My morning routine is to get up at 6 o’clock or so, make coffee — an elaborate ceremony that involves measuring out and grinding the beans, pre-wetting the grounds, dribbling water over them at a certain temperature, and all that stuff; I think I prefer the ritual to the coffee — and sit on the patio to drink it, and to drink in along with it the coolness, the morning chorus of the birds, the changing light on a few straggling clouds.
Often, as I sit there, a certain Cessna 152 passes low overhead. I’m sure it’s always the same one because the time and position and heading are the same. It’s aglow with the golden-hour light beloved of photographers, and the soft growl of its engine and the modest andante of its progress remind me of the time several decades back when this was what most of general aviation was: high-wing airplanes with 100 or 150 horsepower, putt-putting along a couple of thousand feet up at 100 or 120 mph.
I feel a certain warmth toward that fellow — I imagine the pilot to be a man because I put myself into his place; it could just as easily be a woman, or a couple of people — and I envy him his regular early morning flight over the barely stirring city. He must drive out to his airport when it is still dark or half-light. I think of the fluid sound, part jingle and part slither, that tie-down chains make when you drop them into a heap, the snap of the door latches, the smell of the worn interior, the way those little four-bangers have of jarring the entire airplane when they bark into life, and the moment when the rumble of the wheels on the runway ceases and you rise glass-smoothly onto the morning air. I treasure all that; I would like to be him now.
Late last August, Nancy and I were in Boston. As we usually do when we are there, we took a long walk at what is called the Concord Unit of the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. It is a large pond or wet meadow, near the Revolutionary War town of Concord, that is ringed by forest, much taken-over at the moment by lotus plants, and frequented by geese, egrets, herons and dragonflies. Only a few lotus flowers remained, most having shed their white petals to expose conical seedpods of extraterrestrial appearance. Bees hurried among the purple loosestrife, and crumbling cattails disgorged their fluff in vain expectation of a breeze. Warm, humid, silent, alive — the Concord Unit gives a strong feeling of place: All of your senses tell you in chorus that you are there.
The Concord Unit happens to lie under a departure path for flights out of Hanscom Field, one of Boston’s major general aviation airports. It was a Sunday afternoon, and takeoffs were infrequent, but from time to time the stillness of the meadow would be swept aside by the crescendo of a turbine, and I would look up to see a jet, still low in a shallow climb and heading westward on what I supposed must have been a noise-abatement departure.
I did not envy them.
I find an ambivalence in flying; I wonder whether other pilots feel it. The phrase about hours of boredom interrupted by moments of stark terror does not capture it, though it makes a good, and perennial, joke. It’s more a matter of the pilot’s relationship to the world around: engagement versus detachment, exposure versus isolation.
I angered some Flying readers many years ago when I remarked that flying a jet at 41,000 feet was an alienating experience of immobilization, dim white noise, and removal from the world. If I felt that way, they wrote, why didn’t I stay on the ground? They could fly the jet in my place, and, by God, they would find it glorious.