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.


12 Responses to “Hope Flies with Opal Eyes”

  1. Cedarglen (Craig) Says:

    Another wonderful post, Chris and thanks. I could say a lot more, but this should cover it: You will forget about Natialia in a few days, but she will NEVER forget you. The world on your airplane is as it should be. – Craig

  2. Lego Spaceman Says:

    Hi Chris

    Last month I took my 5 year old son on an airplane. It wasn’t his first time, but I could still see the wide-eyed amazement in him. His favorite part of the trip was the ‘launch’; it sounds like that is probably your favorite part too. Knowing how busy you are in the pointy end of the plane (mainly from reading this blog) I let him take a peak in the cockpit, but did my best to keep him from distracting the pilots. When we did get a chance to say a few words to the pilots upon arrival, they were very accommodating and willing to answer a few questions from a five year old. I know it’s not part of the job description but it sure put a smile on my sons face that he got to talk with the guys who drive the plane. Thanks for taking the time to make the trip that much more special for the little kids.

    Also, I don’t think that I have heard anyone use the word ‘gaggle’ since my track coach called us that in high school. I come here for the airplane stories, but I keep coming back because they are so well written. Keep up the good work.

    • I don’t EVER underestimate that experience, and I owe it to others in my life: a tired-looking 707 captain at O’Hare went aboard early with me and my brothers, letting us visit his cockpit. I was already dead-set on being a pilot at age 9, and this just cemented it. I can still see the instruments from the left seat. It was all magic, and there was simply no choice: I would do that, be an airline captain, period.

      I never wavered from that goal, and I was always surprised that neither of my brothers showed any interest at all in flying. I realize, having shared this aspiration with so many of my peers from childhood, through college, through the Air Force flying and beyond, how few ever actually make it to the left seat of an airliner. I mean all my close buds in junior high, high school, so many in college and even in the Air Force.

      Luck, it is, that I am where I am. I’ll always share that–like that 707 pilot did for me–with the little ones.

  3. Paul Lally Says:

    Make no mistake, the spirit of Natalie lives in adults as well. As personal proof, many are the times I’ve boarded an aircraft and turned right to take my prosaic economy-class seat, but my heart turned left, wanting to gaze, as Natalie did, on the magic of your world. Thank you for sharing your cockpit with us.

  4. Fr. Jeremiah Says:

    What a great expression of that experience with Natalia! No…she’ll never forget that or you. It’s amazing how even just a two-minute interaction can become a forever-vivid image in the tapestry of our life. I find myself remembering those two-minute encounters with random people far better and far more fondly than some of the stuff I do that commands a majority of my time.

    I remember my first flight…it wasn’t until I was seven. My grandfather had just died and we were headed on what my parents called a “bereavement flight” (that made me think that everyone on board was headed to a funeral!) to Buffalo from Orlando. The flight attendant brought me to the cockpit and the captain (I don’t remember his name, but I do remember what he looked like and that he was wearing Old Spice aftershave, like my dad and grandpa did) let me sit in his chair. The instrument panels were sure nifty, but I couldn’t help wondering just how BIG your feel had to be to push those rudder pedals! The captain asked me why I was going AWAY from Disney World, and I told him that we were going to my grandpa’s funeral. He said that he would pray for me and that when we got to altitude, I should wave goodbye to grandpa because we would be closer to the angels taking him “home”. To my seven-year-old mind, that meant the world to me. And I’ve never told my parents why I wanted the window seat on that flight or why I waved out the window when the captain added to his in-flight announcement of “Folks, we’ve reached our cruising altitude of 38,000 feet….” the phrase “We’re there now, son; you know what to do.” He’d probably never be able to say that today, but I am sure glad he cared enough to say it that day. A kind captain and a sad boy meet for two minutes on a hot day in late August of 1985…two lives and two worlds intersecting for but a moment. I don’t know if that captain even remembers me or ever thinks about that moment; but I sure do remember him. I’m sure he’d be glad to know that I grew up loving aviation and that I became a man who spends his life helping others…just like he once helped me.

    Thanks, Captain, for taking the time to say hi to Natalia….

    • It was a standout experience for me in my twice-weekly, otherwise routine flight to San Francisco. Maybe I’ll catch them on their way back from San Fran this month.

  5. Exquisite post. Would be wrong to try to add anything.
    “everything isn’t anywhere in particular, but scattered like pretty shells on the beach or a jewelry case: new, random, unnatural, gleaming.” Great phrase.
    That last paragraph – pure gold.
    Salute for watching out for the kids, and your crew – and the rest of us.

  6. Beautiful!

    Captures perfectly for me the “made my day” moment of that child in the cockpit saying Hi…and the 8 year old that I once was taking my first tentative step into a B-737 to exclaim, “I’m gonna be an airline pilot!” I’m sure you do what I do: announce on the PA: “Ladies and gentlemen, Welcome aboard–and a special welcome aboard to my new friend Natalia!”
    The lovely little lady (and her momma) at the end of my Vlog is that Natalia as well–don’t we get such a kick at the wide-eyed wonder!

    Super, duper-ly well-written, my friend!

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