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 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.