The gravity of jet flight.


Ever since the first time I flew in formation with another jet, the most stunning realization of flight remains the very un-worldliness of tons of jet-propelled metal suspended in mid air.

It’s never so evident as when you’re eyeball-to-eyeball with another jet, but still you know in the back of your mind as the earth falls away yet again that the miracle of suspended gravity is underway just the same.

I never forget all the moving pieces we depend on or immutable laws we’re bending by leaving the ground behind, and that’s as it should be–that’s what I get paid for. Still, it’s almost a shame that we’ve made that part largely invisible to those who pay us to work the magic.

That’s the part I like best, the planning, the clearance, then the execution of the bazillion orderly steps from sign-in at the airport to the final (at last!) closing of the cabin door and the removal of that jetbridge shadow from my side window. We’re free to fly.

Sure, that magical moment is hard to reach. Yes, getting there is a hassle: I have to navigate between every-nine-months recurring scrutiny of testing, oral, written and simulator evaluations with my license on the line every single time.

That’s in addition to the no-notice evaluations in the cockpit by the FAA and company evaluators and the harsh reality of the old USAF flight training mantra, “You’re always only two rides from the door,” meaning if you fail two checkrides, you’re wings are gone–and that remains true today in the airline biz: at any time, the FAA can invoke their right to evaluate you in the simulator and the aircraft, and your license is on the line. You are always just two rides from the door, and that’s the end of your career, as many have found out, in a matter of an hour or two.

Plus there’s the hassle of random drug and alcohol testing at the end of a trip (going home after a twelve hour day? Not so fast . . .) and the bi-annual FAA flight physical with an EKG data-linked to FAA Headquarters for unmediated scrutiny and a thumbs-up, thumbs-down decision made each time in an office hundreds of miles away.

And for those pilots on the lower end of the seniority list, due to the brutal economics of the airline business, there’s the ever-present (and often witnessed) displacement: you get notified that you’re no longer in your aircraft category or crew position–you’re demoted or worse, now based a thousand miles from your home. See to it that you get to work on time. That just happened to about 350 pilots in San Francisco as that pilot base was eliminated.

Once all that’s behind you, liftoff equals pure freedom–restricted of course by the layers of regulations, details, navigation, instrument approaches and performance variables of fuel, altitude, airspeed and weather.

But I wouldn’t trade this:

For any other work on the surface of the planet, period.

And I realize that there are different hassles in the back, way different from the career-ending obstacles we face up front. Nonetheless, I still see by comparison an element of nuisance rather than real threat, and it’s mated to a dismal outlook unwarranted pessimism (do you not have any views from the cabin?) which is rooted mostly in the Dental Theory: everyone loves a horror story about a dentist’s office visit, and no one wants to hear anything else.

Did you watch that? He’s right: flight is a miracle–but everyone’s pissed off about something nonetheless. You’re sitting in a chair in the sky going 500 miles per hour . . .

Sure, I know: air travel ain’t what it used to be. But air travelers aren’t either:

I’m fortunate that this particular harsh fact of air travel is mostly “in the back,” as up front the unrelenting economic and professional pressures we bear are set aside as they must be in order to concentrate on keeping the miracle of flight going despite the best efforts of gravity and physical laws dictating the impossibility of what we’re all doing at 41,000 feet. I’m not sure why that doesn’t happen in the back of the plane as well, but the cocktail party stories are about the worst, rather than the best experiences in the air.

Nonetheless, there’s still always this:

Utah on fire.

Utah in the fiery throes of dusk, if you care to look out and down six or seven miles. And even if you don’t, there’s always this:

Which is you stepping off the jet a couple hours and a thousand miles later–and that wasn’t ever going to happen by surface transportation, was it? Not in the time you had to do it, or with hotels and gas, in any less of a cash hit.

Sure, we both have to pay some dues to let the earth fall away and revel in the suspense of gravity and the shrinking of earthly life in both distance and perspective, don’t we? But how much of the good and the bad along the way is a matter of focus, yours and mine ?

That’s the difference between magic and mundane, and in the inevitably bumpy mileage above and below the clouds, the view depends on where you look, and if you even notice what there is to see.

What was it like to fly at 80,000 feet and 2,000 miles per hour?

We go one-on-one with SR-71 driver Bill Flanagan.

Be there.

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8 Responses to “The gravity of jet flight.”

