Monday, January 11, 2016

A Sea of Open Sky - A Short Story

An aircraft engine has as many variances of sound as a human.  There are satisfied hums, deep throated snarls, and the incessant whine of someone who is never satisfied no matter what you do for them.  Then, there is that sound, in and of itself, the sound of an aircraft engine over the ocean at night, when there is not enough fuel to turn back, only to go forward to a far away shore

The sea is a broad expanse that neither eye nor voice can span, and when it's calm it lulls you into a false sense of comfort as the engines hum and you gaze out the window with clear, unconscious eye. You are not pondering thoughts that come to you poignant and silent, the order of your conscious, the conduct of life if there really is a proper way to die.  You are not thinking of the operational capacities of a Vickers Pump or your own limitations.  No, you are thinking about the really cold beer you will have at the end of a day, and the laughter of companionship.  That is when you hear it, or think you hear it. That sound.
"Oh, that's not right" you think and then you hear it again, that asthmatic thump.  As you check EPR's and pressures and temperatures, somewhere in your head are the words:  "An engine driven, two element (centrifugal and gear) fuel pump supplies high pressure fuel to the engine. Loss of the gear element of the fuel pump will result in flameout."  You feel no fear, only annoyance, at the callous outcry of machinery and cold water that have caught you unawares, making you give up your daydream of cold beer and warm skin and confirming unreasonably, your fondness for narrow escapes.

Then it is gone, if it ever occurred at all except in your mind, the engine only emitting a steady, slow hum, like somnolent bees.  But your senses are back on red alert, that seeming malfunction that the mind hears on such over water trips, ministering to a boldness as forged as its own pretense of  fear. What is it to fly such a vast distance, one youngster asked me once? I replied, " it seems like 999 minutes of boredom and 1 minute of stark terror."
You either loved or hated your ship.  Aircraft, in general, are easy to fall in love with, with their ever present potency and  mysterious uncertainty.  Even as a child I dreamed of them, watching  them fly overhead, the contrails a heroic thread, the sun glinting on their promise. But they varied among even the same make and model, twins of different mothers.

Then there were the mornings where you went out to the flight line and there, on the tarmac, perched four large birds, three of them bright, shining and gleaming, perfect in form.  And the fourth, older than the dirt upon it,  with a stain of fluid on the ground underneath, the Scarlet Letter of hydraulic fluid.  The smiling crew chief  is happy to introduce you to them like an old Puritan father to a prospective bridegroom "here are my four daughters, Faith, Hope Charity and Pestilence", and you know which one you are going to end up. Even if you got a good aircraft,  there would be days they could be as unruly as a mule, refusing to start, to move, and occasionally willing to give you a swift kick.  It is sometimes the smallest of things that can be your undoing.
But it's not just your own craft turning on you that you have to be concerned about on such trips.  Weather over the ocean is its own continent.  Perhaps not so much now, but 20 years ago, when I was a pup with four strips on my delicate shoulders that were not yet tarnished, weather planning for ocean crossing was less meteorology and more alchemy. I think about many long flights, our course drawn out with paper, not electronic blips of a satellite fix, a small x marking a fuel stop, a small cross marking our destination, a line marking the path. where we as Pilgrims, sought out that holy place, that grail of a full night's sleep.

I remember one flight that would have a stop on an island, a piece of land in the middle of an ocean, just big enough for a tourist's fat wallet and the occasional aircraft.  There was great oceanic storm brewing off in a distance, but it was to have no impact on our flight path, according to all of the aviation weather experts.  Still, as the craft pitched ponderously in air that was to have been still, even if the sky was clear, there was this nagging tickle at the back of my neck, that said "should have stayed in bed".  As we passed the calculated point of go on or retreat back to base,  the controllers telling us it looked good ahead, the clouds began to build and form, not so huddled we couldn't easily pick our way through them with the right tilt of an antenna, but building nonetheless, and rapidly.
As we got within a hundred miles of our destination, they built into full blown thunderstorms, releasing their energy in broken bursts that boomed like the barrage of heavy artillery firing at a very small enemy. The air was full of flying water, heavy sheets of rain that extended well past the individual cells, landmines with up and downdrafts I was trying to avoid.  It was supposed to be clear and sunny, no alternate landing site required, our biggest concern being what food we could get to eat before taking off again.

