Darkened Sky, Distant Thunder.


El viaje es la recompensa – si sobrevive para contarlo.

In the sigh of daylight failing, the cigar tip glowed and ebbed like a sunset. Storms rumbled off the canyon walls of steel and stone and glass and dried up Aztec Zumpango and dirt-packed Xochimilco and sere chalky Chalco, the groaning bedrock of Tenochtitlan, home to twenty million souls and for now, your own. Going to cost over a hundred bucks just to connect the call, but still. The air hangs heavy as the thunderous march of cumulus regroups, summoning reinforcement from Zaragoza and points north. Not done with you, gabacho, not even near.

Life distilled itself to sweeps of information, reality in relief: the mountains are in a ring, verdant, cheery green in depiction because at altitude, they can’t hurt you. But as you descend, they flush a jaundice that glows, then breathing sanguine, swelling an infected red, boiling: seconds, gabacho, in that direction, and rocks meet you face to face. Then, the weather radar sweep–mountains, stand down, convection on deck. That thoughtless arcing hand depicts the angry cumulus wedge carving up the pass from Mateo–the only way in, the only way out. Between sweeps, cleaving rocks and thunder, you see, Yossarian, there is a catch: with every vital switch from terrain to weather, you lose precious seconds of both. At the high altitude demanded by the mountain ring, your true airspeed bumps your ground speed up to a ridiculous terrain-eating insanity–with you effectively closing your eyes for a half a mile of weather and terrain with each switch, headless horseman, you, galloping ever onward.

“Just say when, amigo,” comes the croupy staccato of Carlos, hooded eyes with a trademark, sidelong, never eye-to-eye glance, pouring Dos Lunas blanco into a tall, narrow, already sweating glass of ice. Like you ever know when, or would tell, or could. Another drag, the tip a volcanic Muana Kea boil, then a silver blue swirl whispers up to the lazy rattan fan arms purring above. Hard to know when, isn’t it? Just say, gracias, and dial.

Technology has raced ahead of the Maddog: intercepts that the newer FMS can make–in excess of 90 degrees, which of course the Mexican air traffic controllers therefore feel justified in issuing–are beyond the Old Dog’s last decade of circus tricks. You can make it work–on a good day. Today is not a good day. Weather deviations scatter jets all over the sky, a sky is filled with rocks up to 19,000 feet, and much of it hidden in the thunderheads. The Daily Double is rocks and thunder, and you can look at one or the other, but you lose sight of both in the transition, eating up the ground track up at triple time. Arc west at Mateo, deviate for weather, stand by for that nasty 110 left intercept that’s hard enough on a good day (and this isn’t a good day), and keep your finger on the mountain peaks, Min Safe 9,800′ here. Depending on where “here” is, and if that’s where we actually are.

The smell of dampness rising from dusty concrete mixes with car exhaust from the traffic circle, open sewage, a faint tropical rotting, the smoky sweetness of the stumpy Cohiba, the rasp of tequila; a random eddy of reluctant elements bogged down at a blessed zero miles per hour, defying the storm and the coming darkness, but only halfheartedly. The moment lingers like the breath between a lifeless antiphon and the listless, langouous hymn designed to drag the wayward to salvation. Four bars, a Telemex signal; international code 001 . . .

Time the sweeps, if you can, so that you can check the weather, then the rocks: you need to gauge your storm clearance first, then the rocks–which don’t move–then back to the storm, which does. Neat and tidy, logical. Except a white-hot bolt thick as your thigh reaches out of the opaque blue and in an instant, the autopilot is gone, you’re hand-flying in the bronco-ride that ain’t over in 8 seconds; run for daylight, pray for no rocks . .  the radio altimeter comes alive, meaning even at 9,000 feet–your assigned altitude, on the ground track you’re eating up at miles per minute–the radar has discovered the hidden mountain. In a split second, in thirty degree of left bank in heavy precip, the cosmic gizmos lose it, hollering terrain, terrain . . .

The stool squeaks, but only when swung clockwise; the opposing arc is curiously silent. The Cohiba sustains the hot-forge ash stack, but only by consuming itself, content to wrap a light cloud around the evening like a cat, tail rising to the ceiling in a gentle haze. Savor the nada–no force, no movement; no impact, unseen circuitry dialing.

