(November 2011) Just another couple hundred feet should do it; the cloud is much lighter now. There are rips and tears in the fabric of the moisture. If I crane my neck I can see some blue up there; at least I think it is blue. I can feel the sun trying to get through.
Then, suddenly, the last wisp sheds and the airplane and I are in the clear. We’ve “broken out on top,” and I find it to be one of life’s most satisfying feelings. The sense of speed is always exhilarating, but sometimes the sense of relief predominates. Relief is the more important feeling if we’re near our highest assigned altitude or if we’re close to the airplane’s service ceiling. The relief is even more welcome if we’re escaping bad weather, laden down with ice and wondering if this whole thing was such a good idea after all.
When you first get your instrument rating, clouds are mystifying things that harbor all sorts of potential peril. When you take off into cloud, there’s always a sense of anticipation as to what might be in there. Over time, those perils boil down to turbulence, ice and noisy precipitation. When slowly climbing in a single-engine airplane, the tops are of vital interest. That welcome light from above signals you’re getting close.
Even as I graduated to more capable airplanes, the sense of relief, accomplishment (the airplane’s, not mine) and safety never diminished. Come to think of it, breaking out on top seems like a metaphor for much of life. When faced with a daunting project at work, a paper to write, for instance, there comes a point when I feel like I have the task in hand. In big cancer surgical operations, there is often a point when the anxiety gives way to the realization that this is going to work out. I’ve got this; we’re on top here.
I read recently where the tech wizard Steve Jobs was quoted as saying he had really needed to be fired from Apple and to get cancer in order to trust his own view of the world. When faced with these tragedies, he started to feel he had nothing to lose and stopped worrying about what people thought of him. He had broken out on top. Even Jane Fonda has said something similar, so it must be so.