translate the mental concept/dreamthoughts into actual readable words. When the FAA pulled my dad's license (health issues), I saw a little part of him go into eclipse. The men in our family live in denial of our real age. :-) But, while he was flying, he and I would zing around the region to visit relatives, and I have great memories of the drone of the engine while I swivel-neck on watch for crop dusters.

  2. That's pretty much the same way it is with going to sea. I never thought I'd miss it, but I was wrong.


  3. It must be that flying is a lot like sailing, as your words speak to me and I understand them, although I have never flown a plane.

    But I love the old planes too.. My husband was one of those kids who knew the name and details of every plane that ever flew... Alas, too big to make it as a flier in the military, he went a different way (he's an engineer, surprised? 8->)but still gets a charge out of going to airshows - and having a Bride who is more than willing to tag along and hear all about those beautiful air ships.

    We had a couple of high ranking military guys that lived within a mile of our place here in Central Texas, and we'd get all manner of wagging wings with low-altitude fly-overs from the Confederate Air Force. Right over our house! I am sure they were breaking every rule in the book as they 'trimmed the tops of the trees'. But wow! Just wunnerful, if a bit disconcerting if you weren't expecting it.

    I sure miss the excitement of seeing a plane and feeling the rumble of its engines as it passes so close by. Not for years now, sadly. I miss the planes, but I miss those men more...

    Cap'n Jan

  4. Some of my most memorable flights were over the Alps flying in and out of the high towering cumulos. One minute you're in the blind with no sense of altitude or dimension. Then suddenly and instantly you break into the the clear and the bottom falls away into the pure beauty of the mountains below and you suck air.

  5. Simon Jester - I'm sorry your Dad lost his medical, it's the bane of many a pilot as they grow older. I knew a fellow that was a sim instructor for an outfit I was flying for .He was an old Flying Tigers pilot He's long gone and the statute of limitations have run out so I can tell the story. He had lost his medical due to a coronary event and though people took him up with them he lamented that he wanted to fly, just once, alone around the pattern a few times with no one with him. I told him my hangar with my little cub might be unlocked early the next morning, but if he crashed it I'd say he stole it. He never said anything and I didn't ask, but the next time I saw him he hugged me with a huge grin on his face.

    Merle - I know how much my brother missed it, always the sailor, always on watch.

    Cap'n Jan - the sailing I've done is just with friends who were experts, and I was mostly along as a friend and deckhand, but yes, it is SO much like flying, in many aspects.

    Bob Cloud - oh indeed. But I do NOT miss the missed out of the LOC here. http://data.x-plane.com/Docs/LOWI.pdf

  6. Beautifully done, and I recognize an airplane or two in there... :-)

  7. Old NFO - one of those, you were in the back. I was a 28 year old new Commander and you were the older, hot, Navy transport (I may have been paying attention to duty, but I wasnt' dead). I'm just glad I didn't kill you on arrival in the Bay Area as we'd miss out on all of your great writing and many years of friendship.


  8. So sorry to hear you are no longer flying! I know it's part of who you were. Are?


  9. Sounds like you were a commercial pilot with many hours - in the 80s I was a recreational pilot that accrued all of 250 hours. The last flight I took I was on the ground for 45 minutes before getting clearance to take off and by the Hobbs meter I had realized I just spent $100 just sitting there. I felt that I couldn't afford this and by my own standard felt if I couldn't fly at least once a week I was better off for myself and others, not to do it.

    But I miss it every day and in the back of my head I think I have to "get back into it". I miss the fact that of the many things that tend to scatter my concentration on the ground - some might say I have even ADHD - after an hour or so several thousand feet up, watching the landscape pass - ever vigilant as to where I am - watching the weather - I would land and my head would be drained of all the junk save for the flight.

    I miss it too.

    But I think if you fly commercially, to the demands of others, things can be different. I once knew someone who was FO on a Gulfstream jet. On call 24/7 - never knew where he would go - Ireland for the weekend - and the drive to the airport was 100 miles.

    That could get old, particularly with a family.

  10. Brigid, your posts are like excellent food. Sometimes just an appetizer, sometimes a full meal. But I always like to linger over your words, taking my time to really savor them. Then the memory lasts until the next time.

    Beautiful my friend. I felt like I was up there with you.

  11. "There is so much missed out on-- birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, faces and names and sheer human touch, even as we bonded, brothers in arms, with weariness and laughter."

    At some point you look at yourself and realize you have 2 families - the one at home and the one at work. Everyone has this to a certain extent, but when there's that much risk at work the bonds become concomitantly strong. That's when some people end up not being able to resolve the conflict, and sometimes the one that breaks is the one at home, not the one at work.

  12. armedlaughing - With Dad's full time nursing care, flying for fun and going to the range every weekend are two things I had to give up. He's worth it.

    William - I spent many hours and years flying for the living--,some of which was mundane and some I can't talk about until maybe after retirement. But when you don't know when you'll eat, let alone when you might see home, it does get old after a while. But I would absolutely go back and do it again, if I had to do it all over. No regrets there at all.

    But it's brutal on relationships.

  13. I miss the 27 years as a military aviator. There is no aviation like military aviation. A second career as an examiner at the "flagship training corporation" was pretty darn good too. A third career as a heavy jet corp pilot was pretty good but, all good things come to an end. There's a lot I don't miss, especially at 3 A.M. regards, Alemaster

  14. VicG Amen I still get the 3 am's but I'm doing something to make it go back to center, instead of stirring it up.

    Cheers and thanks for leaving a comment


I started this blog so the child I gave up for adoption could get to know me, and in turn, her children, as well as share stories for a family that lives too far away. So please keep it friendly and kid safe. Posts that are only a link or include an ad for an unknown business automatically to to SPAM..