My copilot was very young and fairly inexperienced, not with the craft, as he was fully trained, but to this whole environment.  I could sense him getting pretty nervous.  I just smiled and said "we're almost there". There is no quitting in this sort of thing, and often there is no going back. You endure because you have a conviction in the truth of what you are doing, duty being not a thing, but a name, that establishes the order, the mortality of conduct and the outcome.

"Skipper?", a gentle voice from my right.

We checked the weather for our landing destination. The wind was very heavy but not beyond the limits of my skill or the aircraft's proven handling, but it was going to be Mr. Toad's Wild Ride.  What concerned me more was the torrential rain, barely enough ceiling and visibility to land, "barely" being optimistic but enough to make the  Precision Instrument approach and hopefully see the required lighting.  Otherwise, we'll declare an emergency, get a good signal on the approach, keep the needles centered and the donut amber and fly it to the ground. There were no other options when the nearest bit of land is hours past the fuel you have.
My copilot, on hearing the terminal weather, gently stammered a "what are we going to do?"

We were either going to succeed or we were going to be scorched by a flame that fate will flick at us without pity, with no time to utter any last words of faith or regret.  But I wasn't going to tell him that.

I gave him  my sweetest  smile and said simply -

 "We're going to land this mother*(#*er".

And we did, dropping our nose and descending down into that somber wall of rain and grey that seemed the very stronghold of that small place we were trying to breach, picking up the runway there through the rain at the right moment, the wind pounding us like surf. When we landed,  my copilot wanted to kiss the ground. I simply gave my aircraft a grateful pat on the nose, like the trusty stead it was, as it stood there, trembling in the wind as if it had just run a great race.

I'd not ever quite seen weather change so violently and rapidly outside of the forecast. Apparently Mr. "Giant Rotation of Water and Air" took a sharp bend in the hours we were aloft, pushing some weather up our way.  Not yet  hurricane strength by any means, just the nasty stuff you generally try and avoid.

After that, I think I was owed my 999 minutes of boredom and just wanted to go perch on a bar stool somewhere dry.
There have been many other storms, ones with premeditated gales of wind that seemed to have a fierce purpose all of their own, a furious attentiveness in the howl and rush of air that  it seemed to personally seek us out. But that did not summon in me a feeling of fear but rather, a deep sense of  awe in the power of our planet, though I might have said a quick prayer to the Patron Saint of landing gear (that's good to minus 2 g's extended),  prior to touchdown.

There were days we left the ramp, to launch into that deep sea that is the sky, no one to see us off,  as in days of old, where the ships left port while some quiet mothers and anxious maidens cried waved lace handkerchiefs and dreamed undrowned dreams. We were on the move so much, most of us had no time for such ties, our connections were brief sparks from cold stone, unexpected and as short lived. For now, at least, we just had our crew and crew chief that, who, while immensely competent, normally ate tacks for breakfast and was typically as excited to see us arrive or leave a house cat.

There were days of fierce delights, of sun that bounced off the nose, like some  weaponized ray of an alien craft, its power deflected by mere sheet metal, and more relays that anyone knew (seriously, when they built this craft, SOMEONE was having a sale on relays). There were nights we hung motionless in the air, with no sense of motion, ourselves a futuristic craft that flew beyond a brace of suns into the darkness, awaiting the kiss of imminent adventures.
It was also long work and hard work.  It was machinery that would break in a place of isolation and natives that had long pointy guns, requiring kitchen sink repairs with a manual you wished you had brought with you, which was like trying to explain the order of the universe with one brief, hazy glimpse of truth.  It was learning to trust equally, providence and the immutable laws of physics.  But its reward was great.

I understood the conjured  diplomacy of relationship between earth and sky, alive to its looming dangers and measured mercies.  I bore the power of the atmosphere and the criticism of men, the levy of duty and common severity of the tasks that build a backbone and enables you to break bread.  It's a life that will check the edge of your temper and the point of your command; that will affirm the character of your fight  and the hidden  truth of your fears. It's a life that beguiles as it disenchants, a life that  frees you even as you willingly let it enslave you.

