Flight of Opposites
Weightless, a thousand moving metal, plastic and composite parts plus a ton of jet fuel all plunging earthward in perfect formation miles above west Texas. Again.
In that split second of suspense between the vertical and the plunge, in the last breath of a climb atop all the little BBs of thrust; a moment’s daydream and too late; let it fall.
The top of an arc–was this a Cuban Eight or a Clover Leaf I was doing?–and in a heartbeat of wandering thoughts, too late: we ain’t flying any more.
Own it. Afterburner? Salvage the maneuver? Nah–just own it. Fall. Salvage is usually ugly, often bone crushing with pullout G-forces. Relax, ride it. A sky moment, where you let the big blue reveal what happens next.
Been there, done that, without the airplane.
Spinning, inverted–shouldn’t you be looking at the ground? Relax; own it–you’re three thousand feet above the ground, there’s an altimeter on your reserve chute if you want to waste your free fall trying to read it–so just own the moment, be in the sky without questions or answers. You’ll eventually get into a chute-opening posture. Savor the weightlessness illusion of terminal velocity for a second or two more.
Such a relief from the cramped jump plane. Never the first in, which is last out, because kneeling hunched over a reserve chute on the sheet metal floor with straps and crap cutting off blood flow to the extremities any longer than is necessary isn’t optimum. Nor is the last in, at the door, first out: yeah, we’ll drop a test streamer first to see what the wind’s doing, but I’d rather watch the first jumper as a human guinea pig and see what it’s actually doing to the ant hanging from the canopy. Plus I don’t want to be by the door–if you snag a rip cord on something, which isn’t unthinkable in the cramped Cessna, you’re going out the door immediately because an open chute can take the whole plane down.
Out, finally; wind blast, tumble, hold–own it. Be in the sky moment, let it happen, notice it happening. A cushion of air, it feels like, a hundred mile an hour head wind. But not really–it’s you moving against the air, but funny how Copernicus and the whole “Earth revolving around the sun” thing doesn’t seem real as the Earth rushes up to meet you. Same end result though, no matter how you look at it.
And that’s the world of opposites that defines flight.
On the flip side, there’s nothing but concentration, detail, and performance in big jet flight. Every action is undergirded with interlocking layers of care. Details swim before my eyes like the ghostly green numbers projected on the glass in front of my face by the Heads Up Display: speed, altitude, energy, heading, lift, thrust, course, pitch, bank–all in an integrated ballet.
Unspoken but verified is the weight, the center of gravity, the temperature, the wind, the runway length. Everything matters, everything builds upon everything else–you sort it out, see to the details.
How different from falling out the yawning door of a noisy jump plane into the rushing slipstream and the hand of the wind on the downward plunge. Or the top of a delicate arc, inverted, watching the horizon replace the blue, then the dirt below rushing to meet you.
And that’s the opposite of what’s going on in back.
There it seems everyone’s not flying. Rather, it’s all about what they’re not doing: not driving for hours, not yet “there” but tolerably suspended between now and then. It’s all newspapers and iPads and headphones and movies and every animation and distraction except for flying, which back here is more the unraveling of time rather than the revelation of flight.
Which is fine.
For me nonetheless, it’s still the thousand moving parts and burning jet fuel and forward speed till the magic moment when hands and feet connected to tons of aluminum, blood and bone pull back and like a promise kept, the Earth falls away.
Then land or sea, it’s all the same because we’re sailing over it instead of creeping across it. Life shrinks back to arm’s length of miles and miles below and details and blemishes five way to the widest scope and limitless horizon. From where I sit, looking forward, it’s more like floating than moving, but the tapestry below inches by just the same.
And surface challenges vanish with the imperfections below. Towering thunderstorms raking and pummeling the dirt? No problem–seven miles up, we’ll fly over the trouble below.
Trouble out west: a spark flew, a fire caught, half a state on fire below draping the underscape with a finger-like plume.
A thousand acres in flames, but it looks more like a crushed-out cigarette from the sky box. And the ultimate ruggedness of rocky wilderness looks like just so much rough-cut, snow-capped diamond sculpture easing by below.
And of course, we’re not alone. But if we’re both on course, we’re nose to nose, so you won’t see this from the back. But we nod to each other, aware of the closing speed of over 1,000 mph, opposites in course and altitude.
Where you’re headed and where you’re from is all reversed nose to nose. Flying casually, intuitively then and diligently, perfectly now–it’s all about time and life, about how we go more than where and when we get there.
But one thing never changes, then or now, airplane or no: they sky’s a fine place to spend your life.