The Book of Revelations will ultimately show a quick snap of the wings to level–good thing the autopilot fried–and the nose pitched up, both JT8D-P21′s turning at 103%, their cores white hot at over a thousand degrees and 50,000 RPM: ¡Órale que no tenemos todo el día! The radar plot will show the data block at 8,800 in an MSA of 9,800. And the only element conspicuously missing will be the audio tape of course, since that’s where the evidence of controller error would crackle in a disembodied, static-y voice; sorry, senor.

Wrapped in the core warmth of Lunas grande, a shawl of light blue Cohiba essence and steadied by the crescendo of fat raindrops on a tin roof, still, motionless, nada; connections electrify the grid northbound, spanning borders and time and place and circumstance. Ringing. Unsaid will be those final moments, the crystalline memory of everything thrown at the mountain, climbing, standing on the tail, the altimeter winding up, the airspeed down, and still the radio altimeter stubbornly refusing to die.  And the lack of fear, lack of regret, only urging, higher, top the sonofabitch; a bit of anger at being in this position, concentration, willing us over the top but in place of fear, only calm, determinedly visualizing her, resolving that to be the last thought ever.

That, more than the connection, more than the mountain, the two fried jet engines, the night inked onto Iztaccíhuatl like a tattoo, the sheets of fat cold rain from the mountains rushing through the Xochimilco basin and the burn of a last swallow of tequila–that’s what mattered at all.

Stack the bills neatly on the mottled terrazzo slab, under the empty glass–why do all paper bills have angry-looking men on their 40-weight golden weave?–and slide determinedly toward the door. Unsaid, so much unsaid, but just hearing the voice, the touch worth the price of connection. Colder, the night was, but you could hardly begrudge the rain.

tstm day

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14 Responses to “Darkened Sky, Distant Thunder.”

  1. El viaje es la recompensa – si sobrevive para contarlo

  2. Chris, that grabbed me by the throat and shook me. You worked hard at putting those words together, and it shows. Very damned good!

    FVH

  3. Cedarglen (Craig) Says:

    I enjoyed this post Chris. Apparently you have a new license to write like this and in public. I must have missed the news: I knew that you were putting the finishing touches on your dissertation, but I did not know that it was finished. Your masters bust have accepted it and congratulations. When was your degree awarded? Care to tell us where? Did I mention congratulations?
    The life of today’s “Airline Pilot,” certainly does not enjoy the glitz and compensation of past years. However, with even modest seniority and the will, it is the ideal profession from which to launch a new profession or advanced learning. What an opportunity! And you never know when some part of your essential, certificated package may fail. If you have the degree, congratulations sir! What’s the story? -Craig

    • Yes, the PhD was conferred in May at Texas Christian University. I defended my 414 page dissertation on April 11. The dissertation also included a digital relational archive ( WMRProject.tcu.edu ) which is now a part of the university research assets used by researchers worldwide. The dissertation was published and is available from Proquest. The dissertation took a little over 2 years, including research and writing. Before that, 65 hours of grad classes sandwiched in between flying over 7 years.

      I’m not the type who could spend the days off in this career field just screwing around, goofing off, golfing, skiing, whatever. I’m also not the type satisfied that all intellectual inquiry and growth ends after leaving undergrad classes.

      Now I teach writing at Texas Wesleyan University in between flight days, of course.

  4. Forget that day job. Get writing.

  5. […] captain, airline pilot, airline pilot blog. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own […]

  6. Jason Clark Says:

    Wonderfully evocative. That’s why I tend to drink hearty before trips like this in my Greyhound. (Never within 2 hours of driving.)

  7. Power, grace, a touch of wist. The sub rosa lingers. Gracias.

    A philistine, me; never heard of WMR. But that’s one of the more nicely x’ref’d db’s I’ve seen in a long while, and a delight to explore. Thanks for that as well, and big congrats on the doing which helped you earn your spanking new phud. Don’t know your panel, but your years flying likely helped keep insight calm through the defense. Again, ‘grats.

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