Our world was long drawn out days, a future that disappeared moment by moment into history, days that fell  forever into the arms of the sea or drifted down upon deserts or  mountains where they caught and hung on the landscape like clouds. Our world was one aircraft, that fired up with a belch of smoke, then hung there, lonely under that smoke, til we were released with a quick salute.
It was an orderly world that revolved around a specific precise and measured way of doing something, while working in an environment that cared little about either prevision or order.  You were trained in every possible outcome, only to find that circumstance that wasn't like you were trained for.  Then you discover the most unyielding of haunts of mans own nature, wrapped up in a question like rolled steel, more chilling than your brief mortality.  And that is the distrust of the absolute power consecrated in an established standard of conduct. You can go off the path, right?, boldly go where no man has gone before.  It works out in the movies, doesn't it? Then, in that instant between heroism and insanity,  you realize what you are made of, for the only thing that will save you,  is that trust, and you take off your cowboy hat,  get out that checklist and do what is expected of you.

I don't miss it, and I do, there on those nights, when the golden blaze of sunset bites into the rim of the earth and the night casts its shadow upon me.  On such nights  I see the form of an aircraft overhead, not the modern airliner,  but a craft that's seen some battles, one with ancient radios, and tired rigging, visible there in the last remnant of light.  I don't see them often, but when I do, I simply stand, there in that slant of light, the form moving away to the heart of a sky that is its own vast enigma. Only the moon now watches me, hanging in the sky like a slender shaving of pale wood. I watch that aircraft until it's only a flash of a strobe, one that captures all that last bit of light in the sky, disappearing  into the darkness, gone, even as it's forever contained in the center of it.

The sky is an incomplete story and for that I am grateful.
 - Brigid

8 comments:

  1. "I don't miss it, and I do," you are right. The long hours of watch in the heat of noise of the engineering spaces most often pass without problems.

    But sometimes our faith that if we have nurtured the machinery with our skill and affection will be repaid in kind is misplaced.

    In the noise of the engine room some warnings are designed to be so loud that they cut through all lesser noise, the warning sound of lube oil problems is an very loud siren.

    In the instant the siren sounds, the throttleman tells the bridge, "loss of lube oil pressure number one shaft, stopping and locking number one shaft, this is no drill." (even now typing this I can feel a quickening of my pulse)

    Those were the days before controllable reversible pitch propellers, so stopping the shaft meant using astern steam to slow the shaft, then hold it stopped by the use of skill and experience until the brake could be applied.

    Exciting times.

    We did what we had to do, and then we find out why or what broke and fix it.

    Being an engineroom sailor on a WWII era destroyer in the mid seventies was not for the timid.

    I always enjoy reading your blog, sometimes the reading sparks a memory so sharp it is almost as if I am there.

    Thank you.

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    1. I too served on a WW 2 destroyer, and there were several "interesting" times. You are right, some times I miss the sea - sometimes not.

      Merle

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  2. Ahh... your wonderful writing....
    "...days that fall..."
    reminds me of the clouds that fall over the hills from San Francisco Bay into Sonoma Valley,
    "...air was full of flying water, heavy sheets of rain ..."
    like the bottom of Niagra Falls...
    No, the closest to the kind of danger you write about was when we were able to count the number of rivets on the twin climbing out of controlled air space as we were (supposed to be ) sneaking under it back to Linden, NJ airport.
    Oh. And your choice of pictures to go with the text, a sparrow (?) perching on a heavy beam...."to go perch on a bar stool somewhere dry."

    Thank You for that wonderful short story, Ms B.

    Your writing is wonderful

    Rich in NC

    [PS - but, you knew that]

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    Replies
    1. Thank you my dear friend. My best to you and yours where it HAS to be warmer than here (8 degrees)

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  3. Replies
    1. Thank you. On retirement there will be a flying book, right now, I'm not at liberty to write about some of my flying adventures as it was for Uncle Sam, who still employs me. But there will be stories.

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  4. That is a chapter out of a book I want to read.

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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..