Jet Flight: Elephants, Leggoland and the Paper Swan.
The final moments before flight are an indeterminate gap of time and space left for you to carve out intervals of facts and process; cold, smooth and regular as the steps of a cathedral.
It’s a lazy roll around the corner and onto the runway, engines breathing smoothly the dragon’s breath of gale-force jet exhaust. Ghostly green alphabet soup of the Heads Up Display projected on the glass floats before your eyes, as if inside your head and maybe it is, dutifully reporting headings as the nose swings left.
Layers deeper in consciousness ticks the chopped litany that paces the solemn climb up the cathedral steps: a quick review of the new rejected take-off procedure (speed brakes before reverse!), weights (double checked) winds (no hazards, anticipate roll), target thrust setting, a final scan for birds, amen. Time, like fuel to the twin jet engines, flows in a slow meter like a dirge now, but soon to give way to a thousand degree war cry.
He sat hunched slightly forward in the wheelchair as if stating in body language that he really didn’t belong there, and maybe he didn’t. He flips one hand idly, grins, and says, “Hardly the place for an old airline pilot, isn’t it?”
Keeping to yourself is one thing, but you can’t not talk with him, he’s very old and he deserves your attention.
And what place, you have to wonder: the airport? The wheel chair?
“There,” he says, pointing to the destination displayed behind the agents. The Rust Belt; no place for anyone, much less a guy seemingly in his late eighties, especially in winter.
You laugh. “No kidding. Why not Florida? Palm Springs? Phoenix?”
His face twists into a frown. “No,” he says. “No elephant dying grounds. You have to go back to where you came from, at least one more time.”
A wheelchair aide shambled up, shirttail hanging out, and grabbed the man’s ticket without asking, poring over it.
He seemed not to notice. “It goes so fast,” he said, looking straight ahead, as if talking to no one, every one. “So damn fast.” The aide pushed the wheelchair away, oblivious.
You briefed a static takeoff for a reason: short runway. Stand on the brakes, hard, because the high takeoff thrust setting will want to scrub the fat tires squatting under eighty tons of plastic and metal and fuel and people clean off the runway.
“Cleared for takeoff.” Now a clockwise circle, starting at nine: start the elapsed time counter, up and straight ahead (no bird flocks ahead and above), to the overhead panel for all four landing lights switches and twin wing illumination light switches, to the nose landing light switch, drop your eyes one last time to confirm the thrust setting.
Verify the first navigational fix and altitude. Shove the throttles forward, confirm the prediction on the N1 gage and when the actual thrust touches 40%, toggle the thrust lever and let the autothrottles pour on the coals.
“Looking for 98.7,” you say methodically, orchestrating the hand-eye-mind convergence of takeoff thrust dutifully set by the autothrottles, engines thundering and shaking the airframe and you release the brakes just as it peaks; the jet leaps forward, you get that reassuring seat mash feeling as you sail through eighty knots, the first checkpoint, then a hundred thirty in just a handful of heartbeats.
You have the countdown of runway distance remaining in the ghost script on the glass and in your mind, the airspeed too; the third dimension is the runway end rushing at you ever-faster as you accelerate; geometry in your head playing out the triangulation of stopping versus shrinking distance remaining versus minimum flying airspeed.
Calmly, scanning for the big five that will require a lightning abort action, filtering only for those, living the three dimensional compression of distance remaining, speed gaining, and the commitment to flight the instant one outweighs the other.
Pull back, carefully, rise, climb; pull more, match the pitch to the green ghostly hieroglyphics claiming your peripheral awareness; she rockets upward at max power. Nothing but blue sky.
One leg of a turnaround done, one to go. Walking up the jet bridge, trying to be invisible among the passengers deplaning, headed wherever it was that had them aboard the jet. Some connecting on, some gone as far as they will. You just need a new flight plan, maybe a cup of coffee. Then back into the cockpit, head for home.
Your mind’s elsewhere anyway, negotiating the algorithm of fuel and altitude time and speed and …
A blur, knee high, rushes past and then turns to face you.
“Fast,” the tyke says, tufted red hair a coppery flame atop a stumpy little candle. “Goes so fast!” He makes a zooming motion with his hands.
Keeping to yourself is one thing, but you can’t not talk with him, he’s very young and he deserves your attention.
A woman with a rusty bob and an armload of carry-on bags catches up to the boy, breathless. “Sorry,” she says, “he likes it when it goes really fast on takeoff.”
“You should go to Leggoland,” carrot top says. “We’re going to Leggoland.”
“No,” you say, “No Leggoland for me. I have to go back to where we came from, one more time.”
Mom flashes a harried smile, grabs his little hand and leads him tromping up the jet bridge. “Goes so fast,” he says. The one hand free of mom zooms. “So fast.”
Maybe. Might depend on if you’re looking forward or backward, whether you’re going home, or “there,” even if “there” is home one more time. Elephant dying grounds or Leggoland, It goes so fast, so damn fast.
Hold that thought. The enduring solemnity of nighttime cruise at altitude will be the perfect place to fold those truths like an origami swan, end to end in half and again, then hold it before squinted eyes.
For now, though, the flight in between matters more.