High Flight: I’ll Take The Low Life.
The oddly symmetrical reality of flight is this: there’s only so much flying you can do without repeating yourself.
That’s not just because it all starts to look the same. Rather, it’s because if you keep flying, it actually WILL be the same: you’ll eventually circumnavigate the globe and end up over the same spot and on your way again if you don’t land.
But that’s not all. It’s also an inescapable reality that the higher you get the faster you can go, but the high price of altitude is that higher is colder and the air so thin you’d turn blue in a matter of seconds.
Sure, you’re able to skip over most of the weather because you’re above most of the atmosphere.
But then, where’s the bottom, the foundation upon which you can really ground the experience, to say you’ve been to, and not just over, a significant landmark? Sure, you saw it–I see big stuff every workday as I crisscross the continent–but the difference between “up there” and down-to-earth is like night and day.
I have time to consider the distinction between higher and lower as I wait between flights in that great equalizer, the boarding area. Like the hospital waiting room, there’s only one and it’s filled with people from all socio-economic levels. True, the “elite” travelers often wait in a separate lounge between flights, some even apparently entitled to the more rarefied air of “special services” whisked to the gate at the last minute on a private cart.
And sometimes, the casual traveler goes casually off the deep end, traveling in attire more suitable to cleaning out the garage than flying.
Nonetheless, I’ve seen the man in a suit that costs more than the car driven by the man seated next to him in the boarding area, elbow to elbow, waiting for the same flight. But that’s where the commonality ends.
But for the infrequent traveler, the waiting is charged with the excitement of going, and they’ll actually drag you into the experience if you let them. And why the hell not? I’m glad to hear about what’s waiting after landing and often enough, wishing I was about to do the same thing, whether visiting friends or family or a resort destination. For them, the waiting is the anticipation of the opening act of a first-run play in which they’ll star.
For those simply rushing from point “A” to point “B,” the flight is a dull rerun of a show they’ve seen too many times, and the flying experience probably isn’t going to go well. There will be delays and traffic jams and diversions and cancellations. They won’t be part of the adventure but rather, a pain in the rear: there’s a schedule to keep, calls, texts, deals, dates, times, no flexibility, no slack. No wonder.
The infrequent flyer isn’t experiencing a “travel product,” but rather, is living an adventure. For them there’s still some wonder in the skies and in the process of climbing miles into the air, and they still like doing it.
It’s a moving tapestry that unfolds below them and time, rather than just the logjam between now and the big “then” of arrival is more than simply the endurance akin to a few hours spent in a dentist’s chair.
There’s more to the experience than just the slow passage of minutes and miles–rather, there’s the marvel of passing a mile every 7 seconds. There’s the view that stretches from horizon to horizon, the darker blue of space above and the mottled tan of a mid-continent mountain range in between. There are monstrous cumulonimbi thundering about harmlessly below
and rivers wandering lazily into the sunset.
There are hardly words to describe how the sun gathers in the day and runs off like a thief to the west, chased by a moon sliver and the evening star.
So I guess what you see and how it strikes you depends on how high you are. There’s warmth and red-blooded breathable pleasure the lower you go. If you take a little of that with you as climb higher–and we do to a maximum pressure differential of 8.32 psi at altitude–suddenly the experience is truly more of a wondrous passage than a tedious transport.
Which brings me back to the symmetrical reality of flight: there’s only so much flying you can do without repeating yourself. And in over 17,000 flight hours, I guess I’ve flown enough miles to circle the globe more than a few times and so I keep crossing over the same spots. That being the case, how does one preserve the wonder of flight, and why?
Helps to have a touch of the Earth in you, and a memory of the days when flight was the exception rather than the rule. And the awareness that the everyday in the sky is anything but for everyone other than the few. That’s the low life: the life on the surface, grounded in that realization. Puts flight into perspective.
It’s the eyes of the non-flyers that see such things truly. The renowned Ski Parker, a professor at USC’s School of Flight Safety and Accident Investigation once asked me, “If you and a non-pilot layman were to witness an aircraft crash, who’d be the more reliable witness?”
In my first few thousand hours of pilot time I couldn’t accept his answer, but now I know he was right: those with clear eyes, without thousands of repetitions skewing both expectations and memory have the truest vision of flight.
That’s what grounds the experience, which provides a foundational value for the coolness of flight. If I capture in text the head rush of shoving throttles forward, thundering down the runway like a runaway freight train, then pulling back and lifting off; and share that with those seeing with clear eyes, then I share the vision–which is what originally got me into flying and helped me over the bazillion hurdles enroute–and preserve that clear vision too.
And okay, I’m still a sucker for jet piloting, still get a rush out of it all. But I realize too that the enduring reward comes from sharing that with those un-jaded and unaccustomed to the thrill. Down to earth, where it’s warm and clear, is where that view is. That’s where all the important stuff, like home and family and an appreciation for flight lives.
See you there. Which, actually, is right here.