Hope Flies with Opal Eyes
Flying as captain is a marathon: the mileposts come slow and steady, so pacing is key. Especially when you’re tired, and you are.
You once counted, then stop counting after you reached 150, the number of details you must see to and okay before you even send the initial torrent 35 psi air coursing through the starter on the first jet engine. So you divide the tasks to conserve energy, and just like you when you run a marathon–no wasted motion, deliberate pace, tune out the distractions, concentrate. Half of you remains in the scan mode: you know where everything is and how it’s supposed to be, inside the cockpit. Let your eyes do the movement.
And the other half does the evaluating: numbers correct, weights, center of gravity; quantities; oxygen, oil, hydraulic fluid, jet fuel. Systems that need to be armed, armed. Each waypoint, loaded by datalink, but verified out loud between you and the first officer. Page through the jet’s maintenance logbook–how’s it been? What’s been acting up? Comm panel set, your stuff hooked up.
Then almost subliminally, you hear something that pokes. You’re going to need to do something? Something else, pulling both halves of you out of the stride you hold to make the endurance race to the finish line? You can go on up and say hi to the pilots.
Means neither one of us will curse for the next few minutes. Means we’ll check out the mom–don’t lie, pilots do–and do our duty to a young person who’s on an adventure even as we run our marathon. You break out of the deliberate pace, the assigned role, to put on the TV character. It’s one more lap.
Until you turn around. A little one, maybe 3 or 4? Curly brown hair, a cherubic face sweet and fresh as a scoop of vanilla. And eyes like big opals, clear and white but flashing unlikely color and heat from somewhere. Concentrating. Taking it all in with the aplomb of little ones unknowing but full of hope, and buttressed by faith in mom standing behind.
Tell them your name. Small lips move, but the eyes don’t; wide as saucers, marking and storing this with everything else new, which just about everything is. You can’t hear whatever she said in a tiny voice drowned out by equipment cooling fans, whirring gyros and coursing air conditioning.
“Natalia,” the mom says, her dark mane a large copy of the tousled mini-me still wide-eyed and unblinking. Natalia thrills at what I don’t, what I can’t any more: a Christmas tree, the state fair, a ride at Disney where everything isn’t anywhere in particular, but scattered like pretty shells on the beach or a jewelry case: new, random, unnatural, gleaming.
In the background, the number one flight attendant argues with the agent over some passenger boarding issue; voices raise, which once again means you’ll add another lap to the race, another item on the list of things to resolve, but later. Natalia’s miniature hand thrusts forward a small book without another word. I get it that she’s reading me, man in a uniform, in a place that’s strange, where wonderful things like flying must be possible, likely; take that on faith–mom said so. Out of my zone now, my zoned out stride; I have to smile back at those big perfect eyes, serious set mouth and precious faith she has in her parents, and their having entrusted her to us.
I’ll sign her log book. It’s now a written contract, a piece of her childhood promised for later appraisal and cherished by mom like her Dora the Explorer tickets and her first crayon scrawls, Natalia’s First Flight. A moment bronzed like baby shoes, a snapshot whose corners haven’t tattered yet because we’re living that moment.
Then it’s over.
The marathon run resumes, the litany, both halves checking and confirming facts and figures, waypoints and weights. The flight service supervisor wants to blame the flight attendants for the delay outbound–which is really attributable to the jet being late inbound. I just want to get this flight out on time, the tired supervisor sighs. “It’s too late for that,” I shoot back. “How ’bout we do this without a body count of crew casualties?” She storms off. I’ll hear about it later. Doesn’t matter–you have to take care of your crew.
Finally, the emancipation of pushback and engine start, climbing the stadium steps of checklists and performance confirmation on taxi-out. Mile markers, each ticked off carefully, we join the heavy aluminum conga line to the runway. Strapped in tight, silent save required responses and the crackle of radio transmissions between the tower and the gaggle of jets streaming toward the active runway.
My last items, mental mantra, always: gross weight, verify one more time the correct speeds, correct configuration, correct runway; stabilized thrust at 91.3 N1 on roll; engines-engines-engines only on abort after 80 knots: idle, speedbrakes then reverse, amen. My eyes hide behind sunshades; they know where to look, what to look for, what we’ll see, and what we shouldn’t–then what action to take in case we do. It’s a wrap-around blanket, full confidence and thirty plus years of flight experience, twenty-one in the left seat.
Yet for me, as I release the brakes and standup the power levers, waiting for the welcome growl of 55,000 pounds of jet thrust biting the air, shoving us back into our seats as we head for the sky, the shiny lightness of it all stems from one thing: Natalia’s going to leave the Earth today, for the first time.
That, like a first Christmas, a single birthday candle, the first star of the first night, just doesn’t happen very often, or really ever again. So for a stolen moment, I fly through, and in, the vision of those perfect opal eyes. Though you might suspect otherwise, somehow things seem a little brighter, the arc a little higher. You know it really is, at least for now.