But sitting at the front of a cruising jet on autopilot, though a great thing for one’s self-esteem, is not that different from sitting in the middle, and I never cease to marvel at the number of people on airliners who don’t look out the windows. Granted, sometimes the ground looks as faded as old clothes, or you’re above a thousand-mile blanket of featureless cloud; then, I agree, there might not be much point gazing out. But when you can watch the shadows of dusk grow longer, yellow day fleeing westward before the blue-black armies of night; or the strange and gigantic signatures of ancient oceans upon a western badland; or the swirling sheen of sun glint on a wind-scoured lake or river; or the spider’s web of towns and roads sketched out in points of light upon a nighttime land where, a few generations ago, there might have been (had it been possible to fly above it then) only the flicker of a solitary campfire or the baleful wink of a distant thunderstorm embedded in infinite black — when you can see all those things that until my grandparents’ generation no human eye had ever seen, how on earth can you pull down the shade?
People get used to flying; they forget how miraculous it is. But this world, our world, is our only one. It can be wondrous on many levels, and flying opens new ones to us — it’s a matter of attention, of awareness, of being alert to the world’s moods and not too wrapped up in our own.
When I see the 150 pass over as I drink my morning coffee, I imagine its pilot immersed in the contemplation of his surroundings in the special way that flight makes possible. He is low; he can see the cars, the people, the city coming to life beneath him as the early sun mounts the sky. He has that sense of movement that you get when flying low, or near clouds; and the air is smooth and still over the city at daybreak, so his motion resembles an ice skater’s frictionless slide; and his departure and his arrival are closely enough linked in space and time that his flight becomes like a physical gesture, a leap — up, then down. He and his airplane together — they are united, for the moment — are similar to one of those gods of the ancient Greeks who swooped casually from Olympus and, spying a beautiful nymph bathing, alit to accost her. He is above the world, but not out of it.
But when I look up from the Concord wetland at the jet passing above, I suspect — perhaps unfairly — that the sense of the embracing world that is so strong here on the wild, watery and silent ground is all but extinguished in that luxurious and pressurized shell, where passengers are opening their newspapers or laptops, and where the crew, acolytes of the hypnotic minor god Routine, are punching altitudes into a flight management system.
When I was in my 20s, I inveighed against simple airplanes that flew low and slow, and I urged amateur builders and manufacturers alike to strive for sleeker, faster, more powerful machines that would fly high and far and in all weather and everywhere. They did so — not at my urging, but because they, and their customers, shared my fascination with the extreme and the heroic. But in this, as in everything, time passes, the tide ebbs and flows, the pendulum swings.
It is common to see airline and corporate pilots, nearing the end of their careers or having retired, acquiring a Swift or a Luscombe, or restoring a Stinson, or building a Pietenpol or something else diametrically opposed to their by-then-all-too-familiar experience of guiding gigantic and swift airplanes across continents and oceans. They crave an antidotal airplane, something leaky, smelly, slow-climbing, that whistles when you pick up speed. Something that shakes; something in which you have to keep the ball centered. Something that never gets so far from earth that you forget what it is and who you are.
Something that reminds you what a privilege it is to fly.