How Big is the Sky?

cockpit panoThe cockpit is a solemn place in the pregnant pause between preflight and pushback. Always, like a deserted island where everything’s already been said: checklists done, preflight complete, systems verified, amen. Plenty more details and decision points ahead, but nothing to worry about now, because the litany of procedures, numbers, actions, maneuvers and control inputs are etched in your mind like an inscription in granite. Thinking about the details is unneeded; knowing what’s to come and when is like running a hand over the inscription without reading the words–and that’s enough for now.

“You have a visitor,” the number one flight attendant breaks the reverie, ushering a school-aged boy into the cockpit. He looked to be maybe seven . . . eight? Dutifully wide-eyed behind thick glasses, a woman–must be his mom–hovering behind.

“C’mon in,” you say. “Are you the new copilot?” You jerk a thumb toward the F/O. “Because he’s pretty useless. You can do a better job–you ready?” Covertly, F/O gives you the finger. You smile.

left seat

The young man shakes his head in silence. “Go ahead,” mom prompts. “Ask him.” Then she adds, “He’s usually a chatterbox; loves airplanes. I think he’s a little overwhelmed.”

Good thing I’ve been such a smartass–that doesn’t help. “Sure, ask away,” you say. Stuff about airspeed? Controls? How we operate systems? He fixes you with a flat stare like he was looking right through you and into your heart.

“How big is the sky?”

Now there’s a question I’ve never been asked. And I’m not even sure how to answer.

“Yeah, Captain,” a smirking F/O echoes, “You’ve spent about thirty years in the sky. Just how big is it?”


Hard to say. Seen it when it wasn’t big enough, plunging straight down with a tangled parachute, cows below coming into focus faster than I ever wanted. Had to get a reserve chute out before finding where the sky ended and the earth began and even then, hit like a ton of bricks as if both earth and sky wanted to teach me a lesson about leaving one for the other.

38Other times, the boundaries hardly mattered; gravity, the speed of sound–just mileposts on the way to somewhere higher, farther, faster and more furious than anything else in the thinnest parts of the sky. Those times felt like you were bigger than the sky itself, bulletproof and immortal.

But then you’ve seen it, too, when it was too large, swallowing up a past or a future, a passage never to be undone.

Because when it is, the sky is mute but bears the passage anyway, indifferent: coming back? Gone forever, though you thought not.

casket 1

There’s a road through the sky for that too. Too big, too far, but crossing the blue was a choice to be borne nonetheless. And if the sky were time, you’ve seen it too short, knowing some folks are making a one way passage . . .


. . . while others are only now setting out on their first. We’re all in the same sky, big or small as it is. You can ask the question, but the answer depends.

“I mean,” a small voice breaks into the suspended moment of thought and silence. “I mean in case we fall.” Big eyes, in all seriousness, all seven or eight years looking ahead and asking.

You just can’t worry about that. In fact, it wouldn’t matter anyway–we all go where we must, take the sky as it comes, cross it where we can, while we can. With those close to us or alone, however we must. Shepherded by mom today, shepherding his own tomorrow.

At the speed of sound on his own, without wings if he wants (bad idea, trust me), to new worlds and old, forward as we all go through the blue till it dims to black.

Smile. “We won’t,” you tell him. “You won’t, and we won’t. So let’s go fly.”

He thinks about it for a moment, his eyes searching, but not on me; elsewhere, maybe finding a place for the idea, judging for himself the size of the sky ahead of him. Mom gives me a look: what, knowing? Ponderous? Then a smile, steering him by the shoulders back to the cabin.

Couple more minutes and it’ll be time: seal it up, push it back, light the fires and taxi, then take off.  How big is the sky?

Well, let’s go find out.

cockpit sunrise

16 Responses to “How Big is the Sky?”

  1. Nicely written. How big is the sky? Unfortunately, for me it’s too big. Permanently grounded due to Diabetes, but I love reading about another pilot’s thoughts…

  2. Thought about you today, flying back from your favorite airport, DCA. I was hoping our pilot was someone like you, who not only was consummately professional but appreciated the beauty inside the bustle. Who could look out his window and enjoy those little lambs of cumulus floating in the blue fields all around us. I’ll never know that, of course, but the satisfying “thump” when we touched down in SAV was good enough for me. Thanks for this lovely piece!

  3. Randy Sohn Says:

    Chris – Wow, that WAS a new (and good) one! Never was asked that one! Remember being asked once “how can you see all those instruments” (747), answered that I try to not look at all of them at once!

    Best, Randy

  4. mjones52 Says:

    I figure we could use more people who think, feel, and ponder at the same time. Ever think about cloning yourself? [just kidding, but….]

  5. […] aviation, earth and sky, transportation. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own […]

  6. Chris Randal Says:

    In the footsteps of Capt Dave – or were you first?

    • I don’t know who “Capt Dave” is, but I’ve always thought the idea of “Captain [insert first name]” was goofy, and the sign of someone really needing attention, more appropriate to a Saturday morning kids’ show than the airline pilot profession. So he’s “first” and I’m not involved in whatever he’s first at.

  7. roberthenryfischat Says:

    Reblogged this on robert's space and commented:
    big buig big except aroond beacons.

  8. Lego Spaceman Says:

    The sky is bigger in Montana. It says so on their license plates.

  9. Another wonderful post. Thank you…love this stuff!
    …and congratulations on getting your PhD. HOORAY!!!!

  10. Tom Hill Says:

    Beautifully written and movingly told. Thank you very much!

  11. Bill Brandt Says:

    Beautifully written.

    I just read an article on the B2 in the Smithsonian Air & Space magazine, and for those pilots a typical mission is 30+ hours. 4-6 refuelings. The only place to rest is a 4×6 area behind the seats – pilots use either a cot or just a sleeping bag.

    I’m am sure for them after 36 hours in that small space they’d say the sky is too big 😉

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