  1. Tim Perkins Says:

    Wow, you have eloquently summed up the complexity of commercial flight. I certainly can’t add one iota to your words.

    All I know is this. When I fly (maybe 4 times a year at most), I look out the window and think about how small the percentage is of humans who’ve ever lived on this earth and been privileged to see to see the planet from this perspective.

    Human flight is amazing.

  2. Nice and humane!
    I travel less now and my pay does not support such luxury.

  3. Thank you for another amazing insight into what happens at the pointy end of the plane!

    Every time I fly, I make it a priority to get a window seat, and enjoy the views that only the miracle of flight has made available, and I am a little jealous for your office with a view and you seeing those sights on a daily basis 🙂

    Hat off to you and clear skies!

  4. SkyChazz Says:

    Outstanding. I have flown commercially as a passenger and privately as a pilot for many years and I NEVER, EVER stop looking out the window (unless it’s solid IMC and the gauges require my constant attention). I simply can’t understand people who get on board and start fiddling with their phones, iPads, laptops, books…whatever…when there is such glory just beyond that little glass-covered hole in the fuselage.

    Not so long ago, I got on a commercial jet on a beautiful CAVU day and I was the only one in the cabin looking out the window. As soon as passengers sat down, many pulled down their windowshades and started texting/surfing/whatever. Once airborne, during that brief period when all such devices must be turned off, many of the folks could only complain about the inconvenience of having to put their devices down for a few minutes while we climbed above ten thousand. Once “smart” devices were permitted again, the woman seated next to me had her thumbs flying over the touchscreen until I bumped into her as I unfolded the VFR chart I was carrying with me to monitor our progress.

    Her eyes widened and she said, “What are you doing?”

    “Keeping track of where we are so I know what sights to see!”

    “Hm!” she said and went back to her magic box. After a few more minutes of dealing with me shifting in my seat to crane my neck out the window, she asked me what I was looking at. I was only too happy to show her the beautiful Florida coastline, the enormous tanker plying the sea beneath us leaving a wake at least ten miles long and the fantastic crescent moon hanging in the sky off our left wing.

    “I didn’t know you could see the moon in the daytime!”

    “Really? It’s amazing what you can discover if you just look out the window.” Eventually, I swapped seats with her, showed her where we were on the chart and let her follow along by herself. I gave the chart to her as a souvenir of the trip. I hope she keeps looking out the window from now on.

  5. Thanks Chris, these are the types of articles, poetry if you will, that I forward to my friends when they ask me about flying…you speak for many of us. Thanks

  6. Fr. Jeremiah Says:

    Thanks again, Captain! You’ve worked the magic again! You seem to be able to put words to what I feel every time I look out of the window of the plane; wishing I could do what you do if only my 20/70 vision didn’t prevent me… When I was a doctoral student in Rome, I used to fly back-and-forth to Florida four or five times a year… There was nothing like flying up the Italian coast, seeing the tip of Sicily and the cone of Vesuvius (if we had to take off to the south at FCO); crossing over the Dolomites and then tracing the Alps north! And after the inevitable undercast over the British Isles, eventually seeing the coasts of Greenland… Then coming down the coast of Nova Scotia, what I think is Halifax… and then, if I were lucky, turning inland south enough to fly near Manhattan on approach to EWR for my layover. Then, usually, the sunset liftoff that gives way to a moonlit ride down the east coast, a turn over Daytona and the International Speedway and a short approach over I-4…home to MCO. All relaxing in a comfy seat, taller than the tallest building, nearly faster than a speeding bullet…like superman…but far greater than Neitzsche’s ubermenche. And while I know it’s all physics and I understand the scientific principles of flight…I never cease to approach the marvel of flight with anything other than wonder and awe…and, yup, a good amount of childhood delight.

    Thank you, Captain, for taking us there…both in words and in the cockpit. We couldn’t get there without you!

    Incidently, I’ll be taking over a parish in Daytona for the month of July (the guy there needs a vacation). Should you find yourself at Embry-Riddle, I would love to thank you with a beer or sit in on a lecture!

    Safe flying!
    Fr. Jeremiah

    • I was always the same way before I became a pilot. Now, I’m still glued to the 180 degrees of windows we have up front, still taking tons of pictures (check out the flight photo gallery page).

      Safe travels–

  7. Reblogged this on Albuquerque Aviation and commented:
    Amazing Article!!

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