Jet Flight And The Curious Lightness of Hope.
Sure, the destination is the same for every passenger on board. Yet the passage is anything but, except for that moment of stillness before instant of flight.
It’s that empty pause after the final turn from the taxiway onto the runway, after a quick glance upwind to be sure no one’s on final approach. Satisfied, goose both throttles, engine instruments spring to life; feel the shove, pull ’em back. Make a wide swing, pressure on the inboard brakes slews the nose around and at the sweet spot, deft pressure on the outboard brakes stops the nose dead on the wide white stripe leading miles ahead, into the air and far away. Feel the slosh as ten tons of fuel in the wings protest the precise stop after the graceful arc, rocking the jet in ever-diminishing waves.
Silence. Stillness. The moment of “should we?” well past, but the instant of “we are” yet ahead. Savor the verge of such nearly bursting potential, that heartbeat before the sound and fury and no turning back.
That frozen moment masquerades in another pregnant pause near a boarding gate, but often at the drop-off curb. It’s okay for me to look, being invisible–not a person, but a component of a travel ensemble: just the uniform on somebody crewing the machinery of here-to-there, no more significant than the stripe on the aircraft fuselage or the logo at the gate. From the outside, at least, air travel is a process as much as a passage. And there’s safety in the anonymity of that, at least from the inside.
But now and then in the chorus of good-byes there’s one that’s more than cursory. With a touch that lingers, sad eyes echo pained looks back and forth like a shout in a canyon. There’s nothing simple in this parting, it’s easy to see, yet so hard to look at.
Because who hasn’t been there? Who hasn’t had to endure the moment of leaving and the torturous suspense of not yet being gone? That awful stretch with neither past nor future, only an agonizing now where hope just flat lines. In those murderous moments the mundane elements of time and place freeze; the sun, the clear sky, a warm or cold day and what he or she wore and said and that last look, thin as a nose print on glass and gone in a moment but still, memorializing in stone the physical aspects of a momentous passage, at least for you.
And so for them, I remind myself. We’re flying people, not just passengers and cargo and a buttload of fuel, most of which we’ll methodically incinerate in the getting there. And the crossroads gathering everyone here and now from the forgettable quick trip to the heart-wrenching good-bye and everything in between is this hanging moment that ends with flash and fire.
Always loved the feel of making that happen: stand the throttles up; a hundred-thirty-some feet behind, a pair of hydro-mechanical fuel controls respond to my touch with a gush of volatile jet fuel into burner cans ringing the turbine sections on both engines. In an instant, instruments on the forward panel spring off their pegs and wind up as does the jet noise and we roll.
Jet fuel ignites at around 400 degrees Fahrenheit, and under compression and lightning-like heavy-Joule ignitors, the hot section of the jet turbine flirts with 1,000 degrees and howls a gale of hot exhaust behind us, slinging the aluminum, hydraulic fluid, miles of cables and electrical components never mind the bone and blood and heartache and joy to the speed required to lift the whole unlikely assemblage into the air.
One last scan, riding the pointy end of a southbound train that ain’t never going to stop, pull back just enough, and hold. The huge tail fin bites the air and up goes the nose.
Then the earth just falls away and sky replaces the complications of buildings and roads and homes and offices with the simplicity of white clouds and a dome of cobalt above, darkening at the top, with just a miniature sketch of the tiny world below going about its seemingly–at least from miles above–tiny little business.
Maybe now in cruise, I tell myself, the pain of parting can give way to the hopefulness of reunion. Or a new beginning. Or an ending. But all of that is on hold for however long we are off the ground. I never forget that.
Busy people sometimes call flight time “the black hole” because they can’t send or receive calls from an office or some other worldly hell. But I prefer to see our flight as more like an oasis high above the desert of requirements and demands and contests and complications of the petty ant pile miles below.
It’s the moment to catch your breath between here and there and whatever those polar opposites mean to whomever is struggling, suspended between them. The flight itself is the interlude, the moment of suspense, time with nothing to be done but endure.
And the secret irony is, it’s a deceptively treacherous peace and stillness considering that it takes place at as close to the speed of sound as we can fly in a sky without enough oxygen to keep you alive for more than a heartbeat or two, and at a temperature that would freeze you solid before you fell the seven miles to the dirt below, riding the fire that calms itself down to about 700 degrees when I throttle it back, but still.
That’s the curious lightness of hope. It’s born of leaving, baptized in the thousand degree fire of launching and climbing, speeding away, zooming ahead. Aloft, between, enroute, underway and no longer still but moving between a certain here and an uncertain there. Flying makes it so–above the mortal ground, ignoring the gravity of up and down, moving at impossible speeds in any place other than the way high above, which is where we are. For now.
Yeah, I know: all this will have to be worked out in the end. We’re going to “get there” and when we do, the energy of 70 tons at bullet speed will have to be dealt with: the thousands of foot-pounds of kinetic energy will need to be dissipated, the miles between us and the ground negotiated and the whole matter brought safely to a stop and mated to a gate so you can deplane and return to your mortal existence. I’ll take care of all that.
But yours is the hard part I don’t envy you one bit: reconciling your passage with new place where you’ve arrived. It’s really what matters–we didn’t just burn tons of fuel for nothing.
Maybe you’re starting anew. Maybe you’re returning. Either way, the complications of time and place and the real world we just zoomed over getting you here resurrect themselves and stare and wait for you to arrive. And now you have, so good luck.
Because my part’s done. In barely an hour, faceless as I am, I’ll be back in the air, back to my world of high altitude, high speed, high temperature from here to there but only for the moment. Just remember, anonymous or no, who cared about you in the coming and going, and everything that the passage meant to you.
And who’ll be here whenever you’re ready to go again, ready to ride the fire and the island of hope to a new place.
Just say the word, and we’ll go. Because as I said, we’re flying people, all of us; we just are. And that’s what really matters.